Monday, March 3, 2014

Top Five Books

I recently heard this interview with an author on NPR where the topic of “Top Three Books That Define You” came up. Let me just say up front that I think it’s a pretty silly concept, both in terms of having to choose only a top three and also as yet another aspect of image crafting (it turns out people often choose at least one classic like The Grapes of Wrath to seem cultured). That said, I got to thinking that I might actually enjoy the exercise of trying to come up with a top ten list of books I’ve read that I might choose to define me. So I did.

Here’s the list of my top five:

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

And here’s the why for each:

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
I’m letting the first book stand for: the original trilogy of three novels; the radio show screenplays, which I read in a collected volume published in the mid-80s; the LP versions, which were later put out on cassette tapes in the late-80s by Simon and Schuster, both of which I bought and wore out; and the 1980 BBC television production. While some of the stuff is dated now, much of it was spot on (the guide book of the title is essentially a galactic Wikipedia on a small iPad). The wit is still as sharp as ever, and the observations on culture, religion, and absurdity remain topical and astute. Among the most delightful concepts Douglas Adams came up with are the babel fish, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, flying as the art of hurtling yourself at the ground and missing, and the entire over-the-top sequence where a giant battle-fleet of war-hungry spaceships gets swallowed by a small dog due to a miscalculation of scale. With a glorious explanation for the origin of the Earth, there’s also a pervading sense that in a very real way, things really aren’t what they seem. Some of my favorite lines, and there are many, include “they hung in the air in exactly the same way that bricks don’t” and “He gazed keenly into the distance and looked as if he would quite like the wind to blow his hair back dramatically at that point, but the wind was busy fooling around with some leaves a little way off.” But rather than re-create the wheel there, here’s a link to 42 of Douglas Adams’ best lines.

Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.
When I was an invincible new marathoner living in northern Virginia in my mid-twenties, a runner friend maybe a decade or so older gave me a copy of this book as a gift. Initially, the title made me think it had something to do with being washed up or something, but I was wrong, and I loved it. Written by a runner in a style that clearly betrays a life-long love of the sport, the novel is alive with energy and humor and tears and joy. Perhaps it’s too dated now, being set in the eighties and all (I think, or maybe it was the seventies), but I hope the inspiring lunacy and infectious enthusiasm I found in it is timeless.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
I love science fiction. GOOD science fiction, that is. I'll be the first to admit that 95% of what is out there is utter garbage, and I don’t blame anyone who hates the genre based on their exposure to it, since it’s statistically likely that they’ve probably only seen the crap. I don’t know why the disparity between good and bad is so huge, but the fact remains: when science fiction is good, it can be REALLY good. Such is the case with this book from 1974, which is the best of the best. Yes, it’s about a future war, in space, and it has plenty of colorful elements of space opera to it, but it’s also very much about Vietnam and the disconnect from society that soldiers often feel upon returning home from “over there.” It’s got laser weapons and tech-heavy space suits, but while there are exciting battles, there’s also the physical, psychological, and surgical horrors of warfare. It’s also a romance that takes place as two lovers skip ahead of each other through time due to relativity issues associated with interstellar travel. It’s amazingly progressive with respect to gender and sexuality for it’s time period and genre. It’s damn near perfect.

