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What does it mean to love a book? Should it be relatable? Beautiful? Must you share common interests? Is it not just as exciting to curl up with one you don’t fully understand?
The one I’m most passionate about, which is to say the one I’m currently reading, is Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.
It was love at first sentence, a line the designer of the reprint edition wisely chose to place on the back cover: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses a moment of experience from which to look ahead.” Greene and I have been inseparable ever since. In fact, you might say we’ve been spending too much time together, that I’ve been neglecting my previous interests — those books penned by sharp or wounded women. But, as Greene sagely notes, this type of love is prone to running its course quickly.
Habit and admiration, on the other hand, are more likely to last. Which is why, after being read The Billy Goats Gruff every single night for weeks, my three-year-old self declared it my favorite book. I couldn’t read yet, but I had the thing memorized, a fact I was happy to demonstrate to everyone I met, troll voice and all. There’s not much of a moral to The Billy Goats Gruff, a peculiar fairy tale about pudgy farm animals. But it instilled in me a great reverence for silliness, a quality I still very much value in a story. In that sense, you could say I’ve never forgotten the first book I ever loved.
Below, eight contemporary authors share the first books they ever loved:
1. Elizabeth Gilbert: The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
“I had it memorized as a toddler, long before I mastered reading, and I would perform it for guests. I liked to think I was faking them out — that they totally thought I was some miniature, world-class reader. But looking back on it, I think they probably knew all along I was just a hustler.” Read the full interview here.
2. Lev Grossman: Ant and Bee and the Rainbow: A Story about Colours by Angela Banner
“I learned to read late, so I must have been six or seven when I picked it up. You can’t get the Ant and Bee books anymore — or you can, but they cost 50 or 60 dollars online. I don’t know why they haven’t been reissued; maybe publishers are scared off by the ambiguous relationship between two male insects. But Ant and Bee and the Rainbowis a little masterpiece.
“There’s a moment where Ant and Bee are playing with an old tire that’s embedded in the ground, painting it different colors — it looks like an arch to them. Suddenly the artist pans back and shows you a cutaway shot of the whole tire, including the half that’s underground, so you see that it’s a complete circle. My little mind grew three sizes that day.” Read the full interview here.
3. Colson Whitehead: Night Shift by Stephen King
“I loved horror movies and science fiction at that point. It’s his early collection of horror short stories. I would just read it and re-read it as I worked my way up to reading longer fiction.” Read the full interview here.
4. Geoff Dyer: The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean
Read the full interview here.
5. Karen Russell: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
“A Wrinkle in Time [by Madeleine L’Engle] was a book I loved early, early on, as well as Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. There was also a book, and I don’t even know the name of it now, but I was allowed to check it out from the grown-up section. I just remember loving it but knowing that I shouldn’t be reading it. All that I remember about it was a mythical beast in conversation with a giant worm. Everything I enjoyed had some sort of fantastical element. I read tons of genre stuff by authors whose names I might not recognize today.
“Stephen King also made me feel like I’d ridden out in advance of what I could understand. And John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I’m sure I didn’t fully understand it when I was younger, but I remember feeling transported by it.” Read the full interview here.
6. Joyce Carol Oates: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Read the full interview here.
7. Sue Monk Kidd: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it. I still have the first copy I read. I remember reading it as a girl, outside, under a Mimosa tree, just lying in the grass.” Read the full interview here.
8. Ben Marcus: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
“I remember this book more vividly than my actual childhood, which seems to have contained many disposable moments.” Read the full interview here.
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A version of this post was originally published on August 9, 2014.