David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

My Life in Books, The First Thirty Years

This is a meme of my own invention (as far as I know). [Update: Nope, Paul did it first. I may have subconsciously plagiarized him. Sorry Paul!] The books that had the greatest impact on me year by year. Obviously very subjective, and vexing for all sorts of different reasons. Not always the best books, not often the most helpful books, just those that occupied my mind more than others. The years are to my best recollection; I may have fudged some of them.

I’ve had to list a number of unbreakable ties, where I remember the influence of each book as being so dominant and the books as so incommensurable  that it was impossible to choose.

And there were a couple near-ties where I painfully excluded a runner-up. (Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, Wittgenstein, Lucretius, and Hegel’s Phenomenology all fell into this category.)

So, by age, from the beginning!

  1. Goodnight Moon
  2. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton
  3. What Do People Do All Day? (unabridged), Richard Scarry
  4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  5. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Dr. Seuss
  6. Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Carl Barks
  7. The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
    The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster (tie)
  8. The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
  9. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater
  10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
    What is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan (tie)
  11. “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”, Robert Heinlein
  12. The Singing Detective (script and serial), Dennis Potter
  13. The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
  14. White Noise, Don DeLillo
  15. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
    Moby Dick, Herman Melville (tie)
  16. Ulysses, James Joyce
  17. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
    Imaginary Magnitude, Stanislaw Lem (tie)
  18. The Tunnel, William H. Gass
  19. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  20. Lanark, Alasdair Gray
    Interstate; Frog; Gould; assorted short fiction, Stephen Dixon (tie)
  21. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
  22. Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist
  23. The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai
  24. The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
    How It Is, Samuel Beckett (tie)
  25. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
    Epileptic, David B. (tie)
  26. The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
    Simultan, Ingeborg Bachmann (tie)
  27. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
  28. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
    Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (tie)
  29. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  30. A House in the Country, Jose Donoso

I am sure there are many books that felt more significant at the time whose influence I have mostly forgotten because I failed to pursue the directions they signaled. My memories have persisted of those books that were close to the parts of me that remain with me now.

This is probably as good an autobiography as any. Anyone else want to try?


  1. Nice list! I started doing this a few years ago but only got to age ten, so never got to the sort of books that get talked about over here.


    I am encouraged to finish it now.

  2. Gosh. I’ve done this with movies and the August Strindberg questions he asked himself, but I’ll give it a go. PS I’ll email you those questions, very interesting the change in answers year-to-year.

  3. David Auerbach

    7 June 2011 at 23:39

    Paul: Do it! I think I would be terrified to annotate my list, especially the early entries.

    Michelle: Where is your movie list? And congratulations on having the best avatar ever seen on this site.

  4. Thumbs up for Imaginary Magnitude. That was mine for age 22 or so.

  5. Cool! Finished, same URL. You will recognize some overlap.

  6. Oh, and why the stop at 30? Too recent?

  7. David Auerbach

    8 June 2011 at 03:53

    Dave: Golem XIV especially. That, His Master’s Voice, The 21st Voyage (NON AGAM!), and A Perfect Vacuum are my favorites and could all be lumped into that year.

    Paul: a few addenda below. I stopped at 30 because it seemed like there was a shift, unintentional, in my orientation around that time, and the books I would pick in the ensuing years were of a different character, generally. Not something I can quite explain satisfactorily to myself yet.

    Sleator’s The Green Futures of Tycho scared the hell out of me around that age and stopped me from reading any of his other work for many years. Interstellar Pig is great.

    Pedro Paramo was another sad runner-up (given to me in high school by a friend, actually, who’d found it randomly on the shelf of one of her middle school classrooms).

    Foundation, well, it really didn’t stick with me all that much, even at the time! The politics of The Pushcart War seemed much more real to me. I remember liking The Currents of Space and The Door Into Summer, but they were small books that did not resonate greatly with me. I read a lot of crap fantasy and sf around that time, but damned if I can remember much of any of it. Maybe again a case of backwards confirmation bias.

    I sort of wish I had something genuinely horrible to put on the list to deflate myself a bit. (Stranger in a Strange Land counts, but as with Dune, I didn’t even bother trying; Ayn Rand sure as hell would count, but I always detested her.)

