Friday, July 1, 2016

Ten Books

Lessee, "Ten Books That Have Shaped My Life," eh? Gonna make a quick, gut-check run of it, sans filter. Forgive any titles that seem cliche -- it's the books' fault for making me who I am!
1.) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In retrospect, a terrible novel and even worse as a formative influence, but Dean Moriarty (nee Neal Cassady) is the epitome of the restless, American-dreaming hustler. The trick to any useful reading of OTR is to recognize that Dean is the villain and Sal is just a hollow enabler-narrator, like Gatsby's Nick or Ahab's Ishmael (see #6 below also). The rest is just kicks.

2.) [TIE] To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Two YA-targeted titles that gave me my first really rich experiences of story as emotional transportation. I don't care if you think TKAM is a maudlin fluke, or call foul on shoehorning an extra pick into a Top 10 with a tie; they're both undeniable exemplars of beautifully lyrical, moving prose.

3.) The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. There's not much I can add to what I've already said about it elsewhere, but if you want to understand where, how and why American architecture & city planning went completely off the rails -- plus some solid leads as to everything else amiss with our national way of life, from Ferguson to Iraq -- then you'd better read it. It's also really, fumingly, acidly funny. READ IT!

4.) Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford. Like everything else in Mumford's oeuvre, an epic, sweeping work of narrative social history. Charts the past, present, and still-possible (albeit increasingly dicey) future of Western industrial civilization. Originally published in 1934, I'm still encountering prescient wisdom in it even as I re-read today.

5.) The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Because cities are for people -- ALL the people! -- you Prada-shopping, car-worshiping idiots.

6.) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. The definitive proof that dead white male Anglophone bravo literature DOES have something timeless and relevant to convey about the human condition -- if you can just table your post-modern hangups and addled attention span for long enough to actually engage with it.

7.) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson. Everybody and your mother knows all about the drug-fueled, wacky hijinks of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -- because sure, why not, it's a scant 100-and-some-odd pages of fictionalized mayhem that your own youthful benders can be measured against in the game of "Lemme tell you how fucked up I got this one time." (Not to mention the faithful film adaptation starring Johnny Depp, because screw reading anyway, right?) But that's just the Intro to HST text, junior: this is the gnarly, down & dirty, inside-the-sausage-factory stuff about how a modern, major-party candidacy is actually concocted, written with the pith of a grizzled cynic and the savvy of a fast-talking horse-bettor who consistently out-sharps house and rubes alike.

8.) Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi. A worthy redux of HST's "Boys on the Bus" bit (see #7 above). On the 2004 campaign trail with the Dems' risible patsy, John Kerry, Taibbi argues pretty convincingly that nothing about Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11 or any other benchmark, soul-searching moment in the dark night of the American dream has altered or reversed the hollowing out of our so-called republican democracy for a vainglorious, theatrical sham we call "election season". The bits about the quixotic Kucinich candidacy and the ugly realities of our national character (hint: we despise the weak and poor) make me want to simultaneously pump my fist in righteousness and cry for sorrow & shame. It's also a very funny book.

9.) A System of Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers by Louis Sullivan. The fact that this remarkable, nigh-magical book is out-of-print and virtually unknown, even in the studios, tells you all you really need to know about the untimely death of American architecture and handicraft.

10.) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The grown-up version of the sweet pain I felt reading my #2 picks. Watch in awe as a poet and Nobel laureate (who was banned from the U.S. until the mid-'90s for his socialist politics, natch) slowly and painstakingly constructs a fully realized, multi-generational capsule world in the fictional village of Macondo -- and then collapses it right before your eyes in the final chapter, as if it were made of magician's flash-paper. Simply stunning.

Alright then, there ya go. Who else is up for the challenge? Maybe next I'll do Ten Albums That Changed My Life ...

PS: I feel terribly remiss not having anything by Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut on this list -- not to mention the ever-popular Orwell-Huxley dyad -- but that's what happens when you publish everything as a first draft, social media style. So it goes.

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