Literary Hub

What Was the First Book You Fell in Love With?

What was the first book you fell in love with?

We asked this year’s Center for Fiction First Novel Prize shortlisters about their earliest love affairs with reading. Meet them all at the Finalist Reading, December 10 at BRIC.

Jen Beagin, author of Pretend I’m Dead

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles in a mostly book-free household. My parents had an impressive record collection and cable television, but the only books I remember reading were mystery crime thrillers written by Lawrence Sanders. Most of these thrillers were racy, set in New York City, and featured cops, murderers, prostitutes, and perverts. I stole the books from my mother, who had a habit of throwing paperbacks in the garbage after she was finished with them. This was back in the early 80s, when I was around ten or eleven, and it may explain why the first fiction I wrote, at age 12, was a series of erotic stories featuring my teachers and fellow students, with some mystery and murder thrown in. The stories were a big hit with my friends, but I was eventually caught and punished. My punishment, as I recall, was playing checkers once a week with a shrink named Dr. Goodman.

At age 14 I moved to New England to live with relatives. There weren’t any books at the new house, either, but I went to Catholic school with nerdy girls who read all the time and had huge vocabularies. They also collected and displayed books—in their own bedrooms!—and walked around clutching books to their chests and so on, and I wanted to be just like them. So, I began stealing library books, which is of course shameful. The city library was in this enormous gothic building downtown, and I’d go up to the fourth floor and toss books out the window, which I’m convinced gave me two decades of bad karma, even though I only stole books with more than three copies in circulation—Hemingway, Salinger, the Russians, and so on. The way I looked at it, I was building another branch of the library in my bedroom and would often lend books to friends, and so I thought this behavior was okay—admirable, even.

Anyway, among these early stolen books was a copy of Lolita. I was accustomed to reading about perverts, but perverts and poetry? Together in one book? I’d never read such literary, ecstatically-written smut. I also got the sense that Nabokov was writing the book he wanted to read. He was pleasing himself. This was new to me, and compelling. The book seemed written in a fit of joy and rapture, and I could feel his glee on every page. It was both eye- and heart-opening—Lolita as a novel is a great teacher of empathy. Growing up in the beach towns of Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s, there was a pervert on every corner, or at least some old dude exposing himself at Foster Freeze or Safeway or wherever, and the book gave me a window into the tortured souls of these ridiculous but human men, along with the Humbert Humbert’s in my own life, and I’ll never forget it.

Akwaeke Emezi, author of Freshwater

Chike & The River, Chinua Achebe

I don’t remember precisely the first book I fell in love with, mostly because I started reading when I was about five and I read a ridiculous amount of books that my memory can’t keep track of. My father had a collection of Reader’s Digest condensed novels that I worked my way through before I was ten, as well as my mother’s magazines (my parents started buying me more books after they found me reading the sex advice columns in those). I was also writing and illustrating children’s stories at the same time; reading books and writing them has always been tangled for me. In that whirlwind of books, hundreds of them throughout my childhood, Chike and The River stands out. Maybe we read it at school, maybe we just had it in the house, maybe both. I’m not really sure. But it’s a classic for all Nigerian children, I think, and for good reason.

My friends and I were kids who loved stories about other children who were essentially adventurers on a quest, but we mostly had just a ton of Enid Blyton books for that. Chike and The River was vital because it was about a kid who looked like us and was from where we were from, but he got to live in a story like that. He was from Umuofia and I was from Umuahia. People in the book swore they were telling the truth by wetting their index finger on their tongue and pointing to the sky, just like my friends and I did. Or, if you really meant it, you touched the ground first, then your tongue, then the sky.

A lot of people who hear I’m from Nigeria only know to mention Lagos, but I grew up in Aba, far away from Lagos, in the southeast. For us, Lagos was a big city, rather like how Onitsha was a big city for Chike—we only went there for visa interviews and subsequent rare trips to Malaysia when we had to fly out of the international airport. For an embarrassing number of years, I thought that the Third Mainland bridge in Lagos—which connects the mainland to Victoria Island—actually spanned the River Niger (spoiler: it does not). Looking back, I fully blame Achebe for this. Chike and The River made the Niger a huge part of my childhood, I put it in places where it wasn’t because it was always present. In Achebe’s No Longer At Ease, he writes, “A man who lives on the banks of the Niger should not wash his hands with spittle.” At school, we had a song for naming rivers in Africa, going down the list—Nile, Niger, Congo, Senegal, Orange, Limpopo, Zambezi. The Niger felt familiar in that list, like a friend, like the one that belonged to us. It was as alive as any character for me, even though I’ve never seen it. We had a river in Aba, but it was much smaller than I imagined the Niger to be. I once almost fell out of a canoe there.

I haven’t read Chike and The River in years, and when people talk about Achebe’s work, they often miss this book, perhaps because we don’t take literature for children as seriously as we should. I’m grateful he wrote a book like this, though, and I’m especially grateful that the little adventurous kid I was in Aba all those years ago got to read it.

