Saturday, June 18, 2005

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A fun book meme

Eszter Hargittai has tagged me with John Cole's book meme:

Do you ever read those stuffy book lists you see circulating, like 'List your five most important books,' and think to yourself- no wonder these people are so damned boring. Some of the titles give me a damned headache, they are so dull. Knowing things is great, but fiction makes life bigger and better and in color.

So, in the proud spirit of anti-intellectualism (just kidding), I am going to offer... the five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult.

Here are my five -- two of which might surprise Cole:

1) Bloom County Babylon, by Berkeley Breathed. The first time I read Bloom County was in my high school freshman physics class. I was laughing so hard that even my teacher -- easily the most absent-minded and clueless instructor I ever had -- appeared to be vaguely aware of my behavior. I didn't care -- Bloom County was just too funny. Opus remains one of my favorite cartoon creations.

2) Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. As a young adult, I found the notion that young children have the capacity for evil, brutality and politics to be utterly shocking. As the parent of young children, of course, I am not surprised in the least. This book is also worth re-reading because of Card's prescience in anticipating the Internet's role in political debate.

3) Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer. An episodic account of life in Hungary from 1944 to 1956. Sounds grim, but it's actually pretty funny -- the chapter with the eating contest always makes me laugh. This was an essential read when I was in Ukraine.

4) Holidays in Hell, by P.J. O'Rourke. I first read this in my junior year in college, when I was studying in London for a semester. There are so many classic essays in this collection -- his voyage on a Soviet cruise ship sponsored by The Nation, his ramble through a Lebanon torn apart by civil strife, his first-person account of student protests in South Korea -- but the all-time classic remains his essay describing what it was like to be trapped in Europe immediately after the U.S. bombed Libya in 1986. O'Rourke, in venting his spleen at the end of that essay, managed to provide catharsis for every American who lived abroad and grew weary of defending their country of origin.

O'Rourke also gets consideration for what he wrote in the preface:

I wanted to know where trouble came from and why the world was such a lousy place. I wasn’t curious about natural disasters—earthquakes, mudslides, floods, and droughts. These are nothing but the losing side of the Grand Canyon coin toss. Okay, it's sad. Now what? I was curious about the trouble man causes himself and which he could presumably quit causing himself at the drop of a hat, or, anyway, a gun. I wanted to know why life, which ought to be an only moderately miserable thing, is such a frightful, disgusting, horrid thing for so many people in so many places.

At a primal level, O'Rourke's rationale was certainly one reason why I got a Ph.D. in political science.

5) Summer of 49, by David Halberstam. I stumbled onto this book one summer (naturally) and was completely hooked, despite the fact that Halberstam's Yankee bias comes through loud and clear. This book (and O'Rourke's) also nicely refutes John Cole's absurd claim that, "Nonfiction and history books may be good for facts, evidence, and showing relationships between people, places and events, but they in many cases tend to make the world smaller.... Fiction, on the other hand, makes the world bigger, more colorful, and more pleasant." No, good writing and a sense of narrative makes the world more alive. I could have easily given this spot to Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Brinkley's Washington Goes to War, or Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition. However, Summer of 49 best conveys the sweet sadness of what it was like to be a Red Sox fan before 2004.

Readers are encouraged to list their five. I'll tag Daniel Nexon, Megan McArdle, Tyler Cowen, Kevin Drum, and Laura McKenna.

posted by Dan on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM


Bloom County is a favorite. Did you like Parliament of Whores, also by PJ?

As far as making the world smaller, you have a point. I sort of meant in the sense that the more you know, the less mystery there can tend to be, but your point is well taken.

posted by: John Cole on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

That's funny, I just re-read Ender's Game this month, making it the first book I read as a child and now again as an adult. I thoroughly enjoyed it again the second time, but I found it less believable than when I first read it. However, I was about 12 when I first read it and that's Ender's age by the end, so I've probably just forgotten how it feels to be a kid.

posted by: Ricky Barnhart on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

1) My family and other animals. Gerald Durrell
2) The Call of the Wild. Jack London.
3) The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster
4) Captain Blood. Rafael Sabatini
5) Tintin in Tibet. Herge

posted by: Arthur on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Next, please: movies I saw.

posted by: Voyeur on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Interesting that you love both Breathed and O'Rourke, since they hate each others' guts and have said so. (I share Breathed's feelings toward O'Rourke, who is -- as "New York's" reviewer called him -- George S. Babbitt as a frat boy. He's also a breathtaking hypocrite, as you'll discover if you read the pieces he was writing simultaneously in 1985-95 for Rolling Stone and the American Spectator. The one consistent thing about his ideology is that he furiously opposes anything that might ever happen to inconvenience P.J. O'Rourke.) As for Breathed: well, he's fairly good -- but he's no Garry Trudeau, let alone a Thurber, Perelman or Russell Baker.

posted by: Bruce Moomaw on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

The copy of The Jungle Books that I appropriated from my brother when I was about 12 is now in my nephew's bedroom, which I believe also has copies of Call of the Wild, White Fang and Captains Courageous. No young boy should be without any of these.

I went through a period in my mid-teens that began with Page Smith's biography of John Adams and continued through Adams' correspondence with Jefferson, the Federalist Papers and even, so help me, Discourses on Davila. That devotion to protracted sentences and archaic rhetorical flourishes that alone can result from prolonged exposure to eighteenth century writing still occasionally manifests itself in my own. It was around this time also that I went through a country music phase that almost got me thrown out of the house. This must have been a coincidence.

