Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fifteen Books In Fifteen Minutes?

Here's an exercise to try, that might give one some insight into oneself as a writer.

The exercise as originally proposed by critic Terry Teachout: Rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

The exercise as somewhat modified downstream: Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.

(For examples, one might look here, or here, or here, and here.)

My initial reaction to this exercise was: What's the point of yet another list? Isn't this just another list of one's favorites? (Interesting as that might be.) Aren't critics are likely to give different answers than writers? This is one of those things that gets passed around the lit-blogs, and while it's interesting to see what some folks put on their list, in the end what can it teach us?

Probably it can mostly teach us about ourselves. So, for the sake of furthering my own self-knowledge, I'll play along, and make a list.

It's not like I've never made lists before. Previously, I've made lists of mentors, of books about hermitage, of books I'd recommend as texts for a course in photography, of books worth reading (plus a follow-up), of books I'd make required reading for young critics. Perhaps the lists showing the most overlap with the current exercise are my list of formative books given at the tail of an essay asking how did we get here, and my list of books that turn you on as a writer.

I'm going to modify the exercise a bit more for myself: I'm going to take only fifteen minutes, as proposed, but I'm not going to limit myself to fifteen books. I won't count titles as I proceed, nor put my list in any order, or number it. I desire to make no suggestions of ranking or hierarchy. I will also list collected works, in the case of certain writers whose work, as a whole, has influenced me with more or less equally; I find it stifling to only list individual volumes when more than one from a particular writer is relevant to the exercise. I'll make a list knowing full well that any such list must be incomplete.

For the very important reason: If you're an artist, you're going to be influenced or inspired or responsive to almost every encounter with art that you experience. If you're a writer: What books have you read that have not had an influence on you? If you let yourself go deep enough, this could become the sort of list that partially addresses the question most writers are asked, sooner or later: Where do you get your ideas from? Since ideas as well as experience influence every writer.

With all this in mind, I'm going to list here, out of everything I might choose, only two kinds of books, or writers: those which I am aware have directly influenced my writing; those that powerfully and permanently changed my thinking, my worldview, my conception of life itself.

That's what makes this list more than just another list of favorite books: While there is some inevitable overlap, not all of the books listed here would appear on a current list of favorites (in that I have not re-read them recently), and I must leave several favorite books off a list like this. Yet each book listed was profoundly important to my writing, my life, and my thought.

Viktor Frankl: Man's Search for Meaning

Albert Camus: Exile and the Kingdom

Constantine Cavafy: Collected Poems (for years I've preferred the Keeley & Sherard translation, but the new Daniel Mendelsohn translation is currently rising to the top)

Huston Smith: The Religions of Man

Rainer Maria Rilke: Letters to a Young Poet and Duino Elegies (I could also include the letters, the plays, and the rest of his poetry)

Phillips, Howes, and Nixon, eds.: The Choice Is Always Ours (subtitled "An anthology on the religious way," this volume of excerpts, poems, and essays was so seminal to my life, when I first read through it as a young teenager, that I cannot overstate it's importance; it was my first introduction to Rilke, Jung, Meister Eckhart, and several others)

Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness

Caroline Myss: Anatomy of the Spirit

Matsuo Basho: Oku no hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior) (and his other haibun-style journals)

C.G. Jung: The Collected Works (I suppose I could narrow this down, list only those volumes which I refer to most often; but the truth is, I refer as much to the concepts emerging from the volumes as to the individual volumes themselves; and if you're going to get into reading Jung, you do eventually need to read it all)

May Sarton: Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing and the several Journals

John Cage: the collected writings, with Silence or A Year From Monday most likely at the core of his concepts I most often reference

Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Massage

John McPhee: Annals of the Former World

Barry Lopez: his slim volumes of mind-blowing short stories, especially River Notes, Desert Notes and Winter Count

Frank Herbert: Dune

Alex Grey: Sacred Mirrors

Frederick Franck: Art As A Way and Echoes from a Bottomless Well (and several others)

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass (most especially the "Calamus" section)

Ursula K. LeGuin: the Earthsea books

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep In Thunder

Herbert S. Zim's numerous "Golden Guide" books which introduced a couple of generations of schoolchildren to science; especially, in my case, Rocks & Minerals and Stars (both are still in my library)

José Argüelles: The Transformative Vision

Jerome Rothenberg, ed.: Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin (two huge, seminal anthologies of ethnopoetry and world poetry)

Lyall Watson: Gifts of Unknown Things

Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert

Bruce Chatwin: The Songlines (I changed a fellow composer's life, he told me later, by loaning him this to read)

Conrad AIken: Collected Criticism and his "Symphony" poems

John Blacking: How Musical Is Man?

