I am republishing this as a partial answer to a question my friend, Mitzy, asked in her comment on my most recent blog, “No Book Reviews, Portraits, Elections, Inaugurations . . .”
She wonders what I taught. The books mentioned here, first published in July of 2015, are a few I either taught or loved enough to have read repeatedly over many decades. In addition, dear Mitzy, I taught Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. I taught Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot. I taught Hawthorne and Thoreau. I taught the Bible as Literature. I can send you a complete list.
Asked any question remotely related to “Who is your favorite author?” I freeze. I can have 200 favorite authors, or on a bad day I might have none, but never one. I believe the exact question in this case, taken from Amanda Patterson’s excellent list of “30 Inspiring Blog Post Ideas for Writers” (http://writerswrite.co.za/30-inspiring-blog-post-ideas-for-writers), is “Who has influenced you as a writer?” Ms. Patterson further suggests that, if I choose this Idea, I might consider quotations from the author, or a catalogue of 10 things I’ve learned from her or him.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I pulled four books and my Kindle from the shelf. No point in wasting time on decisions. They are Joan Didion’s essays, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem to her memoir of her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being; William Faulkner’s The Unvanquished; and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books.
Rudyard Kipling. The Jungle Books.
From Kipling’s stories I learned early the irresistible music and beauty of stories read aloud. My father read to me; I read to my son; I am reading to my grandson. I edit my own writing by reading it out loud to myself. I have taught students for thirty years to proofread their own essays by reading them aloud, and repeatedly.
“It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips” (“Mowgli’s Brothers,” paragraph one).
“It is a Wednesday morning in April of 2014, and I am looking out my windows, old casements in a 1928 building in an urban neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for a door-to-door car service provided by the area’s public bus company” (Looking for Lydia, paragraph one).
“Stories are meant to be heard and felt. One of my fondest memories from childhood is my father’s reading to me at night. I only wanted to hear one book, an old volume of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books. We lived on two hundred acres of north Georgia woods and my fantasy life consisted almost entirely of becoming Mowgli, the child raised by wolves, the child whose best friends, Baloo and Bagheera, were a great brown bear and a sleek and dangerous black panther. I read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and longed for a mongoose. I remember very little about my father, a kind but distant man who died when I was sixteen, but I can still hear his voice, half a century later, reading those stories” (Looking for Lydia).
William Faulkner. The Unvanquished. Faulkner taught me that writing can be like the layers on the floor of the woods where I grew up, each year’s leaves and dirt spread smoothly on top of the year before, creating the rich mix of moss and loam whose odor of sweetness and rot is elusive to those who don’t understand the South’s peculiar relationship to time.
“I should have known; I should have been prepared. Or maybe I was prepared because I remember how I closed the book carefully, even marking the place, before I rose. He (Professor Wilkins) was doing something, bustling at something; it was my hat and cloak which he handed me and which I took although I would not need the cloak, unless even then I was thinking (although it was October, the equinox had not occurred) that the rains and the cool weather would arrive before I should see this room again and so I would need the cloak anyway to return to it if I returned, thinking, ‘God, if he had only done this last night, flung that door crashing and bouncing against the stop last night without knocking so I could have gotten there before it happened, been there when it did, beside him on whatever spot, wherever it was that he would have to fall and lie in the dust and dirt” (The Unvanquished).
“In 1915, Margaret Roper married, and she and her husband lived in the outside house, facing Dunmore Street. Virginia lived in the inside house until her death in 1945. In the spring of 1946 Leighton and Molly moved into Virginia’s house with their family: young Leighton was six; Albert was four; Molly was pregnant with her daughter, Molly, who is my age. In 1966, Margaret died, at the age of one hundred, a resident of the Lydia Roper Home. In 1972, Leighton Roper died; in 1999, his wife, Molly, died. The family sold the double-house. The house that Captain John Roper purchased for himself and Lydia was demolished in 1941.
Today I am at home. I send out emails and am drowned in responses” (Looking for Lydia).
“Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Maxine Hong Kingston
From Joan Didion I learned how to construct and control a deliciously complicated sentence and how to use deliberate repetition–of a word, a phrase, a grammatical structure–to make a point (and to make music). I learned to lay out my pages of fiction as poets arrange their poems, for visual as well as verbal effect; I learned to use white space.
I learned to appreciate those spaces and to use them to thread together unlikely partners in topic and meaning in a way that made their partnership evident. I learned to write about apparently disparate topics the way the lecturer at a slide show flashes each painting on the screen, without commentary. I learned to write about many realities in the same larger reality, like Maxine Hong Kingston writing about her modern childhood in a California Chinatown, her parents’ history in China, and the stories of ghosts and mythical warriors she heard growing up. Many threads, one fabric. I read and I learned.
Annie Dillard‘s, For the Time Being, perhaps more than any other book I’ve read, called me to the writing life. She tossed out Buddhist sayings and Christian shrines, the priest, Teilhard, the ancient Rabbi Isaac Luria, clay statues in China, obstetrical wards, a book about birth defects, tsunamis and death, sand, Israel, clouds, and numbers-and made it work. Made it work so well that I continue to read this book at least once a year, every year since the first time. The text here is unedited; the white spaces are hers.
“According to Inuit culture in Greenland, a person possesses six or seven souls. The souls take the form of tiny people scattered throughout the body.
Do you suffer what a French paleontologist called ‘the distress that makes human wills founder daily under the crushing number of living things and stars’? For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility’s sake let’s start with the bad news.
An infant is a pucker of the earth’s thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings. A mammal swells and circles and lays him down. You and I have finished swelling; our circling periods are playing out, but we can still leave footprints in a trail whose end we do not know.
Buddhism notes that it is always a mistake to think your soul can go it alone” (For the Time Being).
Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has something on every page to influence the writer who reads. Here is one of those somethings.
“December 30, 2003, a Tuesday.
We had seen Quintana in the sixth-floor ICU at Beth Israel North.
We had come home.
We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.
I said I would build a fire, we could eat in.
I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink.
I got him a Scotch. . .
The book he was reading was by David Fromkin. . .
I finished getting dinner. . .
John was talking, then he wasn’t. . .”
“I have found some wonderful stories, but I have not found Lydia Roper’s story. I am not ready to give up. I am not ready to give up because I have fallen in love with this woman whose story I have failed to find. I am not ready to give up because this has become a search for stories. At the Lydia Roper Home, we are reading stories and telling stories and listening to stories. We are coming to understand that stories, like names, are important, and our list of stories is getting longer. It does not include Lydia’s story.
I am not ready to give up looking for Lydia because I want to know what Lydia was looking for. What did she want? What dream was she chasing? What did she get?
Toward the end of a cold winter, the ladies at the Roper Home and I were looking for a better understanding of the Bible, or for companionship, or just for a way to spend a couple of hours a week. I was looking to survive; maybe we all were. Now we are also looking for Lydia.
I am not ready to give up” (Looking for Lydia).