Take a Ride on the Meme Train

Ok, so Laura inflicted this one on me.

Do you ever read those stuffy book lists you see circulating, like ‘List your five most important books,’ and think to yourself- no wonder these people are so damned boring. Some of the titles give me a damned headache, they are so dull. Knowing things is great, but fiction makes life bigger and better and in color.

So, in the proud spirit of anti-intellectualism (just kidding), I am going to offer… the five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult.

There are way more than five I could mention. My sister and I were both notoriously avid readers, often disappearing to some remote corner of the house and shutting out all attempts to summon us for dinner and so on. I’ve re-read a great many of the books I liked as a kid. I’m not going to mention some of the obvious ones, like Lord of the Rings, though.

I can’t help myself. I’m going to list six.


The Once and Future King
Frankly, as a teenager, I didn’t get some of the stuff about Lancelot and Guinevere (not so much the sexual part as the parts about ambition, aging and so on). But I loved the first book, especially for Merlin’s speech about knowledge. I still find the first book enthralling, and now some of the stuff on Gawain and his brothers I also like a great deal.

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series
Would someone please, please make these into movies? Disney’s Black Cauldron offended me so much because it was such a hack adaptation of these books. I think this series is just about the best children’s series I know. If they’re going to make films of Narnia, Pullman’s Dark Materials, Harry Potter, and so on, surely someone must want to film this series. The final book, The High King, is as nuanced a description of what it means to become a responsible adult as you’ll ever find. Reading it as a kid, I found myself able to imagine what it would mean to grow up, and accept adulthood as a burden and a form of grace. I re-read this series regularly.

Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
I read all the Oz books avidly when I was a kid, and I’ve read them again since, but only three of them have been really enjoyable to re-read (pretty much the same three I liked best when I was young). The Lost Princess of Oz I liked because it had actual conflict and suspense, a competent antagonist named Ugu the Shoemaker who kidnaps Ozma and steals all the major magical artifacts of Oz. Rinkitink in Oz I liked again because there’s actual suspense and difficulty for the protagonists, and some memorable characters. But Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (the fourth book) is interesting because it’s a sort of detour into a much darker, more sinister set of magical fairylands underneath the earth. It’s actually quite scary in a few places, though Baum sort of wrote himself into a corner and uses an actual deus ex machina to get the characters back to the safe havens of Oz.

The Great Brain
I used to think about these books a lot. The historical setting was one of the pleasures of the series, but there were others. The title character was interesting to me. I identified with his intelligence, but I envied the fact that he was physically powerful, able to win fights with any kid who gave him guff. Plus he was so totally amoral, mostly using his intelligence to con kids and adults out of their money. Still fun to read.

On Beyond Zebra
This is one of the more obscure Seuss classics but it was my personal favorite, and I really enjoyed re-reading it again recently. As a kid, I just found the concept of letters in the alphabet that came after Z really mind-blowing. Reading some Seuss to my daughter, I find that I like Yertle the Turtle and other stories more now than I did then, but On Beyond is also still very cool.

D’Aulaires Norse Gods and Giants.
I have no idea why their Greek mythology book is still in print and this one isn’t. The consequence is that I had to drop a pretty serious amount of money on Alibris to get a copy, but I really, really wanted it. Both books are compelling reads even for an adult: they don’t avoid some of the violent or morally ambivalent content in either mythology though they obviously soften it in various ways. Still, I always found the Norse volume the most amazing of the two, perhaps simply because the essential grimness and fatalism of the mythology itself was so interesting to me as a kid.

I’ll mention one more book that I’ve looked for on Alibris from time to time, and never found. It’s possible I’m remembering the title wrong. I remember it as being called Diary of a Teenage Herpetologist. I was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians as a kid–I had a rosy boa for many years, and for a shorter time, also a ribbon snake. I’m still really good at finding snakes, frogs, salamanders and so on when I go for hikes, which is a valuable dad-skill to have. I’d love to find this book again, though I’m sure it’s nothing particularly special.

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9 Responses to Take a Ride on the Meme Train

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks, Tim, for being a good sport. I was curious what you read back then.

    I also loved the Great Brain. I read the first Dorothy, but couldn’t get past its differences from the movie. We’re having great fun revisiting Dr. Suess with the kids now. My favorite is Horton the Elephant with the Mayzie bird flying off to Palm Beach.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    With Oz, I used to obsess about the differences with the movie too, and hated the movie as a kid for that reason–I liked the books much better. Horton is good, yes. Actually almost all Seuss is good: a brilliant demonstration that the best children’s literature is not written “down” to children. Every once in a while I catch him doing a really badly forced rhyme, but not very often.

  3. H. Wren says:

    I loved the D’Aulaire Norse myths book as a kid. I’m sad to read that it’s out of print — although I long suspected it was, since I haven’t seen a copy in a long time — but at least the Greek myths book is in print. Now that other members of my family have started having children, I have kids to buy a copy for. Even though I have taken actual classes in mythology, and have done other reading as an adult on the subject, the things that I really remember about myths come from the D’Aulaire books, which I read over and over again as a child.

  4. Wow, the Great Brain books! That’s a series of books I haven’t thought about in years. Some time back, I found about half of the series in my parents’ basement, and meant to steal them away; I didn’t though, because I figured that I’d want the whole set. I don’t know when I read those books, but I remember thinking for years there had been only five, and then some time later, when I was in junior high perhaps, discovering there had actually been a couple more. It was a real thrill.

    Of course, I also liked those books because they gave me a glimpse into a world–turn of the century Utah–that I personally had no connection to, but which touched upon my heritage in important ways. The author of those books actually also wrote an adult memoir of his youth and family, titled Papa Married a Mormon. It was a lot of fun reading that, and putting together the little glimpses and character sketches that were filled out in very different ways in the Great Brain books.

  5. Chris Clarke says:

    My wife introduced me to the Great Brain books about ten years ago. Interesting to read them after I’d read Stegner’s Mormon books. I wish I’d known them as a kid.

  6. joeo says:

    I liked the “great brain” too. I didn’t pick up on the Mormon connection until the Osmonds did a TV adaptation.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    The Osmonds did a TV adaptation of The Great Brain???

  8. ataraxite says:

    As someone who was a teenager, oh, let’s say, pretty recently, I’m a bit shocked to realize that we seem to have grown up on the same books. The Great Brain kicked ass.


  9. Great Brain and Prydain; I keep telling my students that there really are great movies waiting to be made…. mostly I’m talking about history, but this counts. My brother has the family copy of D’ulaire’s Norse, and no, you can’t have it.

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