Antonie de Saint-Exupéry: Wind, Sand and Stars

Stryk, Ikemoto, Takayama, eds.: The Crane's Bill: Zen Poems of China and Japan (Lucien Stryk's various translations and anthologies were central to my introduction to Zen)

Paul Reps: his various books of Zen-inspired "poem-pictures," such as Zen Telegrams

Norman O. Brown: Love's Body

Eric Hoffer: The True Believer

Octavio Paz: Sunstone

James Joyce: Ulysses

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things

Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren

Stop. TIme's up. Yet I feel like I have left off so many books that were equally important and influential. Nonetheless, one can see certain recurring themes even from this short list, and most books I might add to the list would probably continue those themes.

What can be learned from making such a list?

If I were to discuss my choices above, I could in each case describe exactly the importance and/or influence each volume has had on my writing and thinking. These are all books I've thought about, and re-read (if not lately, in some cases), and absorbed deeply. They are the threads woven into much that is central to my thinking even now.

One theme I can see from making this list which might not be obvious to anyone but myself: Reading some books in their original language. As a student, having studied French enough to be almost fluent in it by the end of high school, I read St.-Exupéry in the original, both Wind, Sand & Stars and The Little Prince. I also read Voltaire's Candide in the original, albeit with a dictionary standing by. Later, having to fulfill a graduate school requirement, I studied enough German to be able to read some of Rilke's easier poems in German, and translate a few of his shorter poems for myself. Yet later, spending a year in Indonesia, I read Chairil Anwar's collected poems in their original, idiomatic Indonesian. (Burton Raffel's translations of Anwar's prose and poetry into English, published in 1970, have not been improved upon as yet.) Being required to read these books in their original languages also deepened my absorption in them, giving them more time to have an impact on me, to influence me, to deepen into my memory.

One of Anwar's most famous poems culminates in a line that is both a personal yearning and a reminder of the revolutionary influence he had upon poetry and prose in his own country: "Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi. ("I want to live for another thousand years.") There are resonances and layers of meaning in this single line that would require another full essay to get into.

One thing I observe, in reading some lists made by other writers, is self-censorship. They discuss what they leave out, as I do above, but in a way that censors entire themes in their reading, giving me the sense that their final lists, as given, are neither spontaneous nor honest.

More than one list-maker has made comments that overtly discuss self-censorship; for example, and I quote: In creating this list I'm attempting to leave out the extremely influential genre fiction . . . from my youth and the angry authors . . . who I devoured in high school and, as much as I still appreciate the work, have attempted to remove from my conception of what the novel must do ever since. I strongly disagree with this kind of self-censorship: it's biased and pretentious. It makes the list of influential books seem all too Adult, all too Serious, all too Academic. To be blunt, all too Fine Art Literature. It reveals precisely the bias that "mainstream" fine-art literature critics maintain against "genre" fiction.

You might notice there's not much literary (fine art) fiction on my list. It's mostly non-fiction and poetry. Most of the books that have influenced me have not been literary fiction; especially (fine art) literary novels, which I see many other list-makers biased towards in their lists. It's a stretch to include poetry under "fiction," although I've seen it done; I suppose the premise in such cases is that fiction equates with "anything made up by the writer," in which case a lot of history writing and anthropology are fiction, too.

if I were to exclude the genre fiction read in my youth, which was indeed deeply influential, or the angry literature read in my activist years, which was also deeply influential, then I would be left with almost no novels at all on my list. If I were to include all the science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels and novellas that blew my mind, altered the way I saw the world, and from which I learned a great deal, this list would easily triple in size, and still be incomplete.

