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Books That Made Me Meng

last modified Wednesday, 23-Apr-2008 08:49:50 PDT

For the past few years I've been wanting to put together a list of the most valuable books in my life -- those books which deeply influenced me and sank deep, close to the core of my being. And now, Amazon.com has made it possible for me to give you the convenience of buying them right here on this page. Imagine that! No need to play connect-the-dots all over the bookstore, wandering from category to category. No need to drool, bewildered, before bookshelves that have no apparent organization. No need to stand in line only to hear surly sales clerks say "I'm sorry, we don't have that in stock, but we can order it, it'll probably be a couple weeks, what's your phone number?" Here, you get Amazon's standard discount, and the books come right to your doorstep.

And besides, if you buy them through me, I get a tidy percentage :-)

The books are listed in roughly the order in which I met them; they're kind of a bibliographical biography. Know these books, and you'll know me. I have aimed to provide more than a mere synopsis for each book: I have tried to describe the effect that the book had on me, and how it did it.

Age 5-10

Hope For The Flowers by Trina Paulus
The first lesson I learned in school was this: school is all about doing the same things as the other kids, only better. Surely, I thought, that cannot be the way to succeed; the people history remembers all broke the mould. Society relentlessly forces you toward the middle of the curve. If you're going to stand out, you're going to have to break a few rules. The amazing thing about this book is that the lesson is written simply enough for six-year-olds, yet has timeless wisdom. My older sister gave it to me. I will never be able to thank her enough. (Thanks for your email, Trina! Hope your leg's better.)

The Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis
There are very few really good children's fantasy books; this series is one of them. The Christian mythology gets a bit obvious at the end, but it's still worth it. These books got me started down the What-Ifmp3 ringtones and verizon ringtones road that leads to the land of Anything-Can-Happen. I've never left.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle
More really good juvenile speculative science-fiction/fantasy: the protagonists are intelligent children, and proud of it. And they're okay with the alternate universe, and they adapt to it, and win!

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
The story of a born magician's discovery and growth from apprentice to mage immersed me in a world as real as Tolkien's; but while Tolkien decorates his world richly and with love, Le Guin sketches hers elegantly, simply, and with passion. The unadorned simplicity of the hero's quest had an especially powerful effect on me: never before had I experienced a story so intense told so well. Sequels are The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and the more mature Tehanu.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
The fantasy classic against which all others are measured. When you're young, The Hobbit. When you're older, the rest. This was the first fantasy epic that I ever read; Tolkien defines my Platonic ideals of fantasy characters.

The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper
Set in timeless Wales, an elemental struggle between good and evil, where the fate of the world depends on the actions of child heroes ... what could be more inspiring? This series whetted my appetite for fresh breezes over ancient lands, deep magics guided by normal-seeming characters with surprising powers, and Arthur's legacy rolling through from past times to today.

Bridge To Terebithia by Katherine Paterson
You know, the funny thing about childrens' books is that death never happens to any of the major characters. Bridge To Terebithia hurt. No book had ever done that before.

Picture Books of World Mythology
Myth is one of the More Important Things in my life; I consider it an essential Thing To Know About. The school I went to was ostensibly Christian, and we had chapel every week with parables and stories about Good Samaritans; in class the textbooks used examples demonstrating basic Confucian ethics like schoolboys helping old ladies across the street. There was no contradiction.

I remember a very good, illustrated, large-print, picture book about Norse and Greek gods; that's where I learned about Thor and Odin, Loki and Baldur. In other books, I learned about the Australian Dreaming, about the Egg That Hatched The World and the Tower of Infinite Turtles, about the birth of the Universe in Fire and Ice. And of course, the Arthurian legends. And the 1001 Nights.

