::Literate Blather::
Friday, January 25, 2008
Knock Your Socks Off Books -- Part 2
(Yup, we promised you a second part to our question: What book changed your perspective on life and why? Here's another roll call of our favorite people tackling this provocative question with the depth and insight you expect from DaRK PaRTY. Don’t forget to read our First Part either.)

Billy Conway, musician and former drummer for Morphine and Treat Her Right: “The Philosophy of Civilization” by Albert Schweitzer. The title is a wee grandiose but it was written in a different cultural time that begged for answers. For one thing he observes that at a certain point after the printing press and wider dissemination of philosophical knowledge was available, the shamanesque nature of philosophy fell prey to endless critique of the other positions and the search for meaning was left unattended while we put faith in the academy of critique.... as if the meaning and purpose were there if one merely read enough. More importantly he digs deep into making the case that happiness and fulfillment occur through satisfying an innate inner urge to be helpful and worthy as a communal citizen. He argues that satisfying your own needs is not a way to achieve happiness, but rather that good ole feeling of doing something for somebody else is where our greatest good lies. Still learning from that book.

Tony Carrillo, cartoonist (F-Minus): The book that changed my view of comedy more than any other is “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. His perspective on the world was unlike anything I had ever read. When describing an army of spaceships about to destroy the Earth, Douglas says they "hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." This backwards view of life was something I wanted to emulate in my comic strip F-Minus.

Laurie Foos, author (“Before Elvis There Was Nothing”): I wouldn't say this book changed my perspective on life, per se, but it certainly changed — irrevocably -- my perspective on literature. And that book is Nikolai Gogol's The Nose.” The metaphor is brilliantly sustained, both funny and oddly moving in parts, and it taught me what metaphor could accomplish. It completely changed the way I thought about writing, and it's one I re-read once a year.

Judith Wilt, Boston College professor: Let me cite two books: Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged” got me thinking about and fighting with its ideas in my late teens: how could I be so drawn in and yet so resistant? How could her world seem so seamless in the reading and so hard to credit as I looked at my actual world? And Charles Dickens's “Our Mutual Friend” made me commit to graduate student life -- a book read in my mid-twenties that got me out of the “high” vs. “popular” literature dichotomy I had brought from college life and made me feel there could be a place for me in the 'profession.'

Adian Moher, blogger (“A Dribble of Ink”): I hate to sound cliché, but I've got to go with J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit,” a classic of the genre and the single novel that really set me on the path towards Fantasy. “The Hobbit” helped me realize that sense of adventure that is lurking around any corner as long as you're willing to look for it and take a hold of it yourself.

Bilbo, as a Hobbit, was content to let life come to him, to laze away the days and aspire to nothing more than smoke his pipe weed, quaff some ale and relax. Now, this doesn't sound like a terrible life, in fact, it sounds rather tranquil and perfect, but Bilbo, through Gandalf's insistence, reached out beyond that life and found a whole other world of adventure that existed, just there for the taking.

I live in a place very similar to Hobbiton: a small, sleepy little place that is absolutely perfect for lazing away the days. But Bilbo taught me to look outside, to take a look at what else the world has to offer. Without Bilbo I wonder if perhaps I would have discovered my lust for travel, if I would have seen as much of the world as I have. Travel has taken hold of me and threatens never to let go as I keep looking for a dragon to plunder, a mountain to save and goblins to flee.

Now I just need to gather some good friends for the ride.

Gretchen Rubin, author and blogger (“The Happiness Project”): The first is Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Jackie Under My Skin.” It showed me that a biographer could tackle the study of a life in a completely idiosyncratic way. When I started to write my own biography of Winston Churchill, having read that book made me aware of the possibilities of breaking out of the standard chronological form.

Jess Myers, poet: There have been several books that changed my perspective on life after I read them. I often find myself imitating a style as I'm reading something new. David Sedaris' “Me Talk Pretty One Day” inspired me to change majors in college from vocal performance to creative writing. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (by Harper Lee) was the first book I ever loved and couldn't put down. I kind of skated through English classes before that and never really got much enjoyment out of the books that we were forced to read in junior high. That might have been the one that really opened my eyes to a lifetime of loving words. From there it was “Slaughterhouse Five” (by Kurt Vonnegut) and “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath” (by John Steinbeck) and there are a handful of women writers that I really enjoy for their wry humor and unique but sort of unfeminine perspectives: Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates. I like the gritty dirty feminine voice.

