Tenth grade, “Lolita.” Jane Rice, my English teacher, pulled it off the shelf at my request in front of God, the superintendent, and Lord knows how many benighted suburban parents, without fear of reprimand, because her only complaint with Nabokov was that he was too dismissive of Dostoyevsky.
Jonathan Safran Foer
“Invisible Cities,” by Italo Calvino.
I’m sure I loved plenty of books before this, but the first adult literary experience I had was with Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I was a bit of a delinquent growing up, a very poor student—I nearly failed several grades before dropping out of high school and getting a G.E.D. But I still read a lot. Thrillers and war novels, mostly, along with the occasional literary novel from my parents’ bookshelf. Until then, I had never differentiated between literature and the other stuff I read. But suddenly I saw that books could work on this entirely different level. It was the first time I really experienced art on my own terms, without having an adult tell me what it meant or why it was supposed to be important.
There were very few English-language books in my childhood home. I remember there was: “J. K. Lasser’s Your Income Tax,” Bertrand Russell’s “Marriage and Morals,” and Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” My dad had a copy of that novel from his Army days; apparently, back when he was in the Israeli Army, they gave a copy out to everyone, as a kind of induction. I must have missed eighty-seven per cent of the real meaning there my first time through—I was probably twelve—but even then I knew that Major Major Major was a triumph of a character. I felt I understood Nately’s whore. I decided I, too, would suffer from almost jaundice. I had no idea about the connotations of the name Yossarian, and I couldn’t have strung together two lucid sentences about the Second World War, but I understood that the novel and, supposedly, life, too, were Important and Ludicrous—my dad had the foreigner’s tendency toward antiquated word choices—and a superposition of those two adjectives is still pretty close to my idea of what literature is
“The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and the Wild Geese,” by Selma Lagerlöf.
“Beloved” blew me away when I was sixteen. Before that, it was “The Catcher in the Rye.” Before that, it was “The Outsiders.” Before that, it was “Harriet, the Spy.”
“Where the Red Fern Grows,” by Wilson Rawls.
C. E. Morgan
Myths in the Old and New Testaments.