My pal Adam has a novel in which the main character brings 5 books with him to college, the 5 tomes that have shaped his brain and his bones up to that point. It's an idea that has stuck with me since I first read it a few years ago, and since I've been rebuilding my library these days I've been thinking about what my Five Foundational Texts might have been...
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player's Handbook
by David "Zeb" Cook, 1989.
This was the rulebook for what still takes up a whole lot of my headspace, even when I'm not actively playing D&D. My brother played D&D, but I never did much more than watch him and his buddies play around the pool table from time to time. But when I was in high school I fell in with some of the kids in band who had a D&D group, and thereafter spent more weekends than not playing in my basement, or John Bennington's living room, or James Laird's dining room. It was partly the swords-and-sorcery, playing pretend part of D&D that made it attractive, but I think it was also the fact that it was a group activity. As a younger kid I mostly played one-on-one, but sitting around a table for Dungeons & Dragons brought about a kind of collaborative storytelling that I've never shaken the jones for. Reading over the handbook between games -- or during some stretches between gaming groups -- brought to mind all of the possibilities for Adventurers and Adventuring Parties, and I definitely imagined and rolled up more characters than I ever put into play. In reasons I still don't entirely understand, I think playing D&D is what encouraged me to move from Ohio to Chicago. Something about "let's see what's over that next rise..."
by Peter Sanderson & the Marvel Bullpen, 1985-87.
I could just say "Marvel Comics from the 1980s, specifically whatever my brother Dave had in his footlocker from 1994-1988," but if I had to pare it down to a volume that can exist on a bookshelf it would be this. This one reminds me of play, too -- it was certainly the precursor to the imagined comic books I wrote scripts & summaries for in middle school and high school, and combined with Marvel Universe, it gave me an encyclopedic mythology I could explore, meditate on, interpret, and -- once the idea of the written by credit had sunk in -- contribute to. It was essentially a retelling of the events of the Marvel Universe, in order, beginning with the Celestials arrival on Earth "roughly one million years ago" and their creation of the Eternals and the Deviants, and ending with the Fantastic Four's battle with Galactus from Fantastic Four #s 48-50. The series used blocks of text mixed with original art from vintage Marvel Comics as well as new art used to fill in some of the gaps. Each issue would have some sort of focus -- "See today's X-Factor in their first battle, when they were the original X-Men!" -- but it generally covered the crannies and side stories of the Marvel Universe from Spider-Man to Daredevil to Alpha Flight, making connections that I'd glimpsed in editorial notes of the normal comics I read, but now explained in a way that revealed just how big and interconnected those stories were.
The Greek Myths
Translated/Retold by Robert Graves, 1955.
Speaking of mythologies... there was a hardcover copy of Ancient Greek myths in the Clermont Northeastern Intermediate School Library that I used to check out and re-read over and over again. I don't know now if it was the Robert Graves version -- I kind of doubt it -- but I don't remember much about the specific edition except it was a hardcover, it was gray, it was lacking a dustjacket, and "Greek Myths" was printed in gold on the spine. I'm sure the subject matter fed something similar to the Marvel Comics I read over and over again, but I also think it was an important step toward, you know, reading actual words on paper, understanding and enjoying how they fit together, resonating in a way that comic book word balloons don't. I'm not talking smack about comics as much as I'm saying -- look, they ain't poetry. I remember the version of the Greek Myths I read was simple and sparse in a way that pushed me to fill in the details. The less they told, the more I saw. I checked that book out ever other week, I think. I think about those guys the same way I think about Pete Laub and Jimmy Daniel. My relationships with Zeus and Heracles and Apollo were just as formative as with the guys with whom I pretended to be Lost Boys (the vampires, not the boy runaways).
by William Shakespeare, 1605-ish.
Spectral daggers, witches three, medieval battles -- if I've made anything clear to you in our time together, it is that these things are right up my alley. And if you wanna talk about expanding one's understanding of language's potential -- I mean, "By the pricking of my thumbs/Something wicked this way comes/Open, locks, whoever knocks!" is certainly enough to blow open the brain of a seventeen-year-old me.
And it will always have a place in my heart for being the play that Charlie Hartman, Josh Lawson and I reenacted with sock puppets and Castle Grayskull for our 12th grade English class.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy
by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, 1975/1984.
Writing this post, I've been surprised at how hard it's been to put an honest-to-gosh novel on here. I remember that for a big chunk of junior high/high school, my answer to What's your favorite book? was The DragonLance Chronicles: Dragons of Autumn Twilight, which was the first book I loved so much that I read it nonstop for three days over one summer break. But looking back, it doesn't stick with me much more than watching lots of GI Joe. It was a fun book, but it didn't change anything about how my brain worked.
Illuminatus!, on the other hand -- it was fun, dirty, weird, and by far the longest book I'd ever read at that point. It also dovetailed nicely with my musical obsession with the KLF/JAMs/Justified Ancients of Mu Mu by sharing some of the same conspiracy theory-fueled mythology. It was the book I carried in my backpack so much that it started to fall apart, and it was the book I most wanted other people to catch me reading. I thought about fnords forever after, I thought about authorial pranks and unreliable narrators, I thought about a plot that comments on itself as you're reading it and dares you to keep up. I didn't necessarily understand all of it then (or now), but I knew that I liked the feelings it made me feel.
I think it would be easier to pull together a list of Foundational Texts from my 20s, and maybe that's what I'll do next. I imagine that list speak more to how I write and what I write about now -- this list, as I look over it, speaks to how I think and what I think about now. Which is what foundational is supposed to mean, yeah?