I’m late to the party on this, but as you can probably guess from my earlier litblogging it’s really difficult for me to pass up an opportunity to be a tremendous book nerd. With that in mind, here are ten books that had an enormous influence on me, presented in the order in which I read them:
Frank Herbert’s Dune: It took me four attempts before I was able to get beyond the convoluted world-building and stately (to be generous) pace of Book One. But once I did, it blew my little 12 year old mind wide open. This is the book that taught me to read for not just character and narrative, but also the underlying ideas, and that those ideas were at their most exhilarating when they challenged the assumptions and expectations you entered with.
Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: I was a credulous little kid. During middle school I got into all kinds of weird, esoteric, conspiracy theory stuff. You know what I’m talking about: books and televised documentaries about UFOs, ghosts, secret societies, Majestic 12, etc. Bless Carl Sagan for helping to turn me into a skeptic, and describing to me the tools I would need for skeptical, critical thought.
Homer’s The Odyssey: One of the greatest stories ever told. With its jumbled time line and unreliable narrator, The Odyssey was, oddly enough, a perfect introduction to postmodern technique and the ways in which it can completely alter a story you thought you already knew. Plus, I still consider Odysseus one to be one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever read. One important lesson this book taught me that had immense influence on my own attempts at fiction writing: the way Homer presented compelling ideas using the language of Greek mythology wasn’t all that different from the way the best of the modern “genre” writers (I hate that phrase, but it’s useful shorthand in this case) use the language of American myth–science fiction, superheroes and other pop culture miscellany–to tell their own stories.
Philip K. Dick’s UBIK: Case in point: Philip K. Dick, who turned my brain to mush again. His sad, hysterically funny tales of paranoia introduced me to worlds where reality itself couldn’t be trusted and there were no heroes and villains, but only average, slightly shlubby people fighting in vain against the machinations of forces that were barely aware of their existence. His writing ended up playing a big role in my own political/philosophical development, and formed an important bridge between my love for absurd humor because it made me laugh and my recognition that it could also be both tragic and transcendent. I could have put a lot of Dick books here, but UBIK is one of personal favorites, both because of the off-the-wall-even-for-him premise and the way it portrays the minor inconveniences of modern day life as part of something larger and far more menacing.
Albert Camus’ The Plague: My first direct contact with existentialism and absurdism. This book taught me that, despite what I had been told earlier, existentialists were not necessarily nihilists, and could, in fact, acknowledge and celebrate grace. It feels a little weird–and more than a little pretentious–for me to call myself an existentialist, so I’ll stop short of that and just say I think the way Camus (and some of his progenitors, such as Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky) deal with matters of selfhood and purpose has undeniable force to it.
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (The Original Scroll): The critics of On the Road as a work of literature are correct. It drags, it meanders, it lacks perspective … fair enough. But you really have to read the scroll itself to discover how much life and vitality is in it as well. It turns out that Jack Kerouac is a lot like his muse Dean Cassaday; half of what he’s telling you is probably bullshit, but he says it with such energy and conviction that I gladly swallowed the lie. Plus, this book sparked my fascination with travel as a spiritual experience. I don’t know if I would have ended up on the Juan Way Tour if I hadn’t gotten to Kerouac first.
I.F. Stone’s The Trial of Socrates: I owe I.F. Stone and Matthew Yglesias for bringing me around to the notion that it was okay to switch my major from Politics to Philosophy. My academic career has been exponentially more rewarding as a result, and it’s given me a chance to explore what I think are the really big political questions–questions for which The Trial of Socrates happens to be a stellar primer.
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: Simply one of the best history books I’ve ever read. It helped me understand the modern political environment not in terms of isolated events and individual actors, but in terms of the evolution and struggle of ideologies, and how those ideologies were influenced and manipulated in the search for power. But speaking of those individual actors, I think the portrait Perlstein gives us of Richard Nixon the man is absolutely fascinating.
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: If you read the blog yesterday, then you knew this was coming. DFW has influenced me so much that I scarcely know where to begin. For one thing, I think what this book has to say about entertainment, addiction and loneliness are invaluable. But it didn’t just change how I think in an abstract sense; perhaps more importantly, reading this book helped me realize that I was exhausted with being indignant. Since then, one of the major struggles of my life has been to replace my anger and frustration with The Way Things Are with a positive (in both sense of the word) framework of How Things Ought to Be–and whatever small role I can play in getting there.
(I should note here that there’s a dark side to DFW’s profound influence on me: it can occasionally lead me to abuse footnotes. You had better believe editors have given me stern talking-tos over this.)
Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son: It’s amazing how long it took me to develop an appreciation of beauty in literature, but Jesus’ Son was a big part of that. Every single image and thought in this book is somehow both perfectly economical and stunningly gorgeous. I still consider Dubliners to be the Platonic ideal of the short story collection, but this one isn’t so far behind.
Whew! That was harder than I thought. Anyone else read anything good lately?