Kurt Busiek: 5 Books That Changed My Life

5 Books That Changed my Life

1. THE SCARECROW OF OZ by L. Frank Baum. I’m not sure why this one was the one to hit me, in particular — we had a beat-up copy of THE LAND OF OZ at home, and that’s the one I read over and over and over again — but THE SCARECROW OF OZ, which opened with Cap’n Bill and Trot getting swept from their boat by a storm and finding their way to Oz, was the book that first inspired me to write a novel of my own, when I was about seven. The novel was about a guinea pig on a toy boat that got derivatively swept away to Oz, and I got about a page and a half into it (including illustration!) before abandoning it, but that was the book that made me want to be a writer enough to actually start writing, and the desire never went away.

2. THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS by James Thurber. In particular, the Pathways of Sound two-album set of THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS, read by the late great Lauren Bacall. We had a bunch of spoken-word records, but this was one I listened to repeatedly, and Thurber’s wonderfully-skewed fairy tale gave me both a model I’ve used ever since on How To Read Stories Aloud (thank you, Ms. Bacall), but also a sense that conventions should be undermined and expectations subverted whenever possible. Ordinary stories do ordinary things, but extraordinary stories find depth and complication
and wonder under the surface tropes, and that’s a lesson I learned from Thurber. [I also suspect that THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS, along with Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books and collections of Norse mythology imprinted on me a sense of what makes a fitting story, and it stuck permanently.]

3. SOME MARVEL COMIC CIRCA 1976. While it was issues of DAREDEVIL, a year or two earlier, that made me a comics fan, it was a lettercolumn in a comic written by Chris Claremont that shaped my future career (I’ve been telling people for years this was X-MEN #96 or #97, but I just checked, and it’s not either of them). In it, Chris told a story about how his grandfather would keep saying sure, Chris, sure, you write those funnybooks, but what do you do for a living? That was the moment that the penny dropped, and I realized that real people did write and draw
comics, and more importantly, they made a living at it. And if they did, maybe I could, too.
[Not quite a “book,” I know, as traditional definitions go, but its life-changing merits outweigh any definitional weaknesses, I think.]

4. THE FICTION EDITOR, THE NOVELIST AND THE NOVEL by Thomas McCormack. Originally intended as a how-to for the throngs of people who grow up hoping oneday to edit other writers’ work, and later retitled in hopes of appealing to a target audience that couldn’t all fit in one freight elevator, THE FICTION EDITOR was a chatty, funny revelation for me — I’d been writing professionally for close to a decade when I read it, but I’d been working entirely from craft mechanics, and I felt like a complete phony. I’d never really understood the idea of theme, or
anything about writing stories that wasn’t mechanistic, and in this book, McCormack absolutely demolishes the idea of theme as it’s taught in literature and writing classes, and replaces it with something I could actually comprehend and build on. It was a major turning point for me, opening the way to write stories through which I’d discover an actual voice and win an audience.
[Note: Since I read it, the book has been revised, and I haven’t gotten around to reading he revised version yet. The first edition was challenging, loosely structured and wonderful; I have no idea if the second is better-organized but less revelatory, or just as good.]

5. I thought about picking Robert Mayer’s SUPERFOLKS here, or John Crowley’s LITTLE, BIG. Or maybe Walter Tevis’s THE COLOR OF MONEY, or Lawrence Block’s EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE, or even Stephen King’s THE STAND. But those’ll have to go on some other list — in the end, I’ve got to pick TRUSTEE FROM THE TOOLROOM, by Nevil Shute. The story of a quiet, unassuming man who has a responsibility to live up to, and how that responsibility leads him, quietly and unassumingly, halfway around the world, and leads him to discover that he has reached farther than he ever knew, TRUSTEE taught me the value of ordinariness, and the way that perspective matters — how the big stuff feels all the bigger if you have a familiar, ordinary place to start from, to witness it all.

Without those five books, I wouldn’t be the writer I am, and might not be a writer at all. There are others, of course — some of which I’m slowly figuring out the lessons of right now, and look forward to discovering just how they’ll change my life — but these are the ones that gave me my current foundations, and led me to where I am. I look forward to wherever the next batch will take me…

Kurt Busiek