Thursday, November 03, 2011

Fifty Cult Books, Some of Which I've Read

I'm as skeptical of "top 50" or "top 100" lists as you are, chain-smoking over-caffeinated neurotic cynics that you are.  So when an English friend recently sent me the Telegraph's list of the "Fifty Best Cult Books," I was all set to start complaining about it.  Then I read my friend's note, appended to the URL: "here's something to attack."  If there's a real value to lists of this kind, it's that you can attack them, as my friend suggested.  Such lists, like the contents of anthologies, provide wonderful opportunities for arguing and howling with derision—pleasures not to be disdained!  They also allow one to remember one's own encounters with the listed books.  And by encounters I don't just mean reading experiences: books are (for the moment—we hover on the cusp of an electronic era) physical artifacts, things one runs across in particular times and places.  So here are my off-the-cuff notes on my experiences of the books on the Telegraph list.  I reckon I've read about two thirds of the fifty.


Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
         I read the bejesus out of Vonnegut when I was a teenager.  I even read God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.  I wrote a blog post once about how Vonneget comes by his absurdism honestly, unlike most of the young guys who read him, who are only going through a brief phase of junior-varsity level absurdism, as I was.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
         My mom likes the books of Durrell's brother, Gerald, who writes about exotic animals.  When I was in junior high I got mixed up about this, and bought a copy of Lawrence Durrell's Black Book as a gift for her.  Do not repeat this mistake.

A Rebours by JK Huysmans
         It gets dull as hell in the middle, but there are some really good bits, like the part where the protagonist holds a funeral for his libido, and the chapter about how he builds a kind of pipe organ for making combinations of perfumed scents—after which, when he catches a breath of fresh country air, he passes out.  But beware: reading this will diminish Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray for you, since you'll see how totally derivative it is.  If this book is the Beatles, Wilde's is Badfinger.  Or maybe ELO.

Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock
         About three years ago, just before my daughter was born, my wife and I loaded up on books about babies and parenting.  It's sort of our approach to things to research the hell out of them ahead of time (you can take the happy couple out of grad school, but…).  Never read the books.  Turns out this parenting thing is experiential.  Who knew? 

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
         Never read it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
         I teach Plath's poems to freshmen, because the early ones are technically very fine, and therefore a good way to show students what technique is good for.  The later poems are shrieky and over-the-top, but they tend to like that.  As for The Bell Jar: I dunno.  Maybe I went out with too many girls who read it.  I keep my distance from the thing.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
         The Telegraph says "literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book."  Too true!  It'd be as if Shelley has called his sonnet "User-ma'ra" instead of "Ozymandias," which was just a Greek garbling of the Egyptian original.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
         I hate Salinger.  I hate everything about Salinger.  Pretentious, precious, and unaccountably over-rated.  But this is all probably the result of having read it for the first time when I was in my late 20s.

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield
         If you ever see me reading this, rip it from my hands and use it to slap me upside the head.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart
         Never heard of it.

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken
         My parents were a bit too old to be hippies, though my dad had been a kind of beatnik.  But they had hippie friends in the 70s, hangers-on at the university art department where my dad taught.  One of them had a house where the doorways were hung with dozens of little hand-made brass bells, and all the toys were unpainted wood.  They had a copy of this book, and they were very keen on talking to their plants. 

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
         I wanted to like this book, because I love walking around New Orleans.  But I did not find the protagonist charming.  I wanted him to pull an Edna Pontellier and just swim out into the Gulf and be done with it.

Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
         I love this book.  Not only do I love the full candor about the contradictory nature of the soul, I like the way Rousseau confesses both his crimes (he probably got a servant fired and thrown into prostitution) and his misdemeanors (pissing in the teapot when he was a boy).  He's a sexual oddball too: likes to be smacked on the butt by a girl pretending to be his teacher. So if that's your thing, he's your guy.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
         I've had a copy of this somewhere since the mid-90s, but despite the great narrative gap in the title ("Justified sin, you say? Do tell!) I'm just not motivated enough to crack it open.

Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health by L Ron Hubbard
         I read part of this as research when I was writing the John Matthias chapter of my book Laureates & Heretics.  Matthias' poem "Bucyrus" is based, in part, on the lunatic teachings of Hubbard.  I thought the poem was bizarre, but it's got nothing on its source.

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
         This is better than people think it is.  I keep coming back to Huxley's description of the mind as a "reducing valve" that filters out the "irrelevant" parts of experience, unless we derange it a bit and see things anew: it's actually helped me explain Kant a few times, and I think it's a useful concept for discussing not only LSD experiences, but the disinterested perception of art.

Dune by Frank Herbert
         Back in high school I lent my paperback of this to a friend.  I was very insistent that he return it in good shape, since he was known for being a bit of a barbarian.  He read it and got it back to me, but instead of talking about it with him I started to give him a big lecture about how it was important to handle things with respect.  Just then my grip faltered and the book slipped, the cover tearing in half.  He laughed and I deserved it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
         Everything I had to say about adolescent absurdism in that post about Vonnegut (link above) applies here.  But I don't think Adams has a profound experience of absurdity: his is absurdity  more the mild, suburban, youthful kind that you and I experienced.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
         Whenever I read Wolfe I think there's no need for sociologists: Wolfe does it better.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
         Never read it, never going to read it.

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
         See my note on Fear of Flying.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
         I actually did start reading Atlas Shrugged once, just to see what the asshats were on about.  I don't think they're on about much.  And don't think Rand ever got over the Soviets taking her father's small business away.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R Hofstadter
       The Telegraph says this is 
"about what it means to think, and how that happens, this is written in the spirit of Lewis Carroll. Pattern recognition in the work of geniuses. Loved by maths geeks and anybody with Asperger's syndrome and anyone with sense. But at root a chess textbook."  That's about right, I think.

