Sunday, April 4, 2010

How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List

I'm totally stealing this from a friend of mine, but I'm going to do that whole shebang ten thing. I'm doing it because at first I wondered what books, if any, helped influence who I became - how I became who I am. As much of a bibliophile as I am (and I am), the writers who most influence my actual perceptions of reality tend to be on that TV machine. Books tend to be an enjoyable escape, because as much as I love Pride and Prejudice and James Thurber, I'm pretty sure they have not formed the very backbone of who I am. But then, I thought about the books I've read. And then I wondered how I would whittle that list down to ten. So, away we go:
  1. Waiting for Godot - Samuel Beckett. I found Waiting for Godot in high school. It was my first, aside from Whedony works, exposure to that wide world of existentialism. I loved it. There are lines in works, moments, that blow your mind. In the first act of the play, Vladimir's ponderings about the two thieves mentioned in the Gospels was that moment for me:
    VLADIMIR: But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?
    ESTRAGON: Who believes him?
    VLADIMIR: Everybody. It's the only version they know.
    The play wasn't necessarily introducing anything new to my life: I was already an atheist, I already was suspicious of metanarratives, I was already bemused and intrigued by the absurd. But it was the dream-like quality of the play, and the follies of the various participants, the obvious allusion to an absent, if not outright fictional, god, that really struck me.

  2. The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand. Now, years later (YEARS), I've come to the conclusion that I've read this book all wrong, that the philosophy Ayn Rand was expounding probably wasn't what I took out of it, and that all those people who were like, "Oh, The Fountainhead is awesome!" probably got the wrong idea about what I'm about, politically, ethically, and philosophically. And plus, there's that whole rape apologia thing surrounding Roarke and Dominique that makes the book fairly unsavory for me. Don't get me wrong, after reading The Fountainhead I had a period where I read up a lot on Ayn Rand. I knew she was a dogmatic free market capitalist, I knew she was all about the individual. I knew she was if not the than pretty close to it quintessential "pull yourself up by your bootstraps, cuz I'm not giving you one of my dimes" person. And yet. When I read The Fountainhead, I... ...not missed, but pretty much overlooked a lot of that. What I took from the book was, in no particular order, architecture=cool, selfishness=awesome, looking to society for vindication=stupid idea. All of that? I was totally down with. And then, no more than a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that the scene I'd always thought meant "to do charity work for society's praise is just stupid" probably was meant to be expanded to "to do charity work at all is just stupid". So, The Fountainhead influenced me greatly. But I took from the book, "Act selfishly. Actions solely to please others will end up, in the long run, being unworthy of your time and energy, and will get you down in the process". I took, "Do the right thing, even if others look down on you for it, even if doing the easy thing will bring you short term praise and success". But, for me, doing the right thing isn't really about a totally free market capitalist system. It may be about making pretty buildings. I'm not totally sure yet.

  3. Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys. I was going to put The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir here, because I love that book, because it intersected my feminism and my existentialism well, and because it was a lightbulb moment for me, a moment where what I had previously felt was brought into sharp relief via words on the page. But. The Second Sex, although I love it for articulating a matter that had long danced at the back of my skull, didn't really change who I am. It simply gave me another tool to utilize when I myself already knew and tried to explain to other people. Wide Sargasso Sea did something else. One, it made Jane Eyre, a book I have always despised, palatable. Two, did something The Second Sex did not. It took me beyond myself. It was like "The Yellow Wallpaper" in its gradual destruction of its protagonist. It taught me a new way to critique existing works. And, pathetically enough, it brought the issue of race in Jane Eyre into the equation. It was a book that was (I think) better written than the book it was inspired by, and it made me recognize other ways that original text failed, by fixing that failure. By illustrating the other voices in the world we would never recognize if we merely stuck to what is in the accepted literary canon.

  4. A Wrinkle in Time (series) - Madeline L'Engle. I would be remiss if I were to leave this book, and the subsequent books, off my list. Much like The Fountainhead, it occurs to me years later that I again culled something from its pages the writer did not intend, though in this instance it was a bulwark for my atheism. A Wrinkle in Time, having reread it, is an extremely spiritual - and outwardly religious - book. You'd think I would have gotten that from Many Waters being about two characters meeting Noah and interacting with Seraphim, but my obliviousness (and the fact that a majority of my religious education comes from musicals) blocked that reading entirely. Instead, I took from it themes of interdependence, of looking at problems and people through love and not hate and fear, and that being weird was a pretty cool thing to be. That, and the knowledge and the first dimension is a straight line, and the second dimension is a square. Beyond that, Meg Murray was (and is) one of my favorite girl/women characters. She preceded Buffy by about a year. She was so awesomely real, strong and yet flawed, it was incredible. I should also mention that I could recite the entirety of the book A Wrinkle in Time until a couple of years ago, and I could still probably do a couple of the more major passages.

  5. West With the Night - Beryl Markham. My father gave me this book when I was in 6th grade. My copy has the note he wrote to me, explaining why he was gifting it to me specifically, on the inside cover. That alone may explain why this book makes the list. My father introduced me to a lot of books - among those, The Fountainhead. And those all had personal reasons behind his love of them, and wanting to share them with me. But Beryl Markham and her story captured my dad, and made him think of me. So, I read it. And if this were merely a list about books that influenced me because of how well they were written, West With the Night would also make that list:
    How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other.'
    But there are a hundred places to star for there are a hundred names - Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakuru. There are easily a hundred names and I can begin best by choosing one of them - not because it is first no of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create. This is a remembrance - revisitation; and names are keys that open corridors no longer fresh in the mind, but nonetheless familiar in the heart.
    This book, and Markham, however, make the list because she is an inspiration. The first woman to fly east to west, from England to Nova Scotia. She is attacked by a lion as a girl. She is a one time (literally, one time) horse racer. She is the first licensed woman horse trainer in Kenya. And although I still have that note in the book, I'm in awe that she made him think of me, still strive to be as cool, as confident, as ground-breaking as Markham herself was.

