The other day, On Faith, the section of the Washington Post website that deals with matters of spirituality, asked the panel and its readers to comment on the book(s) that had had a significant impact on their lives. It got me to thinking.
I had often played the mind game of “if you could only have ten books for the rest of your life to read, what would they be?” Now I often fudged on this question, by including multi-volume works. Could one use Charles Dickens entire collection for instance, or the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica? But I often thought about it, and although I don’t think I ever decided all ten, it provided an interesting way to assess what books I thought were important in my life.
The On Faith forum, by posing the question in a different way, raised an somewhat different way of examining my admitted love affair with books. And yes, I do love books. I don’t love them just for what they contain, but for what they represent. What do I mean by that you ask? You are asking aren’t you?
Books contain of course information that I wish to know. It may be frivolous information sometimes, if for instance it is a joke book. It may be the most important information I can possible conceive of if for instance it contains information about God. But a book is a whole lot more than just an information dispenser.
A book also represents something beyond what it actually contains. It represents our apparent inborn desire to express ourselves publically and for posterity. It suggests we often feel that what we think, is important for others to know of. We think, apparently that it is quite likely that others haven’t thought as we have and need to. We think, no doubt, that we have discovered some truth unknown. Like a mathematician who has discovered a new solution, we are sure that our take on whatever will change other’s lives in some way, significant or otherwise.
A book also represents our species attempt to codify the entire breathe of our acquired knowledge. Of course, a book, does so only as to a tiny piece of that entire wealth of knowledge. This was a troubling thought to me when I realized that some many years ago. There was a time when a man or woman could actually have in their own home, a fairly complete library of human thought expressed on paper (or papyrus). A person, with sufficient funds could acquire most everything committed to writing in his/her world as they knew it. They could afford to hire copyists if need be.
Even many generations later, it was still quite possible to learn most of the big ideas, the framework if you will of human learning. And it was quite possible to keep up on all that was added each year. There was a window, I am sure, when that was possible. It was perhaps a very small window, or perhaps it lasted fairly steady until the printing press. Then things started to get out of hand. Suddenly there was a mechanical means to transport my ideas to you at an increasingly cheap price. You could respond with agreement or not by writing of your own.
Of course, as more and more people got the hang of this, it kind of exploded. And it’s been exploding ever since. Today every major university has it’s own publishing house I believe. Books that can’t acquire sufficient interest in the main publishing world find niche publishing nearly everywhere. And of course, self-publishing is now simple and fairly inexpensive. And of course, websites and blogging make it free and well what can be simpler?
It came as a sad conclusion on my part that I could not begin to read everything I wanted to even if I read nearly all day and night. I could not even make a dent in it any more. There are fifty times more books produced each year, or a hundred, or three thousand more than I can possible read. I find that incredibly sad. I want to at least read everything that I want. But I cannot.
Books themselves still hold a place in my heart of deep awe. I can find no happier store on the planet than a bookstore. I could without effort spend hours just poking around. I used to recall in my college days that after a trip to the campus or off-campus bookstores, acquiring the list of books needed for the next semester’s classes, that I would sit on my bed and one by one, look at each in turn. Feeling the covers, admiring the paper, hearing that first crackle of the binding giving way a bit. I admit that sometimes I did this more than once before that first class.
I never did what some do, refuse to write in or underline. Books in the end are things to be used, not worshiped for themselves. I write freely, I love yellow highlighting, but I do feel a twinge at disturbing the specialness of some. It is always with some trepidation that I make my first mark in a new bible. I feel nearly the same as to Shakespeare. The more expensive, the more beautifully bound and papered, the more I quiver at that first mark, and the more likely I am to be careful to do it unobtrusively with pencil.
I have bought and sold a lot of books over the years. That saddens me no end, and there is a part of me that wishes I could retain every single one I have ever had as some testimonial of who I am. For, truthfully, a saunter through anyone’s “library” should tell you a good deal about the person should it not? It would through mine for sure. It is testimony no doubt to my eclectic spirit. I wish I could learn all the things I’m interested in. I want to be a renaissance woman. I’m not sure that is possible any more, though I still hear a person called that from time to time.
I try hard to give books away, but to tell the truth, I’m pretty stingy about it. I just never know when I might want to look something up and it will be one I gave away. I remember a science fiction book I sold or gave away in a box of others. I would give a lot to find that book again. I can’t remember its name. It was an anthology, common in the genre. This one had a twist. The editor posed the question: “What would happen if Jesus returned in a way that was undeniably a fact?” A number of 5-10 authors wrote stories based on that premise. Oh how I would like to reread those stories.
I have mentioned that I’m an eclectic crafter. I can do a lot of things whether they be knitting, crocheting, quilting, sewing, beading, etc, decently, but I’m no expert. I cannot find only one perfect, something that I want to devote myself to for a lifetime to the exclusion of all else. I’ll never be a master quilter, though I certainly appreciate master quilters and envy their work.
I am also, I find an eclectic reader. A bookseller of a small town where I once lived, once called me that. I had a collection that day of four books I was buying, a book on horses, a book on bonsai, a book on quilting, and book on Roman history, as I recall. “My, that is certainly an eclectic group of books to be purchasing,” she said. I mumbled, “yes, I have varied interests I guess.”
