I've started a project over the last few months: I've been re-reading my favorite books from childhood. I'm not sure where the impetus came from or why I began this particular project right now. Maybe sufficient years have passed and memory faded enough that I can come to these books like new. Or maybe I'm jaded with the books currently available and I need to go back to my childhood to find some solace in the classics. Whatever the reason, I'm firmly in the grip of this obsession. And it's been enlightening and surprising, in almost equal measures, to revisit the books that formed my reading habits in my childhood.
I suppose it's technically incorrect to say "reading habits." I was a bookworm of the intense sort, and I read everything I could get my hands on. There were no "habits," no sense of focus, only more, more, more. Finding enough books was always a problem—does this sound familiar to anyone else? I had very little money, my local library never had enough books, my school library was tiny, and even school book fairs were too expensive.
I read any titles that were within reach, so there was no specific genre I favored. I remember reading a lot of adventure books, as well as classics like Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. I read my share of outdoors/nature books, like those by Jim Kjelgaard, and some prime Canadiana like Gordon Korman (every single Korman book!). I also read books I would have inherited from my brothers (or snuck from them), like Louis L'Amour and Robert Ludlum. I eventually settled in to reading fantasy in grade school, and then science fiction became the focus a few years later in high school. Interestingly, I've long forgotten most of the books that I read back then that were outside of the genre—that must be because I'm actively pursuing science fiction and fantasy, so my memory is constantly refreshed. But most of the other books are only titles on a list.
Would you remember the books that you read 20-25 years ago? Specifically? Down to the very last title? I sure wouldn't, but I have an advantage in this project that others might not. Earlier this year, I wrote about how one of the technological breakthroughs I wanted was personal data-mining—you could also call it a digital life log. I've been keeping a paper version, at least for books: I've written down every book I've read since 1986. It began with title, author, number of pages, and genre, but I gradually added more and more items that I tracked, like the day I read the book, who did the cover art, and so forth. I guess I was born to be a librarian!
To be truthful, I hadn't looked at the list in a long time, and when I started my revisit-childhood project, I was relying purely on my grown-up recall of what books had made an impression on me. Now that I've gone back and checked the list, I've discovered two things: I hardly read any series in order (see my comments about Amber below), and some of my truly formative moments were pre-list. Like many such historical moments, these are long lost. That's what makes history such an interesting enterprise, I suppose.
For example, Tolkien was pre-list. I don't have a clear record of when I first read Lord of the Rings, but I think I was ten or so—the age when many other people seem to have encountered Tolkien. Huge swaths of my imagination were formed wholly from Middle Earth, but Tolkien was not the end-all and be-all—that simply wasn't possible for someone like myself who read such a crazy quantity of books. I also had a great fondness for C. S. Lewis, even though I didn't always understand what he was up to, and I remember reading George McDonald too. I would have sworn that I discovered Anne McCaffrey (see notes below) in the pre-list era, but my first used-book purchases—Dragonflight and Decision at Doona—show up halfway through 1986.
I haven't re-read Tolkien or Lewis in ten or fifteen years. So which books have I revisited?
When I began my project, I knew I had to start with Patricia A. McKillip and her Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy. I have very fond memories of the Riddle-Master trilogy, and I was not disappointed upon return to them. McKillip is a lovely writer, and a young reader couldn't have asked for a better guide to all the things that make wonderful books: evocative prose, a trilogy that is smart plot-wise, intriguing characters, genuinely terrifying peril, and so forth. You can run down the whole list, and McKillip gets a checkmark in every box.
Robin McKinley was next on the list. I loved McKinley when I was a kid, but she never wrote enough books! The Hero and the Crown was the second brand-new book I ever bought with my own money (The Hobbit was the first). For many years, I always pictured McKinley's The Blue Sword as the first book I could remember reading with a sex scene in it—imagine my surprise to discover that the sexy stuff was actually in The Hero and the Crown! Having just finished re-reading McKinley's duo of books, I admit that I will probably re-read them again next year. They're old favorites that came through for me all over again—I was away for too long.
I've also revisited the Amber series, although I didn't first come across Roger Zelazny until I was slightly older, around grade 9 or 10. I started reading Amber with book 8! This was a problem that plagued my childhood: not being able to find a series in its proper order (due to both lack of funds and small local libraries, as I mentioned before). I always had a vague idea that my first experience of Amber was notably confused . . . but the truth was a shock. Looking back at my notes, I've now tracked down the order in which I originally read the series: Sign of Chaos, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, Trumps of Doom, The Guns of Avalon, Knight of Shadows, The Courts of Chaos, Blood of Amber, Nine Princes in Amber, and about three years later, Prince of Chaos (which I read not long after it was published in 1991). For the record, that's: 8, 3, 4, 6, 2, 9, 5, 7, 1, and 10. I don't think it's possible to read a series any more out of order than that, even on purpose! And now that I've re-read the series (or at least the first five books), I have no idea how I made any sense of it, since each book is such a careful construct building on the one before. It's a wonder that I didn't lose my head.