Roald Dahl
The whimsy of Roald Dahl evokes the surrealism of Dr Seuss; The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches particularly stand out in my memory. I understand that a collection, The Best Of Roald Dahl, is available, but I haven't seen it myself. Not one of the essential authors, but still fun.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons."
"But there's so much to learn," he said, with a thoughtful frown.
"Yes, that's true," admitted Rhyme; "but it's not just learning things that's important. It's learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters."

neat math facts, logic puzzles, and science experiments made fun for juveniles
My left brain remembers a small red paperback chock full of really cool stuff: it brought to life fun facts about math and science like the Mobius strip, the Klein bottle and the Bernoulli Principle; it had logic puzzles that made you exult when you solved them; and it showed you how to perform primitive science "experiments" using things you could find around the house. They weren't really experiments as must as simple demonstrations of physical principles: for example, cut a piece of paper in a spiral and hang it by a string above a candle flame, and when it starts to turn, you have a visual demonstration of the fact that hot air rises. Too bad I don't remember the title or the name. I'm reviewing some current offerings and will suggest one or two titles soon.

your basic adventure books
I remember books by enid blyton: The Famous Five and The Secret Seven were the British counterparts to the American Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels.

The Childcraft Encyclopedia
I read every volume of this juvenile encyclopedia from cover to cover. It was arranged not from A to Z but by spheres of knowledge like "Animals", "Plants", "Physics", "Geology and Geography", "History", "Puzzles", "How People Live In Different Parts Of The World", and so on. It was brightly illustrated, and written in that rare style that doesn't insult a child's intelligence. The best volume, though, was the one that was meant for parents: it talked about the stages of a child's development, and what to expect at each stage. I read the chapters on "The Infant" and "The Toddler" with mild amusement, "The Preteen" with impatience, and "The Teenager" with the smirk of a snake.

Age 10-13

Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono
When I was 20 in Vancouver, I picked up this book and thought to myself, "maybe this book can teach me something." And I read it: when I was halfway through I was thinking to myself "this isn't telling me anything new. I do all this already." When I was done, the nagging feeling surfaced into realization -- I'd read it before, ten years ago! Maybe inventive problem solving is born and cannot be taught -- but then again, maybe anyone can develop eccentric and effective problem-solving techniques just by reading books like this one, if they start young enough.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Problem solving is one half paying complete attention to every single datum available, and one half seeing patterns and relationships in that data. Nothing can teach you that better than a great detective story. I link to the hardcover because my Holmes was hardcover; a mass market paperback edition is also available.

The Klutz Book of Knots
I became a little terror after learning "How To Tie The World's 25 Most Useful Hitches, Ties, Wraps, and Knots." There's nothing so practical as knowing how to tie precisely the right knot for any given situation.

everything by Gerald Durrell
Gerald Durrell, naturalist, zookeeper, and author taught me about animals, people, and places, and he did it with humour. The world of animals is vast and full of mysterious things; Gerald Durrell travelled the globe meeting strange new species with all too human quirks. The book to start with, My Family And Other Animals, describes his childhood in Corfu. It's a rare book that makes me want to follow in the author's footsteps; after Durrell, I wanted to drop everything and become a naturalist.

My Side of the Mountain by Jean George
Ten-year-old boy elects to run away from home, and discovers self-sufficiency, courage, determination and the joys of nature living as a hermit in a mountain forest. After I read this book I wanted to run away from home too.

Age 13-15

I got serious about Science Fiction and fantasy around the same time as quantum physics, the occult, and paranormal phenomena.

Theories of Adolescence by R.E. Muuss
When you drive through unfamiliar country, you first buy a map, and study it. It seemed only sensible that I should, at age 13, fully research the coming years, which Childcraft had promised would be full of new relationships, emotional turmoil, and intense personal growth. I didn't know it was a textbook; I just treated it as a series of essays, and found them profoundly stimulating. They covered strange and wonderful material, discussing mysteries such as "the stages of ethical development" with dry, scientific assurance. I read the 1988 5th edition, which may be out of print; in that case try for the more recent 6th edition.

Everything by Robert Heinlein
The breadth and depth of his ideas defined the Golden Age of speculative science fiction, and canalized me toward his peculiar brand of libertarian philosophy. For more information see the Heinlein FAQ available off the Heinlein homepage. My personal recommended reading order follows:

Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 series: 2001, 2010, 2061, and 3001 Timeless and majestic, open-ended masterpieces about the discovery of alien intelligence by all-to-human humans.
The movie was too psychedelic, too 70's to really enjoy today, but the books touch a nerve: how did we come to be intelligent? Are there other races in the galaxy? What is our future as a species?

Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams
"There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizzarre and inexplicable. There is another which states that this has already happened."

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
My parents raised me freethinking. Religion just wasn't an issue; at church weddings we'd close our eyes and bow our heads; at Chinese New Year we'd make the rounds and burn incense for our ancestors. Hesse's Siddhartha and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis gave me new insight into religion, and made me wonder why exactly there were so many brands of Christianity. To this day I don't know the point of being Protestant, Catholic, Anglican or Baptist; shouldn't it all be the same? Isn't personal wisdom a more important goal than social observance of religious customs?

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
I read this before Hero With A Thousand Faces; it is probably the best popular introduction to the study of myth I have ever read. Covers all the bases. It made me examine my life in the context of world myths, and I came to understand the importance of ritual to humans and human society.

Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
A few years elapsed between The Power of Myth and Hero. This book is much drier, academic almost, but how long could I put off Lucas's inspiration for Star Wars? Seeing yourself as a hero with a quest to fulfill is deeply empowering, if you can live up to it.

The Dystopians and Utopians: Orwell and Huxley.
For school, but here at least I agreed with the picks. Even if it's set in the far future, science fiction is really about the present. Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Huxley's Brave New World and Island opened my eyes to the frightening truths and to the practical possibilities of the society that we live in. Another school-assigned book that did the same was Lord of the Flies by William Golding. For sure, we may smugly agree that "life in the state of nature ... is nasty, brutish, and short", but Golding strips away the sane superego of society to shine light on the Hobbesian id lurking in the darkness. Why do so many readers flinch from this book? Goethe has the answer: "Know thyself? If I knew myself, I'd run away."

Kurt Vonnegut
I've only encountered his short stories (Welcome To the Monkey House) but Harrison Bergeron restates the theme of 1984 very elegantly.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
There is a Zen-like irony at work here: that it takes a white guy from a purely Western tradition, in the throes of a World War to discover Zen truths. Not a real life-changer but others seem to like it too. And besides, I was young when I read it. I should read it again.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
What is Quality? This book more than any other on this page turned my mind inside-out and permanently opened new windows of thought.

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
The best book on the operations of the human mind. Hofstadter would have liked Feynman's little ditty:
I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!
GEB convinced me that I wanted a career in the cognitive sciences. (I changed my mind after a couple of interminable and pointless Cog Sci lectures at Penn demonstrated typically academic disconnection from reality.) This magnum opus is followed by Metamagical Themas and Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
I'd just read Godel, Escher, Bach, when I saw this lying on the coffee table at my brothers' house. Zen is easy. The hard part is getting past the words.

Age 15-18

At age 14 I moved from Singapore (8th grade) to Vancouver (10th). At age 16 I moved from Vancouver (graduated high school) to Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania).

Blade Runner directed by Ridley Scott
The ultimate science fiction movie. When William Gibson saw it, he was reportedly bummed out, saying that Blade Runner had successfully evoked exactly the atmosphere he was trying to create in Neuromancer. I watch it every year, and every year I find new meanings hidden, waiting to be uncovered. Based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. Retrofitting Bladerunner by Judith Kerman provides literary analysis.

Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola
I encountered Apocalypse Now in high school; we were studying Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The Great Literature that we studied in high school welcomed literary analysis: find the symbols, themes, literary techniques; spot structural patterns, identify the scenes and acts, explain the mysterious "the horror, the horror". My high school was very good. Sure, it's a movie, and full of explosions and special effects, but that didn't mean it's not a work of art, too, and a valid target for consideration under the same terms as Shakespeare.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
When I was young I was won over by Gerald Durrell: I wanted to follow in his footsteps, and become a naturalist. After I read Feynman I wanted to follow in his footsteps -- but then, Feynman is really about being your own person no matter what your profession is.

In Search of Schrodinger's Cat by John Gribbin
The best introduction to quantum physics you'll ever find. Before reading this book I walked around admiring the physics, chemistry, and biology apparent in the world; after reading this book that appreciation expanded tenfold.

Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick, Complexity by Waldrop
After quantum physics I tacked Chaos; there are lessons in this new science of Complexity and Chaos that apply directly to systems at all levels, everywhere in everyday life. This new understanding has facilitated my activities with computers and in the business world.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Oliver Sacks
When computers experience software or hardware errors, they generally stop working in obvious and uninteresting ways. By comparison, errors occurring in the human brain can be fascinatingly bizarre. This, together with Neurophilosophy and The Emperor's New Mind, got me interested in the field of cognitive science.

Neuromancer by William Gibson
The cyberpunk book. I read it before 1992 and that just made the nascent Internet seem all the more magical when I discovered it.

The Stranger by Camus
The message I got out of Existentialism was this: your destiny is what you make it. Make it.

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
In a recent interview superannuated Londoners, when asked, "what was the happiest time of your life?" responded "The Blitz." Something about adversity makes every moment pregnant, every day richer, every sunrise brighter. It is very likely easier to find meaning amidst the horrors of Aushwitz than in the unreflecting, quietly miserable doldrums of daily life.

The World According To Garp by John Irving
This novel first envelopes, and then becomes part of you. Irving has a direct line to Human Truths.

You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen
Men get along fine with men. Women get along fine with women. But, very often, men and women just aren't on the same wavelength. Tannen's illuminating insights compare cultures of communication from a sociolinguistic point of view. This was amazing stuff: academics, applied! After this book, I got along just fine with girls.

A History Of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren
The great thing about history books is the way they humble you: the place you in the context of the entire course of human endeavour. And they give you new eyes, and the gift of time travel: walk the streets and see, not the present day, but the lay of the land a hundred, a thousand years ago; and let your imagination fast-forward the buildings to dust, see the invention and rise of new technologies, and sift from that view a glimpse of the unvarying constants of human nature. Now, does anybody know if the Charles Van Doren who wrote this book is also the Charles Van Doren so prominent in the movie Quiz Show? (This question was answered by Lee Daniel Levine (idpulse@ix.netcom.com): they are indeed one and the same. -- mww 19980420)

The Discoverers by Boorstin
A history of the world told not in strict chronological order, but by the motifs of human discovery, linking disparate times and places by the common humanity of their world-changing events. In matters of world history I am still a child. In learning about the past, one discovers timeless truths about the human condition. This book will endow you with a thousand years of perspective.

Tufte, on Information Design
In the art of design are beauty and truth made one. If, like myself, you think best with wordless images, and there is a compulsion deep in your nature that responds to the challenge of showing data, then buy all these books. Personally, my rule in displaying data is simple: if you take off your glasses and stand six feet away, you should still be able to hear what the data is saying. Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things goes well with this set.

Age 18-21

I should have read these books sooner. Once I got to college and discovered the Internet (back in the glory days of 1992-) I hungrily researched the online world, and the offline world whose themes were education (or the lack thereof), racial inequality, and cognition.
Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman
Neil Postman, renowned social critic, denounces television as the symbiote of a failing society.

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom
A forceful polemic with urgent truths, or golden-age nostalgic rantings from an academic who just doesn't understand the real world? You decide; either way it's thought provoking. It's an interesting sign that two critical follow-ups, Essays on the Closing of the American Mind and New Perspectives on the Closing of the American Mind, are out of print, but the original is still going strong.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
The X-Files routinely explores cover-ups and conspiracies: the stranger the truth, the more likely it is to be disbelieved. This book as potent as it is ignored.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
Can it be true? This book is a perfect example of what can happen to a theory that contradicts current scientific paradigms. Jaynes's fundamental message that consciousness is a recent invention only 3000 years old is startling, well researched, and ultimately unprovable. Of course, the history of the world according to Darwin is equally unprovable, which is why, so far, the theory of evolution is just that -- a theory, not a law. But Darwin certainly seems to be right, doesn't he? Jaynes's message is every bit as revolutionary as Galileo's was in its day, but nobody's listening. I asked the professor who recommended me the book "so, what does the scientific world think of Jaynes? Has there been follow-up research?" He didn't know, and there probably hasn't. Kuhn was right -- if you're outside the paradigm, you're out in the cold.

Cyberspace: First Steps edited by Michael Benedikt, 1992
A collection of essays by cyberspace visionaries, dating from 1992, the year the Internet entered public consciousness. The best of the bunch is an essay by Benedikt himself on some proposed physical laws for the structure of cyberspace. The sheer audacity, scope, and levelheaded pragmatism of the article drove home the possibility of a true Gibsonian cyberspace: there are worlds waiting to be created, and it is up to us to make them.

