Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ten Influential Books

I've seen lots of writers lately giving a list of their "Ten Most Influential Books" in their lives. It's an interesting bit of memoir-play, or self-awareness-spelunking, to go back through a life and see what books really were so significant to you as to have influenced you forever after. As a non-professional-academic-literary-non-English-teaching non-writer, of course I have some caveats.

It's a facile and easy meme, and I wonder how shallow or deep it is, really; shallow in the sense that it's all too easy to proclaim oneself as part of the literary pack of smart people by listing those recognized classics of literature that everyone puts on a pedestal and worships, even if they haven't really read them. (Maybe Vladimir Nabokov really was one of the greatest writers ever; but right now, it's so fashionable to laud and worship him, it's impossible to make an accurate assessment, and anyone who is not 100 percent voluble in their praise is seen as heretical.)

Ten is of course an arbitrary number; I might list a dozen instead. (Why do so many list-makers choose ten? Is it out of imitation of many "Ten Greatest...." lists? Or is it perhaps a reflection of our numerical system being established in base 10?)

This list can never be complete; for every book I discuss here, I must leave at least two out. I'm going to miss books I'd want to include later. I'm going screw up, in other words; which pushes my Recovering Perfectionist buttons, and makes me want to spend hours on making a list so that it's as perfect and inclusive as possible.

I have to say, most of the Most Influential books in my life have not been works of literary fiction; some, but not the majority. One or two literary classics, even, but my list contains a lot more psychology and spirituality. As an artist, I'm not influenced by books about art so much as the art itself; likewise, as a composer of music. I'd have to make separate but parallel lists of artworks and musical compositions (or albums), which I won't do here and now.

I must admit, I feel a certain perverse reverse-snobbery in pointing out that what I find most pretentious about many of the other lists I've read, that is, their lists of Great Books, is something you won't find here. I acknowledge the reverse-snobbery of my feelings, yet I hope not to have fallen into pretentiousness. I'm quite sincere, below, in what I've listed; and quite sincere that I've left off many other books that had similar deep impacts upon my life. Am I so different from other readers who can claim that reading books changed their lives, for the better? I don't think so. The trope of books expanding your consciousness is, I believe, sincere; where I find insincerity or pretentiousness in some of these lists of influential books is when I've read entries that seemed to be there out of literary fashion, or of course they were "supposed" to be there. Frankly, I'd rather see some writer proclaim that Maurice Sendak meant as much to their literary development as did Nabokov; that is a form of authentic acknowledgment one might sincerely accept.

So I'm going to list some books that really did influence me, many of which most folks have no doubt never heard of. My criterion is simple: These are books that changed my worldview, that opened doors to a wider world for me, that blew my mind in a good way, that broadened and redefined reality, that expanded my consciousness permanently. So herewith, my list no more arbitrary than anyone else's, less fashionable than most, and completely idiosyncratic.

In no particular chronological order:

Sheila Moon: Knee Deep In Thunder. A young adult fantasy novel written by a renowned Jungian psychologist and poet. I remember seeing this book in the elementary school library in Ann Arbor, when I was 11 years old, and I was at first caught by the title. I pulled the book and off the shelf, and began reading it, and was immediately pulled in. The novel is a fantasy quest adventure story, but it is based on the Navajo creation mythology, which makes it unique. This was my first introduction to Navajo cosmology, and the cast of characters in Navajo myth cycles, which has fascinated me every sense. Reading this book led me to study Navajo religion throughout my school years and after; it led me to study many other Native American spiritual systems; it led to my minor area of study being Native American music(s) in graduate school in ethnomusicology (my principal study area being Javanese gamelan). My worldview was profoundly affected and altered. It was 30 years later before I found my own copy of the novel, which I discovered at that time was also the first book in a trilogy.

Isaac Asimov: Fantastic Voyage. The first hard science fiction novel I ever read. Actually a novelization of a campy but fun SF film so full of holes in its logic that Asimov not only rescued the premise in his novelization, he turned a B-movie into a terrific book. It's rare when the novelizations are better than the movie, or as good, or fill in the gaps. (Another such case is Orson Scott Card's excellent novelization of Jim Cameron's movie The Abyss. Although I have to give credit to Cameron, too, as most of what made no sense in the original theatrical release was fully explained in the extended director's cut, which added fully half an hour of film.) I read this novel when I was 13, and it opened the door to a lifelong reading of SF. Asimov led me to Bradbury, Heinlein, Clarke, and many other great writers; Asimov edited the massive three-volume anthologies of the Hugo Award winning short stories and novellas up to the 1960s or so, which was a great way to discover other writers, than go find the rest of their stories and books.

