Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Life-Changing Books

It's an especially interesting era in which to be a book-lover, which I define not simply as someone who likes to read but as someone who loves books themselves--who may have not just a favorite novel but also a favorite particular copy of that novel.

In all of human history, it has never been easier than it is now--if one has a bit of currency--to get a book. With the electronic web in place, the world is a bookshelf. At the same time, the book, as such, seems to be on its way out. Reports of its demise are exaggerated, but maybe not enough to quell a book-lover's fears entirely. Those who publish books think of them first (and second, and third) as "product," and the product is getting expensive to make, and there are not unreasonable demands for "sustainability," and the literary novel--to pick one genre--is something not a lot of people seem interested in. The remaindered-book table at Borders or Barnes and Noble is full of hardback novels. The real estate in such stores is taken up by romance novels, graphic novels, mysteries, and nonfiction. At the same time, libraries begin to look more like hotel lobbies with computer terminals, as opposed to places where books are stored. I wonder if, in the not-to-distant-future, used-book stores will become even stranger places than they are now--truly underground sites where eccentric readers and keepers of old-fashioned objects called "books" prowl like today's collectors of old-fashioned hand-tools or like people who horde string for no apparent reason.

So when I consider the topic of life-changing books, I'm tempted to assert that the reading of books itself and the attachment to books itself constitute the life-changing, or consciousness-changing, phenomenon, not so much the particular books that apparently pack dramatic influential power. That is, we may say that Book X "changed our lives," but in fact Book X may just have seemed to have changed our lives, while the more glacial process of reading itself may have been the real source of change. Also, a consciousness-changing book need not be a great book or even a good book. A terribly flawed book can, I believe, change a person's consciousness for the better simply becauses it creates some kind of awakening. A priest I know knows a priest who is writing an article for Commonweal, and in the article the writer-priest apparently defines "spirituality" as the intentional changing of consciousness (for the better, we hope), and 0ne can't predict what kind of book will trigger that intentionality (now there's a Latinate word!).

Nonetheless, here's a brief list of books that seem to have changed my life in the sense of changing my consciousness. I'm deliberately excluding sacred texts because they occupy a category unto themselves.

Huckleberry Finn--not for the reasons you might guess, not because it's "a great novel," although it probably is. I think I was about 11 years old, and I'd read Tom Sawyer and had a pretty easy go of it. Also on the family bookshelf was an inexpensive green hardback of Huck Finn, probably published by Grossett and Dunlap. I picked it up and started to read it--and it was tough. It was just flat out different than Tom Sawyer. I learned then that books could be hard, even if you understand the words. I couldn't finish the book then, but I didn't blame the book, no more than I would have blamed the mountain if at the time I'd failed to hike up a mountain. I also "knew"--guessed--that I'd return to Huck Finn one day, and I'd be more ready, and it would be more ready for me.

Around the same time I think I was reading books written especially for adolescents, in particular some adventure stories--hunting stories, really--by an author named Jim Kjellegaard. And not much later, I started reading the Doc Savage series of adventure novels by Kenneth Robeson. Kjellegaard later became quite obscure, his books hard to find, and I discovered that Robeson was a pretty bad writer, for lots of reasons. But at the time, these books kept me reading, kept me involved in plots, characters, and language, and that's important.

When I was about 15, my parents bought me the complete Sherlock Holmes tales and novels. It's the equivalent of buying someone their own private ocean, for I've gone swimming in those tales ever since. The character, Holmes, is unique; his relationship to Watson is mercurial; and Conan Doyle's stately sentences entrance. Whatever is old-fashioned and flawed about the tales seems only to contribute to their charm.

The Fire Next Time, composed of long essays by James Baldwin, was probably my first life-changing book in the classic sense of the term. I found it by accident in the back of a high-school classroom and read it straight through. It changed entirely the way I looked at ethnicity in the United States. It changed my view of language, of how powerful it could be. The experience was a bit like being knocked down, physically. The book is still at the top of my list of nonfiction books.

Into the early college years, Camus's The Stranger captivated me and induced me to think about "larger issues," such as whether life has any meaning and why "the rules" of life are what they are, and who really is "in charge," if anyone or anything is. I was not immune from having the usual undergraduate response to the book--what happened [in the book]? Did anything happen? I mean, I know he killed a guy, but still, what happened? Nonetheless, the book got to me. So did Barrabas, by Par Lagerkvist, and there is an umlaut over the a in par. Like The Stranger, it's a spare book that cuts to the bone of things. I always think of those books in tandem.