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
         I think I missed the window to read this.  It's a Cold War book, right?

 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln
         Never heard of it.  But the Telegraph says it's like The Da Vinci Code, so I don't think I'll be getting a copy.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
         Knew a young woman who thought highly of it.  Told her I'd read it.  Hadn't.  That was a long time ago.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
         Along with the passages of The Prelude in which Wordsworth talks about how he can't pick a topic, this is one of the great literary stuttering sessions: a whole set of beginnings, left hanging.

Iron John: a Book About Men by Robert Bly
         I'm just not going to go in the woods and beat drums with you guys.  Sorry.  But good luck with that.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and Russell Munson (1970)
Odious treacle.  But I was happy to read this, from the Telegraph: "Richard Nixon's FBI director, L Patrick Gray, ordered all his staff to read it. Later, he resigned for gross corruption, a fitting punishment for his dreadful taste."

The Magus by John Fowles
         Go see Anthony Quinn in the movie version instead.  The book isn't bad, butAnthony Quinn is notably absent.

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
         Erudition both real and imagined, fun-house mirrors reflecting other fun-house mirrors: what's not to like?  The only problem is that if you get truly hooked on Borges and are of a completist disposition, you'll end up reading the sonnets he wrote late in life, and Borges will be much reduced for you.

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
         The jacket of the paperback I've owned for something like 15 years boasts that this is one of the greatest novels ever written.  I begin to wonder whether I'll ever get around to finding out.  I mean, I even left it on a side table for a while, but it just ended up being used as a coaster.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
         I was on a thesis committee for a young man writing about this book.  Read both the thesis and the book, liked them, but the thesis defense turned out to be all about Russian social history.  I listened and nodded before voting to approve the project.

No Logo by Naomi Klein
         I'm on her side.  But this thing would have been much better if it were, say, 15 pages long.

On The Road by Jack Kerouac
         Back in my undergraduate days I had a big orange Viking Critical Edition of this.  I read it in the apartment of the guy from whom I used to buy pot (he's now a radio D.J. in Montreal).  One day his brother came in from the benighted small town where he lived and borrowed it.  He played drums in a band, and lent it to the bass player, who lent it to the bass player in another band that went on tour in a crappy van.  I lost track of that band somewhere on the Canadian prairies and the book with them.  It was exactly the right way to part from that particular book.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
         I devoured this thing one weekend around 1990 instead of reading whatever I was supposed to read for class.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson
         If it had been the fifties, and I had been twenty, I think I'd have liked this.  But it was a couple of years ago, and I was forty, and it wasn't doing much for me.  Some books are too much the product of their time and place to mean much outside of those co-ordinates.  Others (like Catcher in the Rye) seem keyed to a certain age group.  This one, I think, is tied to both time and generation.  I wonder if its moment will ever come round again.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
         "Where does one find other books like this?" asked a short, squat, vaguely street-person like Latin American man in a sky blue suit and dark glasses who had cornered me in the old Aspidistra Bookshop where I worked.  "Where," he continued "are the books on how one lives?"  I sent him to the self-help section, which I consider a failure on my part.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
         I really want to read this someday, since it seems like the good ole left-wing religion.  But when I say "I really want to read this," the statement  needs to be measured against my continued inaction.  Maybe I don't really want to read it that badly.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám tr by Edward FitzGerald
         When I'm feeling sentimental, I kind of like this.  When I'm feeling cynical, it seems like kitsch.

The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
         Never read it.  I think I only ever read travel writing when it appears in Granta.  I've loved old issues of Granta ever since I read the one called "While Waiting for a War" back when I was a freshman.  That's the issue where I fist encountered Hanif Kureishi's work.  I still love The Buddha of Suburbia, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
         Back in grad school I shared a house with a biologist doing a postdoc.  A German colleague of his dropped by once looking for him, but he was out.  The German saw my complete set of Hesse on the shelf and, in an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent, asked "do you like Herman Hesse?" I've always been a bit ambivalent about Hesse, thinking him good but didactic.  But I didn't want to insult a German writer in the presence of a German, so I said "yes, yes I do, very much."  "Ach," said the German biologist, "I hate Herman Hesse."  

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
         I put this on the syllabus of a graduate seminar I and a senior historian colleague were teaching.  I taught it as a kind of statement about the turn to morbid emotion brought about when the middle-class protagonist is shut out of the position he deserves by aristocratic snobbery.  "Nice little Marxist reading," said my historian colleague, before demolishing it with the great snowplow of German romanticism.

Story of O by Pauline Réage 
       "A guaranteed detumescent," says The Telegraph.  Opinions vary.

The Stranger by Albert Camus
         Apparently a lot of books on this list make me think of my post on Vonnegut and absurdism.

The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda
         I know a guy who keeps saying he's going to write a book about this.  Somehow that seems wrong.  It just feels like this book should have been abandoned after Jimmy Carter lost to Reagan.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
         Never read it.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
         I really don't think Nietzsche should have attempted this.  Except for The Birth of Tragedy, all of his best work is in the epigram and the fragment.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
         Do you wish she'd written more?  Not me.  I think it's kind of perfect just to have this by itself.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry into Values by Robert M Pirsig
         When I was 14 I objected to my English teacher about the books we were reading, saying they were juvenile.  She said I could write an essay on something else if I wanted to.  I declared I would write on Zen and the Art of Motorcylce Maintenance, which seemed to my young self to be both sophisticated (zen) and badass (motorcycle maintenance).  When I got the essay back, her sole comment was "did you read anything beyond the jacket?"  I had not.