Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Reader Poll: Which Books Turn You Into a Literary Proselytizer?

The most extreme proselytizing ever visited upon me was not from a religious nut asking if Jesus was my personal lord and savior, or a Birkenstock-wearing dumbass hippy saying that I should vote for Nader, but from a friend who insisted I read one of her favorite books.

During a visit, my friend expressed her amazement that I had not read any Paul Auster. About a week after she left, I got a package in the mail, a copy of Auster's "Moon Palace."

One of the greatest pleasures of reading is the sense of discovery. You read a novel from an unknown or unread author, and, bowled over by her faculty with language and storytelling, you feel as if have discovered a new continent, brand of fabric softener, or sex position.

You want to devour everything else the writer has ever put to paper, but you also start telling the world that you've made a Great Literary Discovery. Soon, you are breathing fire and brimstone with such force it would make Elmer Gantry proud.

Anybody who reads fiction knows of this excitement and need to proseltytize; if you're unfamiliar with these emotions, you might be better served by hanging out at BeerBongFratBoys4Bush.com or such.

If there was ever a desire that writer's share, it would be that their work engender that kind of devotion. The proselytizer does not recommend a book, but forces it on you, like a militant vegan trying to force feed a tofu burger to a meat-eating major of the 101th Airborne.

(Not that writers expect such adulation. Perhaps Henry James wasn't thinking that when he wrote "The Turn of the Screw," which has turned off generations of high school students to his work, but James wanted to be famous, without compromising his art, of course.)

I'll lend you my copy

This kind of love is often contagious. After reading "Moon Palace" -- a book I read at home, on the train, and at work -- I told anybody who would listen that you absolutely have to read this guy. And while my affection for Auster has waxed and waned since (especially after he dissed me at a reading of his when I asked him a question he didn't like), that particular emotion upon reading him recalls nice, warm memories, like of the family gathered around the Christmas tree, though we didn't celebrate Christmas and my father, God bless him, would have set the house on fire before allowing a Chanukah Bush inside.

Sometimes, the authors who I will rant and rave about are in no need of promotion: I couldn’t shut up about "Midnight's Children," "One Hundred Years of Solitude," "Portnoy's Complaint," and "The Handmaid's Tale" the first time I read them. (I still can't shut up about them, in fact.)

But often, the author is a bit more obscure than Rushdie or Atwood or Roth. More than any other novel, "Invisible Man" made me want to write fiction. But most people would assume I meant H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man" instead of Ralph Ellison's book written a half-century later. (You chunkheads! You have to read "Invisible Man." Or else jump into a vat of cheese fondue.)

I've found this to be true of other writers, such as Robertson Davies, for whom I carried an embarrassing enthusiasm after reading "Fifth Business." I was convincing enough that I actually got several people to read the whole Deptford triology.

I think the last book I felt so strongly that I recommended it to people without prompting was David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas." You mean you haven't read it? You bloody wanker!

As my friend can attest, I am not the only reader on this earth who finds something so amazing that their subsequent yakking to any poor sot who will listen makes them a potential murder victim.

You MUST read this. NOW. I mean it

So here it is, the first reader poll I have conducted:

What writers or books made you so excited that you insisted your friends, family, and strangers read them?

Post your answers in the comments section. Vote early, vote often. And remember, there are no wrong answers, unless I say so.