The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg
Oldenburg argues that in addition to the work place and the home, there are "third places" that we modern humans are ignoring at our peril: social places for relaxation where we recharge our souls. A landmark book exploring the effects of modern life on our social landscape.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman Series and other comics
Gaiman is the Shakespeare of comics: he has redefined the medium in ways no comic author has ever attempted. Good for you, the series just ended, and now all 75 issues are available compleat, bound into ten volumes. I say good for you because you won't have to suffer the agony of waiting, as I did, for the resolution to this epic tragedy. Begin with Preludes and Nocturnes which, like all beginnings, is a tad awkward; Gaiman didn't find his voice, hit his stride, until Doll's House. The rest in order are Dream Country, A Game Of You, World's End, Season of Mists, Fables and Reflections, Brief Lives, The Kindly Ones, and The Wake. If you want to try before you buy, you can convince yourself of Gaiman's genius with the standalone miniseries Death: the High Cost of Living. Other spinoff miniseries include Death: the Time of your Life and Gaiman's The Books of Magic, sequeled by Bindings, Summonings, and Reckonings. Completists will want Sandman: Book of Dreams too. Continuing works in the Sandman universe include "The Dreaming" and "The Books of Magic". Elements of the DC Universe that Gaiman draws most strongly from are Hellblazer (Original Sins, Dangerous Habits, and Fear and Loathing), and Swamp Thing (Saga Of, and Love and Death).

Before Frank Miller, comics kept to formula: bulging superheroes kept getting into, and out of, adolescent situations. After his reinterpretation of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns comics pushed into film noir territory. His black-and-white Sin City world is stark with sweat, whiskey, women, and gunpowder: get Sin City, A Dame To Kill For, Big Fat Kill, and That Yellow Bastard. In Kingdom Come, Mark Waid and Alex Ross took an ageing cast of DC's "golden age" characters into the postmodern complexities of the 21st Century. And with Strangers In Paradise Terry Moore shows that a male writer can know women better than most women know themselves.

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game Series
The first book, Ender's Game, follows a genius-grade boy through an excruciating path of self-discovery through the crucible of intensive military training starting at age six, ending in an intergalactic space battle. The trial-by-fire of character-building will evoke and stoke the strongest emotional memories of this stage of your own life, when you had to endure, persevere, and triumph. The rest are vehicles for Orson Scott Card's explorations of more mature, philosophical questions. Read them all: Speaker For The Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. Even as Ender's youth is a lesson in courage for all of us, the remainder of the series are lessons in mature wisdom.

Dan Simmons's Hyperion Series
Once in every decade a science fiction author appears with that rare ability to spawn a full-fledged universe, populated at every level in convincing detail; Asimov did it with his Robot and Foundation series, Heinlein did it with his Future History, and Dan Simmons has done it with Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion.

Larry Niven's Known Space and Ringworld Series
Niven is another great, up there with Heinlein and Asimov. Read them all: Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers. (Ringworld Throne was not so good -- or maybe I just need to read it again to "get it".) And Three Books of Known Space present a satisfying introduction to the Known Space universe.

Everything by Roger Zelazny
His Amber fantasy series (start with Nine Princes In Amber) will suck you into his beautifully whimsical universe. But don't judge his talents as a serious author by that series: try your best to find "Creatures of Light and Darkness", Lord of Light, and The Doors of his Face, the Lamps of his Mouth.

Age 21-

A Quarter Century of Unix by Peter Salus
This book provides a valuable foundation for understanding the "selfish altruism" ethic of the early Internet. To mangle metaphors, a rising tide lifts all boats, and we can all pee into the ocean, can't we? Ahem. The first rule of software design: solve a problem that you yourself are facing. The first rule of internet software design: give away your solution, because someone else is probably facing the problem too. This book also touches on the histories of computing giants: DEC's disdain for unix and its long rivalry with IBM, Microsoft's guerilla attack with Xenix before the days of MSDOS. The most important insight I drew from this sociological, anecdotal history of Unix is this: create a certain environment, and you'll get a certain system dynamic. Linux recapitulates Unix, but I didn't know that until I read this book. It happened in the 70's. It happened again in the 90's. I was so tickled to see my complex-system theories confirmed!

