Books were more important to me when I was coming up than they ever will be again. I mean, books got me through school. Boring, sterile, terrible school. I occupied my desk with the enthusiasm of a criminal in an electric chair. Ergo, children’s books occupy an unparalleled place in my heart and in my personal library.
Here’s what I did, growing up in southern California and Hawaii, festering to be out in the sun, climbing trees! Morning recess: go get guava juice and toast for a snack, go to the library and get a book. I went through them like Thoreau, simply taking the nearest. Then back to class. Read through math. Read through geography. Read through reading. The beauty of it was that by eighth grade I had done all the required reading for high school so I was free to explore important things like sex and music. In college, they still hadn’t really caught up to me, and I began to wonder how much sense these grown-ups really had. I’ve been skeptical of adult literature ever since.
The favorites: fairy tales and Laura Ingalls Wilder — her “Little House” books have been made into a ghastly T.V. show, alas. Her mysticism, intelligence and rapport with nature shine so clearly in her writing. She wrote, merely, her life. And to me, living on a post-World War II air base in Hawaii, her life was fascinating. Her father was out chopping wood; mine was flying airplanes, like the ones that flew overhead all day, friendly neighborhood dinosaurs, a fact of life, incorporated niftily into all our army games. Her mother was putting squash and pumpkins away for the winter; mine was daubing on calamine lotion when I reacted allergically to mango trees. She had the woods; I had the jungle. Especially I loved her tales of the winters — fierce, life-denying times of struggle. Her younger sister was permanently weakened by the near-starvation they suffered as settlers near Minnesota.
The test of a favorite is re-reading. I’ve read her books so many times I feel I’ve memorized them. Or maybe I’ve memorized her. Looking at her as an adult has brought new dimensions of insight — becoming aware that her incredible powers of observation may have evolved through the sharing she did with her sister Mary, who was blinded. They walked together every evening and Laura described the prairie to her, speaking the flowers, the air, the light, the colors to her sightless sister.
Fairy tales: what can I say? They will live forever. Writers who are wise about the power of fairy tales attract me, too: Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, etc. But Laura is the best of them all.
Bored to death on a spring vacation I had retreated to my home town library to curl up with a stack of magazines when Horse Badoritics entered my life. Among the usual best sellers and who-done-its was this beautifully bizarre book, The Fan Man, by William Kotzwinkle. The central character was a 60’s bohemian who loitered, lived in, and left a series of junk-filled apartments in New York City’s lower east side. He collected battery operated Japanese fans and led a chorus of runaway girls. While homework hungry students and shushing librarians gave me dirty looks, I giggled my way through all of Badorities’ stories. I hated finishing that book! All set to tuck it under my t-shirt, I decided rather than hoard the experience to leave the book among the best sellers and let some other lucky person find its diversions and celebrate its energy.
Favorite books are often remembered by the situations surrounding their discovery and impact. During an exam period, in the midst of quiet hours, a group of students suffering from dorm-like cabin fever broke into a vacant faculty advisor’s three-room suite, changed all the locks, distributed the furniture throughout the dormitory and made the apartment our weekend study headquarters. Though textbooks rarely entered the rooms, I have vivid memories of my first allnighter, discussions about everything (not relating to upcoming exams)and reading for the first time two books that made life a lot clearer to understand and made decisions easier to make because they described new ways of looking at old traps. A. S. Neill’s Summerhill and Kerouac’s Dharma Bums still give me goose bumps. I think the two books influenced me to take different chances and ask more questions, most beginning with “why?” Oversimplistic and perhaps too romantic, Summerhill and Dharma Bums felt great! I tried more than once to get them on required reading lists in future courses.
Alas, life marched on in the academic world following our weekend suite takeover. We were asked to visit several campus deans to explain our actions, told to return the furniture or else, and a few days later all the dormitory locks were changed permanently.
One of my favorite books is The I Ching, Richard Wilhelm translation. For the past ten years this book has been a source of wisdom and insight for me. When my husband and I could not decide on a name for our first son, we consulted the Ching and threw hexagram 46, Sheng, pushing upward. This gave the image of a tree growing upward through the earth. “The pushing upward is made possible not by violence but by modesty and adaptability. Since the individual is borne along by the propitiousness of the time, he advances.” We both liked the symbolism, a tree growing from the earth, a child growing from birth. So we named him Sheng.
