1983: The Book of Knowledge, Grolier
A ten-volume encyclopedia for children that, so the web tells me, has been around in one form or another for about ninety years. This particular version, scored by my father at a garage sale, I think dated from the fifties. It had a salutarily inclusive view about what counted as knowledge; it wasn’t alphabetized, and between the articles about dams and the population of Canada I first ran into Blake’s “The Tyger” and a long extract from “Alice in Wonderland,” including the immortal verse:
“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,”
said cunning old Fury,
“I’ll try the whole cause,
And condemn you to death.”
There was also some nonsense about how to be a good citizen and have proper table manners, but I’m glad they didn’t shrink from the creepy stuff.
1984: The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
My parents were of the generation that would spraypaint “Frodo Lives!” inside subway tunnels (not that my parents, personally, did this sort of thing), so it’s not too surprising they would pass on this one. The best parts were the ring, the giant spiders, the song about breaking Bilbo’s plates, and of course Gollum; the dragon wasn’t bad, but toward the end it became clear that Bilbo had to fade from the story so some boring muscular guy out of a Norse saga could do his monster-slaying, and I wasn’t on board for that. Around this time I wrote my first fiction, which was about dragons and dinosaurs; one group, I forget which, ate the other.
1985: The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, illustrated Edward Gorey
Tripods, the heat ray. Didn’t see the film; I think it would be disorienting to have it happen in Los Angeles after associating it with rural England for twenty years. “Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic” was perhaps the first scrap of prose that lodged in my brain and never left. It should have been frightening, especially the blood-drinking bit, but something about the Gorey drawings made it seem wondrous; the human figures were so tiny and black, perhaps deliberately meant to appear antlike, as to “sublime” the whole thing, like when Kant heats up a chunk of dry ice.