I recently posted a meme on my Face Book page that quoted author Neil Gaimen: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose.”
(For those of you who don't know the term “meme,” it's those posters, cartoons, glib sayings that are found and re-posted, shared, liked and commented on. I have no idea where they come from but I enjoy the hell out of them.)
It got me to thinking not of my five favorite books but the books that mark passages of my life.
When I was eight and we were flying back to the states from Midway Island, I was given a copy of “The Bobbsey Twins” to keep me out of trouble. No offense to Flossie and Freddie but they were baby books. I was used to reading books four levels above my age. I snagged my sister's Hardy Boys book instead. That might have been the start of my criminally fun career in mystery writing.
Or, maybe it was Nancy Drew. These were the first books I read without pictures. Very grown-up. Not that my family could afford to buy me the entire collection, but my friends and I traded them back and forth, much as I do now with mysteries.
I remember spending one hot summer languishing on the couch, a fifteen-year-old devouring “Gone With The Wind” and playing Scarlett O'Hara in my mind, Southern accent and all. I also remember a trip across country, sprawled in the backseat reading “Grapes of Wrath” as we followed the Joad's journey to the Central Valley of California.
As a library assistant in high school, I found a copy of “Madame Bovary” hidden in the back room. “Too explicit,” explained the librarian, but I was mature enough to be allowed to check it out. I never did find the dirty parts.
While the other kids threw spitballs in study hall, I read nearly all of Thomas Hardy's works. I also dabbled with Tolstoy, Jewish literature and Tudor history. To say I was bored with the school system is an understatement. To say I was considered pretty boring is probably true.
James Michener came into my life when I was babysitting and found the novel “The Source” on the shelf. I also found a cache of Playboy magazines, but that's irrelevant to this blog. “The Source” remains one of my favorite books.
Does anyone remember “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows,” a small book of poetry by Rod McKuen? That was the romantic period of my life. It was the same time many of us were reading “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran and preaching peace, not war.
But, I did enlist during Vietnam. That's why “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is still one of the funniest books in my mind. Maybe you had to be in the military to really appreciate the absurdity, something we enlisted men dealt with on a daily basis.
Books have been like landmarks in my life, indicating a stage I was going through at the time. It became all about mysteries when I was in my mid-thirties: Robert Crais, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly. I was lucky to have met these terrific authors on many occasions after I started writing mysteries.
Lately, I've gone back to an old love, historical fiction. I wanted to know why Alexander was great (he actually was), why Rome fell, how England developed. With the help of Alison Weir, Edward Rutherfurd, Ken Follett, Colleen McCullough and many other authors, I have figured out the entire Plantagenet family tree and much more. I'm not sure why it's important but I feel I need to put history in perspective. I need to define my version of events in a way that satisfies my curiosity.
Ask me what my favorite book is and I'll ask you what decade of my life you're talking about. For some of us, chapters in our lives are defined and honed by the chapters we read. The books we choose reflect who we are at that moment. I'm sure you're now remembering the books of your life. Look at the book on your night stand and it will clue you in on who you are right now.