21 July 2009

Fifteen Books

The challenge: "Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes."

I posted my list here, and I didn't try to stick to fifteen, since that would have given me such extreme stage fright I probably wouldn't have listed anything, for fear of missing something crucial. But since I've now been officially tagged here, I'm going to take a second stab at it and see if I can't refine my original list a bit.

  1. The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll. It's the first book I can remember really wanting a personal copy of to enjoy at my leisure. My mother had a copy, but it was one of her treasures, and while she'd read to us from it, she wouldn't let us get our grubby paws on it. I got my own copy for my ninth birthday (I think it was) and I had The Hunting of the Snark virtually memorized in a matter of days. Big chunks of it anyway.
  2. A Gnome There Was. This Henry Kuttner (I think there's some C. L. Moore in there too) anthology introduced me to science fiction. It was one morning when I got up early—two or three I suppose; it was dark anyway—to find my father doing some construction in the living room. Lots of times he'd have me help him out in these circumstances, but I think I must have been getting in his way, because he produced a book and gave it to me to read. (He later told me he'd bought it earlier that day at a used book store in downtown Portland; I think it may have been a replacement for a copy he'd lost.) I didn't stop till I'd read the whole thing by which time the sun was up and the whole household stirring. The standout stories were "Compliments of the Author," "Mimsy were the Borogoves," and "The Twonky." I had never read anything remotely like them before. I was about eleven.
  3. Letters from the Earth. This was an eye-opener, and I read it the year it came out (1962?). Mark Twain was a favorite of mine; I'd read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and then been delighted to find that there were two more Huck Finn stories, even if they weren't up to the quality of the others. But this was a Mark Twain I had no idea of. He spoke openly of masturbation and described sexual intercourse as humankind's chief joy and regretted its absence in heaven. My main exposure to the Bible up till now had been in Unitarian Sunday-school, which meant that I'd at least heard about Moses leading his people to freedom from Egypt (with its civil rights connections), and we'd been through the Sermon on the Mount pretty much word for word. Twain's quotations from the conquest of Canaan were a revelation, or maybe a shock, to me, what with Yahweh ordering His people to slaughter the inhabitants of the land, saving only the virgin women alive as booty. And then there was the unforgettable flood scene:
    Then at last, Noah sailed; and none too soon, for the Ark was only just sinking out of sight on the horizon when the monsters [the dinosaurs] arrived, and added their lamentations to those of the multitude of weeping fathers and mothers and frightened little children who were clinging to the wave-washed rocks in the pouring rain and lifting imploring prayers to an All-Just and All-Forgiving and All-Pitying Being who had never answered a prayer since those crags were builded, grain by grain, out of the sands, and would still not have answered one when the ages should have crumbled them to sand again.
  4. The Looking-Glass Book of Stories. It looks like my copy may have been a casualty of that disaster that took most of my library a few months back, and I can't find a table of contents online, which is irritating. However. This fascinating short-story collection, edited by Hart Day Leavitt, introduced me to a number of favorite authors. I believe it contained Conrad Aiken's "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," Stephen Vincent Benét's "The Devil and Daniel Webster," Thurber's "The Last Clock," and E. B. White's "The Hour of Letdown." (I'm sure I've left out some other gems.) It also had stories by Chekhov and Oscar Wilde and Ambrose Bierce; these don't happen to be my favorites for those authors, but it was a really excellent collection of stories in that while there was some fantasy element to all of them, they were varied stylistically, thematically, and—well, never mind, it was just a great short-story collection. Even when it was an author whose works I was somewhat familiar with, the story wasn't necessarily one I knew already (Thurber, Twain). Damn, I'd like to at least see the table of contents for the thing to refresh my memory.
  5. Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm. This one comes from my high-school era—Christmas, 1967, maybe. As a kid I'd enjoyed take-offs of various kinds, and frankly called them all parodies without really thinking it over. I wrote a number myself—a take-off on Hiawatha describing the antics of modern hunters on other people's property, for example. A take-off on "America the Beautiful" lamenting the destruction of the wilderness. When I was shopping for Christmas presents I noticed a book at J. K. Gills in the Lloyd Center—exactly, this very anthology by Dwight Macdonald. I stood in the aisle leafing through it and was blown away by the contents. These were parodies on a level I had never seen before, quite different from the Mad magazine stuff I was familiar with. I dropped hints about the book, but when I dragged my parents past to show it to them, so they'd know that this was the book I wanted, not some other parody collection, it was gone. That was disappointing as hell, but come Christmas morning, damned if I didn't get the book. I read and reread it a thousand times, probably, and learned about James and Horace Smith, Max Beerbohm, Wolcott Gibbs, all the great parodists, as well as becoming acquainted with writers I'd never known before—Sherwood Anderson, for one. This is the book that taught me about style, and I spent many hours trying to write like Henry James, or Sherwood Anderson, or Beerbohm himself, once I'd discovered his essays. My teachers may have cursed the day I discovered it; I wrote one paper entirely in imitation T. S. Eliot blank verse, for example. (It was about "Murder in the Cathedral," and I did get an A- on it.) Ha.
  6. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Harrison edition). Now we jump back a few years, back to when I was in junior high school. My father was chief engineer at a major Portland radio station, which meant that he could get complimentary tickets to a variety of cultural events—operas, movies, games, rock concerts, all sorts of stuff. One of the available events was the Shakespeare festival in Ashland, Oregon. It was a fair trip, some three hundred miles from Portland, but we made it our vacation one year, and headed down to see two plays. My parents cautiously suggested that we kids could do other things if we felt Shakespeare would be boring, but I at least wasn't willing to admit that there was anything in the world intellectually beyond me, and my brothers weren't about to be left out either. The first play was Macbeth, and I was not bored in the slightest. The hours seemed to pass in no time, and one speech so struck me in particular that when we got back to the motel I borrowed my mother's Shakespeare and memorized it on the spot. (It started "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," and it's everybody's favorite, but I thought it spoke specially to me.) The Harrison Shakespeare also had wonderful appendices explaining the music and the customs and the stagecraft of Shakespeare's time, as well as giving introductions to the other playwrights of the time. I read it practically to death.
