Next up in my "Copying NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour" series: my first "adult" book. And by that I don't mean a book featuring throbbing loins, but rather a book that was written for adults rather than children. The folks over at PCHH further constrained it by limiting it to books you chose to read on your own, rather than one that was assigned to you by a teacher or parent.
This is a particularly difficult one for me, because I started reading so early. My mom tells me that I had figured out the early literacy books by age 2, and I remember reading Mr. Men books to my grandmother when I was 3. The earliest "chapter books" I can recall reading are probably The Hobbit and The Neverending Story, each of which I read around age 7. Those are the first two that spring to mind when I think of my earliest books, especially since I've continued to re-read and enjoy them into the present day. Still, most book lists put those two squarely in the "juvenile fantasy" category, so I suppose they don't count.
I know I was reading some highly age-inappropriate stuff while I was still in elementary school. I read Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and Mordant's Need series in third or fourth grade, and I'm pretty sure that I had gone through the first three of Jean Auel's Earth's Children books before I finished fifth grade. I know I didn't understand everything the first time I read any of those books--most of the heavy stuff in Thomas Covenant was beyond me, for example, and I read it as a more-or-less straightforward adventure--but I did get some of it. I even remember getting in a little bit of trouble at my afterschool day care once for showing one of the other kids a passage from a sex scene from The Mirror of Her Dreams. Though, looking back on it, not nearly as much trouble as I'd expect a kid to get in these days, not to mention the parent for letting the kid bring a book like that to school.
Lest you think I was only reading dark and smutty stuff as a child, I should point out that I also read a lot of children's and young adult stuff as well. I already mentioned The Hobbit and The Neverending Story; the Hardy Boys, Choose Your Own Adventure, and Encyclopedia Brown were also staples of my pre-middle-school reading, as were the works of Lynn Reid Banks, Susan Cooper, L. Frank Baum, E. B. White, and Beverly Cleary. So I did read a lot of stuff aimed at the age I actually was, just interspersed with more mature novels.
But what was my first real grown-up novel? The honest answer is that I don't really know for sure. I've just read too many books in my life to know. I've been reading upwards of twenty books a year for my entire adult life, which seems a lot compared to most people I know but is still less than half what I read when I was in school.
If I had to take a guess, though, I'd probably go with The Lord of the Rings. I know I was pretty young when I first pulled my mom's old paperback editions off the shelf--definitely under ten. Young enough that the way they looked and felt made an impression. I can still recall quite clearly the slightly yellowing pages and the age-softened edges of the covers. I particularly liked the bold lines of the maps at the front of the books.
The odd thing is that due to the Ralph Bakshi and Rankin-Bass films, I already knew the story pretty well before I ever opened those paperbacks. In fact, several parts that didn't appear in those movies--Tom Bombadil, the Paths of the Dead, and the scouring of the Shire, for example--got almost entirely skipped in my first few read-throughs; I don't think I really read, paid attention to, and retained the whole story until I was in high school.
So, there's my answer. It may not be my actual first, but J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was definitely an early pick of mine, and an early favorite. And it remains the series I've read the most times, in no small part due to the fact that I was young the first time I read it.
OK, your turn: what was your first grown-up book? Fiction or non-fiction, anything counts as long as you picked it yourself.