Arts, Books — November 23, 2012 9:00 am

The 5 Books for Which I’m Most Thankful

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I know it’s cliche, but I thought, given that it’s Thanksgiving week, I’d write about some books for which I’m thankful in lieu of an typical review.

Have you ever had that experience where you pick up a book and begin to read and it’s like the author wrote it just for you? Maybe it even feels like a voice from the sky is actually speaking the words on the page to you, like it knows you?! I know it sounds creepy, but if you dig what I’m saying, then you know how comforting and inspiring it can be to have a book (or ten) that you can call your own.

I’ve been fortunate enough to come across the right book at the right time on multiple occasions throughout my life. Perhaps that’s why I love literature and writing more than almost anything else in this gorgeous, tragic universe. Books have been my soothing companions in moments when the world was stretching me, and sometimes they’ve done the stretching themselves. They’ve made me more aware of the life around me, and they’ve given me a sense that I can change the world.

Here are the top 5 books for which I am most thankful. Share your own in the comments!

1. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (1967) I had the most amazing class in junior high, called Recreational Reading. Literally, all the class involved was reading. The women who co-taught it shared a classroom overflowing with books. It was better than the actual library (plus they had edgy stuff like Stephen King, so that was exciting.) It was in this class that I first picked up The Outsiders. It blew my mind. Never before had a book seduced me like this, and proceeded to break my heart. It was so…effective. Then I learned that Hinton was a teenager when she wrote it, and I immediately believed that I could be a writer. I will never not be in love with this book.

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) I know that everyone loves this book, so it’s not very hipster of me; but I can’t not mention it. I don’t remember exactly when I read it–I’m thinking maybe 8th grade? All I know is that it was another mind-blower. What is it about Lee’s writing that is so…perfect? I’ve read this book at least five times, and its evocative effect on me never fades. Certainly it made me wish Atticus was my dad (who didn’t?) but more importantly I really think it opened my mind to a way of seeing the world that prioritizes courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of justice. It sparked a fire in my conscience, and, after a few readings, I realized it wasn’t good enough to wish I knew Atticus; I needed to try to be him.

3. The Portrait of A Lady by Henry James (1906) I came across this beautiful piece of literature my sophomore or junior year of college in an American Literature class that happened to be taught by one of my favorite professors. So, maybe her presence had something to do with the James obsession that followed; but read The Portrait of A Lady and it’s not hard to see that he’s worth obsessing over. I was mesmerized by James’ impressionistic style, and his long, meandering sentences that take the scenic route. I was also captivated by the relationship between Isabel Archer (the titular “Lady”) and her cousin Ralph Touchett. Again, just like my experience with The Outsiders, I was overtaken by how invested in these lives I had become. The magic of fiction, man. I love it!

4. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria RIlke (1929) This is a book (well, really it’s a collection of letters) that I resolutely recommend to everyone. Read it at least once in your lifetime. Chances are that whenever you choose to pick it up, it will be the right moment for you. In 1903, a young writer named Franz Kappus decided to write to the poet Rilke in hopes of getting some help with his writing and some career advice. The two ended up corresponding for a number of years, and Kappus published the letters a few years after Rilke’s death. A simple enough story, but here’s the thing: never, in all my reading, have I encountered so much wisdom distilled into so few pages. I seriously think Rilke had a lifeline to the gods. I remember I first read this book when I had just returned to my hometown from 6 months in New Zealand and had no idea what to do with my life. I was sitting in a coffee shop going through it, and what it said to me–I started crying, right then and there. This is powerful stuff, people. And it’s short, so you can carry it around with you and refer to it often. Seriously, it wouldn’t be a bad idea. I consider this book my Bible.

5. Taking Leave of God by Don Cupitt (1980) Okay, we’re gonna end with a little controversy here. I graduated from seminary four years ago, and halfway between that moment and now, it dawned on me that I didn’t really believe (or need to believe, quite frankly) in the Christian story as historical fact. Sure, Jesus was a real person and all that; but I suddenly realized that I saw no truly compelling evidence that the cosmos worked the way I’d been taught my whole life–that “God” did not actually exist in the way that I had always believed “God” to exist. Cupitt’s book–found quite coincidentally (or was it?!) in the bargain pile at Vroman’s–showed me that there was a way of appreciating the Christian story and applying its ultimate significance to my life without needing to say that there was a God that actually existed who was this way or that way and that this was Truth. All of that theology had become for me, to use a phrase from an essay I just read by Peter Enns, high-maintenance. Cupitt’s book helped set me free, and I’ve never been more satisfied with where I stand (or shuffle around quite a bit, as it were) on the spiritual side of things.

So, there you have it. The five books for which I am most grateful. Like I said, please share your own list in the comments below. I love trading book ideas!

Also, one final note: the links provided here go to Amazon, which I feel conflicted about because they’ve changed the market in a way that is difficult for regular bookstores; but they provide a lot of information that can be helpful in deciding whether or not to read a book, and also a space for used books to be sold, so if you can please buy your books from there used. Even better, if a book sounds good to you from the reviews on Amazon, try to find what you’re looking for from a local,  independent bookstore first. To my readers in the Pasadena area, as I know many of you are, I highly recommend Book Alley on Colorado.