  7. It's getting tougher to choose, but Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark may as well come next, I guess. This one is one of those happy accidents, like the way I found Tolkein while looking for Booth Tarkington at the Vancouver public library. I was living at the Oregon coast, house-sitting, while trying to write a novel about Simon Magus. I was trying to get a text of the Clementine Homilies, but I somehow ended up with this strange book about a newly-discovered letter by Clement of Alexandria, telling of a hitherto-unknown version of the Gospel According to Mark. My very first thought on looking the book over (and this is absolutely true) was that it was a very clever hoax by the author; I was particularly impressed by the way he misinterpreted the text to support his hypothesis. That, I thought, lent verisimilitude to the whole endeavor. A forger usually creates a text that magically supports his hypothesis, but to create a text that then had to be tortured to fit—that was genius. When I checked up on Smith, though, I gradually concluded that the discovery had to be genuine; there were too many things about it that were beyond the art of any forger. Of course the question has been opened again since then, and with arguments that range from the intriguing to the utterly stupid (the Morton salt argument being one of the latter), but that's not actually relevant to the point of this particular book being on my list. This book marked a kind of turning-point in my life; researching it got me back into looking at the Nag Hammadi stuff, and that led to me barging in one day to the office of Dr. James M. Robinson in Claremont California, who was then directing the Nag Hammadi project, and he sent me to a woman named Margie Shurgot who was in charge of a little-known program for older students returning to school, and, well, five years later I emerged from the process with a knowledge of ancient Greek and Coptic and a degree in History of Religions. Go figure.
  8. The Motor Boys in Mexico. This is really more of a place-holder; it could have been Tom Swift Among the Diamond-Makers or The Grammar-School Boys in the Woods. After my first failed attempt at college, while I was in the throes of the recurrent depression that has plagued me all my life, I idly picked up one of the old boys series books we had kicking around the house. In my disgruntled and alienated mood I found their casual racism and jingoism savagely amusing, and under the influence of the Firesign Theatre started to create a generic boys series parody. There was Tom Wilshire, the inventor (modeled after Tom Swift and Thomas Edison); Dick Trefoil the savage and none-too-bright brawn of the group; Harry Fletcher, a glib and facile pseudo-intellectual, short Ned Eliot who perpetually made bad puns; and Ersatz Simpson, a colored lad whose eccentricities of speech provided much amusement for the comrades. (Ersatz was the actual brains of the group, a fact never noted by any of the others or by the narrator.) These were the Motor Chums, and, inspired partly by Jane Austen's Love and Friendship and partly by Robert Fish's Schlock Homes stories, I set them loose to do battle against a rival series featuring the Jefferson Aeroplane Boys (one of whom was a girl, by the way). They did really horrible things, but the narrator was always able to justify it with some standard cliche of the genre. These stories proved to be enormously popular with friends and casual acquaintances alike, and deluded me into thinking that I had actual talent in writing. Publishers, unfortunately, never agreed with my limited audience, though I suspect that the politically incorrect nature of much of the humor may have played a role here too. Sure, I was making fun of racism and excessive nationalism and the extreme right-wing economic views that (as things turned out) were about to become the dominant mode of thought in the nation, but I did so by making my narrator a racist jingoist male-chauvinist asshole, and that didn't seem to fly.
  9. Exotic Zoology. Okay, I thought I was going to just list the titles and write a couple of lines about the significance of the item, rather than launching into an incoherent autobiography. I'll try to be a bit briefer, if I can. Fat chance. All right, Willy Ley was one of the great science popularizers of the day, and I read his stuff avidly. Exotic Zoology (a revision of The Lungfish and the Unicorn, a much better title in my opinion) contained sections on fairy-tale fauna, legendary beasts, and odd critters from around the world. It informed me, entertained me, while expanding my horizons in science and in history. Brian Switek's work often reminds me of Willy Ley's.
  10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I don't remember how or when I stumbled onto Hunter Thompson, whom I firmly believe is the single greatest prose-writer of the twentieth century. In some ways it seems like I've always known his work. I don't think prose can do more than, say, the savage Lucy chapter.
  11. The Space-Child's Mother Goose. "Probable, possible, my black hen; she lays eggs in the relative when; she doesn't lay eggs in the positive now, because she's unable to postulate how." Need I say more?
  12. Trajectories Through Early Christianity. Helmut Koester and James Robinson reopened the quest for the historical Jesus in a way I had never thought possible, building on the work of Rudolf Bultmann. This was practically our key to the New Testament when I went to school, or our key to the gospels anyway. It was so refreshing to get out of the damn boxes of New Testament vs. Patristics, canonical vs. apocryphal, and all that pointless crap, and to have a way forward through what centuries of obfuscation had made needlessly obscure.
  13. The Pogo Papers. Walt Kelly's take on the McCarthy era. It shows it was possible to be scared shitless and still laugh at the same time.
  14. The Devil's Dictionary. It's really hard to make a selection from the final bunch. Still, Ambrose Bierce helped shape my view of reality, in part by forcing me to challenge conventional opinions, and his dictionary is filled with gems.
  15. The Stars My Destination. Perhaps the greatest science fiction novel of all time.