So I move in and out of areas of interest but never fail to remain a loyal fan of most, and thus, still try to keep up with the major outlines of a number of subjects. I read about Roman history, mostly during the time of the Caesars. I read about astronomy and paleontology as a means of I guess understanding my human origins. I buy and adore cookbooks, and examine every single recipe, marking those I intend to try. I love all kinds of crafting books, mostly for the inspiring photographs. I have made a couple of quilts, following the directions of a particular pattern I was taken with. I love gardening books, especially those with brilliant pictures of lovely vignettes that I too can create.
There was a time i read a huge amount of science fiction. I learned a lot about the power of fantasy and day dreaming, and still love movies and TV shows that focus on a world of tomorrow. For several years I read almost exclusively theology and biblical exegetical material. I still read a lot in this area, but not as much. I read perhaps a bit more “spiritual” work now. Recently I’ve read a lot of old French/English/Russian classical fiction. I’ve been surprised how much I learned of history in those endeavors. Read Don Quixote if you want to see just how dangerous was the atmosphere in the days of the Inquisition.
Getting back to the question of what books have influenced me the most? Oh I wish there was one that forever changed my life. None did, but they did shape my vision of who I am and who we are as human beings on this tiny dot of blue. Here is my list:
- A book I have no title to. It was a child’s book and featured a picture I will never forget. The earth was molten grey with a bulging blob that continued to pull farther from itself like taffy. As the pictures progressed, the second blob popped off, and became our moon. It is not true of course as we know today, but I got me for the first time wondering about the universe. Astronomy and astrophysics has been a life-long interest ever since. I watched nightly on PBS in my thirties as Voyager went past Jupiter and Saturn as the guys and gals at JPL went nutty with happiness, describing all the new “finds.”
- Broca’s Brain, by Carl Sagan. A spectacular tour de force, by someone entitled to be called a renaissance man. He ignited not only a resurgence in my love of astronomy though his Cosmos series on PBS, but also with this book which started me on a quest to understand evolution. I went from there to learn of the Leakeys and their work in Africa and Don Johnson and his find “Lucy” in I believe Turkey.
- Mila 18, by Leon Uris. Reading tomes about war is hardly a good way to understand war. Julius Caesar did that in his Commentaries. Uris shows us the human condition of what it was like to be a Jew in Warsaw. How it was like to live and die. How it was like to be hunted. How normal people can do abnormal things when faced with death. The tenacity of the human will to live is examined in excruciating detail. I understand how they manage in Darfur, Baghdad, and other regions of unspeakable horror much better than I would have otherwise.
- The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. There is a good reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize. It takes any notion that war is romantic for the soldier and shreds it. It is hot, buggy, bloody, sweaty, frightening, and just evil. There is no glory, no honor. There is pain, suffering, and death. War is truly hell.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. What greed and wealth can do to people. How good people are beaten by nature and their fellow men and women. How we can ignore and devalue the worth of the poor. How we can define them as “other.” But also how we can find utterly beautiful humanity among and between us when we have utterly nothing but ourselves left to give. We see the best and worst of what we are capable of.
- The Bible. To be fair, reading this the first time, I was simply appalled by the incongruities and horror of a wrathful God who “ordered” the destruction of entire towns, including what can only be conceived of as innocents. Studying the bible was an entirely different thing, and taught me true love, compassion, brotherhood, forgiveness, and a host of other values. It’s an ongoing love affair. I will never stop studying it.
- The Science of Mind, by Ernest Holmes. This gentle man studied the world’s great religions and came up with his own version of God that was a huge breakthrough for me. Page after page, I read his analysis of the bible and other great books and said, yes, yes, yes. That is exactly what I was wondering, that is what I couldn’t reconcile. I found more love and peace in God and Jesus from Mr. Holmes than in a host of other Christian spiritual books. His New Thought philosophy endures to this day. I expanded to a entire new group of similar writers such as Deepak Chopra’s How to Know God, Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Rumi, Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job, Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ. This list could go on to include Augustine’s “Confessions,” and St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castles. This is in no way an exhaustive list. It is but a start to the journey Mr. Holmes started me on.
- The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I learned the beauty of language, quite plain and simple. Never did anyone write with such utter controlled perfection. He has no doubt been the singular influence on writing in all of history.
I could go on with this list for days I suspect. Another great book is just around the corner. A mere walk through my bookcases turns up another and another. Who can not put Dickens on the list for instance? Who can ignore Thoreau? Emerson? The Federalist Papers? All and so many more have impacted and shaped my life in various ways. All help define who I am today. That is the key here. Who I am today. For, I shall not be tomorrow what I am today. For I shall have read something new, and it will imperceptibly have changed me, or magnificently changed me as the case may be. How exciting is that?
I know I am asking a lot, comments have declined to a trickle once again. But I would very much like to know you, something of what makes you who you are. Please share with me your list of important books. Take a trip through you mind and reclaim what changed you, shaped you and made you who you are today. We’d all be pleased to know you better! It’s just what I’ve been thinking about today.