Every now and then, PWxyz likes to let the staff around here talk about books, because that’s all we secretly want to do. Previously, the PW staff has Fixed the Modern Library 100 Novels List, named some favorite short stories, and picked the best books read in 2011 and 2012. Here, we asked: What’s the first book you read that really made you love books? Let us know yours in the comments!
Andrew Albanese, senior writer: The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald
For me, it was The Great Brain series, by John Dennis Fitzgerald. In the mid-1970s, while I was in elementary school, my family began spending winters at my grandparents home on Oneida Lake, in upstate New York, so we could care for my great grandmother while my grandparents wintered in Florida. The move meant a special, 45-minute bus ride to school every day, with kids I didn’t know and who apparently were predisposed to not liking new kids. Or, maybe they just didn’t like me. So, there I was. 10 years old, in a rural lake house, in winter, no smartphones or Internet, of course, and only three blurry channels on TV, when the signal could penetrate the lake effect snow. But whatever, I never watched TV, I had to go to bed early every night so I could wake up at the crack of dawn to catch that snakepit of a bus to school. And then one day, our school librarian took pity on my brother and me, and sent us home with The Great Brain books. I have to admit, I can’t remember many details of the books today—but I’ll never forget my brother and I staying up late into the night reading the books together with a flashlight.
Peter Cannon, senior reviews editor:
When I was in a second grade, I read a book about a horse. It might have been an adaptation of Black Beauty for young children. I don’t remember the author or title, but I do remember thinking this was the best story I had ever read, even better than Champion Dog Prince Tom (a book whose title has stuck with me). Of course, at that time I had read only a few books on my own, not counting the standard 1950s classroom fare about Tom and Sally. Still, there was something about this tale of a horse that moved me, and I may even have had a glimmer that I would become emotionally engaged with more and even better books in my reading future.
Jessamine Chan, reviews editor: The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary
Many childhood books (James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, the Berenstain Bears series) inspired book love and reading love, but Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby series inspired devotion. I read James and the Giant Peach in first grade, which turned out to be a great way to extend my book report deadline by a month or two, so I’d guess that I read the Ramona Quimby books in early elementary school. I wasn’t a messy little girl with brambles in her hair, my dad definitely had a job, and I was the older rather than the younger sister. And I’m Chinese. Not so many Asian-American girl heroines in children’s books in the mid-80’s. In reality, I probably was Beezus, but no one wants to be Beezus. I wanted to be mischievous Ramona, always in trouble, always coming home with skinned knees. How do I know? I was flipping through my childhood journals a few years ago and in my Ramona journal, there is very clearly written in careful, wobbly child handwriting: “I AM RAMONA QUIMBY.” Dare to dream.
Michael Coffey, co-editorial director: The Stranger by Albert Camus
At my upstate New York high school, a new teacher offered a course called Literary Composition. Four of us signed up. Mr. Minich was a cool guy from somewhere way more sophisticated—Vermont, I think. He had a sports car and was single. He sat on his desk and swung his feet and asked us what we wanted to do. No one had a clue. After a few weeks of telling jokes, he started reading aloud from Camus’s The Stranger—a little, dark brown hardcover he held in one hand. “My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know,” it began. What? A shockingly far cry from “Once upon a time…” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” those typically confident narrative openings that would assure the reader that the narrator knew what he or she was talking about. This was something totally different. Confusion, ignorance, perhaps indifference—about a mother! I was the first in the class to get the book—there was no copy in the school library. What unfolded of course was a strange murder (perhaps) in the blinding sun on an exotic beach somewhere far away from upstate New York, written with a sensibility that seemed more than foreign, more than alien—I came to understand it as a kind of template for “literary,” where what went on in—in literature—could be something other than a tale. It could be a kind of philosophy about thought and utterance and their fraught and fragile relations, which demanded the reader—me—to officiate and minister as best I could. That demand, over time, has become a prized invitation into the best of books. I still seek the mystery there, the way in.
Rachel Deahl, senior news editor and deputy editor of PW Daily: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Is it possible to dislike the book that made you love books? As a young kid I had a thing for Roald Dahl—The Witches and James and the Giant Peach were particular favorites—but both were read to me and, as lovely an experience as that is, it’s different than reading on your own. I was assigned to read Bridge to Terabithia over a summer in elementary school, and I found the book to be corny. I trudged on. Then a weird thing happened: I got to the end of the book and, even though I knew what was going to happen, even though I didn’t even like what I’d read up to that point, I cried. A lot. The experience taught me something about books: they can sneak up on you and make you see things and feel things that you never expected. It was a good lesson.
Louisa Ermelino, reviews director: The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
There were three books in my house growing up. Two Dickens’ novels that my mother bought from a door-to-door salesman. There were twelve books in the series and the deal was to buy one a month but my mother stopped after the first two. The other book was I Was Hitler’s Doctor. My father was interested in WW II. When I went to Kindergarten around the corner to St. Anthony’s School on MacDougal Street, they took us to the Hudson Park Library one afternoon and the librarian read us The Five Chinese Brothers while we sat cross-legged on the floor, girls on one side, boys on the other (no rug). In the story (which now, because of the illustrations, has been called racist) each brother had a different attribute: one could swallow the sea, another had an iron neck and so on. There’s a death and a murder trial. I went home and told my mother she had to buy me that book. She did and I’ve never been the same. I made her read that book to me a hundred times. From then on, the whole family started buying me books even though they were convinced that reading would ruin my eyes.
