(Another in a series of journals prompted by my friend David Cooper, who seems to think that just one more project on my agenda is fully necessary. It is a good exercise, but the reality is that I have always been much more affected by the people in my life than by any other stimulus. I can much more easily list the effects of my friends and relatives than I can elucidate why certain books hold such meaning in my life, and now I have wittingly given my friend another idea with which to “burden” me. The list below is not comprehensive, and probably not even very accurate, but each of these books awakened in me some key thought or idea that had previously lain dormant. I apologize that most of them are not “classics” or books with a significant intellectual pedigree, but I read what I read.)
Reading has always held high value in my family. My mother was a reader, as was my father, though their choice of materials was significantly different. Mom liked to escape to other times and places, enjoyed plants and animals, and every once in a while picked up books that would expand her mind in interesting ways. Dad always went for scientific and mechanical stuff, mostly from the monthly magazines that he subscribed to. He kept up on developments in the auto industry, of course, and enjoyed carpentry projects and such, but he was also fascinated by the predictions of a future world where cars could fly and space-age technology was commonplace. They both enjoyed westerns, and our house was full of them, though I read very few in that genre. We read for every possible reason and seemingly in every possible circumstance. (I was the first kid in my circle to know that aspirin was acetylsalicylic acid, because I couldn’t even bear to sit on the toilet without reading something.)
David wanted me to leave out The Bible, considering its ubiquity in influencing so much of our generation’s life, but I might at least mention what was, for me, an important factor of its style. Religion aside, I found myself deeply interested in elements of The Bible in a literary sense. Part of my commitment to being an “old school” guy is, I think, directly related to having The Bible as a first piece of literature. Raised on the King James version, I early fell in love with the eloquent, flowery language that it used. There was something about the verbal pictures that language painted that cannot be duplicated. I never found it stilted - it seemed the best possible way to describe those events. The characters were so dramatic that it was easy to become enamored of them as heroic figures. Abraham, Moses, David, and even Jesus were more than messengers of God, they were men of action whose exploits were dynamic and admirable. As literature, The Bible is a great piece of (dare I say) historical fiction that opened up a young person’s imagination in numerous ways. The drama was inescapable, and a good lesson in how to tell a powerful story.
In grade school, I frequently received certificates for reading the most books in my class. I once believed that I had read every book in the Vienna School library, and I defy anyone to disprove me now. By 5th & 6th Grades, I had exhausted all the dinosaur and archeology books they possessed, and had moved onto harder works, usually involving historical subjects. About that time, I read Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis, which affected me greatly. Here was the account of a battle veteran, thrust into a very difficult circumstance. My father was a veteran of the Navy, who talked very little about his experiences, even though most of his service took place outside the battle zones. Now, I got a glimpse into the terrifying world of war, and was astounded to discover that a man could relate those experiences, seemingly as they occurred. The author’s ability to recount all that happened to him, in an extremely realistic way, while maintaining his objectivity, was almost more than I could imagine. It was a great lesson in effective writing. I doubt that I consciously considered it at the time, but it seems that it changed my life by serving as a reminder that an author owes it to his subject and his readers to describe events as passionately as possible while remaining sufficiently objective to leave out no important detail, and to avoid being maudlin. That can be very difficult to achieve with some subjects, yet it is necessary.
About that same time, I read two similar books, Old Yeller by Fred Gipson and The White Wolf by someone I’ve long forgotten. The two are very similar: young men develop strong relationships with their “dog”, only to have that relationship destroyed by events beyond their control. Even now, I can still feel the emotion rising within me as I think about the way these authors portrayed the relationships. One character must take the life of his own pet in order to save it from further degradation, and the other watches his long-beloved friend finally taken from him by inexorable time. Both books caused me to cry, as the memories are, in fact, causing a tear in my eye as I write this. (It is impossible to do so without thinking of my own pets, but particularly of Zach, who I held in my arms as his life ebbed away, a result partly of my own doing.) Both authors told their story in such an effective way that one was left with no doubt that they too had suffered this sort of loss. In Old Yeller, the boy grows into a man by taking on this awesome and painful responsibility, and in The White Wolf, the man is forced to consider that eventually time will expire for him as it has for his “pet”. Further, both books explore the relationship between man and animals, which transcends mutual benefit into true friendship, but in which there is always that element of mystery that forever goes unresolved. I think that both books taught me the power of the written word to evoke emotion and to subtly ask deeply important questions even when the style was simple.
