Saturday, September 02, 2006

A List of Books

Liam recently put together a "book meme" and asked five of his friends to do the same. I hate chain-letterish things, so I swore under my breath that I wouldn't do it. But I liked what he wrote, and I appreciate his choosing me. Plus, I enjoyed trying to work through some of the questions. (And, of course, I'm self-centered and want everyone to know what I think about certain books.) I refuse, however, to ask anyone else to do it. (But if you read the list and don't do your own, the phone may ring and your prayers may or may not be answered, and, G-d forbid, your pinkie may get caught in the blender. Or worse. You may be cursed with receiving an endless number of chain letters.)

Weldon Kees

1. One book that changed your life: The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century, edited by Hayden Carruth (Bantam Books, 1970). When I was about fifteen years old, I stole this chubby little paperback in an act of adolescent bravado/stupidity. Most of my experience with poetry up to that point had come via rock and roll. (“I am the Lizard King. I can do anything.”) Poetry on the page seemed a little uncool, something forced upon me by an unforgiving educational institution. Suddenly, with this book, a new world blossomed open; it was like a lightning flash that opened up a magical door. In the work of poets such as Frank O’Hara, Weldon Kees, and T.S. Eliot, I found a whole range of new and interesting voices. The stories they told me about life weren’t the same stories I had gotten from television, school lessons, movies or even rock music. The world out there suddenly seemed a lot bigger and more mysterious, a little darker, a little more intense, but also more intriguing and exciting. I stopped trying to write rock songs and began crafting my words for the page. After a couple of decades and many, many moves, I still have my battered and bruised copy of the book - its cover barely held on by strapping tape - and it still brings me great pleasure. Luckily, I stole a great anthology. Carruth did an excellent job with the poets he included and by choosing interesting work that wasn’t typically anthologized. He did so well, in fact, that the book is still in print after 36 years, an amazing feat for a poetry anthology.

2. One book that you've read more than once: I haven’t read that many books all the way through more than once. I tend to re-read parts of books, sometimes numerous times. I think especially of Pensées by Pascal, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism by Trungpa Rinpoche, the Bible, Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, and lots of poetry. I guess there are a handful of novels I’ve read straight-through twice: The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway and The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler come to mind. Also Going after Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

3. One book that you'd want on a desert island: The Norton Anthology of World Literature. From a practical standpoint, I can’t imagine a better choice. It contains 43 complete works (The Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Death in Venice, etc.) and large chunks of other major works. It also contains a good selection of texts from every major spiritual tradition. And hey, what other book can give you Sappho, Hildegard of Bingen, Rumi, García Marquez, and the dada poems of Tristan Tzara?

La Reina says this selection doesn’t count, however, because it’s a six-volume set. Like she’s suddenly an expert on Desert Island Rules & Regulations. I argue back that there’s a single ISBN and a single Library of Congress catalog record for this title, so it should be counted as one book. (I forget to mention that there are also individual ISBNs and catalog records for each volume, because that would only confuse matters.) We’re having dinner (veggie burgers and fresh green beans), and the conversation’s getting heated now. “And what about the Bible,” I add. “It’s actually a collection of books. Are you saying I could only take Ecclesiastes instead of the whole thing? You want me to tear out that part so it counts?” “But the Bible is contained within one set of covers,” she says, “so it’s okay.” “Oh, so I couldn’t take my three old paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings, but I could take a one-volume edition? That doesn’t make any sense.” This seems to confuse her. She looks like she’s getting ready to flick a green bean at me. I decide I better cool it. “Well, then, I’ll just take the one-volume edition of How to Get off a Desert Island When You’re Stuck with a Cranky Woman.” And that’s when she lovingly offers me her green bean.

4. One book that made you laugh: Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme. La Reina says she can always tell when I'm reading Barthleme, because I have a particular kind of laugh. Kind of mischievous, she says. Brilliant, insightful, poetic, tremendously creative, and terribly funny, Barthelme ultimately conveys a great sense of wonder and humanity, as well as a deep appreciation for the tragic absurdity of life. This collection covers his work from the 1960s and 70s. Almost as good is Forty Stories, which covers some of his later work as well, including the wonderful "Overnight to Many Distant Cities." Honorable mention has to go to Without Feathers, by Woody Allen. I was reading it in the library one day in college and had to put it down because I was laughing so hard everyone started looking at me.

