Saturday, March 20, 2010

Influential Books

As a part of the blogosphere I may as well not exist, but pretending is awfully fun, and trying to nail down the books which most influenced one's thinking is a great exercise in self-definition. Much like writing a statement of purpose essay will inform you as much as the colleges you're applying to on why you actually want to go to grad school, thinking about thinking makes you clarify notions of self that would have otherwise been unacknowledged and taken for granted (as you will learn, my literary life has been a veritable lesson in not taking things for granted).

Regarding the list, I don't read books as often as I would like. Unlike Ezra Klein, my blog consumption is a relatively recent development that with one exception has not shaped how I think so much as what I think about. Growing up I watched a lot of television and played a lot of video games, and in high school I was listening to music and noodling around on the guitar more than I was reading. A few of my early picks are "cheats," but I'd be lying if they didn't make an impression.

So, in roughly chronological order, the most influential books in my life:

- Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson - Right away I'm already cheating. But I think it's a good cheat; like many of my generation who grew up with Calvin & Hobbes in the paper everyday and a new paperback collection coming out every year, I was captivated by the daily escapades of a precocious (I hate that word, but its an accurate assessment of Calvin's character) six year-old and his stuffed tiger. A great deal of the razor-sharp humor went over my head back then, but I think even just being exposed to a world that's gone Neo-Cubist while I was in elementary school planted some seeds--unconventional ideas, mature thinking--that would bear good fruit later on.

- Joe Madureira's run on Uncanny X-Men - Another cheat, but let me explain! Madureira had a two-year run on the series, during which my friends and I were in the midst of our grade school comics phase. I was captivated by his kinetic, anime-influenced style, and did my 5th-grade best to imitate it. During his run that the X-books ran their Age of Apocalypse storyline--in which Xavier was killed 20 years in the past and, without his influence, the present was a genocidal hell--which gave me my first taste of grand, world-shattering stories (which the Final Fantasy games would feed only a few years later). In addition to my drawing, I would go on to say that my sense of framing shots and pictures was (unconsciously) developed in these formative years. I would never have been able to storyboard my senior project without having immersed myself for years already in what in some cases are storyboards for later movies.

- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King - At last, some real reading! Certain persons, some might call them snobs, might look down on such a choice, but what do they know. I read several of King's novels in middle school, and even then I was interested in writing (though the notion of writing for the stage would not enter my head for several years yet), and so I picked this up when it came out. I disagree with King on outlines (I'm lost without them, and the time constraints of stage- and screenplays demand that not a moment be wasted), but otherwise the wisdom dispensed is extremely useful: you can't write if you don't read, get some space between your first and second drafts, always have a copy of The Elements of Style handy. I've still got that hardcover edition and frequently turn to it when I feel stuck.

- 1984 by George Orwell - The book's reputation compelled me to read it a good year before it was assigned to me in my senior AP lit class, and what a read it was. The strength and longevity of its ideas on totalitarianism and freedom are undisputed by anyone of any political persuasion, and hardly need be recapped here. The impact it had on me as an impressionable 17 year-old came from the latter half of the book, in which Winston Smith is tortured and broken in order to reform him into a loyal Big Brother partisan. The ideas of the memory hole, 2+2=5, the frightening ideological power of insanity by consensus--these were a profound shock to the assumptions I had about objective reality (that is, I assumed everybody was on the same page), and actually depressed me for several days after I finished the book. I've read some of Orwell's other material--Politics and the English Language I find to be even more valuable a document than 1984--but none of them so fundamentally altered the way I think about how, on a certain level, perception is reality, and there are many who would manipulate it to nefarious ends.

- The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri - I read this on a whim during my first (and easily easiest) year in college, after hearing on Jeopardy that the three faces of Satan were forever devouring the heads of Brutus and Cassius and the body of Judas Iscariot. The imagery and structure of the Inferno is so vivid and ingenious that it's still our reference 600 years later. Purgatorio and Paradiso were slower-going (I've read their appeal grows the older one is), but even then the Rose of Heaven makes it worth it. I was so taken by the whole work that I decided to write my own Divine Comedy, with rock stars and pop musicians, utilizing the terza rima (ABA,BCB,CDC) rhyme scheme of the original Italian. I gave up after four or five cantos after realizing it would be impossible and that Dante really was a frocking genius. It was a great exercise, though, which helped develop my vocabulary (I rhymed scratchers, dreamcatcher, and Margaret Thatcher, in one delightful instance) and pushed me away from naturalistic writing to more stylized work.

- Hamlet, by William Shakespeare - I'd rather say the entire Shakespeare Canon, but having fudged my answers so much already, I'll settle on this one. I was in a production of Hamlet my sophomore year in college, and it prompted me to dig into the rest of Shakespeare's works. The depth of character, the varieties of human and theatrical experience, the words, words, words; it was something to fall in love with, and I did wholeheartedly, complete with a love letter in the form of a Shakespearean-styled play I wrote at the height of my immersion. I've become more discerning about Shakespeare's place in Western culture, with so much frankly awful kitsch that is maintained in his name, but I still look to works like King Lear to understand what is possible in theatre.

- Instant Shakespeare by Louis Fantasia - This was an assigned text for the Shakespeare acting class I took while I was in Hamlet. Like Stephen King's book, it's low on bullshit and high on concrete solutions to dealing with The Greatest Dramatist in History. Besides practical acting advice, it also made me realize that it's not enough to accept Shakespeare on a pedestal, that we need to understand what made him so great. Ever since then it's been an ongoing lesson in not taking greatness for granted.

- The Empty Space by Peter Brook - Also assigned to me, the following semester. Of my sophomore year at a community college! My first impression that it was hoity-toity bullshit, but it's actually a vital document to anyone interested in the stage, at any level. It made me aware of Deadly Theatre that we convince ourselves is better than it actually is, and impressed in me, at a far deeper level than Instant Shakespeare, to take nothing for granted, whether a play, a line, the theatre in general. I constantly refer back to it in my efforts to produce the best work I can, four years on. One of my theatre friends last summer told me some students aren't assigned this until grad school, but I can't imagine where I would be without it.

- The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This came out, coincidentally (or was it?!?), at the same time I was taking a year-long Biology sequence; I actually borrowed it from my professor. Throughout my life I had gone from Christian-by-birth to rebellious atheist to marginal Christian to agnostic trending atheist. I hadn't until this point rigorously examined the arguments for faith, and my scientific instruction was fuzzy at best. Dawkins' book was a delightful corrective, demolishing specious biblical lines of inquiry while also providing a real sense of wonder at the workings of the universe. I'm not quite the firebreathing atheist I was a few years ago, but I remain a proud, nature-curious skeptic, and I have Dawkins (and Bob) to thank for that.

- The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan. Yeah, it's a blog, but damnit, I've been reading it daily for over three years now, which is enough reading for several volumes. My first exposure to Sullivan was his essay, "This is a Religious War," published shortly after 9/11, which I read my freshman year of college. Having started reading his blog after he had turned against the Iraq war (thereby not experiencing real-time the nasty vitriol he spat at opponents of the war in its lead-up and early days) I was able to enjoy the fascinating contradictions in his identity (Irish gay Catholic conservative Tory Obama booster). This was in 2006 or so, mind you, with another two years to go in those dark, dark Bush years. Sullivan takes some embarrassing stands sometimes, especially regarding Sarah Palin's pregnancy, and I find his defense of faith fatuous and compartmentalized, but his moral clarity on the torture issue is impeccable, and he is rigorous in airing dissent and allowing us to see him develop a point of view, practically in real time. His conservatism of doubt is something even a die-hard liberal like me can admire and hope to emulate.

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