Between preparatory school, college, and post-graduate schooling, I have experienced a lot of classes and lectures. There are two that were superlative. (I recognize the contradiction in terms, but I consider them to both be superlative).
The first was my prep school American History class, which our teacher, Doc Thomas, used no textbook, and taught American History simply with primary sources. Some of these were written, like John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech, and the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, and Kerouac. Others were visual, such as the paintings of Thomas Church and his colleagues of the Hudson River School, and even the film Rebel Without a Cause. The immediacy of experience, without the intervention of a textbook as moderator, was learning in a new way for me, and I never forgot the lessons learned.
The second was Contemporary Civilization at Columbia University, the so-called “Great Books” class that ran us through the canon of Western Civilization at two books per week for the full year. The material was the expected material and not the reason for my feelings on the class. The blessing of the class was Scott Sandage, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who was at Columbia on a fellowship for the year, and gave insight into reading, world view, and life perspective that I had never considered. I could write at length about the lessons of that class, but most meaningful was Professor Sandage’s point that through every moment of education – be it a book, a lecture, pursuit of a degree – we implicitly are looking to change ourselves. We go to school and ask the school to change us. We read the book and hope that the book will change us. We view the painting believing that it will open some new insight or thought in us that we had not before seen or experienced.
I have been ruminating on this recently, particularly after reading a number of “Favorite Books” posts on other sites I enjoy (Farnam Street’s and Ryan Holiday’s lists are examples). I like collecting lists of books, or records, or other experiences that I’ve had that I believe others will enjoy. I do not claim that these are the “best” books, but merely that each impacted me in a memorable and positive way. I hope that you find a new perspective in these.
Desolation Angels – Jack Kerouac
Desolation Angels is Kerouac at his best, full of rhythmically exciting prose and a conflicted vision of America. The work actually contains two books – the first, Desolation Angels, chronicles Kerouac’s solitary summer stint as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the the Cascade Mountain range. Purportedly drawn up from his journals, the book reveals Kerouac’s alternating ecstasy and sorrow during his period of solitude. Book II is titled Passing Through, and contains reflections of Kerouac’s travels through America, Mexico, Tangiers, France, and England. It is difficult to reduce any Kerouac to analytical review, but the book is important to me for a few key reasons.
First, the prose itself is rhythmically exciting, nearly poetic, in Kerouac’s grand vision of the “poetry of pure prose.” It is a beautiful celebration of life’s highs and lows, its enthusiasms and sorrows. Second, it contains the exuberance of On the Road, but stands from a place of introspection and greater perspective than the more well-known, but momentary and rapid-fire work. As a result, the book provides wonderful insight into a mind overwhelmed with the beauty and immediacy of life, while simultaneously struggling with the pains of loneliness, attachment, and suffering that come along with those things. The quality of Kerouac’s philosophical, psychological, and symbolic insights in the book is unparalleled elsewhere in his canon.
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
After reading No Country for Old Men about five or six years ago, I did something I have done with no other writer. I read nothing but Cormac McCarthy until I had finished his catalogue. Blood Meridian is his finest work, on par with the finest moments of William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. I believe it is the finest piece of American contemporary literature that I have read. The novel is the story of a band of depraved and violent scalp-hunters on the Texas-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s. McCarthy paints a world of immense space, stoic beauty, and ever-present dread. McCarthy fills this world with characters capable of unspeakable evil and cruelty. This is an unusual perspective on our American West, with no heroes, no salvation, only relentless violence and vengeance. It is a mythic book, recreating Biblical stories in inverse ways. At the end, you may have trouble beginning another novel, because the poetry of McCarthy’s exquisitely crafted language is just too perfect to leave behind. This is truly an unforgettable work.
A People’s History of the United States – Howard Zinn
Howard Zinn (1922-2010), was a historian, playwright, social activist, and professor at Brown University). This book is his master work. People’s History attempts to tell a different story of American History, told from the perspective of the victims, the oppressed, the forgotten. A controversial book, it is often adored and reviled by Americans depending on their particular view of the world, or perhaps, the view of the world that they want others to uphold.
The book has suffered some criticism of myopia or lack of citation in sections. This is beside the point. American history of too often taught from a sterile, reverent, and unchallenging perspective, focusing only on presidents and industrial heroes. This book raises important questions about the collective assumptions and shared predispositions America holds with respect to its history, and challenges readers to evaluate otherwise familiar events in ways that they otherwise might never do. One should always be in the practice and habit of checking assumptions, and looking for alternative perspectives. You may find new material or information that matures your own perspective, or you may find that the alternative is unconvincing and hold tight to your original views. Either way, the exercise and practice of checking assumptions is invaluable, and Zinn provides a healthy dose of that.
Blue Highways/River Horse – William Least Heat-Moon
William Least Heat-Moon left Missouri in his van with no specific plan other than to drive the backroads of America, and discover the people and stories of the small towns of this country. This trip led to Blue Highways, a remarkable and deeply human account of Americans, their hopes, dreams, and struggles. Heat-Moon reveals a kaleidoscopic America in many ways, which increases in complexity and diversity with each new town into which he rolls. At the same time, he finds common threads in American life, and an almost universal friendliness that propels him across the country as he tries to deal with the struggles he faces back home.
Years later, Heat-Moon and a friend make a second journey across America, this time by boat. Starting in the Hudson River, they travel through the Great Lakes, across Lake Chautauqua, into the Allegheny River and down into the Mississippi River. From there, it is upstream across the Missouri, and eventually across the Rockies before arriving in the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean. Reminiscent of Blue Highways, River Horse adds a focus on the geology and geography of the country not present in the first book. It is filled with the same cast of unforgettable Americans, whom Heat-Moon portrays honestly and kindly. Put together, these two books provide a wonderful “ground level” view of America. Any of us who are too stuck in our local or regional worlds would do well to remind ourselves of the intricacies of life in all the far flung corners of our country.
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway makes his account in this book of his post-WWI life in Paris, and his interactions with other American ex-patriates such as Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The narrative is quaint, if not a bit bland. The value of this book lies in its direct and clear expression of Hemingway’s writing process. Thousands of books with millions of pages are now circulating Amazon and bookstores, all wishing to provide direction on the creative process. Start with Hemingway.
The Way of Zen – Alan Watts
My true feelings of this book are too complicated and immense to describe in this post, and I anticipate writing a longer post on the book. That said, I have studied Eastern Philosophy for 15 years now, and practiced Zen Buddhism for five. The original source material is often difficult and impenetrable. Interpretative texts are often misinformed and squishy books designed to sell at new-age stores, and miss the deep and challenging questions presented by Zen philosophy. I have found no better voice on Zen, or Buddhism in general, than Watts, who was both surgically precise with his explanations, and demonstrably able to assist Westerners with comprehension through his anticipation of typical stumbling blocks.