Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

What’s Your Favorite First Book Ever? Albert Camus’ ‘The Stranger’

By John Smolens

“What's your favorite first book by an author ever?” That's the question that launches the seventh year of the NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of our members and honorees. Here's the first in this new series. It's not too late to send your critical essay on your own favorite. The deadline is May 30.

For me, it was Camus's The Stranger, which I first read at 17, during a
summer that I was working on a maintenance crew in the dormitory of the New
England Conservatory of Music, which is on the corner of Huntington Avenue
and Gainsborough Street in Boston.  The slender copy of the book fit in the
back pocket of my jeans, and I would go into an empty, sweltering room,
where I was supposed to wash the walls and scrub the floors and baseboards,
but often I'd sit or lie on the linoleum tiles and read until I heard the
foreman coming down the hall.  At 17 I didn't understand Meursault but
believed that the book entered a dark, incomprehensible place that was
unavoidable.  I've taught it numerous times over the years (which doesn't
mean that I've come to understand Meursault), and have witnessed in many of
my students the same conflicting responses that I had in 1968:
consternation and unspeakable longing, doused with an inexplicable
attraction to the book's plain-spoken darkness.

Such first books are,
well, a kind of first love.

John Smolens's most recent novels are The Schoolmaster's Daughter and Quarantine. Earlier novels include Cold, Fire Point, and The Anarchist.