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1 Comment

  • “There is no friend as loyal as a book”: Ernest Hemingway

    You are so widely read! I’ve got to stop speed-dating my books and become like a Mormon. Just kidding! But you get the point. I also like Oscar Wilde’s take: “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” This is what I go by. There are a select few, an ‘elect’, that I have on my shelf that are just a part of my identity: torn apart, highlighted, underlined, notes in the margin, doggy-eared. It’s a love affair.

    I really hope you start writing books soon (if you haven’t already?)! So, S.E. Hinton is the one who got you going? Isn’t there a frozen beauty with the memory of reading it the first time? Like a first date with a future spouse, lol? I remember reading The Prelude by Wordsworth and every line, the flow of the poem, the motifs sparked in my imagination, was like the aroma of some sweet, other-worldly wistfulness, an inexplicable nostalgia for a past in my childhood that wasn’t even mine! I felt like (in Pascal’s words) a ‘dispossessed king’, and for a kingdom for which I was never even a ruler! Perhaps I sound like a loony, but like what Wordsworth said about the madness of William Blake: “There is no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in his madness which interests me more than sanity.” I think a seed of this ‘interest’ leads to something true and real.

    I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I was just wondering if you thought the movie did a good job? And with A Portrait of a Lady, do you think Isabel did the right thing by returning to Osmond? lol Sorry, couldn’t resist! Much debate on that. Why doesn’t she want her freedom? And why fall for such an obnoxious gold-digger? I was amazed by how similar Osmond was to Kierkegaard’s ‘seducer’ in The Seducer’s Diary, a man dominated by the aesthetic realm of existence, living for pleasure, and the seduction of Isabel being sort of a scheme, a game of sorts. Any way, Isabel’s decision to stay with Osmond has been one of the most obnoxious literary experiences of my life! And I’m not knocking James at all. The literary representation is beautiful! Just the character’s decision has always annoyed me: kind of hinting on the age-old question of, “Why do girls love jerks?” lol

    I read up on Letters to a Young Poet (no, I haven’t read a word), but the overall theme seems to hit home for me almost perfectly. I was trying to pursue a literary career. I had majored in philosophy and wanted to get a Masters in English. But guess what? I was running out of money. And as you probably know, philosophy/literary professions aren’t very marketable. I think of poor Herman Melville, who died unhealthy and penniless, and the obituaries got his name wrong (they also spelled his classic Moby Dick, Mobie Dick). lol. Anyway, I decided to join the Air Force. But my dreams aren’t stifled; just on temporary hold. But I’ll have to read this to see how much I can relate.

    I have HUGE sympathy with your sentiments on Taking Leave of God. I myself was leaning in this direction for a number of years. The Romantic Poets and the 19th century existentialists pushed me to the brink! My objection to objective theism was its lifeless, stale, impersonal, scientific approach. I may part ways with you in thinking that theism stands on amazing evidential grounds, but my whole psychological approach suffered a huge setback with basing my entire being on my beliefs being merely ‘true’. Again, I think they are ‘true’, but I needed more. The closest I can get to conveying my stupid, idiosyncratic perspective is John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ I don’t know when it happened, but when it did I was never the same: everything in my life that I found beautiful (any moving aesthetic experience, every song that struck me in the inmost depths, every movie-scene, poem, painting, sculpture, book; in a word, anything that aroused the sublime, a sort of ecstasy, a Dionysus-inspired reveling) I began to associate with the Christian God, and ironically Nietzsche is the one who made me see this the clearest. The perfect aesthetic experience, the one which transforms consciousness, the one that transports you to realms of truth otherwise inaccessible in everyday, insipid experience, is able to awaken in ourselves from this banal slumber, and this only when Apollo (truth) and Dionysus (self-forgetful ecstasy) clash in a sort of explosion of creative unity, awoken in the link with unique subjectivity. God, I fear I’m being so vague right now. Maybe I can clear it up by pointing out the motif elsewhere. There is Kierkegaard’s objective/subjective distinction, Martin Buber’s I-Thou/I-It distinction, Samuel Alexander’s contemplation/enjoyment distinction, Schopenhauer’s Will/Representation distinction, Poetic Tradition’s prosaic/poetic diction distinction, and on and on. There is a ‘looking at’ (scientific approach) and a ‘looking along’ (aesthetic experience). There is a difference between the experience of an anthropologist studying the relation between a crowd and a music-band at a concert, and the experience of the band and the crowd themselves. As long as the anthropologist is in his scientific frame of mind, he is missing the ecstatic experience of the crowd/band.

    I am so sorry, by the way, for rambling. I guess my point is that in my experience the objectivity of theism, the dryness of its truth (if it is true!) was utterly and completely transfigured after beauty in the form of aesthetic experience drenched it with an irresistible, imaginative force I haven’t had the strength to purge.

    Wow. I’m going to stop typing. Please see this as a compliment, by the way. Like I’ve said, I feel a kinship with the way you talk about literature. I really hope that doesn’t sound creepy, lol. And please don’t let what I said demean or devalue in any way the priceless liberation you felt as you read Taking Leave of God. Qualitatively speaking, the felt-change in our consciousness is probably quite similar. If you ever want to share perspectives, and the different paths that lead us to fork off in different directions, I am always fascinated by how these autobiographical revelations lead individuals to different ports. My temperament always makes me nervous about whether I commandeered my ship to a wrong port, given that our maps sounds so similar, lol.

    And I am so sorry if parts of this post are hopelessly unclear. lol.

    Thanks again for the post!!!!

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