I once had a housemate who used my Ching to ask questions like “Will Bob call me today?” I laughed to myself, wondering how this ancient book of Chinese wisdom would respond. She threw hexagram 4, Meng, youthful folly. “It is not I who seek the young fool, the young fool seeks me.” Not that her question wasn’t worthy of honoring, just the way it was presented made me chuckle. (“Will my acne clear up by this weekend?”)
The I Ching is capable of revealing future events as well as offering insight into the present. I look on it as a signal to remain humble in the face of success and to be strong during hard times, always to persevere. This book teaches that what is full must become empty, what is empty will become full, and all things eventually turn into their opposite. The I Ching means Book of Changes. Change is inevitable — the Ching just tells you how to accept and flow with the change.
No one really knows how it works. I believe it to be a religious book, generated by forces beyond my comprehension. I accept and respect its mystery.
Books are like vacations, or meals, or memories . . . intervening time tends to diminish their importance.
To me, books are like vacations, or meals, or memories. Some mean more than others, and intervening time tends to diminish their importance. The books that have had the most powerful and lasting effect on my life are not all my favorites. And some favorites have left me quite unchanged.
So my list is divided. First, the powerful books, the ones that stay shelved in the reference section of my mental library, even if I can’t find them around the house:
The Scofield Reference Bible, a wonderfully annotated volume that cross-references verse and provides explanations and elaborations in scholarly galore.
Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi, a forbiddingly dense but very readable hunk of unfinished philosophy. My college transcript says I majored in philosophy, but I really majored in Polanyi. To Polanyi’s unimportance I owe my failure to pursue the field in graduate school.
The Roots of Coincidence and other works by Arthur Koestler. Polanyi and Koestler attended the same Gymnasium in their native Hungary, and share many biases, almost all of which I find agreeable. These two books forward the best cases for parapsychology and against behaviorism I’ve found.
Journey to Ixtlan and Tales of Power by Carlos Casteneda. These are the best of Casteneda’s books, and though they may be hogwash, they make all kinds of sense to me.
Seth Speaks and The Nature of Personal Reality by Jane Roberts. This is easily the most down-to-earth stuff you’ll ever hear from an ectoplasm.
A Course in Miracles by Jesus, apparently. “Nothing real can be threatened,” the author says. And “Nothing unreal exists.” The course does a lovely job of teaching the difference. This is the best theology I’ve found since I arrived in this system.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White. Here is the best writing advice ever to appear in print. Nothing I know teaches more with less effort, or makes a more lasting impact on writing habits. For one’s writing abilities, this book can offer a religious experience.
Next, some favorites from my mental stacks, which are not large, since I have read (especially for a writer) remarkably few books:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, my favorite novel. I have read this book more times than I can count, and listened to two complete readings on the radio. For a story to submerge your mind in, this is an ocean.
Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow. This brilliant portrait of age and wisdom is the only one of Bellow’s books that I can read without struggle. Although all Bellow works date quickly, this one ages as nicely as its hero.
Any book by Mark Twain. The man taught us how to write humor. He was, and still is, the best.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The only modern work of humor that approaches the standards set by Twain. Like Twain’s best, Catch-22. will be remembered well into the next century and beyond.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, another of those books that will shine through the decades. Whatever happened to Harper Lee anyway?
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which is worth the dozen years it took Ellison to write it.
The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, which is to science fiction what Twain is to humor.
Crazy Horse and Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sondoz. The Indian side most eloquently stated. Beautiful, haunting and very sad books.
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the funniest, if not the best, of Kurt Vonnegut’s books.
A Month of Sundays by John Updike, my newest favorite. Updike handles metaphors like George Gervin handles a basketball. No, even better.
The current Consumer Reports Buyer’s Guide. It saves me money, it confirms my hunches and it doesn’t lie.
Advertising Pure and Simple by Hank Seiden. Advertising is my living, and this is the best how-to in the field.
The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan, which contains the following characterization: “They did not look tough or mean. They looked like a relaxed essence distilled from those two qualities.”
