Amy Tan on the books of her childhood

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.

Amy Tan By the Book Published: November 14, 2013
Amy Tan

The list: