Sometimes Twitter has neat memes. Today I saw some pals posting pics of “four books that changed [them].” I like that framing of important books, because it removes the pesky qualifiers about whether or not the book is “good” or “bad” or “important.” While all three of those are subjective, nothing is more subjective than whether or not a book “changed” someone. It’s more personal, more fun to think about. Here are my four:
This would have been the summer of 2005. Just out of high school, I drove to Orlando to spend time with my grandparents. My aunt had just bought a large new house in the same neighborhood as Shaquille O’Neal. I set this monster down smack dab in the middle of one of those big empty rooms, breaking its spine, and lay on my belly on this rough “carpet” that reminded me of straw and just read all day long, stopping to eat and run errands and cookout and hang with the family. The book still took me the whole summer to read. It was the only book I read those two months. Just a massive thing, and I’m a slow reader, but I stuck with it. The first (and probably last) great “achievement” in my reading life.
This book simply changed my whole idea of what books could do. The long sentences, where I’d get lost halfway through and my OCD would force me back to the beginning, so that I had to do it all in one breath. The book was an endurance test, but when I got to some passages (particularly the end) I felt dizzy, high in a good way. At this point I’d been introduced to drinking, spending a good portion of high school at my friend’s “drinking apartment” where his mom would supply us with Everclear and we’d mix it with orange juice (so she could keep tabs, not the worst idea honestly). Drinking for me was still fun, but I was kind of looking into a kind of future with Don Gately, not my future, but a cartoon exaggeration of it, and I kind of knew that at the time.
Found this one at the Ft. Sill library the summer after 8th grade. The plastic-wrapped spine stuck out to me: the title seemed enigmatic, the color pattern ugly but evocative. Then I opened the book and read that now-infamous opening line (which, at the time, if you read Writer’s Digest and other goofy lit mags like I did, had several articles written about it, it was controversial even then) and was completely hooked. At 14, I couldn’t believe a book could be this raw and nasty, and the economy of language would inform my style for the rest of my life. Me and most writers I fuck with have only ever been aping Ellroy since then. American Tabloid is the better book, and the Demon Dog himself says he went a little “overboard” stylistically with this one, but for me it was like cold water in the face, over and over, completely revelatory.
Every summer I’d go to my grandmother’s house. It smelled like cigarettes and Windsong perfume, two smells that I still have a soft spot for to this day. I’d sleep in the guest bedroom, on a big white couch next to the desk where my grandma did her accounting and read. I bought this one, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, and Choke all in the same summer (’02 or ’03 I think) and inhaled them. The conversational style, the urban legends tossed off so casually, in a pre-internet way that made you feel like you were reading a secret history, the nihilistic, gross violence and sex, it was like candy to me. I started with this one, having watched the movie over and over and over, and knew right from this moment that this tore it, I was going to be a writer, I was going to make something this cool.
I used to visit this messageboard for the band Dog Fashion Disco, a Mr. Bungle-esque nümetal band from Baltimore. I met several pals there who I’m still Twitter buds with to this day. When I was 18 or so, some of the DFD board members pointed me to a second messageboard, this one called The Velvet, which was built around three authors: Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. The Contortionist’s Handbook was fun (I read that one first because of its Chuck Palahniuk blurb), and I didn’t get into Stephen at all at the time (that would come a bit later…I’m now reading all of his books in order, the ones I can find anyway, and I realize now that he was the best of them all along…but hey. I was 18, it was too dense for me back then, I think). I bought Kiss Me, Judas in a very strange bookstore. I can’t remember the name of it, only that its racks were about chest height instead of being as taller or taller than me, giving the memory a dreamlike feel. The book itself was dreamlike, the first in a trilogy, followed by an inexplicable and weird sequel and a more coherent (but less good than Judas) third book. This one had a great opening line, too, something about birds and ice, and it was about a guy who got his kidney stolen by a femme fatale, waking up in a tub of ice. The metaphors in this one came on hard and fast.
I spent most of my youth reading Star Wars books, and Indiana Jones books. These were my introductions to a world outside of Lucasfilm IP, and as such they had the most foundational effects on my own writing. It’s much, much harder to think of books that changed me into adulthood…but I’ll give it some thought.