Saturday, June 16, 2007

"3 Most Influential Books" Meme


I was tagged last week with the Three Most Influential Books Meme, and haven't been home enough to respond.

The trouble with the phrase "most influential books" is identifying just how they influenced me or what they influenced me to do. So this limit of just three made me think long and hard about books that made me turn in a different direction, as opposed to something like Green Eggs And Ham, which taught me how to read.


So my first is the novel Flicker by Theodore Roszak. I read this book in the course of one jet-lagged night after arriving at a villa in Positano, Italy, and literally couldn't put it down until I had finished it. And then I read it again. What begins as a tale of a film-obsessed college student and his fondness for the horror pictures of German expressionist director Max Castle, turns into something very different. It is an exploration of the gnostic nature of movies and the evil that isn't seen by the eye during the 50% of a film when the projector shutter is closed. It leads to modern-day Cathars, and a frustrating finish that I ultimately realized could end no other way. It is one of the most complex books I have ever read (apart from Umberto Eco's).

What made the book influential to me was the exploration of my own background in film, my love of German expressionism, and the bizarre direction the tale took in introducing me to gnosticism, Cathar heresies, and inevitably, Freemasonry, about a year before I petitioned. I am depressed to hear that Darren Aronofsky is attempting to make a film of the story. It can't possibly translate. And for those who find these concepts dull, there's plenty of tantric sex. It is truly a one of a kind story.

James Burke's Connections, which was written to coincide with his television program of the same name in 1978, made a huge impact on the way I began to look at the world fresh out of high school. Burke took modern technology and backtracked the domino causality back to completely unrelated starting points to show the stream of history and technology. What makes Burke such a joy to follow is the way he weaves an accidental discovery or a medieval invention or a 5th century love affair and follows the ripples they make, culminating in a modern-day technology or event.

Burke has been prolific, and his latest book, Twin Tracks, follows the same sort of concept. What made Connections influential to me was to kick my head into looking at history from a different perspective, and asking why something happened, what made it happen at that time, at that precise point, and how might the world be very different if just one event changed.

My first reading of Douglas Adams delighted me to no end, and depressed me unutterably. I would never be able to think like Adams, write like Adams, or construct preposterous sentences with the deranged brilliance of Adams. And then I once read an obscure piece by him wherein he confessed to having similar equal feelings of joy and inadequacy whenever he read anything by P.G. Wodehouse. I went out and snagged a copy of Wodehouse's Enter Jeeves, and suddenly I knew exactly what he meant.

I am a sucker for Wodehouse and the world of 1930s that he seemed forever trapped in. His stories of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves are a bottomless source of entertainment for me on a whole raft of levels, most especially from the sheer joy of the language. Wodehouse is just plain drop dead fun. And I won't deny that I am incensed by the quirk of fate that I was denied the chance to live in that special niche of time, between the '29 Crash and the beginning of WWII. For a tiny span of years, the world was poised on the brink of a magical future, when the World of Tomorrow was within its grasp, and the optimism of life in the future seemed to be everywhere. Bertie Wooster was part of that mythical world of English upper class twits without a care in the world apart from whether to wear the tweed or the gabardine to the country house. And to this day, I want to be a member of the Drone's Club. In reality, I was disappointed when my Masonic lodge WASN'T the Drone's – the big leather chairs, the cigar lounge, the snooker tables, the huge carved wooden bar, filled with idle brethren who managed to sneak out for a five martini afternoon, throwing great heaping wads of dinner rolls at police officers en masse and getting away with it. "Say what you will, there is something fine about our old aristocracy. I'll bet Trotsky couldn't hit a moving secretary with an egg on a dark night."

There's nothing deep or esoteric or books that stirred me to engage in navel-gazing on this list, and I confess to being bored to the point of enragement by philosophers and their ilk. I recall in my 30s when Carlos Castenada was exposed as a somewhat creepy fraud who (surprise!) made up all of that bilge about Don Juan taking peyote buttons and flying over Flagstaff, how I wanted to seek out the goofball flower child teacher from my senior year English class who made us read three of his books and beat her to a pulp with a Yaqui peace pipe. And the closest I ever got to Kant, Heidegger and Schopenhauer was learning the words toThe Philosopher's Song, It's not that I don't understand what they are getting at. It's that I don't care what they're getting at, in the same way that I don't care what Bill or Hillary Clinton are getting at in their memoirs. That's why I stick to history that is preferably at least 50 years old.

That and Green Eggs And Ham.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

If it happened in your lifetime, it's not history...it's current events.

Historians make their most critical mistake when they decide to write historically about events that happened in their own lifetimes. And historians who follow them use such materials at their own risk.

As a historian myself, who fell early into a deep and abiding interest in international relations during the period between the World Wars, I must tell you that most of what was written at the time and immediately thereafter is bilge of the stenchiest degree. There are some books that shine forth from the muck, but by and large the Beards and the Tansills and their ilk were more interested in throwing dirt on Roosevelt and Churchill than they were in writing objective history.

The same will undoubtedly be said in 50 years of much of the garbage being written right now about the events of the last several years. I assure you it will hold up just about as well as the work of the WWII revisionists has -- which is to say, not very.

-- Nathan

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I left John Toland out of that list of revisionists. I've never been able to read his stuff. It's terrible.

The guy you want to read regarding Pearl Harbor is Gordon Prange.

-- Nathan