This question comes from one posed on Facebook by a friend in the wake of the election, which made me want to respond in more detail than was possible in a comment there. And a few weeks ago Cathy of 746 Books started a feature called The Books That Made the Blogger, in which she considers the books that were formative influences on herself and others. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’d love to hear about your own choices as well.
When I consider the books that shaped my fundamental view of the world, I first think of the ones I read in childhood, before the age of ten or so, when reading had the most direct, powerful effect on me. And I’m not sure that I’d say they “shaped” my view, as though I were a featureless lump of clay to be molded, as that they resonated with me in a way that strengthened my sense of how I as an individual human being could exist in the world.
Interestingly, I have found that when I read these books again as an adult, they all have serious weaknesses that do NOT resonate with the way I now view the world. And yet that does not negate the very real benefits I derived from them, and still treasure today.
The Oz books by L. Frank Baum
Deb of The Book Stop wrote a wonderful post for last year’s Witch Week in which she touches on some of the aspects of the series that also stand out for me. The books contain many strong, active female characters, for one thing — which was not so common in the early twentieth century. Baum’s wife and mother-in-law were early feminists whose views clearly come through here, though not in an obviously didactic way, and not without embodying certain unconscious prejudices. (In The Land of Oz, he pokes fun at suffragists, a reference that completely went over my head as a child.) Being grounded in the Oz books definitely gave me the sense that women could do anything — rule countries, learn magic, stand up to evil creatures, save their friends. It was a good beginning for my reading life, and for my growing up.
Deb also points out that the books are full of odd, unusual, and unique characters. Sometimes their differences make them aggressive and they just need to be left alone, but more often they are appreciated and celebrated for their individuality. They have to learn to work together and build on one another’s strengths. Conformity is never a virtue in Oz, but creativity, kindness, and cooperation are — diversity in action.
One weakness of the series is that it was never intended to be one; Baum had zillions of ideas for other magical worlds he wanted to write about, but when the first Oz book and its sequels became a huge hit he became somewhat trapped by their success. His writing was sometimes sloppy and frequently inconsistent, and as the series went on some of the interesting social commentary and inventiveness of the first books faded away and became more tame and repetitious. The Emerald City, for example, is not really green in the first book (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz); it only appears so because the Wizard makes all who enter it wear green glasses to supposedly shade their eyes from the dazzle. It’s a sly dig at the American propensity for false glitz and glamour. By a few books later, though, the City has become truly covered with emeralds; Baum couldn’t keep up any one satirical motif for long.
In later books he also made it so that the inhabitants of Oz could never grow old or die. This was satisfactory to me as a child, but now it seems horribly static. Baum introduced this idea with no irony whatsoever, but it also makes a comment on the not-so-healthy American reluctance to come to terms with death. Can you imagine a worse fate than to be cut into pieces and not be able to die, for each part to remain separately living? Or to be stuck forever as either a child or an adult, not able to pass from one state to another, not able to learn and grow and change? The inability to see the cycle of life and death, growth and decay, as a necessary and beautiful path of transformation is an unfortunate feature of Oz, as of our national character.
But in other ways, Oz is a land of transformation, of infinite possibilities, full of marvels and wonders, and also full of humor and a sense of the absurd. How sorely we need all of these qualities today, and how glad I am that I had a chance to encounter them in childhood.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Most everybody knows now about the Christian aspects of the Narnia books, but I had no clue they were there when I first read them. Someone else had to point out the connection to make me identify the great lion Aslan with Jesus. I now think, in retrospect, that this is because the most overtly “Christian” bits of the book are not very much like the actual Gospels, and oversimplify and distort the mission of Christ. To take but one example, the Saturday between Christ’s death and resurrection is of supreme importance. He spent the day of rest, the Jewish Sabbath, penetrating the earth with his being before appearing in the resurrection body. But in Narnia, Aslan is killed in the evening and comes back to life in the morning, then chases away his enemies, which Christ most emphatically did not do. It’s a pagan sacrifice rather than a Christian initiation, picturing the victory of the old Sun rather than the birth of the new.
In fact, I think that it’s the pagan elements that shine most strongly in the Narnia books, and they definitely made a bigger impression on me. The walking trees, the talking animals, the stars that come to earth, the mermaids, dragons and fauns…these were what I loved about Narnia. On the other side of the everyday, humdrum world, just through the wardrobe door, was a land of beauty, nobility, and enchantment. Even more than with the Oz books, it was the place itself that most appealed to me. In Narnia, an ordinary child could become a king or a queen, could encounter and commune with the spirits that enliven the natural world, could grow in courage, self-knowledge, and wisdom. (They also, I now notice, could join the Resistance movement against a cold, unloving tyrant, a motif that appears in each and every one of the seven books. I used to consider that part of the fantasy element.)
Lewis’s moralizing is a bone of contention for many. I agree that it’s terrible when done in an offhand, simplistic way, as with the ridiculous matter of Susan, who in a couple of throwaway sentences is utterly dismissed, perhaps damned, for liking lipstick and nylons. And the portrayal of the dark-skinned, Arab-flavored Calormene villains is definitely not sensitive or nuanced at all, though probably based much more on medieval literature than on actual people given the place and time in which Lewis was writing. But what made the greatest impression on me was the connection of morality with beauty, not in terms of superficial, outer beauty, but as a deep, inner longing of the soul for the transcendent, expressed in metaphorical pictures. Here Lewis’s own childhood longings come most into play, I think, and mesh somewhat uneasily with the Christian faith he adopted only in adulthood. This tension continues to intrigue me to this day, and provides the foundation for some of my most enduring questions.
The Time Trilogy by Madeleine L’Engle
You’re starting to see a theme here, right? Again we go off on adventures in another world, but this time it’s through space and time, to other planets, the inside of a human cell, and the past of our own Earth. L’Engle’s blend of science and mysticism was highly appealing to me, and confirmed for me that the two modes of seeing the world did not have to be in conflict with one another. The quotations and references to mythology and great literature enlarged my soul; the thought-experiments like the description of tessering and the planet of people without eyes stretched my mind. L’Engle wrote about the science of our own world — the idea of time as a fourth dimension, the unimaginably tiny world within a cell — in a way that made it as exciting and wondrous as Narnia or Oz. This, too, is something that has remained with me ever since.
And then there was Meg, the brainy, unattractive girl who got to be angry and imperfect and mistaken, but still worthy of the love of the cosmos and herself a vessel of that love. I find myself these days often thinking of the scene from A Wrinkle in Time in which she realizes that if she could love It, the evil disembodied brain that has captured her brother, It would be utterly defeated. But she can’t, so she has to turn her love on her brother instead to save him, just as we now have to strengthen and focus our love for what we know is good and true. Love as a power, a force for change, rather than merely a fuzzy, weak emotion, is another picture that endures for me.
On the other hand, when rereading the books in adulthood, one finds elements that are seriously groan-worthy, especially in A Swiftly Tilting Planet. The flying unicorn and the visions of harmony and joy dazzled my ten-year-old self, but now I find the good/evil racially determined dichotomy with color-coded eyes quite disturbing. I believe this was completely unintentional and thoughtless, in the way one could be back in 1978, but today it’s an obstacle to enjoying the books as whole-heartedly as I once did.
But again, I would argue, the way reading shapes us is a dynamic process. Later reading and life lessons inform our earlier experiences; we keep what holds its value and discard what no longer accords with our view of the world. Thus, if we are active and conscious in this process, we shape our reading as much as it shapes us.
What enduring values have you found through your reading life? I’d love to know.