Reading last night about the death of Philip José Farmer, it occurs to me that the authors whose stories are part of my memories of early days, and who got to make impressions on me when I was much more malleable–and thus had a greater effect on my life–are a limited resource. And one that will only run out faster as time goes by.
In my history as a reader, there were several important turning points. The L’Engle novel in the third grade “enrichment” program. The neighbour who often babysat my brother and I, and who lent me Foundation. That first Russell essay. The day I “got” Shakespeare. The Most Beautiful Woman In Town.
One of the early things that set a trend though, was that big box of books that came the first time I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, in 7th grade. My first purchase of hardcover books, not bought used. I didn’t know the authors, so I chose my introductory books primarily on the size of the book–I wanted the most free pages for my $4.99 (or whatever it was). It turned out that wasn’t such a bad method back then–although I hesitate to think what I might get today using that method, the Fat Fantasy Novel trend being what it is…
That box included both my first Zelazny (the first Amber series, in two omnibus volumes with hideous Vallejo covers), my first Moorcock (the original Elric chronicles, in a pair of omnibus volumes with beautiful Robert Gould covers), and my first Philip José Farmer (two omnibus volumes of the World of Tiers series), and a couple of Robert Asprin omnibi–the first one of the Myth stories containing the first four novels, and the first Thieves’ World one containing the first three books worth of mosaic shorts.
As you can imagine those books lead to a lot of other reading. I think I’ve read everything Zelazny ever wrote, and he lead me to many other things, both fiction and non-. I think this lead to my teen interest in different eastern spiritual/philosophical systems, opened my eyes to the idea of systems of social control, and in a larger sense introduced me to the idea that stories could be about a lot more than “what happens”. The Moorcock section of my shelf is probably six linear feet–he started me on both a retro journey into all the good sword and sorcery stuff, and led me onto the New Wave and other increasingly interesting experiments over the years. A lot of what I know about the history of England, both ancient and contemporary, is probably ultimately traceable to interests started, directly or indirectly, by reading Moorcock.
And Farmer, he lead me in a lot of different directions. He took me back to the pulps with Tarzan and Doc Savage stuff. Extending that to the Wold Newton got me reading all kinds of esoterica from the history of stories–indeed no two pages are responsible for more further reading than these–before Alan Moore even more thoroughly did that job. His Riverworld books lead me to research dozens of different people from history, like Burton, and to my fascination with things like the The Kasîdah of Hâjî Abdû El-Yezdî.
Reading today that Farmer died (at the age of 91) it occurs to me that this isn’t a rare thing anymore–authors who were vibrant writers at the height of their powers when I got that 7th grade box are now well into their senior citizenry. Only one is left, and he’s pushing 70. (On the plus side, he’s still writing!)
There are certainly more novelists–brilliant debut novels come flying at me faster than I can keep up, and even better novelists–but there aren’t many that I have a history with that stretches so far back. There aren’t many who will get to be my first exposure to a new idea or concept. There aren’t many who’s name brings to mind not just a large body of work, but of memories of first encounters with those books that are tinted by being viewed through the memories of when I was someone else.
And so, a toast to PJF, and to all the people yet to come who he will touch after his passing.