A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:
“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”
There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.
But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.
Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.
Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.
“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.
His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:
“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.
“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”
It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.
“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”
“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
That ain’t Hemingway.
But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.
But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.
The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.
The intensity, the engagement is the thing.
“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”
Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.
Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:
“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”
The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.
I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.
If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.
The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.
These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.
Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”
“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”
For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.
And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.
Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.
NEXT: The books age with their reader