Re-reading the first five books gave me great admiration for Zelazny. There's an impression of his career that he had great literary potential and that he frittered it away on light fantasy adventures. I dunno . . . I can hardly think of a comparable series that is so thoughtfully engineered and so frighteningly well-written at the same time. The series is no mean achievement.
I've noticed that the commenters on the three articles I've written so far have also been revisiting childhood favorites. Unfortunately, some have been quite disappointed, finding little in supposed "classics" other than a sketch that an active young imagination embroidered with all the interesting details. I think I've been lucky—the titles I've revisited have been very satisfying. Although I haven't ventured too far down the list: it's hard to go wrong with McKillip, McKinley, and Zelazny.
I'm currently in the process of revisiting Pern. Going back to Anne McCaffrey has been a real shocker for me—it's like rediscovering a lost chunk of my brain. I loved the Pern books, but I kind of lost interest in the series as the "churned out by a factory" quotient went up and not much new was going on. Sequels are always dicey propositions to me. I like "more of the same" just like everyone else, but it gets boring after a while. If a book is just coasting on its predecessors, it gets obvious fast. Prequels are much worse, since there's often no hope of anything new at all. In that sense, I'm a novelty junkie—I actually don't want to know how the Pernese dragons were developed, or how the Threads first hit Pern. That stuff is great as backstory. Front and center, it's just a drag.
I've been surprised at how melodramatic everything is in McCaffrey's world, but that's not a bad thing. I see this as a large part of the appeal of visiting Pern. It's become a very familiar world, and there's always some kind of personal conflict going on. In Dragonflight, a large part of the plot structure is adapted from romance: strong-willed young girl, authoritative older man . . . throw them together with some peril and watch the fireworks.
Dragonflight is old school in its use of new words for ordinary things: I think the tendency to rename common terms in order to denote another culture has faded out in the genre. McCaffrey talks about "turns" instead of years, and so forth. On a slightly facetious note: has anyone else noticed that coffee shows up in quite a few science fiction and fantasy worlds, and it always gets a new name even if other food items don't? McCaffrey calls it "klah" but I've seen lots of other variations.
I've always remembered two titles as markers for my swing towards science fiction, a turning point of sorts: Dune and Childhood's End. Interestingly, those are both books that I've kept up with all through the years, Childhood's End perhaps less so, but Dune definitely pops up in my queue every few years. I still remember the feeling of both books quite vividly—Dune for the sheer heavy richness of both the book, a hefty hardcover, and its contents, and Childhood's End for the newly-induced intellectual panic for someone like myself from a strict religious background who came across such a story for the first time.
I'll mention Isaac Asimov in that context as well. Asimov has a reputation as lacking in terms of the representation of sexuality, so this might be a stretch. But I still recall my whereabouts while reading The Robots of Dawn: we were remodelling our kitchen so I was huddled in the corner of our makeshift kitchen table replacement. I was reading about a woman keeping a robot around for purposes of pleasure . . . hoo boy, mind-blowing stuff for a naive 14-year-old.
Of all the science fiction books that made a mark on me, I think Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion are the only ones I haven't kept up with. Those books were big moments for me in high school, and I look forward to returning to them.
Lastly, I should add that I went through a horror phase, but it was more of a miniseries than a complete season, so to speak. I read the first book in Stephen King's Dark Tower series early on. I was quite pleased with the conclusion, now that King has come back to the series and wrapped everything up. I still have a fondness for Dean Koontz of the Lightning and Watchers era. Speaking of factory-churned product, I lost track of Koontz long ago. Other authors I read include James Herbert, Clive Barker, and Robert McCammon. I've occasionally re-read McCammon's Boy's Life—which is a nostalgia-soaked and fictionalized version of what I've been doing in re-reading old books.
When I first started looking back, I thought I would end up with a long, long list of books that I wouldn't want to revisit even under pain of torture. But I don't think I did too bad as a kid, as the above examples testify. And other books I've simply outgrown. For example, I'm not going to re-read umpteen series by Piers Anthony, but I have nothing against the man. His books filled their function to me as a young reader. So what if I was done with his books by, say, the end of high school? I'll probably read a few pages of a Xanth novel a decade from now just to remind myself of my teen years. The same goes for books aimed even younger. I might not re-read more kid-oriented fare, like Thornton W. Burgess, unless I have kids myself.