The Joy of Cooking by Becker and Rombauer, still the ultimate cookbook. It tells you far more than you need to know about anything you can cook, and is often funny in its extremes of completeness. It tells you to “Draw, pluck, singe and cut to pieces a young wild goose . . . ” long before it gets around to recipe instructions.
Almost everything interesting in The Joy of Cooking requires stock, and the instructions for making stock are several pages long and unbelievably complex. For example: “If you do not have an asbestos pad to produce an evenly transmitted heat, get two or three bricks. . . .” And, for unnecessary advice, my favorite: “If water has been exposed to radioactive fallout, do not use it.”
Since I’ve spent the last couple of months applying to creative writing grad schools, I’ve got this question down pat. Here it is: just about verbatim from my application to Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.
1) Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness by Charles Bukowski. I like lots of sex and lots of drinking. I also like the title.
2) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter Thompson. I like to read about extravagant drug use and insane craziness, especially when it’s in the name of the American Dream.
3) The Tom Waits Songbook by Tom Waits. I like songs and poetry about Nebraska.
4) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. I like perfect writing that’s psychedelic too. I also like telling people there’s no comparison — the book’s a hundred times better than the movie.
5) Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I like reading about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and San Francisco and the 60’s and LSD and the not-so-distant, distant past.
6) Kerouac by Ann Charters. I like reading about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Greenwich Village, San Francisco, New Orleans, Mexico, hemp, jazz, and Charlie Parker.
7) Hunger by Knut Hamsun. I like crazy, energetic accounts of what it feels like to be an artist, half-dead from no food.
8) Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. I like Parisian sex, prostitutes, and rambling pages that sometimes turn themselves over.
9) Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I like Holden Caulfield.
10) The Stranger by Albert Camus. I like murder and death made simple and complete under a very hot sun.
11) Junkie by William Burroughs. I like addiction and horror and New York City.
12) Diaries by Anais Nin. I like artists’ truths, especially hers.
I don’t have a favorite book. I do have some favorite books. One of them is Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Another favorite is part of a book. It is the prologue to Slapstick, also by Vonnegut.
Basically, Vonnegut is dangerous stuff. If you find yourself at a party peopled mainly by the Humanities Department, Vonnegut is never to be discussed at length or with academicism. If talking one-to-one with an English or literature major, mention Vonnegut only with the most fleeting of words.
Vonnegut is not a present day Tolstoy or Hemingway. In this sense he is not a great writer. He has never pretended to be.
Vonnegut just writes. He writes often with third-grade sentence structure. Breakfast of Champions is fully illustrated, by the author, with doodle line drawings done with a flair pen. Breakfast of Champions is a novel. It is sweet, sweet comedy. It affronts sacred institutions. Holiday Inn. Pontiac. Aluminum siding. It is luxuriously cynical.
Vonnegut has a wonderful sense of timing. At times he is unmercifully, rolling on the floor, gottacallafriend funny. In a way, what Altman did in Three Women so morosely that I could only see it once, Vonnegut did with such uplifting abandon in Breakfast of Champions that I’ve read the book at least a dozen times.
Kurt Vonnegut is honest, at least. To my knowledge, he has never made the talk show circuit or behaved outrageously to gain publicity.
In the prologue to Slapstick, Vonnegut talks of people treating one another with common decency. Not with love, but common, civil decency. He wins little victories for people that are a joy to ponder.
What is art anyway? When another human being reaches inside and touches me in a way I don’t even know exists, by virtue of the way he or she has arranged words or colors or sounds or bricks or trees, I call it art.
Kurt Vonnegut touches me deeply.
I reached up to draw from the high shelf a book whose melodic name seemed to me then the most exotic . . . I’d ever heard. Jane Eyre.
It is a dangerous thing to do, triflingly dangerous anyway, to try and single out a favorite book or even two. I don’t wish to omit any — there have been so many that have kept me such good company for so long. So I’ll have to discriminate on another basis, for there is one I do remember meeting, above all the others.
I am 10 or 11, sitting cross-legged on the worn wooden floor of the town library. It is in a small one-room brick building, formerly a drab VFW post and its share of books is meager — low shelves line the walls in one corner where the little children’s books are kept and three parallel rows of tall shelves run the length of the room. A fireplace is partially obscured by a group of low tables and chairs. It is cool there — the high windows open onto the spreading shade of the surrounding oaks.
