It can be remarkably revealing: identifying the works that hooked us on words, ratcheted up our hunger, forever transformed the ways we looked at reading. There is a fat little paperback I find fascinating on this score: It's called You've Got to Read This! (HarperPerennial, $18), in which editors Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard ask 34 of the most outstanding contemporary American writers to comment on the short fiction that most affected their creative lives.
The task is doubly hard, not only because the participants must narrow it to one, but because they must then explain what it was that moved them so. A bit like laying your heart bare and then dissecting the chambers, exploring where and why you feel the love.
So much emotion, so well expressed. Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love) tells how Jorge Luis Borges's "The Aleph" inspired him to become a writer: then Borges's story is printed alongside. Mary Gordon (Final Payments) wonders if anyone will ever equal James Joyce's "The Dead," and then there it is, in all its glory. Robert Coover (A Public Burning) pinpoints reading Angela Carter's "Reflections" as a turning point in his life. Kenneth A. McClane (A Tree Beyond Telling) chooses "Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin; Eudora Welty marvels at Anton Chekhov's "Gooseberries"; Sue Miller loves Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"; Lorrie Moore cheers John Updike's "Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car." And on and on, including Amy Tan, Annie Dillard, Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, and many more who represent the literary sensibilities of our time.
We could all learn something from the exercise. I had always assumed my turning point was Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, read at the overwrought age of 18. But on further thought, I see it's probably W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw," read at a calm age 12.
By the way, what Hansen and Shepard do in You've Got to Read This! -- send readers to stories that have fired imaginations -- is the goal we're after in The Washington Post Book Club, a chance for us to send Book World readers to works that, in some way, have transformed the ways we see literature. Here's hoping you'll want to join us. We look forward to sharing the passion.