I really enjoyed Melinda Selmys’s list of the twenty books that have shaped her. It’s my birthday (totally unrelated link, you guys) so it seemed like a good time to do my own list. Herein, fifteen books I blame, with commentary.
In chronological order; when I can’t remember (e.g. the first three books), in order from greatest impact to least. And keeping in mind that we are unknown to ourselves, we knowers, so probably like Carbonel, The King of the Cats should be #1 here, but the only effect I can remember from that book is that now I know what a cantrip is.
ONE: Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn. I constantly tell everybody to read this book and watch the startlingly lovely and poignant 1981 cartoon. It’s wise: “Men don’t always know when they’re happy.” It’s tinged with horror: the harpy Celaeno, and the witch who didn’t know you always have to use your own liver. The novel is full of things no child will understand, like Elli’s song (and the other song, “When I was a young man, and very well thought of,” which is still one of the only poems I know by heart); it has cheesy humor and a scene where a pack of bandits try to run off with the specter of Robin Hood. It’s metafictional, apparently I’ve always been into that, all of life is a choice of genre etc etc. This is a hard-edged but forgiving book, in which most human aspirations are folly (why are you carrying that dragon head?) and love is mostly a matter of accepting all the things you cannot change.
It’s one of my two favorite books in the world.
TWO: Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country. I wrote about this in Gay and Catholic. It’s the most extreme example of my overidentification with traitors and exiles. In retrospect it is not surprising that I found the doctrine of original sin so comforting: Every church is the Traitors and Exiles Social Club (Children Under 12 Drink Free).
THREE: Michael de Larrabeiti, The Borribles Go for Broke. Sort of redundant since this is just more traitor/exile obsession, but more people should know these great books. This is the middle book; the first one has feral children on a quest to conquer parodies of ’70s British children’s programming rats, and the third one isn’t great. The first one is a dark, sad story of betrayal and defeat. This middle one is cheerier, in a prison-novel kind of way. Anti-authoritarian (“Wot’s the use of workin’ hard?”), grimy; solidarity for children.
FOUR: Barbara Wilson, Murder in the Collective. Definitely not the most important or insightful lesbian feminist book I’ve read (those would be Trash and Skin by Dorothy Allison, followed by Zami: A New Spelling of My Name) but the description of the narrator’s sexual desire for her long-legged Texan crush is what made me realize I was gay.
FIVE: The Song of Songs. This will be important later.
SIX: Donna Tartt, The Secret History. The ’90s were a glorious time. This is a super-’90s novel about the varieties of ecstasy. An amoral and religious book.
SEVEN: Pauline Reage, Story of O. You will begin to see an emerging theme of eros as surrender. This is the most showboaty (and fake! I will never stop judging O for blatantly throwing over Rene when she found a dude who fit her self-image better) example of that theme, by our true nouvelle Heloise. A lilting, autumnal piece of pornography about the irrelevance of the body: the body as pure symbol, unmenstruating, striped and bruised and impregnable. I can’t recommend this book and I don’t think I would necessarily if I could, but I will say that I’ve read a whole lot of postmodern/queer theory stuff that spends way too much time wrestling de Sade. Forget that guy and wrestle Reage.
EIGHT: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. My other favorite novel. I read this spring break of freshman year & was super daunted by it until I got to the father ranting drunkenly to his put-upon son about how there must be hooks in Hell, for I must be hung from those hooks!, and then I fell off the bed laughing. That old awful man is not wrong, y’all.
NINE: St. Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo. I think this book was important in my conversion not so much because it philosophically reconciled justice and mercy (in the Crucifixion, if you’re wondering how), but because it honored the longing for both those actions of God. I feel like American Christianity nowadays is bifurcated between a Christianity that can only talk about mercy and is terrified of hinting that our longing for justice is a truth-telling gift from God, and a judgmental Christianity that fears mercy (give ’em an inch and they’ll take an ell; which is true, but irrelevant) and practices “tough love” instead of the normal kind.
