Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part One (Childhood)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Something I didn't note in the prologue post about this series is that this list is in chronological order (when the books came into my life), not order of importance. With that in mind, let's talk about the Chronicles.

I read the Chronicles when I was so young that I no longer remember a time without them. I read them over and over as I grew up, and I loved reading them more than I loved reading pretty much anything else. (I still sort of feel that way. I could read The Magician's Nephew every day for months and not be tired of it.) I believed wholeheartedly in Narnia, and I ached to be as brave and true-hearted as Lucy. I failed to grasp the religious allegory in the books until I was much older, found out kind of offhand about Aslan = Jesus, and felt not a little heartbroken. (I am not the only one to whom this happened.) With cynical adult vision, I can see why I loved them so much:
  • They introduced me to storytelling, a force as powerful as gravity
  • I imprinted on Lucy, who is a semi-blank canvas, designed for little girls like me 
  • They imparted wisdom in fantastical, digestible ways (well-tempered mix of meaninglessness + meaning) 
  • Dry British wit, a mainstay for my sense of humor 
  • I didn't have Jesus, but I had Aslan 
My upbringing bore no religion. The atmosphere wasn't anti-anything, but more of a "nah, thanks" in the direction of churches of all stripes. Without a savior to fixate on, what did I have? I had Aslan, who was good and generous and there most of the times you needed him and not a tame lion. I'm not saying that God is a necessary element to youth, that all children will latch on to God if you feed God to them, but I am saying that if you introduce a flawless Godlike figure, through literature, into the mind of a voraciously reading child who hasn't a rebellious bone in her body, you will probably inspire devotion to that figure. That devotion may last well into adulthood. Part of me still hopes that Narnia will be what awaits me after I die.

The storytelling is the primary thing, though. My mother used to make up silly stories for me (like a champ), and the Chronicles were by no means the first chapter books I read, but they were the first time I'd read something that felt like it had a history and a future. Something that shifted and grew over time, built on itself from book to book. It's like the difference between mystery novels and epics: Hercule Poirot does not change, does not shift in time and space, but Gilgamesh certainly does. I kept reading as Lucy grew too old for Narnia and Jill came to take her place. I kept reading as time circled back to show me how the wardrobe came to exist, after a Narnian tree blew down in Digory's yard. That experience demonstrated to me, for the first time, the heft and the compass of STORY, of narrative, as humans have been spreading it around fires for thousands of years.

And I wanted to live inside that understanding always.

Which is more or less how I got here, into this life, writing the words you're reading. Star Wars had a lot to do with it, too, a phosphorescent javelin of story and mythmaking thrust right into my brain at an impressionable age. But it was Narnia that made me want to keep reading, to make reading into a pillar of my life, and it was reading that made me want to start writing.

How I stared at this cover as a girl. This isn't at all what Jadis looks like inside my mind (though she is exotic here, which is appropriate, since she's from a crazy non-Narnian world), and Digory is dressed right but looks all wrong, and I don't even know what's up with Polly. But any other cover for this book looks even more wrong to me. This was the box set I had, and still have, and no other shall I ever read. 

The cynical adult vision that shows me why Narnia is so appealing to a kid has no capacity to dim my experience reading the books today. When people ask me what my favorite book is, I usually say it's the Chronicles, for a variety of reasons (some of my other favorite books sound hopelessly pretentious, or are too obscure to name without having a long, embarrassing conversation; everyone's heard of this book, and usually the other person has an opinion about it; etc). I can see the seams now, and Lewis's weaknesses as a writer, but his storytelling never falters. The wit still sparkles. The land of Narnia remains glorious, and kind, and surprising. I recognize that the books are extremely problematic, even beyond being a product of their time. Nevertheless, they matter to me more than any other book is ever likely to.

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