Your first literary loves

A few months ago, I asked readers to write in about (in Slate’s parlance) their first literary crushes. I’m finally posting some of your responses here.

Karen Karbo says:

Notes from Underground! I first read it while taking a Dostoevsky class and wept with gratitude that it was only 150 pages long. I reread it every few years when I’m in a bad mood. To this day the proto-slacker Underground Man still makes me swoon. Plus, his endless kvetching about his liver paved the way for every novel that relies on voice.

Jonah dates his crush on Bertha Harris, “a positively sublime and curiously overlooked novelist,” to college, but admits that it “still has me in its grip.”

Her only published novels came out of the women’s movement in the 1970s, although reportedly she’s been writing books ever since without publishing them. The book to seek out is Lover, which in its modest length (214 pages) handily sums up the problems of the postmodern American novel, as well as a good chunk of modern critical theory. And it’s very, very funny.

Noria Jablonsky (Human Oddities) and some of her classmates became obsessed with Goethe’s Faust.

For Easter we made Faust eggs, decorated with images and quotes from the play, while we sipped Chartreuse, a liqueur made by monks. Meeno Peluce, a former child star and older brother of Soleil Moon-Frye, was in that class. Sometimes the Faustophiles would get together and watch clips of Meeno’s appearances on The Love Boat, Remington Steele, and The A-Team. He gave a tour-de-force performance as an abused kid on a very special episode of Silver Spoons.

Amy Shearn writes:

I have extremely vivid memories of reading Mrs Dalloway for the first time, starting it in the dining hall at University of New Mexico (a friend sat down suddenly, causing me to spill grainy vending machine hot chocolate over my paperback, which is the same copy I’ve now reread 4 or 5 times), and then under the duck pond on campus. But first, I’d picked it up while in high school, not knowing what it was, read a few lines, gasped with a kind of overloaded pleasure, and put it down, knowing that I couldn’t read it yet but that when I could it would be incredible. Later, rereading it for a class…, a friend and I would address each other giddily, “What a lark! What a plunge!” and, when finding ourselves in annoying conversations with classmates, we’d interrupt, “But the trees are alive!” I love this book so much that I make fun of it and imitate it and sleep with it under my pillow all at once. It seems to me everything fiction can and should be — sad, funny, inventive, transcendent…. Please, don’t get me started on the Nicole Kidman nose thing.

Robert Daseler recalls:

In the summer of 1965, after my sophomore year at Pomona College, a few other people from the college and I were in Mississippi with a civil rights project, and I read Anna Karenina, which I expected to transport me as far from the American South as any book could. In fact, though, Tolstoy’s intense evocation of the way lives are entangled and unwittingly influence each other seemed strangely pertinent to my situation. Sometimes I stayed up almost all night reading the novel, my mind shuttling back and forth between 19th-century Russia and 20th-century Mississippi.

Tom Keiser names several favorites:

I didn’t really start to read for leisure until I picked up The White Album by Joan Didion at the age of eighteen. Before that, I really enjoyed The Grapes of Wrath and Breakfast of Champions, which made me realize the beauty of what others would call “smut.”

But my FIRST FAVORITE BOOK would have to be The Spooky Old Tree by Jan and Stan Berenstain. I mean, that was probably the longest book I read until I was sixteen! AND it had a tree with a slide in it! How cool was that!

Nick Mamatas says his “first favorite novel is one that I’ve only ever read once.”

Let’s Go Play At The Adams’ was a shlocky-looking horror paperback an aunt-in-law inexplicably bought for me as a gift, which I read because I generally read whatever was handed to me as a kid. It’s a 70s paranoia tale: pretty, young babysitter wakes up to find that her charges and their friends have tied her to the bed. They then spend the next week demonstrating how well-thought out their plans are (e.g., they have techniques for keeping her bound while leading her to the bathroom) teasing her, experimenting sexually with her (including a rape), and finally and very logically, killing her. But it’s much more than that. It’s like a little Iliad: every character gets their motivation and their moment when the author is on their side. Universal sympathy in the midst of crime and degredation. Haunting haunting stuff. Don’t need to read it again but I remember it twenty-five years later.

Matt Stebbins says “it’s not the first novel I ever loved (that honor goes to Crime and Punishment), nor the last (most recently it’s been The Poisonwood Bible), but it is the book that impacted me most in college: Joseph Heller’s Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man.

This is the book that made me realize I was a writer, that I had the dark places of a suffering writer. When I read Joyce’s original, the epiphanies were too much — writing’s rarely a breakthrough like that for me — and he was far too sure of himself, happy and proud of his abilities. No, Heller was a mess in his book, uncovering the correlation between great writers and suicide, long frustrated walks and blank pages — in that much less glamorous picture, I could see my process, and in that process, I knew I was a writer.

Richard Grayson picked up Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle one weekend “at the Walt Whitman Shopping Center in Huntington, Long Island, where my parents owned a store.”

From the first paragraph I knew I was going to love the book. The weird, playful riffs and digressions, Vonnegut’s staccato sentences, the faux-sf plot, the rueful and knowing take on life, and the Calypso rhymes from the Book of Bokonon, holy book of the religion started by a holy fool: they had me read the book over three times in my sixteenth year.

A close runner-up would be Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. The pixilated cover of the Bantam paperback, and that incredible first sentence, the obscure conspiracies and above all the digressions (very different from Vonnegut’s): I didn’t quite get the Tristero system on first reading, but I loved what I was reading.

Erica reflects on The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

[It] stands out as my favorite and also the most important novel I read in college. As it happened, the film version appeared just as I was finishing up my senior year. This [novel] was my first experience observing an author speak to the reader objectively about his characters, and I learned a lot about the process of writing.

And Marco Romano writes:

Moby-Dick. Of course I read the Cliff notes in high school. I read the novel in the early 70’s just after I graduated college with no hopes for gainful employment. I read it most of it in park that was close to our apartment in Albany, NY. I was transfixed. Is that word ok for the internets?


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