I’ve been tagged by Daniel Nexon at Duck of Minerva. Unfortunately, it’s kind of hard for me to remember my younger years, for some reason. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try. I’m interpreting teen/young adult to mean pre-collegiate, so all of these are books that I read before setting foot in Eugene. . .
1. Encyclopedia of the World’s Warships, Hugh Lyon
I read the covers off of my first copy of this book, which I acquired in the early 1980s. I also lost a number of the pages, including a couple of the big fold-out battleships. I don’t remember when I purchased my second copy, but it has also fallen out of its cover. I still read this book because I think warships are beautiful. I particularly love battleships, but aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and the rest all do it for me, too. I know that’s appalling, but aesthetic reactions aren’t completely voluntary. I particularly love the American and Japanese battleships. Early American battleships could be identified by their cage masts, while later ships had a cool, modern efficiency to them. Japanese battleships had “pagoda” masts that gave them a particularly menacing appearance. This book, and others like it, spurred an interest in naval affairs, military affairs, and foreign policy more generally.
2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
What else can be said? My favorite part of the trilogy was left out of the films. In Fellowship of the Ring, Merry the hobbit acquires a dagger from the tomb of the barrow-wight. The resident of that particular tomb was a king who waged war, millenia past, against the Witch King of Angmar. All of his weapons were designed with the specific purpose of killing the Witch King, and when Merry stabs the chief Nazgul in Return of the King, that dagger unbinds all of the spells that held the Witch King together.
Why is this my favorite? Merry didn’t know anything about the dagger, about the Witch King, the stones of Weathertop, or the history of Middle Earth. All of these things were part of the story behind the story. Tolkien’s characters lived and worked against the imposing backdrop of a history that was carefully worked out and consequential for the events of the novels. Tolkien gave the impression that every stone, every hall, every sword, every door had a meaning, a maker, and a purpose, even if none of those were important for the events at hand. Reading the novels, and later the Silmarillion, made me think about history as a living force, one that structured our world, set parameters on the possible. This helped get me interested in the social sciences, which led me eventually to political science.
3. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax
Yes, I feel an appropriate level of shame for having this book on the list. Indeed, I think there’s something terribly wrong about an RPG-er who doesn’t feel shame. If one takes pride in being a geek, what’s the point of geek-hood? Those who play Dungeons and Dragons should be made the object of fun, subject to all forms of verbal abuse. Pride in such a hobby defies the natural order of things, and seeks to overturn a long, well-honed tradition of bullying. D&D made up a critical portion of my geeky child and young adulthood, and I’m recovering from the deep, deep emotional scars even today.
To my everlasting discredit, I still play D&D, still spend money on the books, still waste my time thinking about castles and dragons. On the upside, when someone says “George W. Bush has maxed out his ranks in Bluff and Perform (Moron), and took Deceitful as his sixth level feat,” I understand completely what they mean.
4. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
I used to read a lot of science fiction, and not all of it has stayed with me. I still like Bradbury, but I haven’t read any Asimov for years. I still occasionally read some of Harlan Ellison’s best stories. Even though Orson Scott Card is one hell of a crank, Ender’s Game has stayed with me. Re-reading it, I can see why. Ender is a badass not because he’s tough, but because he’s smart and desperate. Andrew Wiggin can think his way out of any situation, but Card doesn’t let the tone become, well, juvenile. Ender solves all of the problems put in front of him, but can’t change the basic fact that there are people who have the power to put problems in front of him. Eventually, he ends up, wittingly or no, committing a brutal and unnecessary genocide. Ender’s Game appeals to those who are both smart and essentially powerless. It makes clear that the former cannot solve the latter, thus distinguishing it from the worst of Ayn Rand’s garbage. At the end, Ender achieves a measure (and, importantly, ONLY a measure) of redemption.
5. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
I had a hard time coming up with the last book. I read A Farewell to Arms as a high school sophmore, roughly the same time that I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think that the latter is better than the former, and I’ve gone back and read Twain several times since high school. Huck Finn, however, was assigned to me in English class. A Farewell to Arms wasn’t, and reading it for “fun” convinced me that reading literature outside of the narrow requirements of coursework was worthwhile. A Farewell to Arms is still my favorite Hemingway. There’s not a shadow of a doubt how the book will end, but the conclusion is compelling nonetheless.
Honorable Mention: Salem’s Lot is my favorite Stephen King book, and established my ever-lasting terror of both zombies and vampires. In elementary school I made a point of reading the Newbery Medal books, the only one of which to stay with me is Rifles for Waite by Harold Keith. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson, taught me everything I know about leprosy. I think that the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the finest novel ever written by an American, even if the last chapters are unreadable. I must have read 1984 two dozen times, although curiously I never went crazy, unlike Christopher Hitchens. There are others that I have forgotten.
I hereby pass this virus on to Matt, Erik, Redbeard, Kat, and my co-bloggers.