Poetry anthologies at the time bowled me over--A Little Treasury of Modern Verse and a couple of the Norton anthologies. Any anthologies of lyric poetry in English would have done the same; these just happened to be the ones I bought for courses. I suddenly became a compulsive reader of poetry. I feasted on it. I even liked reading the poems I didn't like. I had it bad, and that ain't good, as the saying goes. Poems by Browning, Dickinson, Hopkins, Housman, and countless others burst like fireworks in my reading-consciousness. I began seriously to write my own (terribly serious) poems. Around the same time, I discovered the poetry of Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro. The work was modern, but not in the T.S. Eliot way. It was smart, and it was also "American" in ways with which I could identify at the time.

A two-volume history of philosophy, written by Wallace Matson, was certainly a life-changing book, just as the two-semester course on the same subject was probably the most influential course of my undergraduate career. It was taught by George Sessions. Philosophers tend not to like history-of-philosophy courses because you really don't "do philosophy," as they say, in such courses; instead you watch the big ideas and arguments go by. But what a parade! And we "did" philosophy in the sense of having George induce us to put the ideas in friendly competition in our minds.

Subsequently, . . . .ah, so many books. Langston Hughes's book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks. . . . . Innumerable volumes of poems by invidual authors (not antholgies, I mean), including The Back Country, by Gary Snyder--his best, but not his best known, book of poems. . . . Jeffers's Selected Poems. . . . Much more Dickinson. . . .Franz Kafka's stories, especially "The Hunger Artist" and "The Metamorphoses"--the latter "blew my mind," as we used to say, back in the day. . . . James Joyce's short stories, Dubliners. . . . .Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. . . . . Accessories After the Fact (which I read when I was a junior in college, I believe), a painstaking, dispassinate deconstruction of the Warren Report on JFK's assassination. Yes, Virginia, there was more than one shooter, and there was a plan to kill him, but for our official history, we prefer the denial and the lone assassin. It's pointless to argue about it. The book is by Sylvia Meagher. It changed my consciousness because it changed entirely my view of "my" nation and its government....Jacques Ellul's book, Propaganda, which I just recently read. A political-scientist friend recommended it. It is perhaps the book on propaganda, and much of it is counter-intuitive (and least to the naive reader, like me); for example, Ellul points out that allegedly smart people like college professors are highly susceptible to propaganda (no matter the source--"left" or "right"), partly because of their addiction to information, partly because they fancy themselves smart, and when you fancy yourself, your open to propagandistic attack. . . . Robert Farris Thompson's book on African and African American culture and aesthetics: Flash of the Spirit. Brilliant. Paul Monette's book, Becoming a Man: great insight into being gay in the U.S. . . . .William Styron's Sophie's Choice, which I read in Germany. . . . A Little Book on the Human Shadow, by Robert Bly--his own idiosyncratic take on Jungian "thought.". . . . The Cloud of Unknowing, by St. Denis. . . . Snow Country, by Kawabata. . . . Rabbit, Run, by John Updike (this is out of chronological order; I think I read it when I was a junior in high school; it helped show me what "the contemporary novel" was). . . . Colette's Claudine novels--fascinating in their study of gender-and-power, gender and class. Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, opened windows on a culture completely different from mine. . . . Faulkner's novella, The Bear. . . . Shakespeare's King Lear, which I finally "got" when I was about 20 or 21. The most essentially tragic play I have read. And seen. And War and Peace, a massive but exquisitely constructed novel. Just the best. I'm finishing my third reading of it. It's a beast, but a friendly beast. It lies there, knowing, distant, and self-contained, like a cat. A very large cat.

What about "the greats," however? The Iliad and The Odyssey. Yes, I read them, more than once. I recognize their greatness, how they lay a foundation. Fabulous scenes. Fascinating psychology--why Odysseus doesn't want to go to war and even gets in disguise to try to "dodge the draft," as it were. Why Achilles stops fighting. And starts again. The Trojan Horse! Scylla and Charybdis! The Sirens! But I can't say the books changed my consciousness. The same goes for Paradise Lost. A tremendous achievement. But in my case, not life-changing. And to tell the truth, boring in places, like a very long solo by a virtuoso jazz-player; you don't question the greatness, but you're still bored by the solo. Plato? Maybe. I struggled pleasurably with some of the dialogues. The parable of the cave is pretty cool. But as early as age 18, when I was taking that history of philosophy course, I knew I was an Aristotelian. Form only seems to be elsewhere and ideal; it actually is in the things themselves. Down-to-earth Ari. Unlike Socrates (at least Plato's version of the S-Man), Aristotle did not view himself or philosophy to be above rhetoric; rhetoric is essentially "the fray," the mixed up verbal and social interaction of living humans. It can be awful, and it often is, but it ain't necessarily so; so Aristotle studied it, as he studied all things. The great empiricist. "Let's have a look": that seems to have been Aristotle's impulse. "Let's keep doubting whether having a look will do any good; let's be passively aggressive; let's pretend we don't use rhetoric when we attack rhetoric; let's affirm something called 'virtue' by denying all else." This seems to have been Socrates's impulse. . . . So I guess maybe reading Plato did change my consciousness.
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