Friday, September 9, 2016

On My 21 Books

A few years ago, people were posting lists of the 10 books that had stuck with them. Here are my 21:

1. Shel Silverstein's A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Like every kid, I remember reading and re-reading these books, memorizing the poems, running my hand along the illustrations. (Ages 6-7)

2. Judy Blume's Blubber (Age 10). I had seen a lot of movies and TV shows that depicted bullies as large, ugly, fat psychopaths, Aryan bitches, or high school football captains. This was the first book that matched my own experience. There was maybe one villain in the book. There were no heroes.

3. Various Spider-Man comics (Ages 10-11). I read a hell of a lot of Marvel Comics. But Peter Parker always meant the most to me. This essay explains why.

4. Les Daniels' Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics (Age 11). With everything that's come since -- particularly Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story -- there's no reason to read this hagiography. But it was the first book I ever read that explained craftsmanship of any kind.

5. Isaac Asimov's original Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation). (Ages 11-12). Maybe because it made learning and amassing knowledge sound really badass.

6. The Sun Also Rises. (Age 13). I related to Robert Cohn, the anti-Semitic stereotype in the book, which has given me a lot to think about through the years.

7. War and Peace (Age 15). I can't remember if I wanted to be Pierre Bezukhov or believed I was Pierre Bezukhov.

8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Age 16). It was a hallucinogenic rush for at least the first 150 pages.

9. Miss Lonelyhearts (Age 18). The first book I ever read which had a sicker sense of humor than my own.

10. Satyricon (Age 18). I picked up a worn copy of the William Arrowsmith translation at a used bookstore my first week in college. In that stale-smelling orange book lied a pornotopia. Fellini's adaptation is my favorite movie.

11. American Pastoral (Age 20). It taught me what it meant to get inside the head of your diametrical opposite.

12. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (Age 20). To call it conservative means nothing within our current political system. But the book has kept me skeptical of anyone who believes he knows all the answers and anyone who wants to burn down beautiful buildings. It taught me to always be aware of the fundamentalist voice.

13. Darcy O'Brien's A Way of Life, Like Any Other (Age 21). The book is hilarious. A Fitzgerald-esque comedy about 1930s Hollywood, written by the son of Marguerite Churchill and George O'Brien. If I ever taught a class on classical Hollywood cinema, I'd put it on the syllabus and then figure out a way to justify its inclusion later.

14. John Dower's War Without Mercy (Age 22). This was the last book I read in college. I believe it should be required reading for every single elected official in the country and every military soldier. I am not a pacifist. But this book made me rethink exactly why we go to war and the bogusness of the very concept of a "national character."

15. In Search of Lost Time (Age 22-23). I read the whole thing, front to back, during my first year out of college when I was in Vietnam. It was like having a friend at hand, always ready to talk to me about the things that mattered and the things that didn't.

16. Edmund White's States of Desire (Age 24). I picked it up at the office of a gay rights organization in Sofia, Bulgaria. It's a portrait of homosexual America on the eve of my birth, which was also the final years before the AIDS epidemic. It's a joyous book about a world that's long gone and that will never come back.

17. Cancer Ward (Age 24). I also read this in Bulgaria. For most Americans, Eastern European literature will always be the literature of dissidents, of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Milosz.  I could list the wonderful books that push against those narratives, but I give in and list Cancer Ward, if nothing else than for the final chapter's quiet wail against the existence of human cruelty.

18. Primo Levi's The Reawakening (Age 28). The original title in Italian was The Truce, which is more accurate. "Reawakening" suggests a moment of regrowth, a look towards the future that ignores the past. "Truce" suggests a willingness to accept the past, to always remember the pain, and to choose to continue living in a continent that had given the world Auschwitz. Primo Levi is a beautiful man.

19. Anton Kaes's Shell Shock Cinema (Age 29). The first film studies book I ever read and still my favorite! This is how to write about the past, a foreign country with its own way of making movies.

20. Leaves of Grass (Age 30). I read various versions for Ed Folsom's seminar at the University of Iowa, which remains one of the three best classes I have taken on any subject. I'm angry that I discovered this book when I was 30 and not when I was 13. I'm angry at myself for not being more Whitman-ian, for not having more comrades.

21. Slavko Goldstein's 1941: The Year That Keeps Returning (Age 34). It's a memoir/history from someone who had the bad luck to live through two genocidal wars. Among other things, it's a plea for compromise. Goldstein finds nobility in the most mediocre of human beings. Goldstein is another beautiful man.

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