Going to Jackson Jr. High gave me an entirely new library to peruse, and the Scholastic Book Service, where students could purchase all sorts of interesting reads, as I did with Journey to the Center of the Earth. Though certainly not the current era of teen trash-lit, those days were clearly divided between readers and non-readers, as well as those who read “good” books and those who didn’t. I don’t know if Jules Verne was back in fashion at the time, but I certainly enjoyed this improbable story. I think I already had enough scientific knowledge to be fully aware that the story was technically impossible, but that’s why they call it “fiction”. The set-up to the adventure was so matter-of-fact that anything seemed possible. The story unfolded in such a mysterious manner that it was compelling, and I was ready to head for Iceland any day. I reread the story so many times that I had it nearly memorized, and each time was carried along with the flow, just as if it was the first time.
The Iliad came out of the Jackson library at about that same time. It was forced of necessity when our 7th Grade English teacher insisted on an oral book report. Exactly why I chose it, I do not recall, but everything else about the event is crystal clear. One by one, my male classmates paraded to the front of the room to tell about their book, which in my memory is always Mickey Mantle: Pride of the Yankees. I do not even recall my classmates’ response to my choice, but the teacher’s critique was brief and crushing. I received an A- because I had committed the unpardonable sin of mispronouncing the book’s title (I put the emphasis on the 3rd syllable) and the outrageous act (in my teacher’s eyes) of talking “with” my hands. Lost in all this was the fact that some mythical blind poet from 27 centuries previous had written this marvel of dramatic story-telling, in which the characters were still as lifelike and compelling as they had ever been. The beauty of his descriptive powers was nearly painful. I was so captivated, I immediately went back to the library to check out The Odyssey. No teacher would EVER change my concept of what was truly worthwhile, and I still talk with my hands.
It was also about that time that I first read George Orwell’s 1984, which I recently reread. I honestly can’t say exactly how it affected me at the time, but in looking at it again, I have to feel that it had a great deal to do with my strong sense that government must be limited, and that individuality is essential to a livable world. I am not in terror of it, but I strongly rebel against the idea that authority should have the ability to control our lives or our minds. (Ironically, in the rereading, I kept getting the uneasy feeling that many of our recent political leaders may have been indoctrinated on this book, and have used it as a basis for gaining power. If the basic theme is that an ambivalent majority can easily be ruled by a clever minority who controls the information the masses receive, we may be living much more of Orwell’s nightmare than we imagine.)
My father’s step-sister, Mary Francis (Aunt Sissy) was another powerful influence in my reading life. At one point, she bought me a series of books that included JFK’s Profiles in Courage. I don’t really remember the specifics of the book as much as I remember Kennedy’s passion in describing American public servants who epitomized the true meaning of that term. These men were willing to ignore popular opinion and risk the wrath of their fellows to transcend the usual political infighting in order to make a genuine difference in our lives. I established a strong feeling that this is the way politicians should truly act, and that shapes my disappointment in so many modern politicians, for whom “gamesmanship” seems to have replaced public service. The book should be mandatory reading for every person who runs for political office, and a test should be given and passed before they would be allowed to proceed.
Aunt Sissy was also a fan of English mysteries, so it was probably she who inspired me to read The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie. By now, the plot has been redone so many times by lesser lights that it has become cliché, but in those days it was quite clever and original. I was impressed at how easily she could tell a story, making it progress quickly though gently. It was also infuriating in that she could provide every clue necessary for the reader to solve the mystery, then gently mislead you into making the incorrect conclusions. I became quite a fan, and eventually purchased every one of her books. Like any other author, she has had her weak moments, with books that just didn’t work very well, but for the most part she is original, creative, subtle, and ultimately enjoyable. Thus, good writing can be all of that without necessarily dealing with the really big issues of life.
My next big adventure came at the instigation of my Senior English teacher. For some reason, she decided that we all needed to do one more book report before graduation, a situation that aggravated me no end. I told her honestly that I thought I had read every book that was worth reading, and her stipulation that our report be about a book we were reading for the first time placed me at an unnecessary hardship. I attempted to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame, one of the few books in the PHS library I had not read that seemed interesting, but found it deadly ponderous and mind-numbingly dull. In desperation, I went back to my teacher, who offered me any of the paperbacks she kept on her desk. Most of these were modern fiction, which I disdain, but one looked interesting, so decided to try it. The book was enormously complicated, with characters who had strange names and backstories that I had obviously missed out on somehow. It took me almost half the book to realize that I was reading the 3rd volume of a trilogy! What sort of teacher would do this to her students? Place only volume 3 on her desk?!? By the time I finished it, I knew what I wanted for the following Christmas, and so asked my mother to get me the complete set of The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. I had really never enjoyed fantasy very much, but Tolkien’s background in mythology and folk tales provided plenty of touchstones that really appealed to my imagination. It comes across almost as historical fiction, which I found to be a very enjoyable concept.