In high school I found Shakespeare's histories much more absorbing than his tragedies. I still do, though with the exception of the Henry IV plays the tragedies are mostly better drama. Whenever I am reviewing some particularly ponderous thing I have written myself I draw comfort from Shakespeare's habit of assigning his most amusing dialog to his most deeply flawed characters.

My favorite book of all in my teenage years was Churchill's My Early Life. No one ever painted a picture with words better than Churchill. At the time one of the things that attracted me most about this book was Churchill's description of his difficulties with higher mathematics, with which I could personally empathize. Later his evident wonderment that the people running things were so lacking in the required intelligence and imagination struck the deepest chord with me. I suppose it still does.

posted by: Zathras on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Apropos of (2) (which I haven't read), I remember reading when I was in high school Faulkner's "Reivers." There's a bit in there where he discusses how adults assume young boys are innocent, when in fact they are merely incompetent: there is no crime which the young boy has not contmeplated and would not commit, only he lacks the means to do so and cannot figure out the execution.

posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

I was thinking about your question myself the other day and couldn't come up with anything. I loved Hunter Thompson, Woody Allen, SJ Pereleman; in late adolescence it was Thomas Pynchon and Elias Canetti (Auto da Fe). All of them shared an over-the-top surreal humor. I've tried to re read some of them lately, but with no luck. Couldn't even finish the novels that were complete revelations for me back then. I guess I'm in the trap of only reading history and political philosophy.

posted by: Robert Solot on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]


the english or french version

I hear the US version didn't work out to well.

posted by: exclab on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Public education taught me to hate reading, and the damage wasn't undone until adulthood, so I'm out of this meme.

posted by: Alan K. Henderson on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Under great history books that embiggen our world: A distant mirror, by Barbara Tuchman.

posted by: Pigilito on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Off Subject:

Rice's comment about the history of the US in The ME is an important shift. It is a more cogent and useful statement than any in two or three administrations, including any statement by GW. It could be the basis for reprochment with Iran.

"For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither," she said."

1. It recognizes the US as a player in world events instead of a morally superior outsider - which most policy has implied up to now.

2. Without abstraction it acknowleges the pernicious effects of US action in the past.

3. It provides the basis for respectful engagement. A first.

Yes Iraq was a huge mistake. But I think this is a big step for the US. It could make up for everything. I really think it is a new way of looking at the problem.

or maybe its just a flash in the pan

posted by: exclab on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Seven Favorite Books from long ago (10 to 30 years) that I have reread recently that hold up -
1. Lord of the Rings – I suggest reading T.A. Shippey’s book on Tolkien – it makes one see these books in a new way.
2. A Nervous Splendor – Vienna 1888/1889, by Frederic Morton – Brahms, Brukner, Freud, Klimpt, Mahler, Strauss, Herzl plus the suicide of the Crown Prince - a society whistling in the dark
3. Godel, Esher, Bach , by Douglas Hofstadter – AI, recursion, self-reference. Whew!
4. Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee – a geology travelogue for non-geologists
5. The Llewelyn Trilogy, by Sharon Kay Penman – great historical novels – gotta pretend you don’t know the ending
6. The Civil War, by Shelby Foote – narrative history
7. The Killer Angels, by Micheal Shaara – Gettysburg

posted by: TexasToast on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Man, Ender's Game pops up everywhere, doesn't it? Some guy at the Metreon the other night brought it to read while waiting for the movie to start. That book was revelatory for me as a kid. Of course, I can say the same of Ayn Rand. Suffice it to say that both have lost some luster in later rereading. I wonder how many children have been engaged by both? And now I have the sudden urge to reread it (again).

posted by: Mike on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

'Unbearable Lightness of Being' Milan Kundera
'Catch 22' Joseph Heller
'Confederacy of Dunces' John Kennedy Toole
'Man in the High Castle' Philip K. Dick
the short stories of Woody Allen

posted by: spliff on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

Steal this book; A Hoffman
Dune; F Herbert
The Forever War; J Thaldeman
The Whole Earth Catalog; It's a kick to see what isn't anymore
Invisible Man; R Ellison

posted by: Robert M on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

You're right about "Under the Frog." Unfortunately, it's not as well known as it should be in the U.S. Tibor Fischer also wrote an interesting (and funny) tour guide to Budapest in the early 1990s. Still worth getting for anyone visiting Hungary.

posted by: Ben Brackley on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

It's interesting how you phrased the question. The books that have had the greatest impact on me are those I barely grasped snippets of when young, then came back again as a grown-up and discovered much more there. And therefore here, as well.

1. Emily Dickinson's poetry
2. Flannery O'Connor's short stories
3. Edgar Allan Poe's short stories
4. Paul's letter to the Romans
5. tie - Godel, Escher, Bach and Chronicles of Narnia

The first four each in their own way continue the theme here of losing innocence/gaining understanding. The last two are just fun, and still are.

By the way, Confederacy of Dunces would also have made my list, had it not already been taken. Good call, spliff.

posted by: Bezuhov on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

1) Have Space Suit Will Travel - Heinlein (the book that launched a life-long love of science. Enjoyed it every bit as much, though his later works are tedious). Gave it to my 10 year old this year - but read it first ;)
2) Tolkein - *loved* the hobbit on re-read, the LOR on re-read just doesn't read the same. & it wasn't because of the movies
3) Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit - Bukowski. IMHO, his best, amazing craft, enjoyed as much now as 30 years ago.
4)Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Funny & insightful (still) on re-read, but the lack of sympathetic consciousness just left it with a bit of the infantile
5) Pale Fire - Nabokov. For shear beauty in prose I don't think anyone has ever surpassed Nabokov.

posted by: Jon on 06.18.05 at 11:42 PM [permalink]

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