Friday, September 12, 2008

A moving line: about writing

Someone asked me, awhile back, if there was a single book that changed my life.

There are a number of books that are on my short list of influential works -- Huckleberry Finn by Twain, Cat's Cradle by Vonnegut, The Caine Mutiny by Wouk, Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway -- but if I had to pick just one, it would be Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

It was published in 1961, my freshman year in high school, and the only way I got my hands on it, because there was a fair amount of controversy tied around it, was through a retired librarian named Emma Huber, who first hooked me on reading when I was nine and with whom I had become good friends, despite a difference in age of five decades.

If I was a book junkie, which I was, then Mrs. Huber was my dealer. God bless her, for I am the person I am today, in large part due to her.

The book opened my eyes to the absurdity of life; I grew up in a rural community in Ohio in the 1950s and until Catch-22, I had no idea that the rest of the world was so different from what I knew or that adults were just muddling along, too, trying to figure it all out. And it made me wish that I could write like that.

I have heard the suggestion that you should not read, while you are writing, because your work will become derivative. I don't agree with that; if it were so, I would have to pick one or the other -- reading or writing -- for I am always doing both. And, oh, what a dreadful choice that would be.