The Other Columbus: All the right books at the wrong time
Revisiting some of the reads that in some way helped shape this columnist
Before I was old enough to take on the duties of a proper latchkey child, my mother would abandon me at libraries. Her babysitter of choice was the Main Library Downtown, where I could pretend to spend at least half of the day at the nearby Salesian Boys Club, socializing with actual children. In truth, I spent most of those Saturdays — not mornings or afternoons, but whole days, Dear Reader — wandering the library’s aisles, mostly fiction, picking up whatever caught my eye.
Being the ’70s and ’80s, there were no Young Adult sections in any of the libraries in which I was frequently stranded. Recreational reading was brutally Dickensian: You either read chapter books for children or chapter books for adults, period. There were books that you might label “Teen” reads now, but back then it was as if teenagers didn’t exist to publishers. The minute you could read above a fifth grade level, you automatically qualified for whatever soft-core Harlequin novels were lying around your aunt’s house.
For better or worse, I had an older brother who was into books, and when he was out of the house I would raid his room for literature. Technically I was looking for anything a thieving child might find interesting, but being who I am, I was interested in his books. He read tons of fantasy and science fiction, and again, it being the ’70s and ’80s, the covers were lewd, making them magnets to my young eye. Of course, once I started reading them, I would begin snatching his books for their length and not their pulsing covers.
A few years back, I decided to collect some of the books I read as a child, just to see how they held up. A lot has happened since leaving behind the bookcases of Indianola Alternative Elementary, Main Library 1.0 and my big brother’s paperback stash. To call it an eye-opening experience would be a severe understatement. The books were largely adult in theme, as well as language, and were often outright weird or terrifying. I say all of that to concede that perhaps the Scott Woods you endure on a weekly basis has grown, in part, from the soil of these massively inappropriate tomes, all of which I joyfully consumed for one reason or another. A sampling from my Time Machine shelf:
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (1954)
Premise: Two boys build a spaceship and go on adventures.
2021 reality check: The setup for this book is ridiculous. First, the boys respond to an ad in the paper specifically asking for spaceships to be built by “a boy, or … two boys, between the ages of eight and eleven.” It asks that no adults be consulted in the process. It requires the astronauts in question to bring their wares to a man at an address that no one can confirm. The only way this story passes muster these days is if you’re on mushrooms while you read it.
Bored of the Rings by The Harvard Lampoon (1969)
Premise: This parody of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books lets you know what you’re in for right on the cover, which features several large breasts and a house-sized bong.
2021 reality check: A lot of the comedy of this book went over my head as a kid, but even a 9-year-old knows what a voluptuous elf-maiden provocatively parting the folds of her robe is about, and that is literally from the first sentence of the book.
Monsters Monsters Monsters edited by Helen Hoke (1975)
Premise: An anthology of weird tales from notable authors of the 20th century.
2021 reality check: A lot of the stories in this collection are classics: Bradbury’s “The Foghorn,” Poe’s “The Sphinx,” Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights.” But what really sold this book was the Charles Keeping artwork. His black and white ink renderings bled through the pages, translucent and terrifying even now. Even when he drew a man holding a gun, it was a swollen, blobby mess of detail that shouldn’t be in a children’s book. I mean, this collection has a Lovecraft in it, and they were selling it to kids.
Cybernetic Samurai by Victor Milan (1985)
Premise: An artificial intelligence trained with the values of a feudal shogun seeks revenge when his programmer is kidnapped.
2021 reality check: The cover for this book suggested the titular protagonist would be a robot with swords, but in reality this super-heady dive into early virtual reality and AI coding remains heavy lifting. It’s mix of real-world action and synthetic idea-scapes is like reading a script for “Inception” written by actual scientists. I didn’t understand it at all when I was a kid, but it taught me that I had a lot to learn about reading, so it stuck with me. Also, ninjas were really huge in the ’80s, so several books on my Time Machine shelf have them as touchstones (Ninja by Erica Van Lustbader and Shibumi by Trevanian, most notably).
Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson (1977)
Premise: A disfigured man is transported to a magical realm, jumpstarting many adventures and books.
2021 realty check: The lead character, Thomas Convenant, is a despicable man struck with leprosy who, upon arriving in another world, carries his unpleasant nature with him. Let’s just say it wouldn’t pass a Twitter hashtag test now. This came out around the same time as Dungeons & Dragons, and with its cover and premise, it was destiny that I would run into this book.
Choose Your Own Adventure #6 - Your Code Name is Jonah (1980)
Premise: The reader controls the outcome of the story through a series of page-by-page decisions. The lead character in this edition is a spy.
2021 reality check: CYOA books were always a good time, even if they made no sense. They were particularly brutal in the 1980s, with readers being treated to fatal endings after only a handful of pages. I particularly liked this one because of the spy angle, which was refreshingly down to earth after the first few books, which featured time travel, very odd leaps in game logic and hot air balloon rides. Also, considering the amount of explosions and gun play in this book, the endings were surprisingly non-lethal. Most of them were mission failures, not outright deaths. This was reprinted at some point as Spy Trap, and it got a lame cover with an actual kid on it that didn’t match the unchanged interior at all. I imagine this was done because of the religious connotations of the original title, which, frankly, were part of its appeal for me. Another victim of YA categorization.