My Top Ten (Sort Of) Influential Books, Part 2

In Part One, I got up to nine titles, which I figured was about half the planned Top Ten. The rules, you’ll remember, are that these are not necessarily my favorite books (though most certainly are), or the ones I consider the best, but the ones that have influenced me. I take influence to mean an effect on my writing, my teaching, but also my life. So I’ll begin with a couple from the last category.

Clarence Darrow for the Defense-Irving Stone. I discovered this in high school, and then read all the Darrow books I could find, especially Attorney for the Damned, a collection of his summations to juries and other public speaking. It wasn’t just Darrow himself, though his mixture of clear thought and wit and soaring eloquence will probably never be equaled. It was learning the real history of labor and capital in the United States. The common practices of companies of 100 years ago are both hideous and hidden, and the heritage of that time continues.

The plays and essays of George Bernard Shaw. I won’t single out one in particular (though my favorites are Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, and Heartbreak House). Shaw’s goal ultimately was to teach people how to live, to look at the world as it is, not as you think it should be—and then do what you can to make things better. It was Shaw who said “Don’t do unto others as you would have them do unto you. They may have different tastes.”

Finnegans Wake—James Joyce. My love of Shaw and Joyce, so completely different, come from a pair of courses taught at NYU by Prof. Dan H. Laurence. I’m sure I never would have read Joyce if not for Laurence (not sure about Shaw). But Joyce is one of my heroes—uncompromising, totally committed, lyrical and funny. I’ll probably never sit down and read the Wake from start to finish, but there are parts, especially the last pages, that I’ve read over and over. Joyce was an influence on me when I was writing the comic book Doom Patrol. In retrospect this might have been a mistake! On the other hand, I still think we did some strong stories in DP.

The Wasteland—T. S. Eliot. One of the greatest poems ever written, the best use of Tarot in poetry that I know of, and another major source for my Doom Patrol run. I re-read it every April, and always get something fresh from it.

The Place of the Lion—Charles Williams. Williams wrote mystical Christian thrillers, probably most famously the great Tarot novel The Greater Trumps (source of the expression “78 degrees of wisdom” to describe the cards). They were often clunky, even preachy. And yet— Lion tells of the Platonic Archetypes entering the everyday world through a spell cast at the same moment that a train wreck allows a group of circus animals to escape into the countryside. When I re-read it some years ago I was amazed to see how much the structure of my books stems from this single novel.

Awakening Osiris—Normandi Ellis. Ellis’s loose translation of the so-called “Egyptian Book of the Dead” is quite simply one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. The book shows us how the Goddess can be passionately real in our imaginations and our lives.

For the Time Being—Annie Dillard. I’ve read this small book four times and taught it twice. Dillard mingles science and Hasidism, the sadness of a world that abounds with birth defects and earthquakes along with the love of existence found in science and mysticism.

The Special Theory of Relativity—Albert Einstein. I’m cheating here. Not being a physicist or mathematician I have never read the actual theory, only prose treatments of it. Nevertheless, I have been fascinated by it since college, and even more in recent years. I think of it as the great Gnostic text of the 20th century, with its clear implication that only light is fully real, all that we think of as absolute, such as time and matter, are really contingent on, and relative to, light. I wrote about this, and the connection to the Fool in the Tarot, in my book The Forest of Souls.

A Big Jewish Book—Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz. This is one of a series of remarkable anthologies that Rothenberg co-edited with various people. They all mix modernist translations of tribal and ancient poetry with radical 20th century poetics. These books were so strong an influence on me that when I read part of Unquenchable Fire in my writers group years ago, my partner, who was also in the group, said “Aha, you’ve been reading Rothenberg again.”

SF 12—edited by Judith Merrill. Merrill did a series of “best of the year” science fiction anthologies. In the 12th year she championed the radical “New Wave” work that centered around Michael Moorcock’s magazine New Worlds, but branched out beyond sf to European surrealism. Reading this collection completely changed my writing, and in fact New Worlds published my first story and a couple of others.

Gates to the New Cityedited by Howard Schwartz. Schwartz is most famous for his re-tellings of Jewish myth and folk tales. In this early collection he brought together modern stories from Europe and America based on traditional Jewish themes. Not only did this book show me the power of re-telling ancient stories in contemporary settings, it introduced me to two legends that I’ve returned to again and again, in short stories, novels, and the last storyline of my Doom Patrol. These are the Talmudic tale of “The Four Rabbis Who Entered Paradise” and the strange sad story of Rabbi Joseph Della Reina, who performed a disastrous forbidden ritual to try to force the Messiah to come into the world. As Dr. Joseph Reina, “the child eater,” he appears yet again, as the villain in my story “Simon Wisdom,” in my collection The Tarot of Perfection.

So let’s see. With nine books in part one, and eleven in part two, I think I’ve reached the quota of ten. Did I mention I wasn’t a mathematician? And I didn’t even get to include the brilliant Tarot books of Eden Gray, Gail Fairfield, and especially the indispensable Mary K. Greer, The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tsu, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin, James Hillman’s school of “archetypal psychology,” The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas, the works of Yoel Hoffmann (for the last few years my favorite writer), Major Trends In Jewish Mysticism by Gershon Scholem, and all the vital influences I’m simply forgetting. To those of you who’ve got this far, thanks for reading!

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:39 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you SO much for these, Rachel! Some of them are favorites of mine, too, but some I was completely unaware of, and so I am trundling off to discover new treasure.

    Looking forward to seeing you soon.
    – Beth

  2. Wonderful list, Rachel! What’s fun is to see how many of these ended up on my required reading list for the MFA, and how many of the others were in the margins for “after MFA.” One of the several books I’m currently reading is JC’s Creative Mythology from the Masks of God series. That was also in the margins of my notes from our discussions together.

    How do you have time to re-read anything? There are so many great books yet to read for the first time!

  3. Thank you for this! (Do you have any idea what you just did to my ‘must read’ list?)

    I’m only just reading The Left Hand of Darkness. Enjoying very much my encounter with the Weaver-diviner who foretells ‘to exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.’ 🙂

  4. thank you so much for this list!!!!
    I don’t believe I’ve read a single one of these and I know the list could greatly enlarge my whole world view.
    Looking forward to selling Baba studio wares hopefully at a table near you!!!!

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