Gabe Habash, news and Tip Sheet editor: Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Unlike my colleagues, the book that made me love books wasn’t one I read as a kid; I was too busy playing video games. But when, for no particular reason, I started reading Sometimes a Great Notion as a sophomore in college, I imagine the “oh my god” thing it did to me was the same thing most book lovers experience at a much earlier age. Here were 700 pages of tremendous power, and suddenly I had an idea of just how high the bar on literature was. I took my copy everywhere; I read it during classes; I read it at empty tables in the deserted part of campus; I carried it around just to have it with me.
People a lot smarter than me have given Notion a lot of high compliments (the Moby-Dick of the American Northwest among them), but still it seems neglected. That’s fairly surprising, considering this is probably one of the best books of its century. That could be the rose-colored glasses talking. But I doubt it.
Mike Harvkey, deputy reviews editor: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back by Donald F. Glut:
The first book that I remember reading is Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, by Donald F. Glut, which was, if memory serves, a pretty basic but, to a rural public schooled kid whose parents didn’t really get the whole reading thing, exciting novelization of Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. I had a little headboard on my (water)bed stuffed with little books much like this baby. I think there were some Hardy Boys mysteries in there, and some “master magic tricks” and “teach yourself ESP” books I’d bought at Gerbe’s, the local supermarket. The headboard was probably crammed with horror books, lots of horror (smashed up against my latest Fangoria or Famous Monsters magazine). There were also some monster and horror story anthologies full of tales of babysitters getting butchered by intruders and sexed up teens being punished for their sins. Reading that stuff before drifting off would give me paralyzing nightmares and nose bleeds that saturated my pillow with blood, so that I’d wake up with my face tight and cold and my hair red and stiff.
Sonia Robbins, contributing editor: The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf
It’s hard to say what the First Book that Made Me Love Books was since I think I loved books from the moment I started reading. But perhaps the earliest book I remember from my childhood is The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. First of all, I loved the author’s name, Leaf, like the leaf on a tree. Maybe he was a leaf. Then there was the book. On one page was the text, not many words, and on the facing page a detailed drawing. But most important was the story, about a bull who didn’t want to do what all the other bulls did. He didn’t want to butt and fight, he wanted to smell the flowers. And he only ended up in the bullring through a misunderstanding. Here was a story that said it was okay not to do what everyone else like me was doing. I could do something completely different.
Mark Rotella, senior editor: Mary by Vladimir Nabokov
It all started when a Russian couple, political exiles from the Soviet Union, slipped me a copy of Nabokov’s Mary. I was 16 or 17, working at a surf shop on Madeira Beach, Florida, and I would grab lunch across the street at the sandwich shop, which the couple owned.
Mary was Nabokov’s first novel, which was written under the name V. Sirin and took place during the Russian Revolution; over a sandwich of mortadella and provolone, the couple and I would discuss the novel. Soon after they presented me with the short stories of Chekhov then Tolstoy; two years later I became a student of Russian literature in college, yet I still carried with me a copy of Mary, the story of a Russian émigré living in Berlin who has learned of the unsettling whereabouts of his first love.
Jonathan Segura, senior editor, digital media: Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
Yeah, you know, I didn’t really get into books until later on, having been turned off by the stale batch of classics that clog up most curriculums. (And then, weirdly, we read The Bridges of Madison County in my senior English class, which, really, if you ever wanted to make a young man not love books, there you go.) Later on, after recovering, a friend of mine turned me on to Journey to the End of the Night, a cannon blast of off-putting bleak Frenchness by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. It’s dense and dark and brutal, and, you know, for a guy of a certain age with a certain worldview, it was the right thing at the right time.
Samuel Slaton, reviews editor: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Book that Made Me Really Love Books was The Hobbit. I’d like to say I consciously chose this book, and therefore had some kind of a say in the genesis of my reading life, but as was the case with most of my lifestyle decisions back in 6th grade, I picked it because my older brothers before me had picked it. (Thus, my blind early interest in The Elephant 6 Recording Company, hubcap collecting, and high fantasy. Thanks, bros.) Like everyone else, I had read The Chronicles of Narnia before exploring The Shire, and I liked those books a lot – still do – but it was Bilbo and Gollum and the sprawling mystical landscapes of Middle Earth that really got me hooked. I read the thing in a blurry three days (still my fastest read ever), and I distinctly remember not paying any attention at all to my science teacher (sorry, Mr. Roberts) as I tried to parse Bilbo’s subterranean riddles (“Eggses it is!”). I read steadily in the genre for a few years before basically abandoning books altogether for a while in favor of falling in love with girls, writing terrible poetry, and practicing these really cool spade-flipping tricks while working at Cold Stone Creamery with all my friends.