Oates – Olds

The Bible and Romeo and Juliet influenced Sharon Olds more than any other book. Sharon Olds, Abraham Lincoln – my kind of readers. Joyce Carol Oates, though, isn’t my type. Coming just before Olds (the responses are in alphabetical order by last name), Oates lists fifty books that have influenced her. She also refers to several authors and poets whose books she doesn’t list. The assignment in Ronald B. Schwartz’s For the Love of Books: 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most is to list three to six books “that have in some way influenced or affected you most deeply, spoken to you the loudest, and explain why, in personal terms.” Three to six. Oates throws up her hands.

Even though she ran away from her religious upbringing, Olds burns two of her six books on the Bible: she includes Strong’s Concordance along with her Tin Bible (a used King James Bible wrapped in tinfoil, a gift from a cousin concerned that she would throw away literacy along with her Calvinist upbringing). And Olds and Shakespeare can’t keep their hands off each other. Olds alludes to Romeo and Juliet even where she talks about the other three books she picks. While reminiscing over Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems of the English Language, the “paperback ark” of poets she carried around in high school and college, Olds recalls her fondness for Emily Dickinson: “femme seule, the ark’s dove as falcon, fierce, tassle-gentle, unmanned (in Juliet’s sense, III, 2:14), unfalc’nered, no wanton’s bird.”

In eighth grade, Sharon Olds and Elmer Sitkin and Beth Aaron worked through Romeo and Juliet word by word until they figured it out. It was play. It was the kind of thing that doesn’t work when a teacher assigns it.

Sharon, I should kill thee with much cherishing.

On the other hand, Oates’s idea of “personal terms” includes diction like “a lifetime of reading” and “’numinous.’” (She puts quotations around “numinous.” If I said “numinous,” I’d wiggle quotation marks by my ears with my fingers, too.) Oates says, “I was in the presence of a literary experience that might change my life.” On the next page, Olds uses diction like “narrow head” and “subway” and “Elmer Sitkin.”

Get the book (Grosset/Putnam, 1999). See whom you hate. See who surprises you. I started with the O’s – that’s where the book broke open – and I’m still there after six trips in.