I saw the article by Ken Thompson in CACM and immediately wrote a letter to him asking for more details and the possibility of receiving the software, which I received immediately from him (on DEC RK05 cartridges) without any license limitation whatsoever. That was Unix Version 5. We had been struggling with a PDP-11/45 and RTL or RSX11 for a graphics project. On receipt of Unix we immediately threw the DEC stuff away and went with the BTL (Bell Telephone Labs) stuff. This was later followed by Version 6, 6.1, 6.2, Version 7, and then our DEC VAX-11/780 (serial number 10) arrived. We had ordered it without a VMS license (DEC was astonished at that time) and used first the Labs' Unix VAX version (partly running in PDP-11 mode), and later the Berkeley stuff. -- Teus Hagen
Incredibly, this quote comes from 1977, twenty years before Linux popularized the open source movement!

Tog On Interface
During my 3 years in Singapore I discovered an interesting factoid: many books that are out-of-print in the US are readily available and selling well on bookshelves in the East! This, together with Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines and the above-mentioned series by Tufte are the books I most often recommend to people interested in web design and computer interfaces in general.

Assorted readings on Spirituality
In discussing religion with my father I pointed out that all the major teachings of the world's great religious traditions shared a common ethical core. Rereading The Power of Myth launched an investigation of comparative religion which touched down on the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness, Gary Zukav's odd little The Seat of The Soul, Philip Yancey's The Jesus I Never Knew, and hindumythology.com.

The Writer's Journey by Vogler
This excellent companion to Campbell was one of the high points of my "books on writing" period. I also enjoyed Orson Scott Card on SF --- more to come.

At last update I am 24. Suggestions are welcome!

On Reading

It takes more to raise a reader than a full shelf of inert books. The best friend of books is boredom, and a carefully structured boredom at that.

Growing up in Singapore helped. There were only two english channels on TV. What TV I did watch was mostly nature shows (I remember Attenborough's The Living Planet), inane sitcoms (remember "Small Wonder"? I had a crush on her.), and geek fantasies like Knight Rider. There was nothing to do at home. I rarely had friends over. My parents never forced me into music. There was always homework to do, and reading was a wonderful way to procrastinate.

A lack of mobility helped. I didn't have a bus stop or a subway station down the road, so I was stuck at home for most of my youth. There was the trip to school every day, and then there was the trip to the bookstore every weekend. I soon learned that the world within the pages was far more fascinating than the world between my walls. I even remember my parents scolding me, when we were on vacation, for burying myself in a book when I should be enjoying the sights.

Not having any siblings helped. I was raised an only child. I've visited families with lots of children. It seems to me that in large families, a tremendous amount of time goes to waste! The younger ones have nothing to do, so they run around the house, looking for you so you can entertain them. If you don't want to play, they'll get your attention anyway, by taking your things, and hiding them, or breaking them. When it's attention they're after, they'll get it one way or another. Or there are fights and squabbles that drain your energy. I am told that growing up this way is normal for human beings.

The wisdom of my parents helped. There were three sets of bookcases in my bedroom, and not one, but two reading lamps on the headboard behind my bed. They enforced early bedtimes. What else can a kid do when he's in bed, not sleepy at all, and is surrounded by books? And my dad took the time to open doors to me at a young age: he instructed me in the proper use of the dictionary, the thesaurus, the encyclopedia, the map. I remember one hot afternoon, my mother asleep, myself bored; I picked up a thesaurus and got fascinated. I must have been absorbed for a whole hour, just flipping pages, following unexpected associations. I was a weird kid.

Easy access to books helped. At first, my dad would take me to the library each week, and we would take out a heaping armful from the childrens' section. Later, we went to the bookstore. Since my mom had a 10% discount card there, it was easy to sucker her into buying lots of books -- after all, I reasoned, the more books we bought, the more money we saved.

The library of my brothers helped; they had wonderful books, and were endlessly willing to lend me anything I wanted.


[authored in emacs]