My Top Ten (Sort Of) Influential Books – Part One

Politically I would characterize myself as a far left progressive (I see Obama as a right winger). To make sure I don’t get too cozy in my point of view I look for right wing columns to read, even occasionally Redstate.com, though I tend to find it kind of strange and otherworldly (not in the good way). I prefer the sort of conservative the uber-rightwingers like to denounce as soft, or trying to suck up to the supposed “liberal media elite.” Two favorites are David Brooks of the New York Times and his younger colleague Ross Douthat. Douthat recently had a column in which he listed the ten books that most influenced him. In other words, not necessarily his favorites, and certainly not those he considers the “best.” Just the ones that had the biggest effect on him. I think this is a really fun idea. You get to write about books you care about (the book nerd’s favorite activity), and even, really write about yourself.  Mr. Douthat made sure to keep his list to exactly ten (with a few runners-up). Being far left I don’t worry too much about coloring in between the lines. If ten becomes twelve, or fifteen, why worry?

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street—Dr. Seuss. I posted the idea for this kind of list on Facebook and got wonderful responses. Many people figured that the books that most influenced them were the ones they read as kids. I had many favorites as a child, including the Babar stories, and the Dr. Doolittle series. But Dr. Seuss’s first book, about a little boy who walks down the street and imagines bigger and bigger wonders as he goes, kind of epitomizes my outlook. Why settle for reality, or what passes for it among the grown-ups?

Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I loved all fairy tales as a child. Andrew Lang’s color series (The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, etc.), Hans Christian Andersen, whatever I could find. But I always knew that the Grimms’ stories were the real goods—unsentimental, scary, magical. Many of the stories I write are fairy tales, even if set in the modern day, and featuring adults (such as my novel, Godmother Night). The best translation of Grimm’s that I know of is The Juniper Tree by Lore Segal—direct, elegant, beautiful, and dark.

The Lord of the Rings—John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Quite a few of the Facebook comments included this mighty work. I always feel compelled to tell people I discovered it all on my own, in the public library, years before it became a giant fad. There’s an entry further down on this site about Tolkien, so I won’t say too much here, except that I was fairly obsessed with it for some time (until the fad saved me—I didn’t want to be seen as one of those people), and that it showed me you don’t have to adapt existent worlds, you can create an entirely new one. Even though my novel Unquenchable Fire is nothing like TLOTR, I might never have written it without Tolkien’s influence.

Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy—Mircea Eliade. This too I discovered on my own, when most people had never seen the word “shaman.” Eliade did not do any fieldwork, but he sorted through a vast amount of anthropological reports from all over the world, putting together a comprehensive vision of people for whom the “other world” is not theoretical or literary or a matter of faith, but an absolute reality. And a very strange one as well. I think it’s fair to say that the whole contemporary shamanic revival comes from this book—and so does a lot of my writing.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces—Joseph Campbell. JC, as I sometimes think of him, was another of my personal discoveries. I went to a lecture of his around 1965, and went out and got his book right afterwards. That copy is so full of underlinings, and exclamation points, and my own comments, that I am simply too embarrassed to open it! I think everyone in college should have a book like that. Campbell’s views actually became much more complex after this early book, but I don’t think he ever matched the passion and beauty of Hero. It was a major influence on me stylistically, and at least two of the stories he re-tells, The Ruin of Kasch, and the transformation of Gwion Bach into the magical bard Taliesin, have been touchstones for me ever since.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony—Roberto Calasso. Calasso, whose first book was titled The Ruin of Kasch(!), delves more deeply into the Greek myths than anyone I’ve ever read. Stunning, and strange.

The Gate of Horn—Gertrude Rachel Levy. When I was immersing myself in contemporary Goddess writing, I kept seeing references to this book, published in 1948, and long out of print. I figured I should read it but did not really expect to learn much that was new, since after all, so much work had been done, so much important research, since the ’40s. I ended up taking over three hundred pages of notes. Seriously. Though Levy was a scholar, her history of religion from the Stone Age through the Classical world felt to me like fireworks going off on every page. At one point I had the fantasy that if I had to testify in court I would ask to be sworn in with my hand on The Gate of Horn.

The Rider Tarot—Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Not a book in the normal sense, though I often think of the Tarot as a book that you remake every time you shuffle it. I first saw the Rider deck when I was teaching college in 1970 and a colleague offered to read my cards if I gave her a ride home. It’s fair to say that it’s been a major influence in my life ever since. Forty years later I discover new things in it all the time.

The Man in the High Castle—Philip K. Dick. It’s always hard for me to choose my favorite work by Dick. The first thing I read of his was a short story, “Electric Ant,” about an executive who discovers he’s an android, commissioned by his company and imbued with false memories of a life history as a human being. I was amazed by the simple elegance, the intensity of the idea, the visionary quality of the executive’s attempt to find ultimate reality. Much of science fiction is the playing out of interesting notions. What makes Dick’s work so powerful is that it really mattered to him, the question of how we know that we are real was close to life and death. It’s fashionable in literary circles to celebrate Dick’s ideas while dismissing him as a writer. I couldn’t disagree more. The simplicity and spareness of his style are an expression of the bleakness of his vision. And yet, at the same time he can be extremely funny. There are passages in my own work that are direct homage to the style, and vision, and intensity of Philip K. Dick.

Okay, so that’s nine titles, which I figure takes me about halfway through my top ten. More to come!

