A GIRL I ONCE CAUGHT READING Fahrenheit 451 over my shoulder on the subway confessed: "You know, I'm an English lit major, but I've never loved any books like the ones I loved when I was 12 years old." I fell slightly in love with her when she said that. It was so frank and uncool, and undeniably true.
Let's all admit it: We never got over those first loves. Listen to the difference in the voices of any groups of well-read, overeducated people discussing contemporary fiction, or the greatest books they've ever read, and the voices of those same people, only two drinks later, talking about the books they loved as kids. The Betsy Tacy Books! I loved those books! The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet! I can't believe you know that! The Little House on the Prairie books! Oh, my God--did you read The Long Winter? So good. Hey--does anyone else remember The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree?
It's not just that these books, unlike adult literature, have been left unsullied by professors turning them into objects of tedious study. We love these books, dearly and uncritically, the way we love the smell of our first girlfriend's perfume, no matter how cheap or tacky it might have been. Let's be honest: We all know that Ulysses and A la recherché du temps perdu are "better" books than The Velveteen Rabbit or The Little Prince, but come on--which would you take with you on a spaceship to salvage from the dying Earth?
Let me put it another way: When was the last time a book changed your life? I don't mean offered you new insights or ideas or moved you--I mean profoundly changed the way you see the world or shaped the kind of person you are? If you're like me, it's been longer than you'd like to admit. I recently read Eli Sagan's Cannibalism: Human Aggression Cultural Form, which enabled me to see capitalism as a highly sublimated form of aggression, on the same continuum as headhunting, warfare, and slavery, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, which gave me a greater equanimity about the esteem of others and assuaged my fear of death. But if I ever end up holed up in my parents' farmhouse holding off the bulldozers with a machine gun while listening to Beethoven's late quartets, it'll be because of the story "And the Moon Be Still as Bright" from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles...More...