The other books I came up with, in no particular order:
  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes
  • The Ambidextrous Universe
  • Barnaby
  • The Gospel of Thomas (or The Nag Hammadi Codices)
  • A Christmas Garland
  • The Thurber Carnival
  • The Frogs (or The Complete Works of Aristophanes)
  • Seven Plays by Bernard Shaw
  • The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus
  • Asimov's Biographical Dictionary of Science and Technology
  • The Starry Messenger
  • I Robot
  • Behold the Man
  • Mindswap
  • Hear the Sound of My Feet Walking Drown the sound of my voice talking
  • The Chronicle of Young Satan

There are a couple of books I could have included for their negative effect on my life. B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity turned me off science and towards mysticism for several years, for example. And Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged along with books by Barry Goldwater and Phyllis Schlafly helped steer me away from conservatism. (And on the other side of that coin, a hilarious book called It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand confirmed me in my loathing for right-wing libertarian bromides of all sorts.) But I took books that will always stick with me in a positive light, and so came the above list.


Laelaps said...

Thank you for the compliment! High praise, indeed! I actually just read Ley's "The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn" a few weeks ago and enjoyed it quite a bit.

sbh said...

I'm a little fuzzy on the book right now; I guess I left the Dodo out of the title. I remember the lungfish section vividly, the way Ley brought together fossil teeth, a paleontologist's reconstruction of a hypothetical ancestor for both legs and fins, and the discovery of a bizarre fish in an Australian river, and made it one story. And I enjoyed the way he made the people involved part of the account, giving fascinating insights into the likes of Hildegarde of Bingen, Frederick II, Georg Eberhard Rumpf. Historical implications, maybe. That's something I enjoy out of your work too, by the way. I mean--Nebraska Man amounts to what? Somebody discovers a pig's tooth, mistakes it for a primate tooth, a couple of years later the confusion gets straightened out thanks to further discoveries. In your version, though, it's tied to larger currents of the time, and we get to see how the personalities of the participants affect the way events play out.

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