A look at titles that have stayed with me.
My artist friend James Prochnik recently listed "10 books that stayed with him." He offered up some great books, none of which I've read — yet. Then he challenged me to come up with my own list. I didn't have to think about it for long, but I did have to restrain myself in summarizing them. I’m ordering the books as they came into my life, starting at an impressionable 16, and ending at an increasingly sclerotic 42 years of age.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Haley's influence in this book makes it timeless. Malcolm is the microcosmic example par excellence of the northern, urban African American in 20th-century America. His reason and his emotion altered every previous pathway of my thought. My mother gave it to me when I was 16, and she had no idea how it would change me politically, spiritually, intellectually, psychologically…my awakening. The one book everyone should read.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I read this separately from my undergrad studies when I was 20. I've never stopped seeing “the future” from Huxley's eyes. Be wary, my friends. The divided world of haves and have-nots comes increasingly closer with technological development, environmental degradation, terrorism, war, and viral and bacterial pandemics.
- The Floating Opera by John Barth. An audacious, ridiculous first novel that inspired me to work with the structures of fiction. The first time I (at 24) felt connected to an artist’s meditation on death. I’d been writing lyrics I’d hoped to sing in the imaginary rock band which would make me a success. When that flamed out, fiction offered me the best chance to synthesize my varying interests.
- The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I was 23. How corrupt was the Soviet Union? How horrible can humans be to each other? What chance do any of us have for redemption? The totalitarian state examined from the inside. Solzhenitsyn must have been a hard man to deal with, but this is one of the key documents of the 20th century.
- The Bhagavad Gita. Action is the answer to existential truth. I've never seen it expressed more forcefully. Not sure when I first came across this; 21?
- A Death in the Family by James Agee. Painful beauty. Love and sadness. 22.
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Funny, funny, funny. Just hard to read. But discovering the key to this book, at 35, made me a much better reader and writer. The key is, we can never attain our ideals, but we can enjoy the pursuit (and failure).
- The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Sorry to be so literary, but once you've reached salvation (which I did at 35), you can't forget Dante. He never intended you to stop reading after Inferno! If you complete the journey through Purgatorio and Paradiso with him, if you understand his story, then you have achieved salvation. You are an enlightened person.
- Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault. I was introduced to Foucault when I was 35. His project was the examination of the historical development and structure of society’s institutions, how they employ their power, and how individuals must work to free themselves. He meant to be obscure, but his message is positive. You can create your own identity in response to the cultural and social pressures around you. Power doesn’t only move in one direction. You can achieve autonomy by joining in a community.
- What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula. A concise encapsulation of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. I read it at 42 and teach it to the students in my composition classes. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path provide even clearer and more hopeful structure to an individual building their own life than Sterne, Dante, or Foucault.
I amazes me that my mind was capable, with wise guidance and the revelations of time, to comprehend and incorporate these books into the building of my identity and my life. The irony is that this list can only do anybody else a small bit of good. If I owned and ran a school and these books were the assigned curriculum, it would defeat the purpose of this list. Most I read at my own impetus. That sort of serendipity is entirely idiosyncratic.
However, if you want to approach the highest levels of human knowledge, to perceive from the lofty perspectives a mind can reach, perhaps this list is for you. And I can’t neglect Toni Morrison, Gertrude Stein, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They didn’t produce one book that I would say is better than any other. All of their works are equally brilliant and illuminating.