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Black Lamb


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Books aren’t life, but then what is?

June 1st, 2003


What books changed my life?

The Three Little Kittens, which is the first book I learned to read by myself. I’ve never been the same.

I read Tom Sawyer at least ten times between the ages of ten and fourteen. The first time, I was sick in bed, and it hurt to laugh. The Cat and the Painkiller chapter remains one of the funniest things I have ever read.

At the age of fourteen, I had my first literary epiphanies. That year, I read On the Road, Waiting for Godot, and a book of H. L. Mencken’s essays. Kerouac opened up possibilities I didn’t know were there. There were actually humans in the U.S.A. who not only did not think like anyone I had ever met, but didn’t give a shit who knew it. Stunning. With Godot, I was introduced to the notion that life was pointless and absurd. No intelligent kid ever thought otherwise, but it was really something to have it laid out before me with humor and panache. A few years later, they did a TV performance of Beckett’s play with Zero Mostel and E. G. Marshall. Blew my mind.

Finally, Mencken. Snide, intellectually arrogant, gifted as a phrasemaker, Mencken became my second writer hero after Mark Twain. Much to my detriment, I tried for years to write like him. Bad idea. No one can. It took more years for me to get over his influence.

The next book that actually made a difference was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Native Son, but this one touched my white-boy’s soul. And before I read the book, I had no idea that Louis Armstrong had ever performed anything like the magnificent “Black and Blue,” quoted in the first chapter. Ellison gave me Armstrong the jazz genius, as contrasted with Armstrong the Ed Sullivan Show entertainer. I am indebted for this gift.

I can’t leave out Huckleberry Finn, the most morally powerful and affecting book I’ve ever read. I am constantly appalled that this most anti-racist of books is vilified by people who can’t see past the N-word. There are no more uses of that epithet in the book than in the average rap CD or Marin Lawrence performance. And the message never ages. Twain understood that the central dilemma of American culture is race, and it still is.

Then, the second epiphany, Ulysses. I was in my late thirties and had avoided reading it because of its daunting reputation. It is the finest novel I have ever read, and it discouraged me from writing. If I can’t write like that, I reasoned, why do it at all? Then, I remembered Mencken. By the way, it’s far less forbidding and much funnier than I had heard. I have yet to tackle Finnegans Wake. That’s the real test.

A few years later, I picked up The Big Sleep, By Raymond Chandler, and that started my interest in the hard-boiled private eye genre. Cynical, yet moral; tough, yet compassionate. I was swept away by one of the greatest stylists in the English language and quickly read The Long Goodbye, The Simple Art of Murder, and the rest. And Laguna Heat, by T. Jefferson Parker. I want to do this, I told myself after reading Parker’s book. Shortly thereafter, I turned out my first novel, deeply influenced by Chandler and Parker. Fortunately, I was smart enough by this time not to try to imitate Chandler.

Surely, there have been other important books in my life. Dorothy Parker’s work, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, the Sherlock Holmes canon, the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe, poetry by William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and Emily Dickinson, numerous science fiction authors, especially Phillip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin, and next-level pleasures like George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman books, literary mystery writers like Lisa See and Joseph Kanon, the Tolkien trilogy (hey, it was the Sixties). Perhaps they have been more important than I know.

Writers are products of everything we have seen, heard, learned and lived. The flaws are all mine, but the inspirations have been brilliant.

Did you know that the first sentence of Finnegans Wake is also the last sentence?

What books changed my life? •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Goldberg | Link to this Entry


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