I began reading at the age of four and I’ve been doing it ever since, so when asked about books that have influenced and shaped me, any book that comes to mind reminds me of others, and those bring up more and more; it’s like one of my first favorites, Millions of Cats, Wanda Gag’s great picture book in which an old couple try to choose one cat out of millions and wind up choosing them all.
I still feel the profound impact of the first book I ever read, To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street, by Dr. Seuss. It tells in pictures and words of a boy walking home to a father who, every day, asks him “What did you see on Mulberry Street?” And every day, all the boy sees is an old horse and wagon, and so he imagines all the things he’d love to tell his father he’d seen: zebras, chariots, a circus parade accompanied by a squadron of cops on motorcycles. But when he faces his father he must answer the question with “… just an old horse and wagon on Mulberry Street.” The book was essential to releasing my imagination to confront and overcome the ordinary and banal, and to embrace the wonderful.
Alice in Wonderland has a very special place for me: it validated the bizarre world of dreams and showed me the absurdity in what we call rational and, along with Mary Poppins, let me glimpse the marvelous hidden behind the mundane. They both prepared me for Kafka, and Poe and Joyce’s Ulysses, in which words create a multi-dimensional world in time and space, which in turn opened me to the desolate novels and plays of Samuel Becket in which language itself is the only comfort. But I could never be me without Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The stories of I. B. Singer, Genesis, Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews, Freddy the Pig, Superman, Donald Duck, Li’l Abner, Plasticman, and the now politically incorrect, Nize Baby by Milt Gross, to name just a few of the myriad.
I was aware of drawing on almost all of these sources in my new YA novel, The Old Country. When it was done I came across a Wallace Stevens poem, “Dry Loaf” that I hadn’t seen in years and had forgotten, and was stunned to realize that my book had come in part directly out of that poem. Later, an adult reader of The Old Country told me that it reminded her of Kosinski’s Painted Bird. Of course! I had read it in my teens, forgotten it, and now saw that it was essential to the character of my book.
So I’ve come to realize that all the books I’ve read have shaped and influenced me: the great ones surely, but also the middling and mediocre and even the comic books I’m sure my parents thought were trash.
We live good days and bad days and wonderful days, and we read good and wonderful and mediocre books, each gives us something essential to who we are becoming, and all together, whether we love them or hate them, or even remember them, they make up our lives and ourselves.