Attacks of Taste
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On their reading as teenagers. Begun by Evelyn Byrne "as a project to increase and improve the reading habits of the girls in New York City's Elizabeth Barrett Browning Junior High School," prominent writers were asked "Which book or books were your favorites or influenced you most as a teenager and why?" "After displaying the authors' letters and printing them in the school newspaper, a marked change was noticed in the girl's reading tastes. The improvement, both quantitatively and qualitatively, was nothing short of astonishing. Books by the writers who responded to our question began to circulate more widely, as did the books and authors mentioned in those letters." [from the Introduction to Attacks of Taste, pp. xi-xii].
Contributors included Brooks Atkinson, Leonard Bernstein, John Betjeman, Paul Bowles, Pearl S. Buck, Ralph J. Bunche, Anthony Burgess, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Daphne du Maurier, Lawrence Durrell, Ralph Ellison, Buckminster Fuller, Allen Ginsberg, John Hersey, Rockwell Kent, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Margaret Mead, James Michener, Henry Miller, Marianne Moore, Ogden Nash, Anais Nin, Richard Nixon, William Saroyan, Ernest H. Shepherd, Arnold Toynbee, Gore Vidal, E.B. White, Thornton Wilder and Tennessee Williams to name only a small fraction.
The following excerpts record the wide range of responses given:
John Updike: "The years between twelve and eighteen were, for me, the great reading years, when I read more, with more excitement and absorption, than ever since. I read humorists — Thurber, E.B. White, Robert Benchley, Frank Sullivan — and mystery novels — Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen — and science fiction, of which H. G. Wells' books stand out in my memory ..."
Agatha Christie: "I appreciate your having included me in your list. You must bear in mind, however, that I am now elderly and, probably, my young teenage enthusiasms might not please young readers nowadays! I would say that I much enjoyed the historical novels of Stanley Weyman ... All the Sherlock Holmes stories were enthusiasms of mine ..." [with two additional typed letters, one autograph letter, and four photographs].
J.R.R. Tolkien: "Teenage is a long period and there is a vast gap between one's thirteenth birthday and one's twentieth. I can name no book that influenced me deeply as a book. I found certain elements in books that I liked and stored away in memory. ... In the early part of this period things I read with most pleasure were mostly scientific in reference, especially botany and astronomy ..."
W.H. Auden: "Whatever his or her age, a reader must always distinguish between personal taste and literary judgement. My taste tells me what in fact I enjoy reading. My judgement, which is never just mine, but in large measure derived from the judgements of others, living or dead, who I respect and trust, tells me what works I should admire. Often the two coincide, but not always. For every reader, there are some works of literature which he realises are admirable, even great, but which he himself is unable to enjoy. To pretend that one enjoys a book because others have told one that it is good, is dishonest and pretentious. ..." [also includes an autograph letter and a photograph].
John Barth: "Much obliged for the expression of interest on your students' part. Advise them to read Burton's 10-volume translation of The Arabian Nights, with all the footnotes and the great terminal essay to volume 10." [with an autograph letter and a typed letter refusing publication].