This is My Brain On Books #1: Where the Wild Things Are

Recently on Facebook, Nicole — a friend who's tremendously talented and apparently very persuasive — tagged/urged/bullied me into sharing a list of books that influenced me in some way.  The easy thing in such circumstances is just to reel off a list of books you enjoyed, a list that's likely to be heavy on uncontroversial early-in-life titles (The Phantom Tollbooth) or uncontroversial collegiate reading (The Secret History) or uncontroversial recent classics (Oscar Wao).  The even easier thing to do, since social media is first a foremost a delivery system for performative wishful versions of oneself, is to list the books that you'd like to be the kind of person who loved (Ulysses, Woolf, Pynchon).But if books have in fact been a constant and consequential presence in your life, a list of the ones that have genuinely influenced you, have actually moved the needle a little bit, is likelier to include some titles you aren't necessarily proud of.  Books that aren't even that good.  Books that have affected you in ways that have nothing to do with quality and everything to do with your receptivity to certain kinds of stimuli at the precise moment that those books landed in your life.With that in mind — and of course still being susceptible to the vain calculations that shapeWhere_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover the construction of one's public self-presentation through the making of lists — my list emerged.  This is the first in a series of chronological entries discussing those books — some good, some awful.1. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  This is a place where, if I were being more calculating, I'd prefer to list In the Night Kitchen, which is the Sendak book I prefer today, with its edge of dreamlike menace and its defiance of narrative logic and its roiling latent sexuality and its loving appropriation of elements from classic film comedy and from Winsor McCay, and the way the boy's relentlessly recurring little penis is an unmistakeable fuck-you to the moralists and gatekeepers that Sendak hated so much.  I'd like to be someone who was irrevocably shaped by In the Night Kitchen.  I'd be vastly more interesting now if I were.  But I don't know that we even had that book when I was a kid, or any other Sendak in the house.  But we had Where the Wild Things Are, the safer and more popular choice[1], the Bob Marley's Legend of Sendak books, and I did, justifiably, love it.[2]It's brilliant, of course, a marvel of narrative economy and admirably resistant to sentimentality — the wild things are legitimately fucked-up individuals, their love is a brutal thing and they really will eat Max the fuck up — and you can tell I loved it because we still have my frayed, discolored, loose-spined childhood copy, and on one of the two-page wild rumpus spreads you can see where I covered the pages with a frantic, frenzied precipitation of brown magic-marker blots, as though the Dionysian energy of that sequence was so kinetic and compelling  that I just couldn't help myself, I just had to get involved in it somehow, had to interact with it, converse, participate in its savage revelry, even if my contribution was monochromatic and unartful.  It certainly reflects the loss of control, the anarchic surrender, suggested by the storyline (if not by the artwork — as ingenious and compelling as the beasts were, they were always a little too weighty and stolid to look like they were truly cutting loose).  In my recollection, no other book in my collection ever drove me to those heights of transgression[3], ever spurred me to commit shit-colored vandalism of my own property.  And even at the time I had to have registered how completely my efforts were falling short, how even the most torrential rain of marker blotches added little to the impeccable draftsmanship of Sendak's uncanny dream visions and dangerous storytelling.  So on some level my entire creative life since then may just be an effort to equal Sendak's accomplishment, to be worthy of that collaboration.  Haven't gotten there yet.



[1] And how telling a detail about Sendak is it that a book as subversive and uncompromising as Where the Wild Things Are is his safe, mainstream option.
[2] It's not like Legend doesn't have some good songs on it.
[3] Because in our house, as in so many houses, the defacing of books was considered a particularly grotesque crime.  To destroy something was prohibited; to destroy a book was a gross moral failing.  I don't think I ever showed my parents this particular piece of work from my early brown period.