Lisa Halliday, author of Asymmetry

Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White

I distrust the spotty and deceptive nature of memory too much to say for certain whether the first book I fell in love with was Charlotte’s Web. My daughter, who is only 16 months old, has a special relationship with a certain bedtime opus entitled Good Night, Gorilla: its familiar faces and cadences calm and entrance her like nothing else, and who am I to say that isn’t love? So maybe Charlotte’s Web was not the first book I fell in love with, but it’s the first book I remember crying over—crying over and then immediately rereading to suffer ecstatically its great crashing wave of emotion again. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Wilbur’s story begins portentously, for E. B. White respected not only the power of a propulsive narrative but also his readers’ readiness to contemplate the inevitability of death. The renaissance at the end—the birth of Charlotte’s babies and in turn their own spider progeny—is inadequate consolation for the loss of Charlotte herself. But of course this is what losing someone is actually like: nothing immediately consoles us; the pain only gradually gives way to an accumulation of distractions. Here is another ominous line, spoken by Charlotte and filling me now with a sense of urgency no less potent than when I was eight: “I shall be writing tonight for the last time.” Yet it would be many more years before the full impact of the book’s penultimate sentence would land: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

Reading Charlotte’s Web today I am amazed by how much it contains, also by how relevant it remains. As with a river, you can’t cross the same book twice; its words may be immutable but you and the world are not. And so a story you remember being simply about a spider and a pig now seems to speak to so many timely topics: environmentalism, vegetarianism, abortion, propaganda, humility, literacy, faith, even terrorism. (Occasionally, Wilbur “would dream that men were coming to get him with knives and guns,” a dream I imagine I am not alone in having with increasing frequency.) This alchemy between a text and its reader is among the most fascinating and illuminating functions of literature—its capacity to convey different ideas over time—and yet it’s not something every text manages to foment in equal measure. What I have learned from E. B. White is that an elemental style—the clean, accurate, and concise prose famously advocated in Strunk & White—is the best way to elicit tears and to advance our collective human consciousness. “All that I hope to say in books,” White is quoted in a foreword to Charlotte’s Web, “all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Describing that world in clear and vivid language, language dictated by the essence of what you hope to share so that others might love it as well, is a form of generosity toward the reader and an escape from yourself.

Tadzio Koelb, author of Trenton Makes

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

“The Compson Appendix” from The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

When I was growing up books were everywhere in the house. My parents’ countercultural approach to homemaking meant that books lived on shelves built of cinderblock and random lengths of pine, but also in piles and in boxes, or stacked among newspapers and magazines at the end of the dining room table. This floating, spilling, tumbling library was a free-for-all, and the only limitation it placed on what I could read was my ability to secure a book without knocking things over. No one ever told me to put a book back, or that I wasn’t allowed to read something. If it could hold my attention, it was mine to read.

My mother in particular was always reading. Every night until I was seven or so my mother read me a range of standard children’s stories (Tomi Ungerer, The Little WitchThe Wind in the Willows—I cried at Mole’s homesickness—and In the Night Kitchen) although we would sometimes venture a little further: when I was five The Hobbit led to the entire Lord of the Rings; at six The Sword in the Stone led to the complete The Once and Future King. I would lie on the sofa with my head in her lap, and she would read. It was Brooklyn in the 70s, and I remember her batting at me when cockroaches crawled on my arm.

When I began reading for myself, I picked from what was around. In a box that had sat for some time on the landing outside my bedroom door I found Jaws, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Quincunx of Time. I read them all (skipping in Jaws to wherever the shark reappeared; I found the other bits boring). I also read every single Hardy Boys; my father at one point was buying them for me at a rate of two a week. The point I am slowly moving towards is that I loved reading, and books, and loved so many books in such profusion and at such speed that it’s impossible to say which I loved first.

What I can say instead is when I first became aware that I loved the writing in a book, which is different—as different, I think, as family love is from what you feel for your first lover. If before I had been excited by careening plots and startling situations, now I was aware, suddenly, keenly, of the heaving beast of language, and of the terrors and rewards for the writer who lets it slip from the noose of convention by which it is usually constrained. The book in which I found this experience was one I couldn’t read all the way through—most of it was far too complicated for me at that age, which was around 7th or 8th grade—but I was captured by that section, that chapter. I had come across it as I did most of the reading I did at home: accidentally.

The section was the “Compson Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury, the piece Faulkner wrote to “clarify” the book but which contains so many differences that it serves only to confuse the matter, and which, in some editions (such as the one I opened by chance one day), strangely precedes the novel itself. I was knocked out: what was happening here? There were parts of stories, but nothing like a real story. There were glimpses of characters, but no one you could call a hero or a villain. Instead I found a swirling mass of impressions that gave me a sense as never before of being in a mind, a consciousness, other than my own. It was a long few years before I was able to read The Sound and the Fury, repeatedly confounded as I was by Benjy’s impenetrable interiority, but the way I understood writing and books, stories and literature, was deeply affected when I fell upon that strange, misshapen thing, the non-story, non-book that grabbed my heart.

