Top ten books — because you asked for it

People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid — or perhaps, naive — in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.
Problem is, I can’t bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let’s give it a try anyway:
(1) Nietszche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.
(2) Juliet Schor – The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.
(3) Duke and Gross – America’s Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.
(4) Mathieu RicardHappiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.
(5) Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.
(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.
(7) Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently — a couple years ago. I think it’s one of the finest novels I have ever read.
(8) Haruki Murakami – 1Q84. It isn’t just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don’t know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet… universal? “Remember: there is always only one reality.” Really?
(9) Don deLillo – Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.
(10) Terry Eagleton – Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them — a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I’ll call Fred — he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a “Catholic Marxist,” i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

The Cat in the Hat: best book ever

I sometimes think the best book of all time is the Cat in the Hat. No, not the best children’s book. Just the best book, period. You know the part where the Cat is juggling all that stuff. Then more stuff. Then even more. Then it all comes crashing down spectacularly. I love that. Then there’s Thing One and Thing Two. You can’t beat the Things. They’re the coolest.

Reading Cormac McCarthy

I had to see the Coen brothers’ realization of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men because I knew it had to be superb. It was. I hadn’t read the book, so I had to read it after rather than before seeing the film. The book was magnificent, and made me want to grab another one that I hadn’t read, The Road. That’s when I ran into a little trouble.
For a learned assessment of The Road, go see this NYRB review. All I have to say is that I am about 200 pages in and I find it exceptionally disturbing and distressing. None of the cliché adjectives like “searing” come close. It is as dreadful, horrible, bleak, dark and depressing as it is beautifully written. Perhaps what makes it hard to bear is the singularly anguishing nightmare scenario in which a parent struggles moment to moment to keep his child from starvation, freezing, or worse — struggles to no end, for there is no future. If you are not in robust mental health I would say stay away. I think mine is pretty solid and yet this book makes me wonder.
Why? What’s the big deal, it’s only a book, right? Yes, a work from the imagination of one person. But the horror and suffering it points to is all too real. It exists. We usually avoid facing that fact in order to survive. The Road forces you to confront that horror straight on, no flinching or averting your gaze.