Harlan Ellison, editor: Dangerous Visions. The anthology of new SF writing that heralded the New Wave in SF: which is to say, the absorption and adoption of literary experiment and form, such as stream-of-consciousness, and radical content, such as overt sexuality, into science fiction, opening up and revivifying a literary genre that had not gone moribund, exactly, but had indeed fallen into some literary pulp habits at times. This led me to seek out the same techniques in (mainstream, literary, fine art) fiction (call it what you will, just don't presume that it contains better writing than in SF, as it does not), which led me to Beckett, Kafka, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and so on. The values and techniques of (literary, fine art) fiction as applied to science fiction led to discovering those same values and techniques everywhere. Which led me to read everything by Joyce by the time I entered college at age 18; with the exception of Finnegan's Wake, which took a few years to get through; but in fact I have read the Wake, which is more than even many critics seem to have bothered to actually do. Dangerous Visions, to be more accurate, reflected its times, it didn't initiate them. Around the same time, Heinlein published Stranger in a Strange Land, Ursula K. LeGuin published The Left Hand of Darkness, and so on; what DV did was gather together in a huge anthology these literary changes in SF that were already going on: the anthology magnetized and oriented and illuminated the synchronistic literary trends.

C.G. Jung: Answer to Job. Still one of Jung's most remarkable books, it answers the questions of theodicy by showing how the Old Testament God who abused Job's good graces was in fact an undeveloped personality that needed humankind's moral evolution to become whole Himself. (I would argue that that evolution is still on progress.) This was the second of Jung's books that I read; the first was Mandala Symbolism, which attracted first as a visual artist interested in cosmology. In my 20s, I worked in the Undergraduate Library at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; it was a part-time job while I was in college myself. Most of the time I sat at a desk waiting to assist library patrons; the many volumes of Jung's Collected Works were on the shelves near by, and I started reading from one end of the shelf to the other, eventually getting all the way through the CW in a few years. That led me to ever deeper studies in Jung and his ideas, which continues to the present day. I can't pretend I comprehended all of it, but it did open doors in me; and I am re-reading the CW now, with deepening understanding and appreciation.

George Leonard: The Silent Pulse. One of the best of the wave of "new age" books exploring the frontiers of science and human consciousness, and where they converge, this book touches on brain research, theoretical physics, social theory, alternative states of consciousness, emotion research, martial arts, and centering meditation—and it does so lucidly, compellingly, and without hermeticism or jargon. (Literally one of the best-written "new age" books I've ever read.) Leonard also includes personal experiences gleaned from his work as a teacher, as a student of Ki Aikido, and as a participant in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. This book sticks with me, still, because it synthesizes together a great wealth of personal development material and makes it utterly practical, utterly performable, and positively inspirational. We might wish more "inspirational" books actually were: this one actually is.

Dorothy Berkley Phillips, Elizabeth Boyden Howes, Lucille M. Nixon, editors: The Choice is Always Ours: An anthology of the religious way. I first this themed anthology in my teens. It consists of several hundred excerpts from the writings of religious thinkers, poets, psychologists, philosophers, artists, teachers, mystics, and other, all organized thematically into three large sections on The Way, The Techniques, and The Outcomes. Many similar books have claimed to be eclectic in their pursuit of similar studies, but have remained parochial because their writers could not expand their viewpoints far enough. This anthology, by contrast, is genuinely ecumenical, in every sense of that term. Reading this book was part of my personal quest, begun at age 13, to try to understand my own spiritual experience; I read it alongside another classic, Huston Smith's The Religions of Man. This anthology was my first introduction to writers and thinkers who would later become very central to my own thinking—the essence of influence—and experience, including Jung, Rainer Maria Rilke, Mesiter Eckhart, Edward Carpenter (homoerotic poet and philosophical disciple of Walt Whitman), John Donne, and many more. (Sheila Moon also appears in these pages, as do more Navajo chants.)