Intellectually I find it easier to understand the arguments where mercy just obliterates justice, but those arguments also seem so insufficient to the needs of the heart and conscience. Anselm simply assumes that humans need discipline and punishment, that we should pay our debts and do our duty even though we can’t ever. (Oh hey, btw, it’s fashionable now to judge Anselm for using debt metaphors. Take it up with Jesus, Who used them all the time.)
TEN: Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. Probably the easiest example of Nietzsche as reverse Christianity: In Nietzsche’s writing you can build your worldview off of love of self, hatred of self, or hatred of the Other. Notice which box is missing! Working through my reaction to this ferocious (check out his hilarious incomprehension of Anselm), brilliant philosopher of lovelessness strengthened my conviction that love is gift and service, an attentive and obedient surrender to the beloved.
ELEVEN: Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. Man, the Tartt/Reage/Nietzsche/Bloom/Gallagher lineage is really clear here. An oddly amoral jeremiad; a plea for eros in an age of achievement and distraction. A defense of connection to the past, as such–you need some way to become bigger than your own time and place. We see all these plays and things where dead people argue; I wouldn’t mind watching Allan Bloom and David Foster Wallace, arguing about why we find it so hard to pay attention. Anyway, also, in case you are confused as to whether I am a right-winger but not a conservative or the other way around, this book is part of why I too am confused on that subject.
TWELVE: Maggie Gallagher, Enemies of Eros: A Super Long Polemic Subtitle Goes Here. A strange and lurid book about eros as union with the Other vs. eros as self-fulfillment. The justice we owe strangers vs. the unfair passions that roil intimate life; the ferocious passion of a woman for her child; the body as its own argument, which constantly defeats and humiliates the hopeful, planning, choosing mind. Lingua Franca once described Gallagher’s prose as “bodice-ripping” and nowhere is it more so than here in her first book. There are un-Christian elements of “boys will be boys” and overall this book would be better if it were much more deeply and explicitly Christian, instead of toying with a Camille Paglia-ish quasi-paganism. But this is a book by a humiliated rationalist; it’s a political philosophy expressed in the poetry of the body’s hungers.
THIRTEEN: Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. A friend of mine told me he was grateful that he didn’t read Imitation in high school: “I think it would have really messed me up.” I definitely see the point there, but this book in praise of humiliation is the book other than the Psalms I’ve re-read most often (about once every few years) since my conversion.
FOURTEEN: Alan Bray, The Friend. This beautiful book didn’t only shape me in the obvious way, where it gave me the language to talk about the beauty and Christian witness of same-sex love. It also showed me history as a practice of humility: Bray is so submissive to the evidence, so alive to the weirdness of the premodern worldview. And I think I’m still in the phase that Bray sparked where I’m looking for the premodern/medieval social practices we’ve lost, and asking what they can teach us. Plus every chapter ends on a cliffhanger!
FIFTEEN: David Carr, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life–His Own. Not only the best addiction memoir of the many, many, many, many I’ve read; not only the one I personally related to most; but a book that captures the period in late 2011-early 2012 when I was going through the grueling process of getting sober. Everything in life takes a million times longer than you can bear.
Let’s stop here. There are other books I think may well end up on this list, given more time to sink in: Infinite Jest, for example, with its focus on institutional life, attention, and the ways mere compliance can become genuine surrender. Some of the Hans Fallada I’ve read this year: I love Fallada’s combination of criminality and tender domesticity, and in this political climate I’m also struck by his ability to see people who were literally becoming Nazis as part of his community. But I think naming these would be a bit premature. There are other works that were important in my conversion (Chesterton’s The Dumb Ox: St Thomas Aquinas and, more important in later years, St Francis; Eliot’s “Preludes“) and books that crystallize a certain aspect of how I see the world (When Sisterhood Was in Flower; lol Brideshead Revisited) and books I loved and would recommend to anyone but which didn’t remake me (Kristin Lavransdatter). There are books I am forgetting. (UPDATE: I forgot The Liar!!!) But this will do for now. Happy my birthday to you, you islands in the ‘net.