5. One book that made you cry: This was a tough one. I couldn't remember ever having cried while reading a book, though I figured it must have happened at some point. I've cried watching films. I've cried listening to music a number of times. Why shouldn't I cry at a book? I remember the end of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls impacting me powerfully, but I wasn't crying. I still feel haunted by that final scene, though. Reading about Lester Young, Marvin Gaye and Eric Dolphy could have easily left me in tears. I just couldn’t recall. Finally, after a few days, something popped into my head. I remember getting choked up while listening to a tape of Martin Luther King’s speech the night before he died, which reminded me that I also shed tears at some point while reading through A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harper & Row, 1986). It could have been his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or “A Christmas Sermon on Peace, 1967.” It’s a powerful collection from one of the greatest human beings of the 20th Century.

Ben Webster

6. One book you wish had been written: A novel by Raymond Carver. In his great essay, "Fires," he talks about stealing out into his car at night to scribble his short stories and how he never had the time to write a novel. After a long, brave struggle to recover from alcoholism, he finally found some success as a writer and started to attain a bit of financial security. Only to die of cancer. Life sucks sometimes. It would also be nice to read a biography of the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. But at least we have his music.

7. One book you wish had never been written: In response to Liam’s answer to this question, I suggested that the world might have been better off if the Bible hadn’t been written, because so much bloodshed and inhumanity had resulted from it. (The same could probably be said of other major religious works). But then we would have missed out on a lot of beautiful and meaningful writing as well. As Saint Tom said, “If I exorcise my devils, well my angels may leave, too, and when they leave, they’re so hard to find.” Plus, it’s not the fault of the book, it’s the fault of the people who interpret the book according to their own desires, in order to justify whatever crap it is they’re trying to pull. Still, if we believed that Horton Hears a Who had been inspired by G-d and decided to start using it as the sacred text of our civilization, would we really come up with the Crusades again?

8. One book you're currently reading: The Revenge of God: the resurgence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the modern world, by Gilles Kepel. (Originally published in France in 1991, translated by Alan Braley for Penn State University Press, 1994.) Kepel is a leading French scholar of Islam, Professor of Political Science in Paris. His book Jihad: On the Trail of Political Islam is considered by some to be one of the essential texts right now on what’s happening in the Middle East. (See, for example, Juan Cole’s useful Reading List.) I read Kepel's Bad Moon Rising, his (short) personal journal of traveling in the Middle East and the U.S. right after 9/11 and thought it was a unique and lyrical work. The Revenge of God is a more straightforward look at similarities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism as they have responded over the last half-century to “the crisis of modernism” and the perceived threats of secular humanism. He discusses attempts at re-Christianization, re-Islamization, and re-Judaization “from above” (by seizing political power, i.e. Khomeini and the Iranian revolution) and “from below” (via longterm grassroots efforts that can eventually exert political pressure, i.e. the Religious Right in the U.S.) Catholics may find his discussion of Vatican II interesting for being slightly different than one might expect, and for his foresight (he wrote this in 1991) in focusing on a prime mover in the Vatican’s efforts at re-Christianization, a certain Cardinal Ratzinger. He also spends a fair amount of time analyzing the Communion and Liberation movement in Italy, which I knew nothing about, and the charismatic movement in France that was inspired by the charismatic movement in the U.S. a decade earlier. (French charismatics, who knew?! I can only imagine what they sound like speaking in tongues. And how bitchy they get if you don’t speak in tongues as well as they do.) Of course, given Kepel’s background, the strength of the book is probably in his look at Islam and the various movements within it during the last part of the 20th century. I haven’t gotten to the part about the religious right in the U.S., but I did read criticism of that part of the book in a review, that it wasn't a very thorough or accurate analysis. I also haven’t gotten to the part about Judaism, so I don’t know what he covers there. His book is similar to the last part of Karen Armstrong’s Islam, which also discusses militant Islam and fundamentalist Christianity as reactions to a world that has lost its sense of the spiritual in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. It’s an interesting topic, and I find both of their takes on it to be respectful yet concerned, which is I guess where I find myself. I’d like to think that there’s a healthier middle ground than the extremes of Stalinism on one hand and al-Qaeda or the Moral Majority on the other. As I look around right now, I see religion to blame in part or entirely for much of the worst violence taking place in our world – militant Islamic terrorism, the U.S invasion of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare, and the disturbing Pakistani-Indian situation, just to mention a few. I think it’s time for everyone to chill out and put their gods back in their holsters. I doubt Kepel is going to mention any positive paths forward in this book; he’s mainly interested in looking at how we got to this point. That other book is still waiting to be written. And it will be – because this topic is only going to become more important as the 21st century plods forward.

9. One book you've been meaning to read: Ulysses by James Joyce. One of these days, one of these days. I keep waiting for the movie version, but no such luck.


crystal said...