Dave Zeltserman, blogger and author (“Bad Thoughts”): I don’t think any single book changed my perspective on life, although I’m sure the thousands of books I’ve read have had some influence on the way I look at things. The one book that probably had the biggest impact on my life since I’m now writing crime novels, was “I, the Jury” by Mickey Spillane, because that book got me hooked on crime fiction.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick, author and president of the Dorothy Parker Society: This has to be “Here Is New York” by E.B. White. My friend gave it to me as a gift the year I moved to New York. I have read and re-read it every year for the last 16. I read it whenever I get down about the city or about what it means to be a New Yorker. The book took on new importance to me in the days after 9/11, when I found strength in it. For those that don't know, White wrote it in 1948 as a travel piece; he was living in Maine and came into the city and observed his former home as a visitor would. What it has become is a testament about what New York means, and what I draw from it is why we New Yorkers want to live and work here. It is so light and so smooth, it really is the best thing ever written about this city. My favorite sentence, which I quote all the time, is "No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky." I have since given the book as a gift to about a dozen people when they move to the city. And I'm ready to send it one who just left for Los Angeles, to remind him what he gave up.

Rebecca Traquair, poet: This is actually a conversation I've had with any number of people. The answers never cease to interest me. My most influential book is actually a slim volume of aphorisms by an American writer named Jean Toomer. It's called “Essentials” and was originally published in 1931.

Toomer's most famous book, “Cane,” made his reputation as a Harlem Renaissance writer, but his own spiritual questing led him away from that vein. He lost popularity, but he was true to himself. “Essentials” is a distillation of his ideas and ideals, a rejection of prevailing standards and classifications, an absolutely revolutionary book for his time and for ours. I found the book almost by accident while working on a university project, and this is one of the reasons I am a great believer in the happiness of accidents.

I can't quote directly some of the phrases that grabbed me so completely, as my copy is currently on extended loan to my friend Jadon (I have at least 4 of Jadon's books right now, so this is only fair). I can attempt to paraphrase though... “All our lives, we have been waiting for an event that will gloriously upset us. All our lives, we have been waiting to live.”

Reading “Essentials” gloriously upset my thinking, or at the very least, it gave me a framework for thoughts that I had been formulating but had not yet been able to put into words. More than any other book I have ever read, “Essentials” made me consider exactly what it means to be human, to be an individual, and to be part of something greater than oneself. It is well worth seeking out.

L. Kenyon, writer: When I was 22, I landed a terribly shitty job in a horribly shitty strip mall. I was interviewed by a man who had bad hair and small teeth. He'd driven an hour north from Albany, New York to meet with me. I didn't like him very much and I could tell he felt the same but they needed someone to fill the position of store jerk. The last guy just stop showing up. Soon I was working eleven-hour days alone and was seeing less than that number of customers a week. It was my first introduction to corporate bureaucracy. I used to get an automated call three times a week from the mother office. I would stand at the dusty register in sagging khakis and recite the meager sales totals into the mouthpiece.

For the first month I did everything by code, fearful of a few mentioned surprise visits from corporate. Then, as the days began to tick on and the hours grew longer, I broke. I went from rushing an occasional cigarette out the backdoor and rubbing myself down with soap afterward, to lighting up out front beside the window sale signs for Lung Power and C Vitamins. Weeks turned to months. I starting hauling my TV and Playstation in but a little while I gave up the hassle. Friends would come visit and hang around in the back room for hours but I was lonely. I was bored. I was miserable.

Then one afternoon I was doing laundry at my mother's when I noticed a box of books by the door. "Throwing them out," she said. "Why not burn them," I said. "Don't get smart," she said. I'd been avoiding just that for twenty-two years. As I stood there looking down into that box, I realized that I had never read a single book in its entirety.

I had not read "The Cat in the Hat" or even "Green Eggs and Ham." Did not would not read Vonnegut, Salinger, or any text in hand. I faked book reports with lame retorts and silly see-through lies. I'd watch the movie or cheat, and then fail with indignant surprise. No Shakespeare, no Poe, not even Tolkien or B. Potter, No Dick, No Jane, and magazines? Bah, couldn't be bothered.

A friend of mine, Jen, would visit me at home and shake her head saying things like, "I mean you're a smart guy, why don't you read?" "Why?" I'd ask setting down the controller and taking another hit from the bowl, "Why don't you read to me?" And it went on like this until that afternoon at my mother's. Boredom will make a man do strange things. In this case, it led to a whole new everything.

I bent and took the box with me. I brought it to work the next day and sifted through it. I pulled out “Insomnia” by Stephen King and set it down on the desk. I stared at the cover and sighed. "Reading," I scoffed. If I WERE to read, I figured I'd give this one a shot
considering I liked a handful of King book based movies (only but a handful mind you) and it was also a familiar name; it had been hiding the lower half of my mother's face for the greater part of my childhood.

A few hours passed and the book still sat on the desk untouched. So finally giving in with nothing to do and no visitors, I opened the first page. It's been almost eight years, and I've never stopped turning them. Thank you Mom.

I was fired a few months later. I was in the back room in blue jeans with my feet up on the desk and reading “The Catcher in the Rye” (by J.D. Salinger) for the first time when the dreaded surprise visit from corporate finally happened. I took my books with me.

Knock Your Socks Off Books - Part 1

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