Sunday, March 28, 2010

Influential (Actually Published, Actually Read Cover-to-Cover Before I Became A Trained Intellectual) Books, Part 2

The wonderful discussion threads which were prompted by this meme (I'm thinking in particular of those found at Crooked Timber and Rod Dreher's and E.D. Kain's blogs) have left me feeling as though I haven't been truthful--that I've only told half the story, at best. And so, just because it's going to keep bugging me if I don't, I present a second contribution to the "Influential Books" meme--only this time, I'm staying away from the stuff I read as part of my undergraduate and graduate education, and looking at books that I read when young or for fun, completely aside from what I was doing to make me into a officially credentialed member of the academic intelligentsia.

One caveat remains the same, though--these are actual books I really did read cover-to-cover...which means, once more, lots of essays or articles of different sorts (all those chapters from Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization!) which challenged me or got me thinking are left aside. Oh, and I'm also going to fifteen again, just because. In alphabetic order:

Richard Adams, Watership Down--I first read this aloud, to my older brother Daniel, when we were both in about 5th or 6th grade. I picked it up at a book sale, knowing nothing about it, and was subsequently swallowed up by the adventure and characters which Adams gave his readers. I never thought of it--and still don't--as a "fantasy" novel, but rather as a grand moral epic, one which gave me the idea that every type of person (Hazel, the wise and wounded leader; Strawberry, the repentant cosmopolitan; Blackavar, the haunted survivalist) can be part of a grand and shared destiny. It was a book which, even more than Tolkien, bonded Daniel's (who was Bigwig, the big tough fighter) and my (who was Fiver, the introspective mystic) imaginary worlds together.

Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays--Of the many collections of Berry's which I have since read, this first one, read when I was still only beginning to theorize about the appeal which localism and Luddism had for me, remains the best. Perhaps surprisingly, my favorite essay in it is "The Problem of Tobacco," wherein Berry speaks sympathetically, sadly, and wisely about the tobacco farmers he has known, and by so doing expresses well the difficult balancing act which any attempt to live by principles while also living amongst one's fellow beings invariably entails.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol--I have no idea when I first read this story, and I have no idea if the first version I read was a complete one, or one of the hundreds of adaptations out there. All I know is that this story made me passionately devoted to Christmas, and to the liberal lessons it cannot, I think, help but teach.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes--I read through every single one of these short stories, and all four novels, when I was around 13 years old. I knew, even while reading them, that I couldn't be a Sherlock Holmes; I felt no identification with Holmes's deductive, logical brilliance. But they did make me want to be brilliant, and gave me some no-doubt unwarranted pride in the small amount of brilliance I did have.

James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man--The first real work of historical scholarship I ever read. I think I might have been inspired to pick it up by a trip our family took to Revolutionary and Civil War historical sights around the east coast when I was 14. It ignited two passions in me: for America's political history, and for books (I searched for years in those pre-internet years for the four-volume biography this one volume was based upon, finally discovering them in a bookstore in Williamsburg, VA, during a summer internship in DC in 1993).

John Irving, The Cider House Rules--Recommended to me by an English teacher while at BYU as an undergraduate, Irving made me really think about the power of non-mythic, non-epic story-telling for perhaps the first time. I became, for some years, an Irving obsessive, eventually reading all his novels from The World According to Garp to A Widow for One Year. My favorite--and, I think, the best of all those I've read--is A Prayer for Owen Meany, but this book, coming into my life when I was a confused, questioning, horny young man, forcing me to think again about what I truly believed about sex and truth-telling and abortion and rules and growing up, had the greater impact.

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce--I found an old paperback copy of this book in my first missionary apartment in Seoul, South Korea, in the late summer of 1988. I'd never read any Lewis before, though I was familiar with The Screwtape Letters from church leaders who would quote from them (as much as practically any other body of conservative American Christians, Mormons like being able to cite Lewis as he was one of our own). Now, having read much more Lewis, The Great Divorce, a story of a group of damned souls taking a bus tour to heaven, still resonates with me--it is, I think, his finest, wisest, most sharply observed and deeply imagined apologetic work. All of it was good, and parts of it (like the encounter between the angel and the soul struggling with the sin of lust) were shatteringly powerful.

J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground--This tale of the conflict over busing in Boston is a monumental bit of creative non-fiction. No other book or article or essay I've ever read has ever so achingly conveyed the vain ambitions and tragic underside of modern liberalism: the good intentions, the high principles, the inability to relate to the actual human beings caught up in its projects, and the way it so often and so frustratingly (though perhaps also necessarily) sails over deep fissures of class and culture.

Frank Miller, The Dark Knight Returns--Of the big graphic novels that came out in the mid-1980s and were considered game-changers in the comic book world, Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbon's The Watchmen is the one which gets the most critical attention, and deservedly so. I can't pretend that it isn't the superior work; it truly is a masterpiece of comic story-telling. But my heart is with the one I read first: Miller's viciously funny, heavy-handed, emotionally rough tale of Batman's return after 10 years of retirement to a collapsing world. Its politics were frankly fascist; its mythologizing of Batman was crude. But still, panel after panel hit me with Kubrickian force. It's the ugly get-it-done! side of my liberal interventionism which I shouldn't ever let myself forget.