Jean Valentine: Ordinary Things. A slim book of poems in a spare, evocative language that doesn't say more than what it says, and thereby opens the door to vast caverns of human experience in which the flickers of light do not outnumber the shadowy mysteries. Valentine conveys intense, powerful emotion with very spare, condensed, almost haiku-like images and phrases. The pauses in some lines are like shocking blows to the consciousness: they stop you abruptly, then let you move forward again, into a narrative you may not fully understand intellectually but are completely absorbed in emotionally. There is no hermeticism in this poetry, no deliberate obscurity; rather, the poet gives us just enough to fill in the gaps from our own experience, to "finish" the poem from our own lives. This is what makes these very personal poems become universal and archetypal. I was strongly influenced by this book of poems, when I discovered it around age 19 or 20. I pulled it off the shelf at the University Bookstore, and was spellbound; I must have stood there for an hour, reading the entire book before purchasing it to take home and re-read it several times over the years. Jean Valentine's poetry, in this volume in particular, gave me permission, I felt, to write the kind of poems that I wanted to write, that I heard in my head, that it seemed like no one else was writing, or wanted to write. Her style and tone were so close to what I was hearing within myself, that to see that someone had not only written such a variety of poetry, but had published a book of it, was liberating and inspiring. (I have no doubt that many early poems of mine were imitations, as I learned my craft; this is one very typical and valid form of apprenticeship in poetry, and eventually one grows into having one's own unique voice. But we all began by imitating those who triggered us.) To be given permission to do what you want to do, to write how you want to write, to be the person that you want to become—this, too, is the essence of influence.

Jim Marion: Putting On the Mind of Christ. Even though I am not a Christian, but rather a post-Christian, and even though Jim Marion is a rather conservative Christian, he is also a mystic whose descriptions of his experiences of mystical Christianity transcend any sectarian differences to manifest something genuinely universal and ecumenical. How can I describe this book? It's one of three systems of cosmology that all appeared in my life at about the same time, all coming from different directions that had never heard of each other (I believe), yet describing essentially similar realities. (The other two were Dr. Caroline Myss' seminal book, Anatomy of the Spirit, and the teachings of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, an organization I pursued studies with for a time, and still think fondly of.) Marion's book is about the inner experience of Christian spirituality; a book for mystics and spelunkers and clairvoyants. He describes seven levels of human consciousness, and how each level relates to human personality and experience. He also spends several chapters on the dark night of the soul; which is what first drew me to this book. And he ends the book with consciousness that human and divine are not-two, but One: the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now, in nondual consciousness, that each person can experience for themselves, if they do their inner work with dedication and endurance and commitment. What Jim Marion articulates and confirms (as do those others mentioned here), is my own intuition of the structure of unseen worlds; he led me to see that I was not alone in my perceptions and feelings: a form of validation and confirmation.

Barry Lopez: Winter Count. (Along with River Notes and Desert Notes.) Lopez is one of our great creative nonfiction writers, a superb essayist and writer about naturalist and anthropological topics. These short books are short stories—fiction, although it's often hard to tell that they're fiction, as they often read as pure reporting or fieldwork notes. The line between fiction and nonfiction is blurred, even missing at times. In this, Lopez follows on the heels of, on the one hand, the great naturalist essayist Loren Eiseley, and on the other hand, the Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges. The flavor of Lopez's stories is occasionally Borgesian; yet it is also akin to the Native American storytelling traditions of the Pacific Northwest region, where Lopez makes his home. "Magic realism" and "Surrealism" are literary terms that are of little use to us here, because these short stores are more rooted in life than in theory; they may arise from the same psychological and archetypal substrate that also gives birth to Surrealism and magic realism, but they are their own flowerings, not the clones of any other.

Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman. This was one of the first "popular" books published about shamanism, that could be found at the local corner bookstore, and not be found only buried in an academic bookstore or library. Harner's work on shamanism was with tribes in South America, and he used his experience to develop what he calls "core shamanism," which is at root a universal practice of spiritual technology. When I read this book the first time, I had been searching for the roots of my own spiritual experience, and had been led towards shamanism; but this was the first book that connected my experience with my reading. From its bibliography, I was led towards many other valuable books on the topic, some scholarly, some popular, all of them useful to me for explaining myself to myself. There was also an influence on my art, which has been called shamanic numerous times; namely, that evoking my experiences of shamanic states of consciousness in my art—in fact, of celebrating and recording them in my art, writing, and music—led me towards a genuine calling to be a healer whose healing happens through his creativity, be it on the individual or environmental levels. So this book opened doors for me, for which I will always be grateful.

Others I might have included:

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

Matthew Fox: Original Blessing

Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness

George Mackay Brown: any of a number of his volumes of poetry, although Fishermen With Ploughs would probably be at the core

Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren

and so forth

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