“It is cold. See the snow. See the snow come down.”
Eleven words, and I was off and running.
These are the opening lines of Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik, with illustrations by the immortal Maurice Sendak. Little Bear was the first book I ever read to myself.
And I fell in love.
I’m still in love.
In my spare time, when not hip-deep in the sequel to Steel Fear, I’ve been finishing a book on how to improve your writing. (More on this in a few weeks.) It got me thinking about why good writing matters.
Which got me thinking about the books that have changed my life.
Tim Grahl, the book launch expert, writes, “We’ve all had those moments where you finish a book, close the cover, set it down and think, My life will never be the same.”
A handful of books have had that effect on me. Here they are.
Little Bear, Else Holmelund Minarik, with pictures by Maurice Sendak
This little masterpiece made me a lifelong lover of books and the magic spells woven by the best of them. In the first story, “What Will Little Bear Wear?” Little Bear’s mom does her best to come up with the perfect outfit that will keep Little Bear from being cold when he goes out to play. She makes him a hat, a coat, and snow pants, but that’s still not quite enough. Does he want a fur coat, too? Yes, he does. So she takes back all the clothes she made and points to him standing there in nothing but his own fur.
“See,” said Mother Bear, “there is the fur coat.”
“Hurray!” said Little Bear. “Now I will not be cold!”
“And he was not cold,” concludes the narrator. “What do you think of that?”
I’ll tell you what I thought, when I first read it as a little bear myself: I thought it was fantastic. I still do. In fact, I think I’ve modeled my life after Little Bear’s.
(I wrote more about this story so captivating here.)
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
I read the entire Narnia series when I was nine. When I reached the last page of the final book of the series, The Last Battle, my little world was so shaken that I couldn’t stop crying. For the next three days, I stayed home from school, so moved I was incapacitated. (Fortunately I had a very understanding mother.)
Lewis’s epic vision changed me in a way I couldn’t explain. It was only years later that I understood: it was the first time in my life I saw there was a larger reality than this everyday world of the senses we seem to live in.
(I wrote more about this one here.)
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, R. Buckminster Fuller
When I was seventeen I had the chance to hear Fuller speak in public, and I was mesmerized. I immediately read Operating Manual, followed by everything else Fuller wrote, and the thunder of the encounter has been echoing through my life ever since.
As the sage Pindar tells his young apprentice Joe in The Go-Giver, “Most of us have grown up seeing the world as a place of limitation rather than as a place of inexhaustible treasures.” Not Fuller. And not me, either, not from that day on. Bucky gave me a fundamental world view from which I’ve never wavered, a view that said, “The world makes sense. It operates according to immutable principles, of which we humans may serve as representatives, if we so choose. And it is preternaturally benign.”
If C.S. Lewis opened my eyes to larger realities, Bucky gave those larger realities a specific shape: the universe as a place of unlimited love and abundance.
As A Man Thinketh, James Allen
I read this when I was 32. The entire text is less than 7,500 words, yet on its slim shoulders sits the weight of an entire century of success and personal development literature that followed.
I remember reading in the foreword “that mind is the master weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance” — and even before I reached the end of the sentence, it was done. I was never the same person again.
It was Allen who showed me that thoughts have real impact; that I could take charge of my thoughts; and that, as Bob Burg and I would have Pindar say to Joe a few decades later in the pages of The Go-Giver, “In fact, you’d be amazed at just how much you have to do with what happens to you.”
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
I read this book at age 49. Up to that point, nearly all the reading I’d done was nonfiction: self-improvement, leadership, philosophy, that sort of thing. I’d barely read any fiction at all since high school. When my wife Ana put Steinbeck’s magnum opus in my hands and said I should read it, the two of them—Ana and Steinbeck—changed my life.
The book blew my mind: the scope of it, the range, the sheer power of the thing. That was when I first had the conscious thought: I want to do this.
Stardust, Neil Gaiman
Turned onto Gaiman by my young son Chris in 2008, I first read his charming Neverwhere, and then everything else of his I could find. By this time I was already a committed lover of great fiction, but it was Neil who opened my eyes to the role magic can play in writing—story magic, word magic, imagination-magic.
As I write this post, Ana and I have just finished writing The Go-Giver Marriage. It hasn’t come out yet, probably won’t for another year, but when it does, you’ll find there’s a surprise fairy tale woven through the heart of the book. To me, it is the heart of the book. And it most definitely would not exist if it weren’t for Stardust.
The Enemy by Lee Child; Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham; The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I read these three when I was 57, 58, and 59, respectively, and they wove in my brain a whole new sense of possibility in writing, a sense whose potential boils down to one word: antihero.
Child’s Jack Reacher and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe are both iconic, household-name figures. Harry’s hero couldn’t be more opposite from these two strapping dudes: a tiny, physically meek, profoundly damaged Welsh policewoman, Fiona Griffiths occasionally smokes dope (home-grown), sometimes can’t feel her own limbs, and has a psychological condition stemming from severe childhood trauma. (It’s a real condition, though quite rare, and I certainly won’t reveal it here.) Fiona isn’t as well known (yet) as Reacher and Marlowe, but deserves to be. All three knocked my socks off.
There is a reason “troubled souls solving murders” has such enormous appeal to so many, a reason that up to this point had been only a puzzle to me — and now became clear. Through their flaws, we see ourselves, and in their uphill battles and unlikely triumphs we feel the pull of our own calling. A great antihero, I realized, is a portal to a uniquely soul-stirring brand of story-telling.
One that I suddenly got very interested in trying on.
I’d never written anything remotely like crime fiction, never dreamed of doing so … until I read Child, Bingham, and Chandler. It’s safe to say there would be no Steel Fear if it weren’t for the three of them.
(I wrote a review of The Enemy here.)
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson
I was introduced to Atkinson through her Jackson Brodie series of detective tales, Case Histories; One Good Turn; When Will There Be Good News?; and Started Early, Took My Dog. They’re fantastic. But the thunderclap hit me in 2014 when at age 60 I read her very first novel.
It’s hard to say what it was about Museum that left me so completely entranced. If you woke me up at three a.m. with a klaxon and flashlight in my face and shouted “How does Museum end?” I would immediately shout back those closing lines, word for word. They’re seared onto my soul. Just thinking about it now gives me chills. I’ve read the book three times now and expect to do so at least ten times more.
Museum tells the story of its narrator, Ruby Lennox, starting from the instant she is conceived. Which is a neat trick, considered that she tells the story in the first person. The novel’s first words, “I exist!” tell you something extraordinary is coming. Is it ever. The narrative swoops back and forth in time, through multiple generations, from family drama to gritty wartime experiences to hilarious farce to tragic deaths to poignant coming-of-age vignettes, careening through every face and facet of the human experience, all held together by the central thread of a mystery concerning Ruby’s own existence. It is a breath-taking kaleidoscope of a book. It is my #1 favorite novel of all time.
(One warning: if you plan to read it, do not read the Wikipedia entry on it first, as it shamefully, unforgiveably blares out spoilers that will rob you of one of the great joys of discovery. You’re welcome. : – )
# # #
Every one of these books in some way pulled back the curtain of everyday reality to reveal the grand design of the universe, its rhythmic coherence, echoes and resonance ; the threads and patterns, warp and woof of its fabric.
It’s those threads, those echoes of grand logic, whispers and hints of coherence, that I try to catch at with every book I write. To make, in a word, sense of it all.
So now, let me ask you:
What are the books that changed your world?
Photo: Lightning strike over Florence, showing Arno river and old Duomo, and Palazzo Vecchio, by dereg on 123rf.com.