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 5:43 am  Comments (5)  
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Prophet of His Own Universe

As I write this it is September 2, 2009, the 36th anniversary of the death of J.R.R. Tolkien. Though this won’t go up for a few days, it seemed a good time to think about what The Lord of the Rings
meant to me back when I discovered it.

There’s a famous line about Tolkien—I don’t know the person who wrote it, but it goes something like this:

How did one man, in the course of a single lifetime, become the literary equivalent of an entire people?

The writer was referring, of course, to Tolkien’s creation of a whole mythology, complete with sacred books, founding myths, pantheons of gods, devils, and heroes. The other day I was looking at The Silmarillion, a book I have not read in many years, and was struck that there are actually competing stories about the early stages of the world. This truly reflects the way mythologies build up, for there is never just one story line, one official version. Different sources find their way into the canon.

(People who take the Bible literally are always getting into trouble, not just because they have to accept that all of it is true as history, but also because they have to begin with the assumption of a single author—God. Thus, the fact that there are two versions of Creation in Genesis becomes a real problem. To the skeptics this simply disqualifies the whole text, renders it empty. But there are creative approaches that avoid either absolute literalism or total dismissal.)

In fact, I would argue that Tolkien did something more than create a mythology. His work reads as if it is the source of all mythologies, the original account of a history that gets garbled and mis-remembered in “later” generations and cultures. And the nice thing is, he was smart enough never to spell this out, never to step outside his created world and explain to us, for example, that Numenor is the actual place dimly remembered as something called “Atlantis,” or that the palantiri are the originals of what we now call crystal balls, or indeed, that the Valar were later confusedly remembered as “gods.”

Something struck me as I started thinking about LOTR again. There is no religion in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. No churches, no rituals, no offerings, no priests. Why should there be? In terms of the book they have the solid reality, why would they create representations?

In my previous entry I commented that I discovered the books around 1961, and that the date was significant because at that time, and for some four or five years after very few people—certainly no one I knew, or even read—had ever heard of it. This was before the first huge wave that led to posters, “Frodo Lives” buttons, and some 100,000,000 copies sold. God knows how many copies have sold now, after movies reignited the fans.

Is it snobbery to make a big deal about discovering it myself? Well, partly. When you’ve found something all by yourself and later it becomes a huge craze you don’t want people thinking you’re just another person caught in the wave. I remember, at the height of that first surge, reading a comment in The New Yorker. The writer said it used to be if you went to a party and discovered someone who’d read LOTR the two of you went off to a corner and talked about it all night. Now, he said, when he went to parties, he pretended he hadn’t read it.

The reason why the book remained a kind of secret for so long was another kind of snobbery. Tolkien refused to allow a paperback edition, and in those days almost nobody—certainly not science fiction fans, the most obvious audience—bought hardcover books. There were book club editions in hardcover, but I’m sure Tolkien wouldn’t have gone along with that idea. And no large format “trade” paperbacks, either, for classy books. What we now call mass market was the only real alternative to expensive hardback, and Tolkien considered that beneath him.

Then, in 1965 (or thereabouts, I’m writing this from memory, not Google) the publishers of Ace Books discovered a loophole in the copyright status of LOTR. Somehow, there was nothing forbidding a paperback edition on its own to appear in America. Not Britain, apparently, but America (Britain and the States have always had parallel copyright systems). So they came out with a cheap edition.

I still remember seeing that. It was in a book rack in Grand Central Station, as I waited for a train to go home from college for the weekend. I was thrilled. The book I’d been talking about for years to my friends was suddenly available!

The Ace edition forced Professor Tolkien’s hand. He made a deal with Ballantine Books to publish an “only authorized paperback” edition, and in fact took the occasion to revise the original publication (I believe all hardback editions since then have been the revised version). Ace withdrew (whether gracefully or not I have no idea), and then, amazingly, the books took off, became a full scale generational mania.

Here’s another interesting bit of LOTR history, that I happen to know about. In that first wave the slogan “Frodo lives” became a rallying cry for the fans, seen on buttons and posters in great multitude. I actually know its origin, and saw the original.

One of the very first (if not the original) campus cults for LOTR, from before the paperbacks, was at Columbia College in New York. In fact, the very first person I met who’d read the books without me pushing them at him or her was a woman from Columbia who was dating a friend of mine.

My friend invited me to go somewhere with them, and when we were in his car together he said to her “Go ahead! Say it!” His girlfriend then said to me “Have you ever heard of a book called The Lord of the Rings?”

That period was not terribly long after the early death of the great jazz genius, Charlie Parker, known as Bird.

(People assume the nickname came because his music soared, which it certainly did. But in fact it was short for Yardbird, a reference to him being kind of a momma’s boy when he was young and hanging around at home a lot. Again, this is memory, not Google, so I may be off.)

In tribute to Parker’s music, and his everlasting influence, someone came up with the slogan “Bird Lives.” As a joke, someone in the Columbia Tolkien group spray-painted “Frodo Lives” on the wall of the 96th St. subway stop. When the craze began, the expression took off.

Does all this sound like I resent the fan mania that took away my special secret treasure? Actually, I was grateful for it. My fascination with LOTR had become something of an obsession, and the craze kind of eased me out of it.

Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t thrilled when the movies came out. But that’s a subject for another time.

Next: The Return of the Tarot, with an entry on “Tarot Blessings.”

Published in: on September 7, 2009 at 4:32 am  Comments (5)  
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