    And I always found Beckett’s prose easier than the plays…I still have trouble with the plays.

  8. I could make a whole new list out of my compulsion to crap at age 13. I read all six Dune books – why!!? Each volume was as bad as the previous one cubed.

  9. I’ll definitely give it a try though I don’t know if my brain (or my mom’s brain) will be able to cough up the titles for the first few years. Do you still have the books from when you were a kid? I have just one.

    Unlike most book nerds I went to horror rather than science fiction as a preteen. It will be fun to figure out how old I was when I read Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (no NC-17 or X ratings on books!).

  10. It’s a fascinating list. I did something very similar recently, without specific ages but running loosely from aged 8 to the present day: http://goo.gl/jlcwg – much before 8 years old would be guess work for me.

  11. You are younger than I thought, and can also remember books from the age of 1? Impressive!

  12. David Auerbach

    8 June 2011 at 17:57

    Well, I am relying on observational reports for the first few years! I do remember the Scarry and Viorst books vividly, though. I remember my childhood rather well, for better and for worse.

    I still have the Pinkwater books, which were very important to me, but my whole family are packrats. The Barks stuff is still in possession of my father.

    Paul, around age 10 I read an unfathomable amount of Piers Anthony, which I wish I could erase from my mind. Two books would be an unfathomable amount, but unfortunately it was more than that. I think that’s as embarrassing as it gets. Oh the shame.

    Will, horror scared the bejeezus out of me. Even looking at my father’s Tales from the Crypt comics was terrifying. But I can sort of see a jump from Barker and Lovecraft to Huysmans and Lautreamont.

  13. Always nice to see a fellow Barksian. I latched on to his work around the same age, and I sensed, on some level, that Barks worked on a higher plane than did the other Scrooge artists — but I’ll always wonder what, exactly, tipped me off.

  14. Des Esseintes

    18 June 2011 at 12:30

    1 –
    2 –
    3 – Go Dog Go
    4 – Saint George and the Dragon by Margaret Hodges
    5 – Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg
    6 – The Witches by Roald Dahl
    7 – Matilda by Roald Dahl
    8 – Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
    9 – The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
    10 – some book of Native American legends from my grade school library
    11 – Dune by Frank Herbert
    12 – Lord of the Rings by Tolkein
    13 – Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monstrous Manual
    14 – For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway
    15 – All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
    16 – The Moor’s Last Sigh by Rushdie
    17 – Infinite Jest by Foster Wallace
    18 – Mason & Dixon by Pynchon
    19 – Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner
    20 – To the Lighthouse by Woolf
    21 – Hopscotch by Cortazar
    22 – The Red & the Black by Stendhal
    23 – Dino by Nick Tosches
    24 – The Burrow by Kafka
    25 – Au Rebours by Huysmans
    26 – The Confidence-Man by Melville
    27 – Greek & Roman Lives by Plutarch
    28 – The Golden Bowl by Henry James
    29 – Dangerous Liaisons by de Laclos

    Some years were so *much* harder to decide than others.

  15. David Auerbach

    20 June 2011 at 12:46

    Yay, Monster Manual! Unlikely as it sounds, I was never a D+Der. I also missed out on Susan Cooper somehow. Her books must have been in the library, but I can’t remember even hearing about her.

    Roald Dahl probably came pretty close to making it as well. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator scared the hell out of me. That book is really a chamber of horrors.

  16. I’m bad at choosing, at rules.

    1 –
    2 –
    3 –
    4 – Green Eggs and Ham, Dr Seuss
    5 – The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
    6 – Matilda, Roald Dahl
    7 – The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
    8 – The Call of the Wild, Jack London
    9 – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare (an illustrated copy)
    10 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K Dick
    11 – Jurassic Park, Michael Chricton and Dinotopia James Gurney
    12 – Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
    13 – Slaughterhouse Five & Breakfast of Champions & Mother Night & The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut Jr
    14 – A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
    15 – The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
    16 – Cathedral, Raymond Carver & Anton Chekov stories, a collection
    17 – King Lear, Shakespeare
    18 – Ulysses and Dubliners, James Joyce
    19 – The Waves, Virginia Woolf
    20 – The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley
    21 – Lolita & Pnin, Nabokov
    22 – Holidays on Ice, David Sedaris
    23 – Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
    24 – Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky & Swann’s Way, Proust
    25 – The Pursuits of Happiness & Cities of Words & The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell
    26 – Philosophical Investigations – Wittgenstein
    27 – Angels, Denis Johnson
    28 – Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze
    29 – (still waiting…)