I am thinking now of a comment Jerzy Kozinki once made in an interview: Novels are a rehearsal for life. When I first heard that, I thought it was an absurd comment: of course novels are nothing like life, and have nothing to do with life: they're fiction. Years later, however, I realized Kozinki was saying that fiction is a way we can work through moral, ethical, social, and personal problems before we encounter them directly in our personal lives; they are also a way we can clarify our thinking about important issues and choices in life. A sort of virtual-reality practice session for life's deepest dilemmas and most profound questions. (What does it mean to love, and to die?) That is a principle functions of storytelling: To mirror life, to reflect it, to give insight as well as entertainment. A great story is something one can enact, just as one's cultural stories and myths both reflect and guide one through life, by both positive and negative example. The mythic stories in our culture are repeated again and again, emerging time after time in new forms, but archetypally consistent at their deepest levels.

I suppose I could cite more novels on my list. Most of what I would cite would be science fiction, speculative fiction, or novels in translation from other languages, other times. I have been as deeply influenced in my thinking over the years by two or three mind-blowing short stories—say, E.M. Forster's "The Story of a Panic"—as I have been by full-length novels—say, Forster's A Passage to India.

Some of the novels I could cite are "young adult" novels, which is a "genre" dismissed by fine art literary writers even more readily than SF. It seems to me that dismissing YA fiction as juvenile is way some writers try to separate themselves from their own juvenilia, the turbulence of their own coming-of-age. We throw away childish things, when we become hard-core Adults. Yet the books one reads in childhood could validly be cited as extremely influential—even formative—if they made a deep impact on your younger self, so that the ripples still have not settled in the pond at the back of your mind. Fairly tales are formative, as are the myths we read in school: These are our cultural myths, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Above, I cite Sheila Moon's Knee Deep in Thunder, first read at age eleven, never forgotten, constantly echoing in the back of my mind, until encountered again almost thirty years later. I could cite the books of Greek myths I read at that same age. I could cite, even more formatively, in my own case, the stories of Hindu gods and heroes—which I encountered even earlier in life, as I spent the first half of my childhood in India.

To be blunt—and this one of the principal issues around this sort of list, and around list-making as a habit in itself—I'm put off at the moment by the pretensions, subconscious or conscious, of various other list-makers I've seen play with this exercise, who redact their lists (again, subconsciously or consciously) to be weighted towards Great Works of (Fine-Art Fiction) Literature. That pretentiousness reveals very hard-core Adult biases. It's a form of bragging about one's own education and erudition. It reveals the puffery of self-inflated adulthood—else more lists would contain those books that shaped one's mind permanently when very young. If you cite Lolita or Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow, then you'd better not be ashamed to cite Tom Swift or The Lord of the Rings if they were equally important to your younger self as the Great Books are to you now. In other words, don't abandon your formative years, don't suppress your childhood.

And, finally, I tire of what such literary pretentiousness leads inevitably towards: the biases of list-makers who denote their personal lists as Great Books but who denigrate (no matter how subtly or gently) alternates and disagreements as subjective—as though "subjective" denoted a viewpoint less pure, less valid, less thoughtful than one's own.

To be honest, I weary of all similar uses of the word "subjective" as a means of invalidating the viewpoints of others. Have you noticed how some interlocutors work hard to get you to admit to your own subjective viewpoints, then bray "see? told you so!"—while at the same time they are very reluctant and unwilling to admit that their own viewpoints might be just as subjective as yours? That's a way of trying to capture some higher ground by pushing down on the grounds all around you.

One of the less savory dynamics surrounding all this is a tendency on some writer's parts to take on the mantle of authority as a kind of power-play. Of course, what writer-critic (especially one protected by an ivory tower) does not get tempted to impart wisdom, to provide teaching moments, to lecture from authority rather than experience? The list-making urge itself is a "teaching moment" urge—it's hard not to view it as concealing underlying urges towards control and domination—in that it contains inherent choices based on criteria of merit. What I tried to do, in making my own list, was not choose among those books that quickly came to mind, but to be open to letting anything come in. I tried to be as spontaneous and quick as possible, as a means of hopefully side-stepping my own critical biases. I included books, therefore, that were influential but that don't have much fine-art literary merit (according to critical consensus). I also included books that influenced me early in life, but might not have much impact on me, were I to discover them for the first time, now. I did my best not to exclude my childhood and adolescent reading from my list, but to include those books that genuinely ignited my mind in those formative years. (I read both Ulysees and Dhalgren in my 16th year, and saw even at that time several connections and influences between them.)

