Meanwhile rushthatspeaks synchronically mentions Great Reading Experiences. It's not always the book, it's sometimes the circumstances; though best of all is the right book and the right circs and how rarely does that happen?
I don't even remember what year it was- 13? 14? when we had an out of season blizzard in December and we all got sent home early. I wandered around the house at the loose end of a disrupted daily schedule. I remember the place as being empty because my mother was out getting my younger brother and sister from their uphill schools and my older bro hadn't come home yet. And so I wandered into the library, one of the tacked-on rooms in that very haphazardly constructed house, that looked out on the back garden. We called it the library because it had built-in bookcases and more books, at least, than any other room. We children rarely went there except on Sundays when people came to dinner and there was a fire in the fireplace; otherwise it had an unused and out-of-the-way feel and smelled of cold woodsmoke.
My mother's books were all incomprehensible fic from the 20's, 30's and 40's: Faulkner and Hemingway and the like. My father's art books had pictures and I wanted text. But wedged between two law books on one shelf was a thin paperback, so I prised it out and started reading and didn't stop:
At the Court of an Emperor (he lived it matters not when) there was among the many gentlewomen of the Wardrobe and Chamber one, who though she was not of very high rank was favoured far beyond all the rest...It was the first nine chapters of Waley's translation of Genji Monogatari. (And my god I'd forgotten how thoroughly Edwardian-British Waley's Japan is made to sound.)
The snow went on silently filling up the garden; all sounds were muffled and far away; the afternoon light went from cream to grey and eventually I had to turn on a light; and I was in some Elsewhere as removed from the familiar world as this quiet snowy afternoon was distant from my usual homework-and-dinner daily life.
It was one of those seminal experiences, because after that Japan meant snow in my mental image as surely as Chuushingura means snow to the Japanese. The first woodblock print I ever bought was exactly that, that I got for the snowy garden and in spite of it being Chuushingura. Except for the Foxfires, the print that made me happiest was my Lumberyards at Fukugawa for much the same reason.
Oh and of course, there's the whole Japan thing as well. That was probably the start of it, but it took some more serendipity-- an article in Vogue, a review of Sei Shonagon in Life, and The Seven Samurai-- to really get me going.
Another: Lord of the Rings. No-one under the age of 45 is going to understand what that was like when I first met it in 1966. Everyone else grew up with a plethora of Tolkien-clones and fantasy writers in general, to say nothing of a burgeoning YA market and cartoons and comics and you name it. That didn't exist in 1966. There was nothing like it except its very distant cousins in folktale and Norse myth and CS Lewis. It was the first time I'd ever read a complete other world done in such detail and at such length. (People who complain about Tolkien's descriptions make me want to kick them. Middlearth is grounded in a physical reality that no-one else has managed unless they come illustrated: and the more writers try to describe their physical worlds the less convincing they become. Lankhmar Syndrome: have recourse to some General Issue stereotype images (steamy nights, velvety dark, thieves, prostitutes, brothels) and assume you've created a city thereby.)
I began reading it in late February, an odd season here of pogoing temperatures and remaining snow and bright saturated sunlight that makes colours look deeper than they normally do in the thin light of winter; and by dint of holding myself back finished it in mid-March, which that year at least was spring, grey and blowy and untidy in the way of melted snow revealing all last year's detritus. Returned as if from a long voyage to normal Toronto with happy winter gone and the ambiguous feast of Easter approaching. Christmas is plain good news: holidays and happiness and music and cards from friends and presents from family and food. Easter was a long weekend preceded by examinations and Lent and heading into my two least favourite times of the year, a long downward slope ending in the final exams of June and the horrors of summer. Nothing joyful about it at all; even the music is doleful. Very suited to the ending of LotR, by me.
In case you thought this was all in the distant past, much more recently there was Karin. Fall, some NY magazine said, is the best time to do anything. How true. The turning leaf season is like the cherry blossoms: never guaranteed to last long and sometimes not happening at all. But get the right kind of summer- the otherwise unpleasant one of 2003- and the trees here will start turning at the end of September and keep it up well into November. Even the mundane looks better against that backdrop and the extraordinary is... extraordinary.
So there I was in the gold and red October of '03, amazing and unlikely gorgeousness outside my windows, reading steadily through 17 volumes of amazing and unlikely (and gorgeous) Jade Emperors and Daoist Immortals and Pearl Spirits and Guardian Beasts and Western Mothers and Chinese generals and seductive bishounen, all dancing about in a many-stranded and twisty plot, with happily for shoujo a mangaka with a sense of humour in charge of the thing: writing perfectly seriously of course but with an ironic glint in her eye. One cannot ask for more. Well, one can, but CS Lewis (him again) once said that the one thing you must not say to God is 'Encore.' It comes or not, as and when it comes; things met now will rarely seem as wonderful as things met when everything was new; and you can only be delighted that 40 years after the first time it happened it can still happen again.