What piece of art changed your life? How did it affect you?
For better or worse, I became the writer that I became in considerable measure because of two literary monuments fortuitously encountered during my student years at Johns Hopkins. The first was James Joyce's Ulysses, that polestar of literary Modernism first published in France in 1922, banned from the USA until 1933 on account of its erotic aspects, acclaimed in a recent poll as the greatest novel of the 20th-century, and hungrily devoured by me more than 60 years ago in the 1946 Modern Library edition. That copy remains on my shelf, index-tabbed and heavily annotated by a fledgling fictionist as wowed at age 20 by that Modernist masterpiece as a naive but ambitious young painter might have been on first encountering the works of Pablo Picasso.
The second (in some ways a counterweight to the first) was the anonymous medieval Persian/Arabian tales of Scheherazade, which I'd read originally as a kid in a radically abridged and expurgated Arabian Nights discreetly illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, but then rediscovered in the Hopkins library in Richard Burton's 17-volume, privately printed and utterly unexpurgated 1885 edition (likewise now in a place of honor in our house) entitled The Thousand Nights and a Night—ribald, raucous, hilarious, heart-constricting—wherein the Sultan's Vizier's beautiful and canny daughter diverts her murderously misogynous master with nearly three years worth of sex and storytelling to prevent his deflowering and executing every maiden in the realm. Her life ever on the line, only as good as her next piece, Scheherazade remains for me the most piquant emblem of the storyteller's lot.
So: one icon of early-20th-century Modernism and another of timeless oral taletelling, Ulysses and The 1001 Nights became (and remain) my chiefest stars. With their aid I've steered my own course, trying as best I can to not mistake my navigation stars for my destination.
John Barth's new book, The Development, was published by Houghton-Mifflin. He is profiled in the November issue of Baltimore.