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
Here is where I probably alienate many of my religious friends (who, let me be clear, I like very much and would very much like to keep). Actually, I say that jokingly. I trust them to let me speak my mind just as much as they trust me to speak their faith; we're still friends. Anyway, the thing is, I'm an unashamed atheist; I feel I should need no defense for saying that, but I find it’s still often necessary. I live in New England, and I certainly don’t feel persecuted or anything, and we’ve come a long way since the 1950s when atheist was synonymous with communist, which was synonymous with traitorous enemy. But I’m always cognizant of the implications of things. For example, it's never lost on me when religion intrudes into politics, where it so very much should NEVER be in a society of free, intelligent people. Anyway, in the last decade or so, I’ve become increasingly of the opinion that I do not want to or have to pretend that I don’t find the fundamental foundations of religion ridiculous. Specifically, believing in things based on faith. Not the good kind of faith that you would place in a friend, but the kind of faith where you cast aside reason and really believe in universal “truths” and the supernatural despite any actual evidence whatsoever simply because another human said so at some point, and maybe even wrote it down. I don't think mystery needs to be explained with myth. Yes, I acknowledge that some good things have come out of religion, but none of it ever needed faith; people can still do good stuff without believing in fairies. Except for an elegant essay by Douglas Adams, I’d never come across much writing that I liked about the subject. I was disappointed to discover what a dick Richard Dawkins is when I read his book, The God Delusion, and I didn’t think Sam Harris’s book The End of Faith was very well written (despite containing some excellent ideas and arguments; he needed a better editor for that one), so I was pleasantly surprised to find this short book / long letter to be a mini-masterpiece; a perfect distillation of the absurdity of religion (my words). I also really enjoyed God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, which is a wonderfully articulate and heartening rebuke of religion.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Speaking of ridiculous, this intensely cynical satire remains my touchstone of all that is laughably ludicrous and preposterous in the world. Set in the U.S. air force during World War II, it feels a bit like the movie and TV show M.A.S.H. I first read it in 1989 during my senior year in high school, at which time I felt like I’d discovered a secret treasure (“why the hell has no one recommended this to me??” I wondered), and it instantly became my new favorite book. When I re-read it in 1996, I found it to be a bit tedious at times because I saw much more clearly through the style and realized that it repeated the same joke pattern over and over and over again, but I still really appreciated it. Like Kafka and Camus, except much funnier, it mocks red-tape bureaucratic bullshit and considers the absurdity of life in general. It savagely heaps satirical scorn on simple-minded people in positions of power. And near the end it contains a shocking scene of nauseating visceral horror that I just didn’t see coming, and that haunted me for many years after, much as I suspect it was intended to do.  

Here are my many runner-ups:

·      Lost Horizon by James Hilton (the original Shangri-la utopian adventure story)

·      The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (warts and all non-fiction examination of the author’s friend, Eustace Conway; she makes you shake your head at him and admire him)

·      Ishmael by Daniel Quinn (flawed but thought-provoking didactic novel; his non-fiction book Beyond Civilization picks up chewing on big ideas where it left off, and offers a vision of our culture that I can now never un-see: us as a rider on a bike that’s just gone off a cliff and is falling but we don’t know it yet because we’re still in free-fall, but the ground isn’t all that far away…)

·      Neuromancer by William Gibson (the original cyberpunk sci-fi novel, written over a decade before the internet was invented; interesting and insightful)

·      The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (an all-time favorite; majestic and alive)

·      Contact by Carl Sagan (Lots of thought-provoking ideas)

·      Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins (pure sex-intellectual enjoyment; his novel Jitterbug Perfume, while far from perfect, also often feels harmonically attuned & full of sensually shrouded aliveness)

·      Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray (a funny, strange, and honest modern-day soul quest)

·      Anagrams by Lorrie Moore (this woman slings words like Pollack slapped paint; very clever)

·      The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham (a good friend once said of Maugham: “this guy’s tuned IN!”; this book is his memoir; The Moon and Sixpence, his novel based on Paul Gauguin, is awesome too, with invigorating insights into art and passion)

·      The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (inspiring ideas; genuinely moving)

·      Team Rodent by Carl Hiassen (acerbic, funny little diatribe against Disney)

·      A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (very funny AT hiking descriptions)

·      Augusta, Gone by Martha Tod-Dudman (written by a family friend; as real as they get, and set in Northeast Harbor, with 3 references to my mother)

·      Straight Man by Richard Russo (hilarious, heartbreaking, and perceptive)    

·      Kiwi Tracks by Andrew Stevenson (non-fiction account of tramping in New Zealand; full of hiking, heartache, and humor)

·      There’s This River: Grand Canyon Boatman Stories ed. by Christa Sadler (vividly paints people and geography; really felt alive)

·      A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby (1950’s British travel adventure; smartly self-effacing and funny)

·      The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (non-fiction: Men escape a Soviet prison in Siberia in 1941 and trek south all the way to India!)

·      Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams (a masterpiece of interwoven grief and healing, using nature writing about the shores of Salt Lake for analogy)

·      North Country by Howard Frank Mosher (my kinda road trip; traveling east to west along and near the US/Canada border)

·      Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino (excellent, subtle short stories set in Italy; really, really good writing)

·      In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (a very good read; full of intersting thoughts and tidbits about eating and health)

·      Rising from the Plains by John McPhee (has a strange structure, and no real ending, but a fascinating read about geology and life in Wyoming)

·      The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

·      Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

and several key lines from The Great Gatsby, including the extraordinarily rich and layered last two pages, and this passage:

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” 

While I believe there are still so many things to truly wonder at in the cosmos (most of which Fitzgerald couldn’t have even guessed at the possibility of at the time), I still think that line is one of most amazing bits of writing in the history of ever.

And my least favorite book of all time? That’s easy: Ulysses by James Joyce. Don’t even get me started.

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