Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Books That Influenced Me the Most

Picked this up on Sullivan, floating about the other blogs:

Tyler Cowen lists the books that have influenced him most and encourages other bloggers to do the same.

Hmm.  Biggest problem for me as both an enthusiastic reader in my teen years and as a librarian for most of my adult life is trying to narrow this down to ten.  I dare say a lot of them are over on my Library Thing page (linkage to the right of the screen, no your other right), but some aren't.

I think I'll list them in chronological order as best I can remember:

Thirteen Tennessee Ghosts and Jeffrey - Around Second or Third Grade I was into the paranormal stuff: UFOs and Ghost stories.  The non-fiction stuff.  There were a few titles on the Dunedin Public Library (this was back when it was in an abandoned Publix storefront) and this book I kept reading over and over.  It introduced me to the Bell Witch legend, for one thing.  It made me wonder what had happened to Merriwether Lewis (whose ghost was supposedly scraping at a water bucket ever since his mysterious death).

Han Solo at Star's End - okay, so it's not the Dune or Foundation series, which I also read at the time (between Second and Fifth Grade).  But I ain't gonna suck up to all seven people reading this blog and list 'classic' works and get all mopey and philosophical about the profound literary intents of Asimov and Herbert.  You get the trashy stuff I like dammit!  I grew up to Star Wars: these pulp paperbacks (such as Splinter of the Mind's Eye) were filling in the years between the films and I liked them.  Star's End was fun and had some pretty mature stuff to it - deaths, betrayal, snarky commentary - compared to the other more juvenile titles available to me at the time.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - The first truly absurdist literary work I came across (Catch-22 was five years later).  The first time I realized that not only does God have a sense of humor but that God was sometimes laughing AT us instead of with us.  What amazed me when I go back to re-read his works were the bits of misanthropy I had not realized back in my youth: the jaded despair Adams had for humanity and our inability to see the problems past our own noses.  The mood shifts explained away via the series' most cynical character Ford Prefect, who knew madness when he saw it and knew the best response was to avoid it at all costs and go to parties instead.  I think that's why most H2G2 fans have a hard time accepting the follow-up book So Long And Thanks For All The Fish: it's perhaps Adams' most optimistic book in the series, or at least ends on a happy note...

Batman: Dark Knight Returns - actually it was Issue 2 of the miniseries, but the collected book itself in the end belongs on the list.  It was in Mr. Henderson's journalism classroom back in oh 1986, during a free period between getting school newspapers together, that I spotted a copy of that Issue 2 sitting on a table.  Not knowing whose it was, I picked it up and read it, fascinated by the artwork and the kinetic detail (I put it back when done, btw).  The more I read it (not just the images: the narration balloons, the dialogue, the words themselves) the more I got hooked.  This was the issue with the fight between Batman and the Mutant Leader, with a girl Robin showing up, the Batmobile literally bursting onto the scene as a tank (!), and the intermixing background noise of the DC Universe's fictional media debating the merits of costumed vigilantism.  I had until then a vague interest in comic books, mostly some beat-up issues me and my brothers bought in paperback dealers, but this was what drew me in.  I sought out a direct comic store from there on right about the time DC went through it's Crisis on Infinite Earth stage.  As they were re-booting at the time it was the perfect moment for me to jump in, and I immersed myself (much to my parents' dismay) with the comics culture for about 10 years.  But by 1996 I started to drift away, the costs of keeping up getting too much and the DC publishers having a very hard time keeping track of their convoluted re-booting.  I've stuck to the occasional graphic novel from then on.

Killer Angels - In hindsight, the novel about the Battle of Gettysburg gets a tad... preachy... but it introduced me to some of my personal heroes, especially Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine (seriously, that's how I call him).  One of these days I gotta go visit Little Round Top.

Rosa Luxemburg - we're getting into my college years now, and it's between this and any handful of titles I read for a Literary Utopias class.  Problem there is, I can't recall any of those Utopia titles impressing me too much: like Ferris, I came to realize that -isms are bad and those Utopias all have one flaw.  That utopias are impractical in real-world application.  Actually there's a second flaw with Utopias: the utopian idealist is so intent on creating a model society that any human trait (sins such as greed, envy, lust) that would conflict with that utopia would be ignored rather than resolved, dooming said utopia when that human trait rose up.
So I point you all to a biography of someone I had to read about for another college class, one dedicated to reviewing and comparing/contrasting biographies of famous Great Men of History.  I had Churchill, FDR, and Luxemburg.  Talk about your contrasts.  The first two guys would agree to the Great Man theory of historical thought: Luxemburg being a hard-core communist (international communist, not the Leninist types that dominated the 20th Century) would have argued more for a People's History where the flow of history came from the masses desiring change (in truth, it's a combination of the two: people push for change, but it takes the right leadership to focus that power in the best possible direction).  One of the things I did get from reading the biographies on Luxemburg was that the communist movement wasn't entirely focused on Lenin and his Soviet cronies: there were other commies who disagreed with Lenin's motives and ambitions.  It helped to read up on communist and socialist theory that wasn't tainted by Leninism... and still see the flaws inherent in communist theory.  Leninist party rule led to corruption; Marxism itself oversimplified economics and class systems, and failed to recognize future trends that would lead away from industry and capital superstructure: those factors would lead to its failure at the end of the 20th Century.
There were about three biographies I relied on for the research: I'm pretty sure one was by Frolich, another by Nettl.  The third one might have been Ettinger.  Most of what I got from reading on Luxemburg was sadness of a sincerely-led life gone to waste.

