Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Autobibliography Meme: Unpacking My Grade Six Library (1983)

It’s the question that I’m secretly dying to ask everyone I meet: what were you reading in grade six? Other than comics, I mean.

We spend a lot of time writing and reading about the comic books of our formative years, but what about everything else? Which authors, books, and series most defined us, influenced our tastes, and helped point the way to future possibilities?

Grade six is a good vantage point from which to take stock of this question because it’s such a precarious time. As the oldest kids in primary school, we’d just reached the pinnacle of the social hierarchy…and were about to slide right back down it, into the scary and unforgiving world of junior high. We were developing independence, but also trying not to get beaten up. We were also starting to discover who we might become as adults—especially in our reading choices. And, of course, most of us were 11 in grade six, just about to enter the hell of puberty—if we weren’t already roasting in its fiery pits. My own grade six reading list reflects the transitional nature of that time: it’s an awkward mishmash of children’s fantasy and adult fantasy, books that seem at once too young and too old for me, yet which I literally can’t imagine myself without.

My list is below. What’s yours?

This is a tagless meme, so if you have a blog and want to play, just post it and send me the link; I’ll add it below. If you don’t have a blog, feel free to post your list in the comments section here. 10 books, 4 books, 1 book—I don’t care. It’s all autobibilography.

(Compulsory Walter Benjamin link for inspiration: here. Go to it!)

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators – Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, Bob Andrews, Rocky Beach, the Jones Salvage Yard, the Secret Headquarters, Tunnel Two, Red Gate Rover, the Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup, the three question marks—these were the touchstones of what are, quite simply, the best boy’s detective thrillers ever written. Created by Robert Arthur in the mid-1960s, introduced by Alfred Hitchcock, and written by Arthur, William Arden, M. V. Carey and others, this trio of boy-detectives was an updated, West Coast version of the (to me) dull-as-dishwater Hardy Boys. I fell in love with their spooky covers instantly when I discovered them in the basement of the public library beside my school and became a rabid reader of the series. I’ve managed to acquire and reread most of the books as an adult because I am pathetic, but let that not cloud anyone’s estimation of the perfection of this series featuring the crime-solving adventures of chubby boy-genius Jupe and his friends Bob and Pete. One day, I will write a magnum opus on this series. In the meantime, check out these cover scans from Seth T. Smolinske’s The Three Investigators U.S. Editions Collector’s Site and the goodies at Tunnel Two for a walk down memory lane.

2. John Bellairs – It’s impossible to separate the gothicism of John Bellairs’s eerie stories—The House With the Clock in its Walls, The Figure in the Shadows, and The Letter, The Witch and the Ring—from the creepy cover art and interior drawings by Edward Gorey and Mercer Meyer. The Three Investigators books were scary and thrilling, but ultimately they provided Scooby Doo-style solutions to weird mysteries that only seemed supernatural. Bellairs’s gothic fantasies were more deeply unsettling, preparing the ground for my junior high obsession with horror stories and novels of all kinds, from Poe to Dean Koontz. Note: the folks who run Bellairsia also have a cool blog.

3. Clan of the Cave Bear – At the same time that I was scouring the lower (children’s) floor of the public library for “spine-tingling” thrills, I was beginning to investigate the spinning racks of adult paperbacks on the upper floor in search of different sorts of tingling and thrills. I was in an Everest-climbing mood and looking for the longest books I could find—if they happened to be smutty epics, that certainly didn’t hurt. I read this first volume of Jean M. Auel’s prehistoric saga featuring Ayla’s naughty, violent, and possibly (okay, doubtfully) profound primitivist adventures with great attention. Some parts, er…more than once.

4. Choose Your Own Adventure – I was getting a bit old for these books by grade six and had just graduated to Steve Jackson’s incredible Sorcery! series of D&D-style fantasy-adventure books that added skills, spells, and dice components to the brilliant choose-your-own-adventure formula, but I still loved the original books and even tried my hand at writing one (The Attack of the Killer Worms, what else? It was canker worm season in Winnipeg that year.). My first one was Journey Under the Sea (#2), and my favorites were, perhaps not surprisingly, The Mystery of Chimney Rock (#5) (from my perspective a Three Investigators/John Bellairs mystery come to life!) and Inside UFO 54-40 (#12), which I now realize was a rip-off of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Added bonus: these books are now cool pieces of cultural history—what interactive media looked like before the internet. See covers and overviews of the complete series at Demian’s Gamebook Web Page.

