Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The 3 significant books

If you're lucky, you will read one book that will change your life. I have read three. They all occurred to me, not coincidentally, at important turning points in my life. Here are the 3 books, the stage of life I was at when I read them, and what I learned from them.
  • 1. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain 
  • Age at which I read it: Middle school  
  • What it taught me: That we are all slaves to history. Huck behaves the way he does because of his specific time and place, nothing more. Twain's great insight into American life is that it is actually a hotbed of lockstep conformity, not the birthplace of independent thought we flatter ourselves into thinking it is. Nowhere in this book is this point made more eloquently than in the speech that breaks up a lynch mob -- that was Twain grabbing the mic and letting us have it, right there. Also, it taught me that a flawed protagonist is always the best kind. And that Tom Sawyer really was an a-hole. 
  •  2. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger  
  • Age at which I read it: 15  
  • What it taught me: If you're young, better hold on to something tight -- it only gets bumpier from here. Salinger perfectly captured that moment that occurs in every thinking person's life, where you arrive at the cusp of being a grown-up and all you think is "Wait, that can't be all there is to it." More specifically, he nailed the feeling that a certain type of person can have where the foreseeable future becomes all too clear, and it does nothing but fill you with dread. To be young is to be afraid, and this thing is the Rosetta stone for anybody may have (rightfully) forgotten. 
  •  3. The Trial by Franz Kafka  
  • Age at which I read it: 25  
  • What it taught me: Please. The meaning of Kafka's fiction has been puzzled over by literary scholars ever since Max Brod ignored his dead friend's wishes and published his three unfinished novels, of which this is the most complete and therefore the best. Most commonly, his work is interpreted as a critique of totalitarian government, or even an indictment of human society in general. I believe he was going for something far more basic, more primal. The true target of Kafka's satirical barbs was nothing less than the nature of life itself. When something cruel happens to us, there is no sufficient explanation we can come up with for it than "It was just my turn." This has been called "the logic of nightmares," but what's terrifying is that it's actually the logic of everyday life. Like Josef K. penetrating ever deeper into the implacable recesses of the Law, we all try to find meaning out of what is fundamentally chaos, if only because it seems absurd that there couldn't be any. Thus, the human mind is hopelessly ill-equipped to grapple with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Not only is the game fixed, but it's fixed in a way we couldn't begin to understand -- we're simply not built to. And even if we did somehow happen upon an explanation, all it would do is open an endless number of deeper questions, until at a certain point it's time to accept and embrace our fate. 
  •  Sorry for writing so much there, but it's not for nothing this guy is my favorite writer. I know I make him sound bleak, but his stuff is delivered with enough weirdness and ambiguity that it goes down like a cookie full of arsenic. His writing is full of incident that is ridiculous on its face, until you start reading parable into it. And he is no George Orwell, rubber-stamping a message into your brain until there can be no doubt what he's trying to communicate. His writing is strange and fanciful and even sometimes amusing. But it does lend itself to endless interpretation. And there you go. What are yours?

1 comment:

Austin said...

I can't decide so I'm naming 2 of my favorites. You got 3, I see no problem with my taking 2. :)

1) The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde
Jr. High School
My introduction to Oscar Wilde began when my brother was reading the play for an English class and couldn't find a quote and so enlisted help from his younger brother/slave to find the quote. (this was of course before we had the internet). I read the play and fell in love with it, both the humor and the use of the English language Wilde so masterfully employed. I didn't know writing could do what Wilde did, that he could be so funny, so true, and sound so lyrical. He became my favorite writer and the reason I still wish to be a playwright.

2) May I feel said he - E.E. Cummings
High school
I was somewhat friends with the writing teacher at high school, being on the literary magazine staff and friends with her son. I showed her some of my poetry and she said it reminded her a lot of E.E. Cummings. I rented a book of his poetry at the library and hated it. I was shocked that she thought I was like this indulgent drivel. A few years later I was wandering around a bookstore (one of my greatest pleasures I unfortunately don't do anymore due to the recent decline in both bookstores and free time) and saw a book with a poem of E.E. Cummings accompanied by paintings by Marc Chagall, one of my favorite painters. (though that's a list for another day). I read the poem and it was like the eyes of my eyes were opened and I "got" poetry. I became a poetry and E.E. Cummings fanatic and for the next near-decade I tried to be a poet. The poem in question, while chiefly about adultery, I think is much more than that and instead or at least in addition to that, it is about the difference in the way both sexes approach love, sex and intimacy.