by Conor Friedersdorf
A reader writes:
I thought about this question for a long time.
I could go for the insightful philosophical treatise, the cogent historical argument, the incisive political indictment, but the truth is that there are two books, both of which I read when I was about ten years old, that had long-lasting and thorough effects on me; one, perhaps, even more than the other. They are Patrick Dennis' novel Auntie Mame and Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
Both of these books showed me a version of the world--an approach to life--that was utterly outside everything in my limited midwestern experience. They offered me an approach to life--"Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving" and "Furthur"--that opened up possibilities hitherto unimagined. I had had a very conventional 1960s childhood, and suddenly the world outside my door seemed wider and wilder and more beautiful than anything had led me to believe.
I think Mame had more of a long-lasting effect because 1) we moved east rather than west, to a NJ town just outside of Manhattan, about a year after I'd read both of them, and 2) most of the possibilities Mame offered were unlikely to land me in prison. Also, Mame presented a sophistication and open-mindedness, a true liberality, that Kesey didn't really offer, as his troupe became more inverted as Wolfe's tale wound on. When I would come into the city, I would see the places and things Dennis wrote about. I was desperate for an Auntie Mame of my own, to break me out of my family's mold of conventionality, but it took me until I hit my 20s and was living in NYC myself to find the world that Dennis described. There were only traces of the literal world he wrote about, but there were plenty of the metaphorical landmarks left. I was always sorry not to have a guide through it all, or to have a chance to live it at an earlier and more formative stage. I've just given a copy of Auntie Mame to my 12-year-old nephew, in hopes that it will open his mind and heart to possibilities in similar fashion.