5. Farley MowatLost in the Barrens and its sequel, The Curse of the Viking Grave, are classic Canadian adventure stories in the mold of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. I was introduced to the first book in grade five when our English class was divided into boys and girls: the boys read Lost in the Barrens, the girls read a book about a horse. I was glad to be a boy that day. Mowat’s books brought the myth of Canada as rugged, dangerous wilderness and “great white north” to life for more than one generation of Canadian kids; for me, their effects on my sense of Canadian identity, absurd though they are, still linger.

6. Susan Cooper – The only sustained fantasy cycle that I read before junior high and certainly a landmark of the genre. I’ve written about Cooper’s transporting Arthurian fantasy before and have a longer appreciation on the way. Suffice it to say that Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series was a moral and aesthetic revelation the first time I read it: it had a magic and depth that a lot of the mystery and gothic material I favored lacked, but it didn’t skimp on the mysterious trappings that I loved. These books were made that much sweeter by the fact that they were introduced to me by a very good friend – really, the first friend to expand my literary horizons.

7. Sidney Sheldon – Meanwhile, back on the main floor of the public library, I was still scrounging for lurid, smutty sagas. What first attracted me to Sidney Sheldon’s sudsy romance-thrillers were their titles, which, incidentally, haven’t lost any of their gleam: The Naked Face, The Other Side of Midnight, Rage of Angels, Master of the Game. His best title, Windmills of the Gods, was still to come. Essentially they were violent soap operas with appealing protagonists, twisted villains, and actual endings. I’ll spare you (and myself) a review of the many scribblers filled with notes detailing my own Sheldon-inspired plot-outlines from this period.

8. Lawrence Sanders – I cannot think of Sidney Sheldon without also remembering Lawrence Sanders. These were two of the biggest (if not the biggest) “Masters of Suspense” of the early eighties and I loved both of them, but in different ways. In a sense, they produced bestsellers according to the same formula: bucketfuls of wealth, sex, scandal, and violence. But the tone and style of their novels was quite different. In retrospect, I’ve come to think of their differences in terms of the DC/Marvel contrast. Like DC comics, Sidney Sheldon’s novels had a more mythic feel to them, evident even in his titles; they also tended to feature romantic plots more prominently. Lawrence Sanders’s thrillers and police procedurals were grittier, more brutal and (I was happy to discover) more tawdry, rather like Marvel. (And I don’t mean that as a slam of either Sanders or Marvel.) I particularly liked the grisly First, Second, and Third Deadly Sin novels—violent mysteries starring police detective Edward X. Delaney who was famous for “wet” sandwiches that he ate over the kitchen sink. I also loved Sanders’s kinky (and I realize now, often misogynist) sex-thrillers: The Case of Lucy Bending, The Seduction of Peter S., and a few years later, The Passion of Molly T.

9. The Name of the Rose – At the time I read this, I had no idea that Umberto Eco was a semiotician, much less what a semiotician was. I also didn’t know that this medieval mystery about libraries and poisoned books was actually a postmodernist fable that I would one day appreciate in a very different light. In grade six, I only knew that it was the coolest, most mysterious thing I’d ever read and that it was gesturing towards profound questions that I didn’t yet have the capacity to ask, let alone answer. In many ways, it remains my ideal of what good fiction should do: work at multiple levels simultaneously, providing equal satisfactions at each one. Of the ten entries in this autobibliography, this one was perhaps the most influential—pointing as it did towards the bibliophilic puzzles that would come to occupy me as an adult... Oh, who am I kidding?

So, there you have it: children’s gothic, adventure, and detective novels; choose-your-own-adventures; primitivist fantasies; smutty suspense, and crypto-postmodernism. What else would an 11-year-old kid be reading in 1983? You tell me.


David Norman said...

Wow, The Three Detectives. Now that takes me back. I can't believe somebody else enjoyed them as much as I did back then. With that and the Susan Cooper cycle, I'll have a warm glow of nostalgia for the rest of the day. Thanks Jim

joncormier said...

Holy crap, I read "The Journey Under the Sea" as well. You got gills right behind your ears, right?

We'll I'll be...

I may come up with a list but I can't really remember much more than the BFG at this point in my life. I can barely remember if I even ate breakfast, let alone what I read in grade six.

Jim Roeg said...

You got gills right behind your ears, right?

It has been medically verified, Jon!

joncormier said...

I meant in the book. heh heh heh.

Evil streak continues. This unintentionally evil super-power is wreaking havoc! Havoc I say.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the Three Investigators always make it to the top of Grant Morrison's list of childhood faves as well.

Jim Roeg said...

Josh, for real? Crazy! Is Grant's list anywhere online or was this in an interview?

Anonymous said...

Hooray for the Three Investigators! I was tempted to pick up a few volumes in the series at a used book sale a few weeks back. Man, that was a great series. So, Morrison, seriously?