I must have spent two or three summers sequestered there, between the tall shelves, out of the librarian’s view. It was quiet — not much coming and going. I must have fingered the binding of every book. I was so hungry for entertainment. It is so clear, the moment I reached up to draw from the high shelf a book whose melodic name seemed to me then the most exotic, yet somehow the most medieval, I’d ever heard. Jane Eyre. That solitary, bleakly English tale of the orphan who triumphs at last — or at least we’re left with the impression that she got what she was after. I guess it appeals to all the latent childhood melodrama in me.
It is an extraordinary book just to have been written by a woman in the mid-1800’s and to have been published.
As far as actual events in the book, I recall the least subtle the best — 10-year-old Helen dying in Jane’s arms in the notorious orphanage whose privations mirror anything Dickens ever described. And I recall how Mr. Rochester, whom Jane later marries, had his insane wife securely locked away in a secret tower of his mansion. And the fire at the end, in which he is blinded. I can see the flames leaping up the dank, hewn-stone steps to the room where the unfortunate Mrs. Rochester waited.
But all these are secondary. Everytime I think of the book, it echoes back to me a precise memory of myself as I was then, back against the bookcases.
My balloon-tired bike is lying outside in the hot July sun. The summer passes in that sultry tobacco town. But me, I’m in England, with good ole Jane Eyre.
Dee Dee Hooker
Most comical commentary on society: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. (“Always to be right, always to trample forward, and never to doubt, are not these the great qualities with which dullness takes the lead in the world?”)
Most rereadable science fiction: The Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert. (“This is the fallacy of power: ultimately it is effective only in an absolute, a limited universe. But the basic lesson of our relativistic universe is that things change. Any power must always meet a greater power.”)
Most memorable childhood book: Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, the entirety of which was read aloud to me and my sister by our deeply Southern grandfather who was our Uncle Remus. (“I notices dat dem folks w’at makes a great ’miration ’bout w’at dey knows is des de folks w’ich you can’t put no ’pennunce in w’en de ’casion come up.”)
Most tattered volume of esoteric ramblings: Ponder On This by Alice Bailey. Atrociously English in style, but brimming over with valuable perspectives. (“Those . . . who study the work of the world aspirants today, see . . . a sustained and strenuous effort on their part to ‘make themselves what they ought to be’, and yet at the same time a distressing lack of proportion, and no sense of humour whatsoever. . . .”)
Most studied autobiography: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, whose name I can actually pronounce. Not only is this as readable and exciting as any novel I’ve ever read, it is the only book which intensely entered my life and refused to take a passive role until I’d read, re-read and indexed it. P.Y. helped me to accept what he calls “ever-new-joy” as part of who I am. Especially on my birthday, I share the joke with him: as my spiritual friend, he is eternally accessible to me and I need never to meet him in the flesh. He left his body on the evening of March 7, 1952. I entered mine mid-morning of March 7, 1952. I deny him only when I am determined to despair; to look into his eyes into is to look into the eyes of an all-powerful comedian.
Most revolutionary book(s): The Seth Material, Seth Speaks, The Nature of Personal Reality, from the ongoing Seth series, by Jane Roberts. I think the Seth series as a school of thought can maximize our abtlity to enjoy a deeper responsibility for ourselves collectively and as individuals. The books are bestsellers (Prentice-Hall Publishers) but ignored by the academics, probably because Seth is a personality “no longer focused in physical reality” who dictates classroom style lectures through Jane Roberts, a poet and writer in Elmira, New York. The Seth texts go beyond affirming the power of positive thinking to the examination of conflicting beliefs, and many other sub-levels of creating your own reality. As an ideology, it is intellectually sound, and emotionally gratifying, a down-to-earth commentary on the origins of consciousness that seems truly bottomless. The following is an excerpt from a dictation in which Jane shifted from “Seth” to “Seth Two,” a larger collective entity that includes Seth “One”:
We do not exist in your historical terms, nor have we known physical existence. Our joy created the exaltation from which your world comes. Our existence is such that communication must be made by others to you. Our experience is not translatable. . . . We perceive your thoughts as lights. They form patterns. . . . We send immeasureable vitality to you, and support all of those structures of consciousness with which you are familiar. You are never alone. We have always sent emissaries to you who understand your needs. Though you do not know us, we cherish you. Seth is a point in our reference. He is an ancient portion of us. We are separate but united. (long pause) Always, the spirit forms the flesh.
