What book has had the greatest impact on you?
Probably the Bible. My father was a minister, and I heard verses every day. I memorized big whacks of passages to earn progressive levels of pins. The repetitive rhythms of the Bible were inscribed in my writing brain from childhood. (And it may account for my tendency to start sentences with “and.”) Many of my stories also relate to undoing handed-down beliefs, whether they come from religion, society or mothers. And my writing sensibility was also warped by a steady dose of gothic imagery, often related to religious sins or virtue: David braining Goliath, Samson’s bloody head missing a lock of hair, a stinking corpse arising to be kissed by relatives.
Did you grow up with a lot of books? What are your memories of being read to as a child?
Books were luxuries. We had the World Book Encyclopedia, donated Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, inspirational books by Billy Graham, Bibles in foreign languages and my favorite, a book on a high shelf called “Psychopathia Sexualis.” One Christmas I received an Italian book of Chinese fairy tales. All the sages, gods and mortals looked like Italian movie actors and actresses. I recently unearthed it.
My mother and father didn’t read fiction books, at least not in English. But for one year, my father read to my brothers and me bedtime stories, a page a night from a book called “365 Stories,” covering the daily life of happy American kids with minor dilemmas. The fiction books I read on my own came from the library. From the age of 6, I carefully chose five or six every two weeks, working my way through the ones I could reach on progressively higher shelves. Fairy tales were favorites. I crossed a threshold of reader pride after finishing “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And I made it a point to read banned books, like “The Catcher in the Rye,” which led to counseling sessions with a youth minister, who told me such books would give me sinful feelings. That incident solidified feelings I have about the power of books and one’s helplessness without them.
Do you have a favorite childhood literary character or hero?
Jane Eyre remains a favorite. Her truthfulness sometimes made me laugh. And her loneliness and need to make her own way mirrored my feelings. The Little Prince is another lost soul I clung to. Pippi Longstocking was a bit too cheerful.
- The Bible
- Bibles in foreign languages
- Fairy tales
- Italian book of Chinese fairy tales
- World Book Encyclopedia (I grew up with the World Book Encyclopedia!)
- Readers’ Digest Condensed Books
- Inspirational books by Billy Graham
- 365 Stories
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
The literature of the New Testament could not be more different from that of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament is written in classic Hebrew. It was compiled and edited over more than a thousand years. It includes history, law, prophecy, speeches, prayers, poetry, and songs.
The New Testament was written in popular, or koine, Greek. This was the language of the market and seaports. It was written within a period of not quite a century. It is less than one-third the size of the Hebrew Scriptures, and it centers upon the life and impact of one person. Yet, for Christians, the two collections of writings together reveal God’s word and set forth the ideals upon which much of civilization, its literature, and its culture have been formed.
The Book of Genesis is peopled with fascinating figures, but no portrayal is more striking or memorable than that of God. Whether the reader sees the Bible as divinely inspired or as the work of human ingenuity (or both), the power of this text is undeniable. The God of Genesis is deeply etched into the culture and history of Europe and the Americas.
Where many creation stories from other cultures show the forces of order and chaos, or good and evil, locked in equal combat, Genesis 1 describes a God whose goodness alone is the source of all life and all form. The abyss – the primal chaos that is “formless and void”—before creation is not depicted as an evil force that must be overcome. Rather, the abyss needs to be ordered to reach its full potential.
Other origin stories tell of many different gods who themselves are created, and who work together or fight against one another, to create out of the remnants of previous creations. In contrast, the first part of Genesis describes one God who is self-sufficient, powerful, and benevolent. The God of Genesis, who needs nothing, chooses to create anyway. God creates not from leftovers but out of that chaos, or as the contemporary scholar Robert Alter translates it, “out of welter and waste.”
The description of God continues to expand throughout the Book of Genesis, gradually revealing a God who loves zealously, who chooses favorites, who inflicts terrible punishments, and shows mercy beyond measure—but who is never distant or detached. Genesis is the account of this very personal God’s powerful relationship with humanity.
- Three versions of the Book of Genesis
- Why the King James Version Endures by Charles McGrath
- The Good Book’s Great Prose Lessons by Robert Alter
- Blessed Are the Phrasemakers by Christopher Hitchens
- The Bible of King James by Adam Nicholson
- The King James Bible Wikipedia
- The Bible and Its Influence Wikipedia