I'd never heard of that Sorcery series you mentioned; the CYOA offshoot I read the most was the one from Infocom based on games in the Zork series...

Jim Roeg said...

david, prof fury - turns out we're in good company! And I think that there are a lot more folks with very fond memories of the The Three Investigators out there too.

Because it hasn't enjoyed the same reprint-afterlife that the Hardy Boys has, the series has become collectible to the point that I almost never see copies of the books in used bookstores--though I always look. The only place that I've ever found these books for sale (aside from the collectors' sites on the net) was at the amazing (and giant) Children's Hospital Booksale in Winnipeg--one of those increasingly rare book sales where the sellers don't really know what they're selling and so merchants and the public got an equal shot at the really interesting stuff. I wish I'd been at that booksale you mention!

And, hey, I remember Zork! I never had any of the books but I did play it on our old Macintosh Plus--man did I suck at it. I kept getting hung up in the gazebo. The only thing I could do was push the key through the keyhole and catch it with that newspaper, or whatever it was! (Our only other Macintosh game was Dark Castle--anyone else remember those screeching bats that squealed when they fell?)

Btw: in addition to Steve Jackson's Sorcery! series, I forgot to mention his and Ian Livingstone's terrific Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which I played obsessively. Ah, fun.

jon - when will your rampage end?? And for the record, I did get the gills! I went back to the book and found the passage (p. 58) - it's really quite something. Neither a happy or a sad ending, but a mature, beautiful, melancholy one:

A large white light shines down on you as you lie on the operating table. Then you become unconscious. Pleasant thoughts, sounds, and pictures occupy your mind. When awake, you feel no pain nor any real change. But, now you can breathe underwater and join the Atlanteans in their world.

For several weeks you explore the world under the sea as you have never seen it before. Without the heavy oxygen equipment on your back, you feel a marvelous sense of energy as you glide through the world of beauty. Your two guides have become very good friends and they take you on adventures in the deep, exploring the ocean bottom and gettin to know the sea creatures. It is a very exciting life indeed. You like it, but you regret that you will never again know the world above the sea.

Pretty cool, huh? Actually, it sounds pretty damn good to me!

Anonymous said...

Well, I wish I'd known they were collectible. Maybe they'll turn up again at the Friends of the Library sale next year. I'll grab enough for everyone! Or for one or two people.

RobB said...

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents The Three Investigators

Wow! I devoured these things from the library and the bookstore. When the Hitchcock name lapsed on the cover, I remember they changed his sillouette to a key and used some random guy as their mentor. I thought I was the shiznitt for having the "genuine" Hitchcock versions.

Jim Roeg said...

You were, robb, you were! And here's the sad part: I still think I'm the shiznitt for knowing that you're refering to the lame Hitchcock retcon, "Hector Sebastian." Ah, well.

Oh yeah, and it's official: this is now the Three Investigators Appreciation Meme.

RobB said...

Hector Sebastian, how could I forget? Didn't a third person come in and mentor the boys after him?

Jim Roeg said...

Was there a third mentor?? Now I'm curious... I only remember Hector. My library had mostly the Hitchcock versions (the hardcover ones)--I recall being quite shocked when I discovered the Hector Sebastian replacement later--those books didn't have quite the same aura as the originals. Apparently there were some later installments in the series in the 80s, though, so maybe the new mentor is from that era?

Keystone said...

Hmmm...your list looks awfully familiar. Especially the Farley Mowat books!

I remember those Steve Jackson books very fondly as well. I actually picked up a few of them in a fit of nostalgia several years ago. I loved them back in grade 5 and 6, but they have lost a certain je ne sais quoi over the years.

In the same vein as the Fighting Fantasy and CYOA (another fave) I also read a lot of the TSR Endless Quest D&D books in grade 6.

Aside from the books we had in common, I remember getting into Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series in grade six. I'm sure a lot of the material went right over my ten year-old head, but I loved them. Still do as a matter of fact.

And I'm still haunting local used bookstores looking for those Susan Cooper books as well. No luck so far, but I keep trying.

Jim Roeg said...

a - how could I have forgotten the D&D Endless Quest books? I loved those too! In a lot of ways, they seemed slicker than the Steve Jackson/Ian Livingstone series. What a funny thing to forget.

I never did read that Stephen R. Donaldson series, but I've always been curious about it and do own the first book...

And wow--you read Farley Mowat too...? You'd almost think... Nah!

Anonymous said...

in the sixth grade, i discovered Stephen King..and i think the first book i read of his was "The Stand" was in my school library and when i checked out, the librarian said that i shouldnt read it..that it would give me nightmares and such..i wondered why it was in our elementary school if it would give me nightmares..

and it did..but i became a stephen king fan for life..