I began my journey reading my mother’s childhood books: picture books, poetry, adventure stories, and tales of faraway places. I remember the muddy-brown-and-white lithograph bookplates, picturing a young girl in a wood and bearing the mysterious inscription “Ex libris Elizabeth W***.” (Sorry, her last name is what my middle initial stands for. And that name—like Rumpelstiltskin’s—must remain a secret.) Her books spanned a remarkable breadth of variety and genres. One Christmas, when she was seven, her parents gave her a beautifully illustrated translation of The Decameron. When I was a young boy, the language seemed old and dusty to me, and I never paid any attention to the book until I was studying Italian literature in grad school. That’s when I discovered just how wickedly ribald and downright filthy many of Boccaccio’s stories are. If you don’t believe me, try Googling “Putting the devil back in hell” for one modest example. Clearly, my grandparents hadn’t done their due diligence when selecting an appropriate book for their seven-year-old daughter.
The Decameron notwithstanding, I began my lifelong love of words and storytelling with Mom’s books. Long before I published my first novel, I studied languages (French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Hindi, with some Latin on the side). Over the years, my reading habits have changed, matured, and taken detours. And my journey has played an essential and formative role in my own writing. Here is a partial list of titles that plotted the road map I have followed.
My youngest days:
Highlights magazine. Goofus and Gallant. I was Team Goofus.
Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman.” “Then look for me by moonlight, watch for me by moonlight, I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”
The King’s Stilts. My favorite Seuss ever.
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
James Whitcomb Riley, “The Raggedy Man”
Grimm’s Fairy Tales
7th grade: Great Expectations. Took two semesters for our class to finish it.
8th grade: Ivanhoe and Ethan Frome. Inspired choices for easily bored teens.
9th grade: As You Like It. They told us it was a comedy. Good thing, because we couldn’t tell.
Murder on the Orient Express, my first Agatha Christie.
Archie comics. I could never choose between Betty and Veronica.
Playboy. Hey, I said I loved picture books.
The Carpetbaggers. The cover.
Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser. Again, the cover. Later, when I finally read it, I fell in love with the series.
Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I was a budding Anglophile.
Hamlet: Borrowed it from school. Never returned it, thus validating Polonius’s advice to Laertes.
Williams: Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire
Orwell and Huxley. Perhaps now would be a good time to revisit these two….
Longfellow: Evangeline. My favorite epic poem.
Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer
Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea
Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph
Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men
García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera
Roald Dahl. Who knew kids’ books could be so wicked and funny?
Zola: The Rougon-Macquart series
Flaubert: Madame Bovary
Stendhal: The Red and the Black
Svevo: The Conscience of Zeno
P. G. Wodehouse: All of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited
Graham Greene: All of it. Every last word.
Favorite book about 19-century whaling: Moby-Dick
And finally, these works showed me my calling and pointed the way:
Poe: “The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue”
Doyle: The Hound of the Baskervilles
Wouk: Winds of War, The Cain Mutiny
Forsyth: Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File
Sayers: Have His Carcase, anything else with Harriet Vane
Christie: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express, etc.
Chandler: The Big Sleep
Eco: The Name of the Rose
Hammett: The Thin Man
Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity
Francis: Whip Hand
Paretsky: Indemnity Only
Block: Eight Million Ways to Die, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes
And now, back to the journey.
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.”
—J. R. R. Tolkien
James W. Ziskin is author of the Edgar-, Anthony-, Barry-, and Lefty-Award nominated Ellie Stone Mysteries, from Seventh Street Books. Look for Cast the First Stone, the latest Ellie Stone mystery, available everywhere June 6, 2017.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” enews June 2017 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.