Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Ten books . . .


In a previous post I noted that I've come across people compiling lists of the ten books that have mattered most to them, the assumption being these books necessarily mattered for the better, because reading is a good thing, isn't it, especially in this digital age, when text confronts such challenges. Such lists are intended to be celebratory. 

I offered, maybe too facetiously, to come up with a list of books that might not have improved my life, that may have sent me into odd tailspins lasting years. But when I think of the books that have had that kind of power I find I can't recant them or spew them out so easily. I wouldn't be who I am without them, though I don't discount the possibility that I might be better.

It isn't just the experience of reading, of course, that I'm referring to; it's what the reading influenced me to think and do — how it oriented and engineered me. To act as if real reading can lead only to good results is to laughably trivialize what books can do.

I have to add that aging matters. Books that penetrated so deeply when I was in my teens or twenties would hardly leave a scratch now. But that's partly because they have, so to speak, infected me, and I've developed appropriate immune responses. (I think it was William Burroughs who compared language to viruses. If so, exposure is the only way to generate resistance.)

I know I'm dodging a bit, as to particular books, so I'll offer this for now: I can easily imagine my life would have been less fevered had I not spent so much time looking for Mescalito, as described by Carlos Castenada in his "Don Juan or a Yaqui Way of Knowledge." Things would have also been considerably different had I not read that book about the same time I was breathing in "The Communist Manifesto" and "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon". The mating of Marx and Mescalito can drive one down extreme paths, especially while such a thing as the War in Vietnam is going on.

Absent such readings I might have been a lawyer, a tenured professor of philosophy, specializing in phenomenology, or maybe even Dr. Blume, specializing in viruses.

I'll get back to this subject of retroactively banning books. I'm interested all along the way in books you might put in the same category as people you wish you'd never met or trusted, drugs you are sorry you've taken, and Doberman Pinchers you didn't get away from in time.

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