Ten Book-Shaped Objects that Changed My Life Everyone has been using this Ten Books Thing in a different way. I'm unable to make a list. Well, I'd be able to make a list, but the list wouldn't tell you things the way I'd like to tell you them. A narrative of sorts is what I need. Because the books that have detonated the most in my brain have not been about molding me as a person (though plenty have done so, and I think that literature's great power comes from how it teaches us what it's like to be other people and makes us better people as a result), but about modling me as a writer. Which seems kind of funny, because I don't really do any writing at all anymore, but that's my fault, not the authors' faults.
Well. Maybe it's partially their fault, as well. But we'll get to that.
As my friend Chris said when he tagged me, "The trick is not to think too much about it." He tagged me on September 8th. I've been writing about it ever since, on Simplenote, and in my Field Notes notebook on the train. The books I came up with quickly. The explanations--well, it wound up being a lifetime of reading in ten book-like objects, in more or less chronological order.
1. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy made me want to be a writer. And to make jokes. I wrote some shitty "humorous" fantasy--which is what happens when you read Dragonlance novels and follow it up with Douglas Adams, I guess. Regardless, HHGtG taught me how important humor was. I never properly emulated it, but I learned to value and strove for it, at least.
2. The Essential Harlan Ellison. Ellison taught me to be angry, by demonstrating the power and humor of focused rage, and how that rage could be evoked by massive injustice of mild inconvenience to bring about something fascinating and entertaining for the reader.
Harlan Ellison's non-fiction writing, starting with his movie columns in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine, moving on to the complete Glass Teat, Harlan Ellison's Watching, and all of The Essential Ellison are probably largely responsible for turning me into the cantankerous asshole that I am today. He was brash, unapologetic, compassionate, and passionate about everything he wrote about. I learned righteous anger from him, and I was too young to realize that being an asshole whose righteous anger sometimes consumes the bridges between you and other people was a BAD thing. I'm not sure I've still even learned that lesson.
3. Chuck Klosterman. This is not a book so much as Klosterman's newspaper writing. Klosterman getting hired to write for the the Fargo Forum in 1994, when I was 15, was hugely inspirational to me--he was writing for the new Gen X section of the paper (one section, once a week), and his writing spoke directly to me. It was kind of the equivalent of seeing Kevin Smith movies--raw, profane, not very artful, but you saw a guy who seemed to be speaking your language, even if it just was that he grew up with the same movies as you. And you definitely go the feeling that if that asshole could do it, well, I could definitely do it as well. The fact that he was good at what he did, rather than great, was a comfort rather than a problem. I enjoyed him, certainly, but I think in retrospect he's better as an example rather than as a collection of essays to be reread. I don't follow his writings anymore, though hopefully he's improved in the intervening years.
4. Hunter S. Thompson. I bought Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in a used bookstore in Sydney, Australia. I bought my first bottle of bourbon next door. I sat down in the hostel and started to read, and started to drink, and I"m not sure what changed my life more. I read everything I could of his shortly after that. I would drink heavily and write. I never had the charisma or talent or drug tolerance or drug desire (I never thought of writing on anything but booze, which is probably for the best).
The inspiring book, however, was not Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but The Proud Highway, a collection of letters he wrote to anyone on everything when he was getting started as a writer. I could never match his madness as a writer, but the letters showed his thoughts and struggles were just as real and pedestrian as mine. That he was a real person with a brash persona was enough to show me I needed to be real myself, rather than ape his madness and shit out HST-lite New Journalism 30 years after it was no longer fashionable to do so.
5. Lost in the Funhouse, by John Barth. This is one that's more than just the title story. That title story is a fucking knockout, surely, and basically ushered me into postmodernism beyond the cheap irony and allusiveness. It was like going from "Clerks" to "Pulp Fiction." Barth does wonderful things with the form and showed me that literature could be capable of so much more formally that I thought possible. "The Menelaid" sticks with me--with nested stories piling up upon each other, each teller adding a layer of quotation marks and meaning to the tale. The other "story" was I think called "Frame Tale" and it was just a page, with text on both sides, with a dotted line where you could cut it out and instructions on how to tape it into a Moebius strip so you could read the story, "Once upon a time there was a story that began..." looping into infinity. It blew my mind as to what writing was capable of doing and conveying. A lot of those formal tricks wound up not going anywhere or providing much ancillary meaning, but when you're 19 and 20 it's enough just to be cool (for certain literary definitions of the word "cool").
6. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. "It's what you like, not what you are like, that matters." That's the line everyone remembers from the book. A college professor I idolized recommended the book to me, and boy did he have my number. I wasn't a music obsessive like Rob, but Hornby got me, and the petty obsessiveness and petulance of the main character spoke to me. It was great to read a great book about myself and come away with the same insight into myself that before I'd seen in literature only in other people.
Also, it's worth pointing out again that High Fidelity is about Rob realizing he's wrong to believe that what you like trumps what you are like.
7. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. I read this book in one sitting, the largest book I've done that for. I opened it up after work on a Friday evening. A girl I had a massive crush on came by to my apartment to borrow a movie, and I gave it to her and hurried her out and returned to the book. I was hooked. I galloped through it, eating up all the tricks and references, catapulting to the end as fast as I could. I've never reread it--I'm a little terrified it can't possibly hold up to my memory of how wonderful and intoxicating I found it. I'm not sure I could endure the disappointment if that happened.
8. The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie. For all the controversy around the book, The Satanic Verses is as much about the joy of language as about anything about faith and doubt. It's a pleasure to read just from the prose. I read it because it was transgressive and controversial, sure, and I was encouraged by the aforementioned professor I idolized who took me under his wing, but the primary thing that really sticks with me was the prose first and foremost. I could never emulate it, but I could enjoy it.
The other significant thing that happened to me while reading The Satanic Verse was that I had a genuine insight into the text--and I couldn't find anyone else writing or commenting on it, which is almost unheard of in college, where every significant text has been commented on for centuries and new insight doesn't come to anyone. When I brought it up to my professor--who was teaching a class on the book at the time, he said it seemed borne out by the text and I should write it up and he'd help me get published. Because I was lazy and drinking too much, I never followed up beyond some preliminary emails, but if there was ever a moment I could have started my transformation from student into scholar, it was right there. I let it float by in a bourbon haze. I took the road more traveled, and that made all the difference.
9. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest is my favorite book--that book contanis multitudes of multitudes, and I'd love an opportunity for it to be twice as long, but A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again was the life-changer. It's hard to explain why the title essay is so good. It's smart, and insightful, and person without being overbearing, and it's so human that it hurts at times. It's so good and beyond my ability to emulate, but it makes me want to try. It reminds me of what was said about the Velvet Underground's first album--only 2,000 copies were sold, but every person who bought it started a band. David Foster Wallace makes me want to start a band, so to speak, while simultaneously reminding me I'll never be like him. No one will. His like will not pass this way again.
The title essay is one of the best and funniest pieces of writing ever, as is the piece about the Illinois State Fair, but the essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," is a stealth bombshell, where DFW lays out his theories of irony and the need for a new sincerity in fiction and literature. I still lapse into irony way too much, but the essay helped argue why that's a bad thing and how and why it was important to actually care about things and convey real human emotion from time to time, rather than acting like a television sitcom character.
10. Bill Bryson. Finally, Neither Here Nor There, was huge for me when I was doing what he did--traveling through the world, having adventures. "Neither Here Nor There" is written from the point of a view of a man having done what I did, and feeling nostalgic for it all, which I think kind of allowed me to have some distance to be contemplative while I was on the road or on the train. Bryson is kind of like Klosterman, in that his writing seemed approachable. I'll never be a Hunter S. Thompson or a David Foster Wallace, and it's actually terrible to try. But I felt like I could be Bill Bryson, and that wouldn't be terrible, either for myself or the people I'd inflict that upon. (I'm pretty sure one Chuck Klosterman is enough these days, though).
Ending on Bill Bryson is kind of a letdown. It's a sign that I dialed down my literary ambitions considerably, and then failed to even pursue those in the end. I had ambitions--I can still feel them stirring as I've been writing this piece and revisiting the authors (especially DFW), but I never had the discipline or the raw talent to pursue those ambitions seriously, and those days when I'd drink a bunch of whiskey and stay up incredibly late just to have written--those days are long gone. The comfort of just living is enough--of eating for pleasure and drinking just to drink rather than to fuel writing-related-bad-craziness--and of talking to my wife and petting my cat rather than working really hard on something in the hopes that it would impress someone somewhere.
It's worth noting that a significant portion of my list has suffered because of their writing. Two suicides, a billious old crank who burns through friendships, and a man who had to hide for decades from people who wanted to murder him for his writing. I don't know if there's meaning in that, or if its a coincidence, or just a false pattern I notice to psyche myself out of working hard or feeling bad that I didn't.