It was about this same time that Aunt Sissy gave me a copy of Hedrick Smith’s The Russians. Again I am ashamed to admit that most of the details of the book escape me at this late date, though that is what causes me to so often reread books, looking for interesting features I missed the first time. What I do remember most was the sensation that the Anti-Soviet propaganda with which we had been bombarded did not actually apply to your average everyday Russian. Though it is hard to pinpoint such things, I think it likely that this was the origin of my basic philosophy that people are the same all over the world, with similar concerns, difficulties, and values. Having a true “Family of Man” approach to life has been an important part of my personal belief system.
In college, an English teacher assigned us to read Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Not only were my previous feelings about Russian citizens reinforced, my distaste for totalitarian leaders like Stalin (and Sauron) was considerably heightened. Mostly, I was impressed by the ability of this author I had never heard of to draw complete, compelling characters from his memory. It was obvious that he had known all these people during his hospitalization, but he made the reader know (and care) about them as well – powerful stuff. I was compelled to run out and purchase a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which expanded my appreciation for the author’s abilities and personal travails. It was truly a revelation that someone could describe just one day in such brilliant detail. I was carrying this book with me in Economics class one day, when a fellow student launched into an attack on Solzhenitsyn for being a “radical” and me for being “duped” by him. I had to laugh off his assault, since I thought the Soviet Union was in desperate need of radicals, and one cannot dupe the willing. As I so often do, I eventually collected most of Solzhenitsyn’s work, all of which I found compelling. It also led me to a greater interest in Russian literature, which requires a special sort of appreciation. Because of The Gulag Archipelago, I read Dostoevsky’s Houses of the Dead, and then moved on to his “fictional” novels. Russian writing is not for all tastes, but I have developed a sense for its perverse pleasures.
At my first long-term post-college employment (not in a school system, by the way) my desk-neighbor Bill Kohler, who would eventually become my Best Man, and was a Physics major in college gave me a copy of a small book in which Albert Einstein explained The Theory of Relativity. (Anyone would have to admit that the Parkersburg office of the Department of Welfare had the most erudite set of employees of any such office in history.) That little book literally revolutionized my thinking process about nearly everything. That Einstein was so capable of explaining an extremely complex concept in such simple ways was a real revelation to me. Moreover, the ideas that he was explaining shook my brain to its very core. I had taken Physics in high school, but most of it was very practical and mathematical. It had certainly energized some light bulbs for me, but nothing to the degree that this book did. This revolutionary way of looking at the relative nature of physical events was nothing short of revolutionary in my life. The clarity of his explanations and the simplified examples literally changed the way I viewed the natural world in ways I am still discovering. That so many of his principles were also applicable to daily life was equally mind-expanding, and continues to be. It may have been the first book that I annotated extensively, and it is a continuing source of distress that I loaned it to one of my best friends, who has misplaced it and will likely never return it.
While preparing to leave home for the beach in the summer of 1981, I received a copy of The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum from the Book-of-the-Month club. I had not requested it, and would not likely have read it had it not come as a result of my failure to return the card, but beach time is also reading time, so I tossed it in the pile of things to take along. It turned out to be the proverbial “book you can’t put down”. I literally found myself at 4 in the morning finally giving in to my weariness, but not to the author, by stopping in mid-chapter to get some rest. The book was a masterpiece of pacing and plot development. The opening page was so dramatic, I later gave it to Kathleen McCarty to use as a reading for her speech class as a highly dramatic passage. Ludlum often used the theme of the “innocent” man caught in a complex web of intrigue, but he surpassed himself in this instance by having the main character (a highly skilled assassin) a victim of amnesia (in a completely believable way). Every chapter ends with rising action, and I was very impressed by the intelligence of the character, since I utterly disdain international spies who are dumber than I am. As is my wont, I then purchased virtually every other book written by Ludlum, and as with Christie, found numerous good works of which I had previously been unaware. The guy was a master of espionage fiction for about a full decade, and not horrible for the decade previous or the two afterward. He left the lasting impression that it really was possible that vast conspiratorial networks really could exist within our society or government and that it might be impossible for us to do anything to completely stop them. (shudder)
I can’t recall whether I was already into my “Richard Bach phase” before I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the first time, or if it caused it, but the book has remained one of my very favorite. As I previously told David, it continues to change my life every time I read it. As I think on it, JLS probably started the whole thing, because I think Terri Haid (former librarian) was in one of her housecleaning fits and was throwing out numerous paperback copies of Plato’s Dialogues, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and JLS. These had apparently been required reading in the early days of PCHS, and it turned out that my friend and compatriot John Smith had been subjected to all of them. John and I had many things in common, and thought similarly on a wide variety of issues, but JLS was that one point of synergy that we could not bring together. He always said, “I can’t see the point in writing a story about a stupid bird.” I was continually flabbergasted by his position on this, because he loved to read as much as I do, had a wide variety of interests, and wrote science fiction in his spare time. I continually vowed that we would sit down to fully discuss the book (during which I would make him love it), but his untimely demise left me with a great void in my “life-with-no-regrets” approach. To my mind, JLS is one of the greatest stories ever written, a position that, I have read, Richard Bach finds bemusing. Simple stories often are the ones that carry the greatest depth. JLS is about independence, pursuing truth, individuality, dreams (as goals), leadership, “following your star”, learning, teaching, and many other things. I read it to the Seniors, because it clearly delivers the message that one must pursue their own path regardless of the consequences in order to realize their destiny and full potential. The way it explores the relationship between teachers and students is artistic, sensitive, and a guide to open-mindedness. Every teacher should read and embrace this book, and I hope John Smith is in another state of consciousness right now saying, “Yeah, I get it.”