The New Testament
--Wait, you say, you're Mormon; shouldn't you be all about the Book of Mormon? Well, I do take our religion's additional testament of Jesus Christ quite seriously. But if I'm looking for a text that has shaped the fine grain of my Christian thinking, it is simply this. I was on my Mormon proselytizing mission before I ever read the Bible all the way through; I failed with the Old Testament (got about as far as Lamentations), but couldn't get enough of the New. Paul's epistles, in particular, framed fundamental questions and hopes about God and Christ which the stories of the Book of Mormon, I think, at best only expand upon, rather than express so succinctly, or with such poignancy.

Hugh Nibley, Approaching Zion--Here, then, is where my Mormonism comes in. For a religious tradition less than 200 years old, it is perhaps to be expected that Mormonism hasn't yet produced a great many profound thinkers (as opposed to inspired and wise leaders, of which we've had more than a few). Nibley, however, was one such: a scholar of the ancient world who, with a deeply and entirely orthodox Mormon sensibility, used his learning to kindly yet relentless tear apart every compromise the Mormon community (particularly the politically conservative, thoroughly capitalist, environmentally unfriendly, intensely patriotic, western American Mormon culture he knew best) had made with 20th-century life. Long before I'd been able to truly situate myself in regards to all the postmodern philosophy and radical politics I was absorbing, Nibley's essays (in particular his magnum opus, "Work We Must, But the Lunch is Free") taught me--admittedly, perhaps inaccurately--that my faith was egalitarian, communitarian, anti-modern, anti-authoritarian, and delightfully fun. I still agree with him (or at least want to) today.

Orwell, Down and Out In Paris and London--Orwell's 1984 was the best novel I read in high school, and trying to unlock Orwell's argument with and about modern democratic life in the mid-20th century was one of the first real interpretive puzzles I ever consciously took on. In time, I came to love--and wanted to emulate--his essays and reportage even more than his fiction. Despite that, I didn't read this book until I'd graduated from BYU. I was, perhaps not coincidentally, working as a dishwasher at a restaurant at the time, giving me the chance to verify that, however artificially constructed Orwell's persona may have been, his observations about human life and work at the bottom of the food-chain were dead-on accurate.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings--Like tens of millions of others worldwide over the past half-century, Tolkien was my gateway drug to fantasy. The consciousness that history, geography, language, religion, genealogy, all of it, was and, in fact, should be properly understood as the constituent elements of myth-making and world-creation permanently altered not just how I read stories, but the way I valued stories as well. To tell a story that made use of all the adventures and archetypes echoing around our heads well was to do something more than just to have created a fun Dungeons and Dragons campaign; it was to have done something that was, in some profound sense, moral. And who doesn't want to be part of that?

George F. Will, Statecraft as Soulcraft--I read so much George F. Will when I was in high school; I bought big collections of his columns, and I thought his regular mini-essays on the back page of Newsweek magazine were the height of intelligent journalism. I've long since changed my mind about him. But when I bought this book of his (which, dork that I am, I actually was holding in my senior high school photograph), a set of essays he gave at Harvard long before he became a complete partisan, I realized a couple of things. First, I realized I agreed with him at least insofar in that I could never be a libertarian; I like respond to tradition and community too instinctively. Second, I realized he was doing what I wanted to be able to do: to marshal history--Burke! Tocqueville! Marx!--to defend an explanation of government and society. (It took me a few years to realize that was called "political theory"...and then, away I went.)

Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men--A great novel, reflecting a great moment in American literature, yes. But for me, more simply, it is the finest evocation of the feeling of belonging and place that I have ever read. The fact that Warren could so effectively, so lovingly, do this for unlovely people living in the squalid, corrupt political culture of the poverty-stricken Jim Crow south makes it all the more remarkable to me. I have no illusions that I could ever write anything as good as this book. But I do continue to tend to the illusion that, once I found a place for us to be, I could live as fully, as rootedly, as the characters Warren described did. That one, of course, is a work in progress, and probably always will be.


Sam C said...

Hi Russell - your comments on Watership Down suggest that you might be interested in my friend Derek Edyvane's book Community & Conflict: Derek uses WD, and other quest stories, as a way into some interesting thinking his title themes...

Aloysius said...

If you define liberalism as it once was then A Christmas Carol is indeed liberal. But that definition has long passed and now what is called liberalism is really redistributionist statism led by an elite that manages to redistribute much to itself.

The beauty of this story is that Scrooge recognizes his selfishness on his own and changes with only divine intervention, not state intervention. Dickens was a Christian prophet.

Nowadays our "Scrooges" are full of generous impulses in how to use and take other people's money for their self aggrandizement. And Tiny Tim bangs on his still poor tin cup screaming "racist!", "gimme!" and other epithets and is so fat that they have to carry food to him. Meanwhile Charlie Rangel spends Christmas in his luxury Caribbean villa contemplating ways to keep Cratchit and clan dependent on him.