by aengelson | March 23rd, 2010
Well, who am I to avoid getting on a bandwagon? I thought I’d play the game of “books that influenced me the most” All the bloggers are doing it, so why not me ? Despite once being an editor, the list exploded to 15. Sorry. Here are the first eight, in no particular order.
(A hat tip to Matt Steinglass, whose own list first got me thinking about this.)
1. Ulysses by James Joyce. It’s been years since I’ve read it, and sadly, my scribbled-in and battered copy was lost during a flood in our home a few years ago. But it’s a monumental achievement: a work of epic scope in such a dizzying array of forms and styles. It is the “special effects” champion of literature, an utterly fearless attempt to transform a 24-hour period into nothing less than a discourse on the history of English literature. It is a puzzle and a thing of enormous beauty—filled with sonorous, lyrical passages. But beyond the literary gymnastics it’s a funny and a heartfelt book about a simple and empathetic character.
2. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin. I was immediately hooked by Chatwin’s wandering yarn about his travels in the southernmost extremes of South America. It’s a tale full of mordant humor and obscure mystery. Chatwin is one of the best at capturing the the intensity of travel, and I think of him as the philosopher-king of travel writers. Chatwin helped fuel my yearning to see the world—both in the literal meaning of traveling to its far corners, and in the more figurative sense: to see the weird wonder of life in every day, no matter where you are.
3. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. This is a very strange book, a deeply odd novel of decadence and madness. It’s by no means the best book I’ve ever read. I don’t think I could even summarize the plot for you, but as a freshman in college, when I read this book, I was awaking to the truly revolutionary nature of fiction. That books didn’t necessarily inform us how to be good—that books could in fact encourage us to be worse than we are. That there were evil pleasures in reading. That writing could tear down and destroy our conventional notions. That a book can be an explosive device.
4. The Gift by Lewis Hyde. This is a subtle but well-argued book on a collection of seemingly obscure and disconnected topics, including Native American potlatch celebrations, the concept of usury, and Walt Whitman’s poetry. Hyde offers up an anthropology of artistic creation: how to reconcile the life of the artist, and the act of “gift giving” at its core, with our capitalist society, which measures and assigns value primarily by money. This book inspires me as I blog for free and nags me to stop saying I “don’t have a job” while I work on my novel.
5. Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. McPhee is a skilled, patient and gorgeous storyteller—a quality rare in contemporary journalists. I always get a little thrill when I see his name in the table of contents of the New Yorker. In this book, McPhee follows around four characters: a mining engineer, a developer, a dam-builder, and conservationist David Brower. All four are painted with the lucidity of a novel (funny how we compare the effectiveness of a non-fiction work to fiction). The portrait of Brower is an immensely inspiring one, and I think this book helped push me into the world of environmental advocacy—where I spent a wonderful six years as a hybrid journalist-editor-advocate-cheerleader working to protect wilderness and encouraging people to hike.
6. The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. This book was a revelation. I kept saying to myself that this was the kind of book I wished I could write. I had no idea that this kind of book even existed. It’s a ramble. Literally and figuratively. Is it fiction or nonfiction? The late German author never really makes it clear. It’s a mysterious book about a man’s meanders through the English countryside. Those travels provide a jumping off point for all sorts of diversions, essays, and philosophical tangents—from the history of Chinese emperors to the loss of England’s oak trees. The book finds astonishing connections in the most obscure anecdotes and is told in a kind of hypnotizing, subtle and erudite prose. Plus, it has pictures!
6. No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan translated by Thomas Cleary. I don’t know if this is the best or most accurate translation of the Wumenguan, the 13th century collection of important Zen koans, but it’s the closest thing in my library to what I would call my bible or spiritual text. These existential puzzles (for lack of a better term)–plus the poems and commentary by subsequent Zen masters that accompany them–are something I’ve pondered for many years. They’re short, terse and ruthless. I am not a regular or well-trained Zen practitioner, but I have spent more time pawing through this book than probably any other on my shelf. It provides a window for me peek into the deep nothingness that precedes and follows our little lives.
7. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I read this book by the contemporary Japanese novelist not long after my second daughter was born. It was a difficult year for me—our house had been flooded in a huge storm and I was approaching middle age. A fatal shooting had taken place at a Jewish nonprofit just down the street from my workplace and much of the year had been spent reporting on the story of two women who’d been murdered on a hiking trail. And I was so busy with raising two daughters and working at a demanding nonprofit job that it felt like I hardly had time to breathe, much less read a novel. I picked up this book, and it took me nearly six months to finish it, but it had a profound affect on me. Maybe it was the recurring image of characters at the bottom of deep wells. Maybe it was a line that haunted me about “a withered corpse of what should have been.” Or the feeling throughout that the narrator was lost in this bizarre inscrutable dream—and how history often reveals itself to be just as surreal and impossible to escape. But whatever the reason, this novel now feels like a friend, a companion in a difficult time.