After completing this post I was stuck trying to think of a title for it. Then it occurred to me –”That’s it!”
The Armchair Anarchist posted yesterday on a book meme, and since we’ve been having a round of literary liberality lately among my circle of bloggers, I thought this would be timely to pass along. (Disclaimer: I am an Amazon associate, and links to books below employ my ID.)
Ten questions for you, along with my answers:
1. One book that changed your life?
Finite and Infinite Games, by James P. Carse. It’s not the most profound thing I’ve ever read, but at the time I read it (twice) it presented such a shift in thinking about life and relationships that I’d have to give this little book the GPI (Greatest Personal Impact) blue ribbon. Runners-up include Tao Te Ching and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
2. One book you have read more than once?
I rarely re-read books, but I have read the Tao Te Ching (D.C. Lau translation) eight times at different stages in my life. Each reading yields new insights that usually challenge my current model of the world in some way. For such a short work, it seems impossible that I could have missed these points on prior readings, but it happens. This book and a few others tempt me into formulating a theory I’ll call the Camden Concision Coefficient: for any philosophical work, the number of words it contains is inversely proportional to the number of readings required in order to obtain a certain level of appropriation. In less mathematical terms: shorter takes longer.
I’m anxiously awaiting apotheon’s promised translation of Tao Te Ching for comparison. I haven’t learned enough Chinese to make a stab at it myself. OK, really…almost none.
3. One book you would want on a desert island?
Difficult question, that. It would certainly have to be a book to which I could often return, so the Tao Te Ching would obviously qualify on that score. However, since that volume can be read at a leisurely pace in about an afternoon, I think even the Tao could become wearisome after several hundred readings. I would need instead a tome that could occupy me for several months to a year at each reading, yet provide enough new insights or entertainment each time to be interesting. I can’t really decide, but some possibilities include the collected works of William Shakespeare, or those of Friedrich Nietzsche, or Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or The Thousand Nights and One Night, or even a decent translation of the Bible (my Hebrew and Greek aren’t good enough to go with the original sans lexicon).
4. One book that made you laugh?
Lots of books make me chuckle, but I found myself laughing out loud every day when reading The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series ranks a close second. Both writers often employ the device of withholding important details from the reader until late in the description, then nonchalantly letting them out, to humorous effect. Twain also reverses the roles, telling a story from the viewpoint of someone who lacks knowledge of an obvious and important detail. He even likes to play jokes on the reader.
5. One book that made you cry?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, by Mark Haddon. This book let me see through the eyes of someone dear to me, and gave them a voice for what they could not speak.
6. One book you wish had been written?
To me this is the most difficult question of all. If I could answer it, then I would immediately drop everything and write that book. Perhaps I presume too much on my abilities, but I think that if I could see such a vision, I could project it onto (virtual) paper.
But lacking a fully developed theme, what would be some of this book’s characteristics? First, it would open you, the reader, to self-understanding, and to understanding others. That doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be a non-fiction work. Perhaps fiction would work even better. Through the adventures of the characters, you would become aware of all that ties us together. Perhaps more importantly, you would also come to fully recognize your own uniqueness: the beautiful and the ugly, the petty and the honorable, the smart and the stupid, the evil and the good, the healthy and the sick, and the just plain different — and embrace it as your self. The book should transcend mere human values and experience (to the degree that is possible) to envision commonality and contrast with the rest of the world. That’s not to say that it should be a science fiction work, either — merely that it should provide some external viewpoint on human nature to complement an intensely internal one. When you finish the book, you should think “now I know what it means to be human.” No — “now I have begun to find out what it means to be human.”
7. One book you wish had never been written?
I am such a lover of literature that the question itself seems blasphemous. But of all the books in the world, the one that I think has done the most damage is The Revelation of St. John the Divine, aka the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Even though other apocalyptic sections in the Bible, the Apocrypha, and external literature can be just as fantastic and susceptible to multiple interpretations, none of them has contributed more to the teleological preoccupation of Christian theology, and the corresponding proliferation of bizarre theories to explain events in terms of “the end times”. Luther at least showed some sense in his opinion of the work.
One of my favorite passages from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (52):
In the Jewish “Old Testament,” the book of divine justice, there are men, things, and speeches of such impressive style that the world of Greek and Indian literature has nothing to place beside them. If we stand with fear and reverence before these tremendous remnants of what human beings once were, we will in the process suffer melancholy thoughts about old Asia and its protruding peninsula of Europe, which, in contrast to Asia, wants to represent the “progress of man.”
To have glued together this New Testament, a sort of rococo of taste in all respects, with the Old Testament into a single book, as the “Bible,” and “the essential book,” that is perhaps the greatest act of daring and “sin against the spirit” which literary Europe has on its conscience.
IMHO the Book of Revelation carries this weakening trend to its farthest extreme, masked in a poor imitation of the grand style of the Old Testament.
8. One book you are currently reading?
Metamagical Themas, by Douglas Hofstadter. I’m only re-reading the chapters on Lisp, but I can recommend the entire collection of essays. More than twenty years after publication, Hofstadter’s still a geek on steroids. Superfood for thought.
9. One book you have been meaning to read?
About a hundred books on my shelf have been patiently waiting in the queue labeled “have been meaning to read”. However, next on my list is The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson, which rudely cut in ahead of the others.
10. Now tag five people.
In alphabetical order:
Plus anyone else who would like to comment or trackback. I would have tagged you too, Randy, but you’ve told me more than once that you don’t read books.
I’m looking forward to all of your responses, especially for numbers 6 and 7 — which I found the hardest to answer.