In the late ‘80’s, I got into a long period of reading almost exclusively non-fiction. I acquired a number of long-desired books, as well as some interesting-sounding ones for which I enjoyed the “blurb”. Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi turned out to be one of the latter. It’s not really any sort of all-time “classic”, but it does have a theme that I have always found both interesting and ubiquitous. It emphasizes the natural pattern that exists when events or actions are in perfect orderliness. It is often applied to sports, but Csikszentmihalyi indicates that flow is not only universal and essential, it is also controllable. The book reinforced a long-held feeling that everything really does happen for a reason and that sometimes the environment surrounding those reasons can be controlled. I had previously read about a state known as the “white moment” (also usually related to athletic performance), and flow seems to lead nicely to it. If it can be useful in sports, I think it can be even more useful in daily life, and I am often actively seeking it.
I have always had a philosophical bent, but never really spent much time exploring the real deep thinkers on the subject until I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I already knew the author from his historical works, and found him to be a great storyteller, so I picked up the book on a whim and read it quickly. I was not disappointed, because he continued to dazzle me with his reader-friendly style, but also because I discovered many new important questions to consider and saw the structural framework that must underlie any truly intellectual thought process. I believe that the book gave me all sorts of new ideas to consider and points to ponder, while helping me improve my thinking skills and develop a more rigorous process for thinking about life’s most important issues. I honestly don’t know if I could stand to read many of these great thinkers at tremendous length, but this was the perfect way to be introduced to some, gain further knowledge about others, and raise relevant questions about my own thought processes.
Obviously, most of the important books I have read affected me in a positive way, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had the complete opposite effect. I am sure that I did her a disservice by reading it at a very difficult time in my life, but perhaps the book would not have had nearly the same impact otherwise. We were, at that time, embroiled in a controversy with one of Cindy’s former coworkers – a person who embodied for me the monster that Dr. Frankenstein had created. Cindy and I had gone out of our way to help this person improve the quality of her life, and she had repaid us with incessant, soul-wrenching obsessive antagonism. As I read of the Doctor’s relentless pursuit of his monster, and the monster’s equally relentless tormenting of his master, I could only see it as an allegory to this horrible relationship, and eventually had to quit the book. I can’t even imagine finishing it, because I do not believe I will ever be able to escape that visceral, even physiological, reaction.
Recently, Shawn Weaver “lent” me his copy of Albert Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions. (I put the word lent in quotes because anyone should know better than to lend a great book to book lover and expect to get it back!) It is well known that I am a fervent fan of Albert’s, but this book (in which I am still in the midst) is escalating our relationship exponentially. The book contains much more than physics. It includes his reflections on the relationship between science and religion, as well as numerous insights on other political, religious, economic, and social topics. I have likely never read another book in which virtually every sentence sparks within me some lengthy thought-path, and my notes on what I have read will likely eventually rival the length of the book itself. It is energizing and enthralling, full of interesting ideas that make my brain nearly burst, and I love it. My admiration for Einstein continues to grow. It both inspires and perplexes me that any one man could have such perfectly integrated thoughts and positions on every possible subject. I believe it is the way we all should live, and I think Einstein is an excellent intellectual example for all of us to follow. I think he and I truly are kindred spirits, but it nearly crushes me when I consider the feebleness of my intellect as compared to his.
Realistically, I could keep adding to this journal almost indefinitely, and if my books were all on the shelves facing me rather than in Morgantown, I could probably add another dozen titles with ease, but one must stop somewhere, so here it is.