Friday, March 19, 2010

Books Without Pictures

Matt Yglesias listed 10 books that influenced him, and briefly put, I have a few more books to add to my never-ending list. Even more briefly put, any time there's a chance for me to compile a list, like, hey, why not. I don't have anything so pithy to say by of introduction as Matt does, only that as an ex-English major, my influences naturally tend towards fiction (no real capital-T Theory here, which I'm not patient enough to absorb).

In no real order (though the first entry is my favorite novel ever):

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Hilarious, kinky, profane, blasphemous, cruel, and, yes, labyrinthine. The last adjective is the reason for Gravity's Rainbow's "difficult" reputation, but compared to Pynchon's other novels, I'd argue that GR relies the least on plot (particularly V., Against the Day, and even Inherent Vice) -- there's extraordinary pleasure in getting swallowed up and lost in the novel's immensity, a brand new maze of a world.

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje
The first time I realized that prose fiction could be so mellifluously poetic (kind of fitting then that Ondaatje's poetry is so prosaic), and got me thinking seriously about narrativity.

Ulysses, James Joyce
Far from the perfect novel, in my eyes -- I still don't care a whit for the Stephen chapters -- but for terribly specious reasons, Ulysses had an inordinate influence in my decision in going to grad school. (At one point, I wanted to become a Ulysses scholar, but, hah, as if.) For all of its notoriety, though, I don't think it gets credit for its humor. (And having just reread it, the Circe chapter laid the absurdist, hallucinatory foundations for writers like Pynchon, Delillo, etc.)

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond
Reading this, combined with some half-remembered undergrad sociology, persuaded me to a deterministic worldview. (Yglesias and the comments on the have piqued my interest to William McNeil's Plagues & Peoples.)

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, Kay Redfield Jamison
I read this during a pointedly difficult time in my life, and in addition to explaining the overwhelming helplessness people feel when gripped by depression and other mental illnesses, I was staggered by the reprinted suicide notes, terrible in their poetry.

Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art, Wendy Steiner
Venus in Exile was a crash course in aesthetics and formalism for me, not to mention a great narrative on the anti-feminist impulses (among other impulses) in art that began in modernism and which trivialized beauty and the beautiful in art. I also really enjoyed Steiner's The Scandal of Pleasure, which is more focused on the politics of art.

The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman
I've never had an interest in Harry Potter, partly because of my long-held disdain for Kid Lit, but if there's one book that's convinced me of the merits of the genre, it's The Golden Compass (AKA The Northern Lights). Pullman creates an enduringly unforgettable heroine (and I'm not a little mad at him when the next two books of His Dark Materials actively work to marginalize her) and a panoramic adventury story that, even with the talking animals, comes off as utterly mature.

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick
Softened my kneejerk lefty mistrust of the military, with a potent line that I'll paraphrase: that the way to liberalize the military is for people like Nathaniel Fick, a cerebral, high-achieving Dartmouth junior, to join the military. Anyone who characterizes soldiers as mindless, conscience-less thugs and murderers would do well to read this as a corrective. (A great companion book is Generation Kill by Evan Wright, which covers much of the same ground but from the perspective of an embedded reporter.)

The Trial, Franz Kafka
The first Kafka that I loved, it sharpened my taste for the dystopic absurd, with a story that could be set in any time frame at all.

On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, Robert Alan Burton
A neuroscientist explains how people reach certainty (oy, this sounds like Hegel...), and shaped how I think about how biology may determine things like faith and religion.

Indie rating: Spiritualized - "Medication"

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