The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. I joined the Weekly Reader Book Club when I was 7 or 8 and this was one of the books that came to my rural mail box. I remember the heft of it in my hands and the pleasure of knowing that I could read it to myself. It was the first time that I experienced getting lost in the world of a book and I think it set me on the path of life-long reading. I still have my 1965 edition with its faux wood-grain cover.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I was maybe 13 and my blacksheep, hipster uncle (who was only five years my senior, a late-life child for my grandmother) handed me a book and said, “Here, read this.” If you hit certain writers at just the right age, you fall completely and uncritically under their spell. For some people, it’s Thomas Wolfe. For me, it was Vonnegut. After Slaughterhouse, I read every Vonnegut book I could get my hands on, and I peppered my conversations with mentions of wampeters, foma and granfalloons. My parents thought I had gone crazy. He was so wonderfully sarcastic and right in a teenager’s wheelhouse.
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. I was assigned this book for a college course and got the reading list over the summer. It was a big book so I thought I’d get a head start on it. I became so enthralled with the story and the language that I couldn’t wait to get home every day from my job at the textile mill to read another chapter. I only allowed myself one chapter a night like a thick slice of delicious cake. I got through the long hours at the mill wondering what would happen next. It was the first time I learned that real history and fiction could intertwine and make something more true than fact.
Helmets by James Dickey. I checked this book out of my college library on a whim. I had been trying to write poetry, and I had the stunning idea that maybe I should read some contemporary poetry to see what might be going on there. Dickey, to paraphrase Ms. Dickinson, blew the top of my head off. You could write poems about deer hunting! You could write about sneaking off to a junkyard to meet a girl! This is the book that gave me the final push to go from reader to writer.
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MICHAEL CHITWOOD of Chapel Hill studied under Charles Wright, U.S. Poet Laureate, in the graduate writing program at the University of Virginia. His numerous award-winning collections of poetry include “The Weave Room,” “Salt Works,” “Hitting Below the Bible Belt,” “Gospel Road Going,” and his most recent, “Living Wages” from Tupelo Press in 2014. He is a lecturer in the English department at UNC.