Most cherished journal writing: The diaries and letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh (Bring Me A Unicorn; Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead; The Flower and the Nettle). Anne Morrow Lindbergh probably won’t be remembered as a great writer, but her ability to describe her own emotions and her relationship with the rest of the world captured my heart more than ten years ago. When I’m needing to dive into someone else’s life and stop mulling over my own, I inevitably pull down one of her journals, and open it at random. The delicacy of her perception, and ongoing search to capture the essence of a day, an hour, a minute, a friend, is like a bath for me. I keep her near me also because she reminds me so much of myself. She has internalized her intellect to such an extent that she doubts her every spoken word; the silent ones that come to her when she writes are never doubted. They spring from a marriage of mind and intuition, and the base is her heart, sweeping up the earth and absorbing it into the fire of her love. The price she pays for this intense inner life is less confidence in the outer, which she painstakingly, through the years, rectifies. Her brilliance is in her appreciativeness, a deep reservoir of energy that fertilizes everything she sees.
In The Flower and the Nettle, her son Jon comes to see his new baby brother. Jon refers to the baby at one point and Ann says, “Who?” and Jon replies, “My brother.”
Ann: “ ‘My brother.’ It was so thrilling, opening up the past and the future, as though I had waited a lifetime for it, waited and waited for my boy to say, ‘My brother.’ . . . It sounded prophetic, too, like the beginning of a new line of history, personal history, a new relationship for Jon, something I would never share but that he alone had: ‘My brother.’ It was new now, but it would become familiar, unconscious, old, unnoticeable, part of life, a long life that was to come and would continue after I wasn’t any more. I tried to snatch some of it from the future . . . ‘My brother and I. . . .’ ‘My brother says. . . .’ ‘My brother thinks the war in Tanganyika. . . .’ ‘That’s my brother’s field, you know.’ On and on, ‘My brother,’ forever now.”
At one time the dictionary was my favorite book. I was always looking up words to see where they came from and to examine their meanings. I kept one with me whenever I sat down to read or write. When I went to the library I would choose a seat beside the dictionary stand. During the evening meal, my friend Mary and I would consult the dictionary.
We were getting ready to go to Greece when I brought home an unabridged Random House. Mary looked at me in horror. “AR,” she said, “you can’t take that with us.” So I left it at home with the other precious things that were inappropriate for our long trip — the piano, her cat and cello.
Once in Greece, at famous sites — on the burial mound at Marathon, by the ancient temple to Aphaia near Agia Marina, outside the lion gate at Mycenae — we found a substitute for dictionary probing. Some quality of being or ideal would come to mind and we would be obsessed with it for days — integrity, loyalty, honesty, persistence, nobleness, and so on. One day Mary commented on how much our bus driver reminded her of Socrates. He had big pores in his nose like the famous sculpture and there was a small crowd of people hovering around him as he told stories and swung the bus around the winding roads in the Argolid. “Magnetism” occupied us for several days.
Now my favorite books are Plato’s Phaedo, Molloy or Malone Dies or Watt by Samuel Beckett, Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, and The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass. Each has some heroic show of strength that is encouraging: an absolute adherence to ideals, a keen and fresh attention to the smallest details that engage thought, a struggle for personal integrity in spite of a changing system of morals, the display of an insistent love of life and life forces, and a lively and engaging exhibit of imagination and inventiveness.
Chapel Hill, N.C.
Right now my favorite book is The Miracle of Love by Ram Dass.
I read a page or two a day to savor it. The 400-page book is a collection of stories about Ram Dass’ guru, Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba). It’s organized so purely that the essence or presence of Maharajji is strongly felt as the book is read.
The experience of this being is remarkably profound and delightful at the same ime. Maharajji was a completely empty being who wanted nothing and appeared to do nothing. But through his emptiness people are able to encounter the fullness of their true Self. He was and still is a vehicle to unconditional love. His essence has put millions in touch with that aspect of themselves. Many would try to collect Maharajji as an object. But as he said, “I am like the wind. No one can hold me. I live in every heart. The whole world is my family.”
Kumar (Tom Spector)