  17. Des Esseintes

    21 June 2011 at 01:49

    The truly ridiculous thing is that aside from the computer games, I didn’t play D&D either. I grew up in a small town in Kansas and had no one to play it with. But I purchased all of the manuals as well as some of the expansions and read the hell out of them. What I really dug were the various types of things. The monster compendium was great on that score–that there could be something like 14 different kinds of dragon and that many of them were outside the traditional chromatic species never stopped being fascinating.

    Word on Charlie & the Great Glass Elevator. I remember my mom being really alarmed when we read it together. Two other bizarrely dark sequels in that vein were the movies Return to Oz and whatever the second Neverending Story is called–probably Neverending Story II. The first Neverending Story also gave me one hell of scare at 5, so maybe it was just baked into the cake of that particular series.

  18. Interesting to compare the overlap and pathways people have taking in their reading over time. I don’t have much recollection of the earliest years. I remember reading history and biographies edited for young readers but titles and authors escape me, and I have no notes to rely on. Funny how some years are so rich–I could pick five or more–and other years it is hard to come up with one that seemed influential or important. Also makes me wonder why I spend so much time reading books that are not important or potentially influential. But then there are times one has to focus on the task at hand. David is certainly right in how these lists trace a peculiar kind of autobiography.

    1973 Paul-Letter to the Romans
    1974 Packer-Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
    1975 Thoreau-Walden
    1976 Machiavelli-The Prince
    1977 Dante-Inferno
    1978 Vonnegut-Player Piano
    1979 Aristotle-Nicomachean Ethics
    1980 Hegel-Phenomenology of Mind, Nietzsche-Beyond Good and Evil,
    1981 Kafka-The Castle, James Frazer-The Golden Bough
    1982 Marx-The German Ideology, Freud-The Interpretation of Dreams
    1983 Proust-Remembrance of Things Past, Schopenhauer-The World as Will and Idea
    1984 Foucault-Discipline and Punish, Canetti-Crowds and Power
    1985 John Swanell-Fine Lines
    1986 Ansel Adams-The Negative
    1987 Kerouac-On the Road
    1988 Baudelaire-Les fleurs du mal
    1989 Sally Mann-At Twelve
    1990 Bataille-The Accursed Share
    1991Reis and Trout–Positioning, Wittgenstein-On Certainty
    1992 Gibbon-Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Rimbaud-Illuminations,
    1993 Morgan-Twentieth Century Music, Elizabeth Rozin-Ethnic Cooking
    1994 Schoenberg-Fundamentals of Music Composition, Messiaen- Technique de mon langage musical
    1995 David Carson-The End of Print, Gleich-Chaos
    1996 Lasch-Revolt of the Elites, Kant-Critique of Pure Reason
    1997 Crosby-Ecological Imperialism, Hernstein & Murray-The Bell Curve
    1998 Melville-Moby Dick, Huntington-The Clash of Civilizations
    1999 Philips-The Cousin’s Wars
    2000 Gould-Wonderful Life, Gardner-The Disciplined Mind
    2001 Boyer-Religion Explained, Tufte-The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
    2002 Rosenwein-A Short History of the Middle Ages, Wolfram-A New Kind of Science, Mahfouz-Children of the Alley
    2003 The Mahabharata, Saragmago-Blindness,
    2004 Montaigne-Essays, Goethe-Poems, Cervantes-Don Quixote
    2005 Thucydides-History of the Peloponnesian War, Kuan-chung-Romance of the Three Kingdoms
    2006 Njal’s Saga, Xenophon-Anabasis
    2007 Ionesco-Jeux de massacre, Anderson-The Long Tail
    2008 Psellus-Chronographia, Habermas-The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere
    2009 Baudrillard-The System of Objects, Zuckert-Plato’s Philosophers,
    2010 Dunn-Dominion of Memories, Aristotle-Organon
    2011 Marx-Capital, Ayers-What Caused the Civil War?,

  19. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to see an update for 31-40!

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