  6. On the Road - Jack Kerouac. Yes, it is enormously cliche. And yet. I loved the book. It probably helps that I read it on a long train ride, so it felt like I was actually a part of Kerouac's philosophy and adventure. On the Road is why I spent the summer and the semester of my '50s class obsessed with the Beat and the Beat Generation.

  7. Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life - Dolores Hayden. Every so often, a book comes along that makes me think, a la Chicken Run, "But we've always been egg farmers. My father, and his father, and all their fathers, and they was all..." And then the author fairly hits me on the head and says, "And wouldn't it be so much better if we looked at why, and what that's done for us, and maybe try to do X?" This book is that. This book is when I started thinking about how the structure of our lives and our environments shape our lives and our expectations. How we are, essentially, coveting little boxes on the hillside that are all the same. And how we can maybe go along making a different world, if we'd just change our expectations regarding neighborhoods and soccer moms and mini vans.

  8. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge - Jean-Francois Lyotard. I don't mean to sound like a braggart, but I have an exceptional memory for words. Not names, and not faces, and definitely not tasks I was assigned two minutes ago, but words. Sometimes, that means I can quote what I want out of a book or television episode from memory alone. Sometimes that means I know exactly where to find the exact line I'm looking for in the book or episode. Believe me when I say, I can give you none of this work back. I couldn't even really remember the name of the book, just the author. Maybe it's because it was originally written in French. All I can say is that it has deepened my personal understanding of the world. Lyotard writes about the totalitarian nature of the metanarrative, and about the worth of the more democratic micronarrative. And, as I discovered in my quest to discover which book made the micronarrative something I believe in and agree with, I discovered something else. Before college, I was someone who believed in a reachable, objective truth. I hated anything that touched upon relativism with a passion (that may have been due to all of the moral arguments against my atheism starting with, "If you don't believe in God, there is no moral structure. And if there is no moral structure, then nothing can be immoral"; I'm just saying, those religious zealots trying to convert me kind of fucked me up). And yet, now I still despise moral relativism, and am passionately for micronarratives. Wha?! The answer, as I discovered, also lies with Lyotard. He postulated that there is an objective truth that we humans shall never fully understand. Which is basically my position. High five to Lyotard.

  9. Full Frontal Feminism - Jessica Valenti. I was thinking about putting one of my favorite authors of all time, a Mr. John Steinbeck, on this list. But then I decided he is more of a Jane Austen type of person in my life: a writer I would not willingly live without, but one who has not had a profound influence on my being - aside from making me more of a snobbish reader than I was prior to picking up Cannery Row in high school. Instead, this spot goes to Jessica Valenti. It's like this: I was raised in a feminist household, so Full Frontal Feminism wasn't introducing me to anything I hadn't heard of before. But it was witty and well-written, and so not academic. And since I was reading Lyotard, I deserved some not quite academic-but-progressive reading. And if it had just been that, this book would not be on this list. But Jessica Valenti is the founder and an editor of And feministing led me to other, more substantial feminist sites, which then led me to womanist sites, which then led me to reading multiple blogs daily. And eventually, that led us all here. Without Full Frontal Feminism, I may never have gotten to this particular place.

  10. The Short Stories of J.D. Salinger. I am one of the few people I know who did not appreciate the angst of Holden Caulfield in their own teenage years. One of those other souls is one of my 17 year old sisters, so maybe that inability to be charmed by him is genetic. Because of that, I avoided Salinger's short stories like the plague. I was wrong to (incidentally, my mother was the person who told me I would enjoy them). The first one I ever read was "A Perfect Day for Bananafish". From there, I was hooked. I quickly gobbled up "Franny and Zooey", and then moved on to the rest of "Nine Stories", and then to "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction". I loved the style of writing, the restless and unsatisfied nature of it, the people populating these stories being genuine in a way I'd never felt was true for Holden, and yet all quietly broken. Perhaps more than the short stories and the people yearning to live a life of meaning within them, it was Salinger's ability to retreat from public life that makes these stories precious to me. Salinger managed to both give me, in all, 13 stories I prize. And then, he articulated my belief about writing when he said, "I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure." I write, a lot. Some of that writing is here, the nonfiction stuff, the stuff that is separate enough from myself to share with both the people I know and potentially the people I don't who manage to stumble upon it. But my fiction is all my own.
And there it is: my list. Hopefully, in ten to twenty years, some of those books will have been bumped down the influence chain, with other books taking their place. I'm looking forward to the John Kenneth Galbraith memoirs possibly doing that.

1 comment:

John said...

Dang. You and MM sure are well-read individuals. More than that, you both seem to have been heavily shaped by these works and be able to explain at length how you were. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little jealous.

It's interesting that you think of yourself as being in the minority re: Catcher in the Rye. I'm the only person I know who liked that book, and who found Holden to be the identifiable and forgivable kind of screwed-up and annoying. Everybody else wishes they'd never been forced to read it in high school.