A cluster map of books
A personal history of influence and the trouble with recommending individual books
We’re reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in the book club, so I’ve been thinking about the book’s impact on my young creative life.
Looking back, one of the things that occurs to me is how my deep influences are not necessarily a matter of a single book, but of a cluster of books — some batch of books that were read in sequence or simultaneously1 that spoke to each other in a particular way that made a maximum impact.
For example: if you ask me which book had the biggest influence on my teenage life, I might say James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. But really, I picked that book up at Waldenbooks in the mall because Howard Zinn’s blurb was on the front cover, and I’d been reading his A People’s History of the United States. (And if we’re being honest, I heard about that book from Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting.) I was also reading You are Being Lied To and George Orwell’s 1984 and listening to a lot of punk rock. So there was a whole cluster or web of books/movies/music that was working on me.
What does this have to do with Understanding Comics? When I think about the book now, it’s not just the book that influenced me, it’s the way that book primed me for the books I would read soon afterwards, and the way that book spins out to so many different kinds of books. Like an oxygen molecule hungry for electrons, the book wants to bond with other books and make rich connections.
So, if I tell you Understanding Comics was a big influence on me, that is true, but the bigger truth is that it was the combination of reading that book and Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence (and Tufte’s other books, and Lynda Barry and Saul Steinberg and Charles Schulz and James Kochalka, etc.) that sent me down a certain path…
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