Avoiding choice is not a lasting solution, however. It's just as silly to say, everything one has ever read has had an equal influence on one, as it is to say, give a list of only fifteen books. It's a fun exercise, but it's too small, and also too big. It did lead me, however, to these meditations on the pleasures and dangers of list-making itself; for which I am grateful.

One final thought, which is perhaps another byproduct of the self-censorship I've discussed above. That is: a certain bias on the part of those engaged with literature to neglect other modes of learning, and of being.

Do all ideas come from books? If your quick answer is "Yes," you might consider the possibility that you're a literary snob, if only in the mild sense that you place literature above all other ways=of-knowing in your personal ranking.

That may not be a bad thing, in itself. But it can become a bad thing if you collapse into the belief that all you need to know about life is what you can discover in books. It can lead to a certain blindness to what surrounds you. It can lead to a certain neglect of other modes of being, a certain inflation of the intellect at the expense of lived experience.

I once was walking in Muir Woods, in California, when a group of observant Jews walked past me on the trail. They were probably out on a daytrip away from their Torah studies in their yeshiva. It was a group of mostly younger men, led by a few elders. They were having a deep philosophical discussion, bouncing between Hebrew and English. They were deeply engaged with their discussion, passionate in that quietly heated tone of voice one overhears in similar discussions. I could hear the excitement in their voices as they passed me by. I was ambling, they were walking quickly, as though on a mission.

And not one of them was really looking at, really seeing, the beautiful, three-hundred-year-old giant sequoia trees surrounding them, sheltering them on the trail, scenting the air, weaving the sunlight into patterns on the fern-covered ground.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I managed 9 off the top of my head and in about 3 minutes flat. The last six took a bit longer. This is the order in which they came and I've added authors where you might not be too familiar with them. I didn't look at your list before I began but now having done so I see we only share one author, Camus. I actually resisted the urge to include The Plague as well. The same goes for Beckett, Brautigan and Dick where I could have included their entire oeuvre just about.

No poets because basically I've been influenced by individual poems rather than poets but the collected works of Larkin and William Carlos Williams wouldn't look out of place on the list. Two science fiction authors (Bester and Bradbury noticeable omissions) and only one collection of short stories (Sillitoe).

What I can see is that most of these are books I read many years ago. Only one book comes from the last five years, and that would be The Body Artist. The majority are over twenty, if not thirty, years old.

Billy Liar (Keith Waterhouse)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Nineteen Eighty-Four
Catcher in the Rye
One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest
The Outsider
A Time of Changes (Robert Silverberg)
A Scanner Darkly
In Watermelon Sugar
The Body Artist (Don DeLillo)
The Trial
Puckoon (Spike Milligan)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Alan Sillitoe)
The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan)

5:48 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I think your point about that these are books first read 20 or 30 years ago, for the most part, is a really good one. It gets at the formative aspect the books that we read early, that helped shape us into what we are.

I'm pleased you see the point, too, about including someone's entire body of work, when it seems right to do so. In your case, I definitely think Larkin and Beckett are that way, from what you've said about them before. I probably ought to have included Plato, and Borges.

I know what you mean about individual poems vs. entire books of poems. I feel that way, too, in some cases. There are a few poems that echo in my mind, that I memorized in childhood, and I can't even think of the poet's name at the moment, without looking it up.

I could have included a Silverberg novel, too, I think; or more like a novella, a length of story at which Silverberg is a true master. Probably "Dying Inside" or "The Feast of St. Dionysus." Certainly something by him. "Sailing to Byzantium" came later in life, but it's a story I've never forgotten.

Solzhenitsyn was someone I tried to read in my teens, for two reasons: He was "hot" right then, having recently gone into exile in the US; and everyone I knew was reading him. I got through "One Day in the Life" but I couldn't get through the rest: far too depressing to read, even for me. Just relentlessly bleak and turgid. I far prefer Pasternak, among the Russians.

You give us an interesting list, with some ideas in there that are good to think about. Thanks.

8:52 AM  

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