Monday, June 20, 2011

Gateway Books

I've been thinking about gateway books.

Gateway books are books that took your reading in a whole new direction. It may have been one of the first "grown-up" books you read, or it may be the book that opened your eyes to a new genre, or the book that inspired you to become a writer.

I have always been an avid reader. By the time I was half-way through fourth grade, I had read almost every book in my school library (small school, only went up to eighth grade). My teacher, tired of my pestering about what to read next, handed me a copy of Watership Down . . . the paperback version . . . about two inches thick with teeny, tiny type. He probably figured it would either be too much for me (thus teaching me a lesson about pestering people), or else I'd love it and transition to "grown-up" books.

I loved it, or course. So much so that I've had a copy of the book on my shelves ever since. And it has become a tradition for me to give it as a gift. I've given copies to all three of my children and I will give my grandchildren copies when they are old enough.

It was my first gateway book.

The next gateway book I had actually forgotten about until a few days ago. I had finished my last batch of books and was going over my "to-be-read" list for the next ones. Nothing was striking my fancy. So I pulled up a few of my secondary lists, one of which was "best apocalyptic fiction." So I jotted down a few titles and picked them up.

One of them, I didn't recognize until I started reading it: Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank.

By the time I hit seventh grade, I was reading everything I could get my hands on. That year was the first year our classes were split, so, for the first time ever, I had a "Lit" class. Of course I was very excited about it. As it turned out, the teacher was an avid science fiction fan. A big portion of our year was spent reading Bradbury and Asimov and Wells and Verne, and I loved it! It was also the last time that I studied genre fiction in a classroom setting (unfortunately, most of my instructors thereafter turned their noses up at genre work).

But what came flooding back when I picked up Alas Babylon was how much that book impacted me. Back then, I thought about that book constantly. I scribbled a few short stories in imitation of it (lord only knows where those are now). I talked to everyone I knew about it. For most of the school year, I had a mini-obsession with it . . . not as in, "Oh my god, we're all going to die in a nuclear attack," but as in, "this is quite possibly the most interesting fiction I've ever read because there's so much to explore about it, so many possibilities." It was the biggest "What if?" I had ever encountered.

Although I had forgotten the gateway book, I haven't lost the love of  the tremendous "what if" that goes with post-apocalyptic fiction. And whether it's a germ apocalypse, nuclear apocalypse, or zombie apocalypse, it's still my favorite form of fiction.

Re-reading the book was like sitting down with an old friend. Of course, the book is terribly dated now, like when one character laments, "What will we ever do without vaccines and DDT?" LOL. I guess we'll get a bedbug explosion, won't we? ;)

What was your gateway book? Which book launched your love of a genre? Or what book made you want to be a writer?

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