Thanks for the Seven Story Mountain recommendation. Sigh - you are so much better read than I am. Rinpoche with garden burgers ... sounds good :-)

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for visiting and commenting. I don't know about being better read. To paraphrase what someone once said to me about speaking in front of thousands of people from around the world: "I don't know any more than they do; and they don't know any more than I do; we just know different things." I've always loved that line.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, Crystal, if you're familiar with Trungpa and are also wanting to read Merton, why not look into some of his books on Buddhism? Zen and the Birds of Appetite, for example. And I think he has one or two others. I still think Seven Storey Mountain is a great place to start, but it might be interesting to check out one of the others.

Liam said...

Great post, dude. I think there was actually a film version of "Ulysses," but you should read it anyway because it is, in Hemmingway's words, "a Goddamn wonderful book."

"Still, if we believed that Horton Hears a Who had been inspired by G-d and decided to start using it as the sacred text of our civilization, would we really come up with the Crusades again?"


I think the "religion as the cause of wars" idea is somewhat overdone. The Crusades themselves had as much to do with European expansion and the problem of landless younger sons who were trained as warriors as it had to do with religious ideas. Religions are adapted by warlike people to give excuse for aggression and "us against them" identity politics. Sometimes these warlike people are religious leaders, sometimes they aren't. I think this is true in the mideast today as well, where Islamic fundamentalism does not create terrorism, but is rather a badge of identity around which political discontent forms, for a number of reasons. If Isalm had never existed, Bush would be talking about the "Nestoriofascism" or "Mithrafascism" or "Zoroasterofascism" or "whatever different religious group + fascism" would be in the region.

cowboyangel said...

Liam, thanks for the message. I agree that religion wasn't the only cause of the Crusades and didn't mean to imply that it was. But I don't agree that "religion as the cause of wars" is overdone. Simply too many examples throughout history for me to believe it's not to blame in many ways. Religion, like political ideology in the secular realm, leads to a dangerous "I know the Truth" mentality. "GOD has spoken to me and He hasn't spoken to you. I am one of His chosen people." You can do ANYTHING then if you believe that you have God's blessing. You can enslave people. You can consider non-believers less than human and exterminate them without guilt. There are always multiple reasons for a war, most of them borne out of greed and lust for power, but we can't ignore the role religion plays and IS playing right now. It's a bad, bad time for religion right now if you ask me. The kind of stuff taking place today is going to make it very easy for a serious anti-religious backlash in the near future. That's why it's so important for moderate religious people of whatever spiritual tradition to speak up more. If there is a reaction in Christianity, Islam and Judaism against secular humanism and it has led to what's taking place now, what do you think the reaction to this reaction will be like? Spirituality places a key role in my life, but I find myself furious and seriously distrustful of religion right now. Imagine people who don't give a rat's ass about anything spiritual.

Liam said...

No, I agree with you. When I said it was "overdone," I referred to the old idea that "religion causes all wars" or "religion is only good for war." I certainly don't accuse of that kind of simplistic thinking. I guess what I was responding to was the idea of blaming the crusades on the Bible, while provocative, is not really fair -- it's not the essence of Christianity (or of Islam or any number of other faiths) that causes the capacity for violence, but rather what you have described as that absolute certainty, which is not particular to Christianity or Islam, or even to religion in general (Nazism and Communism both function this way -- as matter of fact, diehard communists who say they are free of the superstition of religion are unbelievably naive).

I'm intrigued by your idea about a backlash to religion, although I can't really picture it in my head. What will people turn to? The old-fashioned positivistic materialism? The hollow consumerism that has left so many feeling so empty? Who will turn against religion? The same intellectuals who aren't very religious now? The masses? I'm interested in how you see this happening.

I understand feeling mistrustful towards religion, though personally (as you know) I'm very religious right now without feeling I have to take part in judgemental discourses of certainty (and I'm a Catholic!). I don't feel I have much in common with people who "know" that God hates so and so, even those in my own Church.

Of course, moderate people DO speak out, but no one listens to us. Moderate mainline protestant churches right now are losing all of their flocks to evangelical churches. The problem right now is that we are in uncertain times, so no one wants to hear about complexities. None of that Paul Tillich "doubt is a component of faith" stuff. Tell us who to cheer for, who to hate, who we can look down on. I hope there can be a backlash to that without there being a backlash to God. In a way, I can't see why not.

Steve Caratzas said...

Excellent list!

I'm so glad to see Zone back with some terrific posts. So much to learn about!

Thanks for the recommendations.