Twenty years after my first effort, I’m re-reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” It’s terribly interesting to note which bits of wisdom earned an asterisk from my early-20s self.
(Note: The fact that the asterisks are in a copy editor’s blue pen is a bit poignant. Perhaps when I re-read again in another 20 years, the idea of copy editors will be as far gone as the days of newspaper paste-up is now.)
Next on my list of short books for re-reading Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”
When I was nominated on Facebook to share the 10 books that
most affected me, I was tempted to list these, as well as some tomes of
political philosophy, classics of literature and maybe an impenetrable Russian
novel, too. I couldn’t. Sun Tzu has been useful. Rilke is worth a deeper look.
But I am not moved. Not yet.
But here’s where the real truth must be told: I’m not terribly well-versed in the classics. You’d be shocked by what I haven’t read (“On the Road” is a preposterous omission. You can add Vonnegut and Updike and others too numerous to list here). And most of what I have read, I don’t recall all that well.
This is not some boast — “Whooooo! I drank a lot in my 20s!” — but a lament. I’ve read “Walden” and Whitman, how can there not be civil disobedience or a barbaric yawp stamped in my consciousness? I’ve read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Melville and … yeah. I don’t remember. It’s a bit embarrassing.
It’d be easier to list the 10 movies that affected me. “Yes. These are them. Fuck you and your arthouse. I like stuff that bleeds and blows up.” But books tug at what pretense I have left. I am an educated man. I should have better taste. I should tell the world that my life was changed by Plato’s “Republic” (never could get into that one).
I could have used my youth better. When I was in high school and teachers were dismissing Edgar Allen Poe as tasteless pulp, I was diving in. When I was in college and my colleagues were devouring classics of political thought, I was ass-deep in philosophy essays. When I was in my early 20s … well, reading was on the list behind work, beer and music. It wasn’t close.
(There’s been a couple of poetry victories: I recited the Poe poem “The Conqueror Worm” before a group of very stoned folks playing bongos around a campfire somewheres between Sisterdale and Luckenbach and just blew everyone away. And I chose “Ozymandias” as my classic poem to recite in high school, which totally gave me a leg up on that “Breaking Bad” episode.)
I have read a lot. If I can’t recall it all, surely it is somewhere within me. Transcendental education. Sometimes things bubble up at the right time.But not today. Here is my list, shaped to fit my own rules.
Five books that shaped me:
1. “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey. My most constant literary companion.
2. “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,” Jan Reid. The book that introduced me to the 1970s music scene that now exists only in my garage.
3. “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read it twice. I bought a study guide to accompany my next journey. I want to know how and why and what. Never has such a hard road been so joyfully suffered.
4. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams. The book that changed my understanding of language and writing in high school. You can break all the rules and still be smart and funny.
5. “Blue Highways,” William Least Heat Moon. Killeen High School’s gift to me. My first taste of the road and solitary adventure. Picked this over “Travels with Charley” because fuck a poodle.
Two music books that are really cool:
6. “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,” Joe Nick Patoski. I think I may have levitated through the chapters detailing the 1970s. Certainly I was enthralled enough to forget about gravity.
7. “Cash: A Life,” Robert Hilburn. There’s a whole discussion to be had about flawed men and whether age and suffering merits forgiveness.
Three books I haven’t thought about for a long time:
8. “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s,” Shel Silverstein. Could have gone with any of his children’s books (kind of partial to “Lafcadio” rather than the obvious “The Giving Tree”). But I love going with the moment that I found out Shel had a wicked, wicked sense of humor.
9. “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line,” Ben Hamper. Ignore the foreword from Michael Moore, this is not politics. It is pure blue-collar poetry. The Billy Joe Shaver of building cars.
10. “Death in the Long Grass,” Peter Hathaway Capstick. I haven’t read it in a quarter-century. But at one point he tells the readers that the elephant would not hesitate to “stomp you into guava jelly.” And I’ve used that phrase ever since. Sadly, it doesn’t come up as often as I would like, but I never miss a chance.
There. And you probably know me. If you have a suggestion for a classic book I need to read, or re-read, please let me know. It might happen.