Sandman: Fables and Reflections - part of my comics reading focused on the... macabre literature that DC was publishing that would lead into their Vertigo brand: I had begun reading Swamp Thing just as Alan Moore was leaving it, and from Swamp Thing I picked up the spin-off work Hellblazer (aka the one with the trenchcoat badass Constantine).  A third one began at about the same time: Sandman, which started off as yet another horror-themed series but by the second "volume" began shifting into more high fantasy plot lines.  Where the replacement writers and artists for Swamp Thing and Hellblazer thought it was all about the shock value (and where the artwork for Swampie went into questionably bad pencil/inkwork), Sandman retained high production value especially as one writer - Neil Gaiman - was in charge of the narrative.  No one else wrote a Sandman story.  Over the years Gaiman stuck to various themes, guiding the story lines to what was recognized by fans as a fixed ending - the fall of the Dream Lord - and providing a satisfying conclusion to the series.  Few other comic books - excuse me, graphic narratives - could claim to aspire to high-quality literature (the closest I could suggest would be the Love And Rockets / Palomar series by the Hernandez Brothers.  Dave Sim tried with his Cerebus but it drove him mad).
This particular volume I'm promoting - Fables and Reflections - is a sort of short story collection: in-between the epic story lines Gaiman wrote - Doll's House, Season of Mists, Brief Lives, Kindly Ones - were one-off stories of various characters affected by their dreams and the decisions they made whilst dreaming.  Fables and Reflections collected the ones printed before and after Brief Lives (Gaiman's meditation on mortality, loss, and responsibilities), and included stories of regular people (sort of) and famous historical figures (Augustus the first Roman Emperor, Harum al-Rashid the caliph of Baghdad at its height of legend, Robespierre of the Reign of Terror, Marco Polo the traveler and historian of Kublai Khan).  Among the famous historical figures is Joshua Abraham Norton, a expatriate businessman in mid-19th Century San Francisco who loses his fortune... and through the manipulations of the Dream Lord Morpheus playing against his Endless siblings finds his calling as Norton I, Emperor of the United States.  It was Gaiman's tale that introduced me to the Emperor Norton, and after additional readings on him over the years I've come to respect the man.  You ought to read up on him too.  Then call the city of Oakland and insist the Bay Bridge be named in Norton's honor.  Oakland never did like the Emperor... :(

American Gods -  Gaiman gets two entries here.  Oddly enough I don't think he's the best writer I've ever read (that would be Ray Bradbury: pity his best stuff is short stories and they're spread all over the place): he is however the most enjoyable, and the one who has proven to best mess with the established tropes.
American Gods carried over a theme from Gaiman's Sandman work: that the Gods (the pagan ones) are real, defined not by their own existence but by the belief system and legends created by us humans.  It turns out that the United States is swarming with gods brought over from the Old World, but because of how and who we worship anymore the pagan gods have to 'find work' in other professions: Egyptian gods working at a funeral parlor in Cairo, IL.; a nameless god of fortune presiding over a Vegas casino; the goddess that may have been the Queen of Sheba reduced to a call girl; a Germanic death god reduced to near-retirement at a slaughterhouse; and Odin left to playing con games across the nation.  The biggest problem for these aging gods is that the belief system in effect allows for newer gods to be born: a computer geek god, Media as the goddess of television and its' hypnotic, consuming ways; foot soldiers comprised of every conspiracy theory the wingnuts believe in; and more.  And the New gods are convinced they need to destroy the Old gods to claim America for themselves.
The beauty of American Gods is how Gaiman focuses on how legends are born, on how myths perpetuate and how people even need to Believe In Things (even the fantastic, even the cynical) in order to exist in the Real World.  The plot itself is irrelevant: the fun is in the details and the clues.  And like most Gaiman stories, the climax isn't the big battle or the great moral victory (which actually rarely happens in his works), the climax is... well, that would be telling too much.  Just remember this: only the gods are real...

No Plot?  No Problem! - Shameless plug for the NaNoWriMo.

Price of Loyalty - A book focusing on George W. Bush's first Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, this is a fascinating insider look from a noted business and political figure whose falling out with the Bush/Cheney/Rove crowd was big news.  While O'Neill's early focus in the administration was on getting passage of Bush's prized tax cut package, the later chapters detailing the descent into war-frenzy after 9/11 are chilling.  O'Neill's recognition that the push for an Iraq War required the government to pull back on the tax cuts led to in my mind the most insulting moment in political history: a disinterested, almost nonchalant VP Cheney telling O'Neill "Deficits don't matter."  Trillions of dollars in debt later, Cheney still needs to see jail time for that kind of blase mismanagement and political short-sightedness.
There have been tens of other books published about the nightmare that was the Bush the Lesser administration - Dean's Worse Than Watergate, anything by Glenn Greenwald - but this one by Suskind is more accessible as it has a likable and believable protagonist in O'Neill, whose forays into the world of business (Alcoa executive) provides a surprising amount of humorous moments.

There you have it.  Took me 3 days to pile this list together.  Now, is anyone willing to add my book to their list of influential titles?!  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?!

1 comment:

婉婷婉婷 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.