Tommy Orange, author of There There

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

I didn’t become a reader until later in life—later than most anyway. I was 22 or 23, working at a used bookstore after having graduated with B.S. in the sound arts from a school then still teaching mostly analog recording. The digital age and the mp3 were just about to completely take over and most of what I learned in school was about to become irrelevant. I don’t remember why I got a job at a used bookstore now. I wasn’t really a reader. I was reading mostly for meaning or direction then, so religion and philosophy books. At some point I found Borges and Kafka and decided I loved fiction. I started to read as much as fiction as I could, and luckily this bookstore got very little business.

I was eating a donut in my car on a break and reading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces when I realized that I not only loved the book, but also the novel as a form. 100 pages in or so I couldn’t believe so much sadness and hilarity could fit into one thing. I didn’t realize then that eating a donut is sort of the perfect thing to be doing while falling in love with that book. I’ve since read it three more times. Sometimes I’ll ask a person if they like the book, if they like Ignatius. If they say no, I know I can never trust them. I still think it’s one of the best and funniest books ever written.

Jordy Rosenberg, author of Confessions of the Fox

Capital, Karl Marx

There’s falling in love and then there’s desire. Neither is a gentle process, but in books as well as life, we have to distinguish between the two.

To a child who loves reading, all reading is desire. This desire is voracious, sprawling, urgently non-monogamous. It does not fixate, it does not dwell. It moves. It moves constantly, and it will take anything. Norton Juster. Madeleine L’Engle. Douglas Adams. A cereal box. A Bazooka Joe cartoon. Bucky Dent’s 1977 stats on a Topps trading card. All of these I devoured with the same constitutive infidelity and the same unquenchableness of desire.

Only an adult can fall properly in love, with all the ecstasy, singularity, and compromise that that entails. Only an adult can devote themselves to limning the particulars of the loved object in repetitive, exacting, and probably annoying detail. Karl Marx’s Capital is the first book I fell truly in love with, and the only book whose location on my entirely disorganized bookshelf I know at all times. Falling in love means pooling your attention. Sometimes it means pooling your attention on a single passage in a book for years at a time, as I have done with Chapters 1 and 26 of Capital for decades now. Desire, by contrast, means swarming over an object, and when done, moving on to the next. I desired every book, every word I laid my eyes upon as a child. But only as an adult have I sworn allegiances, and this despite the admonitions of friends and family that a certain love object might be an unhealthy obsession, widely denigrated, only bringing trouble. Throwing admonition to the wind, only as an adult could I come to love Capital as fundamentally flawed—as a lovably flawed worldview and organizing principle. I never wanted a family per se. Not in the way so many people want it. I wanted a cell, a groupuscule, a cult. This cult could be a lover or it could be a book. Often neither comes to any good, and still I love. Because I prefer meaning to goodness. And I do believe this preference—this compulsion to construct frameworks for meaning—is the foundation of writing, which is itself the expression (I don’t mean at the level of content, I mean in the devotion to form; I mean in the sense that a writer ransoms their life to language) of what you are asking about when you ask about “love.”

Nafkote Tamirat, author of The Parking Lot Attendant

I’m an only child, and when I was younger, my parents made it their mission to defend my safety, virtue and intellect from forces which I soon understood to be “everyone and everything that didn’t come from our house.” So great was their fear, that my every move was overseen by a designated family member: no unsupervised outings, no school buses, no locked doors, no spending time alone because idle hands, etc. The only moments of approved solitude, where I could think by and for myself, came when I was reading. Books were the one area of the world that my parents didn’t censor, trusting the written word to provide enlightenment, unlike the rest of America.

My first literary favorites featured female protagonists who were mocked by those in positions of power (I know, shocking). I was always pleased when, in the last few pages, these girls were revealed to be the brilliant talents that we, the reader, had always known them to be. However, if the ending left them unrecognized, well, so be it: I’d never abandon them. I adored Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman (I still remember Birdy’s distinctive voice and humor); every single book written by Katherine Paterson (shout out to Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia, I wept for Sara and Leslie); The Tillerman Cycle by Cynthia Voigt (it goes without saying that I loved Dicey Tillerman and it goes even more without saying that there is perhaps no literary character in young adult fiction who would have held me in lower esteem); and the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery (flawless, to this day.)

I was also fascinated by fantasy books that featured children setting off on epic adventures. (Important note: I did not like books where children just survived outdoors. I was bored with anything that bordered on the realistic and I didn’t care about sailing a normal boat or learning how to carve wood into, like, a whistle or an ax.) I wanted books where kids fought evil, clashed with the universe and united to discover worlds and creatures that could only exist in fiction. I devoured series like The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

As a child, I didn’t feel the need to identify with the characters of my favorite books; that would come later. Instead, I read for reassurance: even if I was only in Boston now, firmly locked into an incredibly loving but also (at times) unbelievably suffocating family unit, there was more out there. My life at the moment was not all that there would ever be. I read to escape but also to locate myself in other worlds, to see if I could manage, if I could fit. When I began to leave home farther and farther behind and finally moved to another country, I felt terrified and unprepared. I still do. Nonetheless, no matter my uncertainty, I push myself to keep exploring, to keep trying. I am no Lyra Belacqua or Lucy Pevensie but perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from books is that I am me, the protagonist of my weird, messy life and maybe, just maybe. . . that is enough.

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