The Book Meme

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I'm writing this ahead of time so I can make a doctor's appointment in the morning, and yet I find myself not in the mood to blog politics....

A while back, I saw on a blog I normally follow a book meme that I thought might be fun to answer on a slow news/time-pressed/ain't-in-the-mood-for-politics kind of day. Sadly, I can't remember whose blog it was. If you recognize this meme, drop me an email and I'll link back to give credit where credit is due. For all I know, five other people did it. I'll assume as much and link back if five others claim it. I could have seen it anywhere and I like to toss links around like they're croutons anyway! (I got the meme from here after googling a couple of phrases I remembered from it.)

So far, no one has tagged me with memes and I don't want to get into that game, so don't tag me now, or at least don't be disappointed if I ignore the tag. I am a moody blogger and the Inner Muse will have no truck with the orders of others, and she even looks askance at the few obligations I take voluntarily.

Having said that, I undertake my first meme, wondering, in light of the fact that I will be linking almost every title back to Amazon, whether some crafty marketer at the Internet book giant got the meme rolling in the first place....

Total number of books owned:

About five hundred. Yes. I have a book fetish and generally will not throw out a book I have read, preferring to keep it as a trophy. But I am nowhere near as voracious a reader as many of my friends. I tend to read in fits and starts, plowing through four or five in a few weeks and then not reading a single book for a month or two.

Last book bought:

The Anti-Chomsky Reader, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. I bought it as a gift for a progressive gift exchange because I had enjoyed it so much. This book has the distinction of being the only one with a footnote that has made me laugh out loud. I tried to find it in my copy, but came up empty (and don't feel like transcribing it anyway). A linguist was looking for examples that contradicted one of Chomsky's linguistics theories and solicited some from a group of waitresses at a Hooter's. He thanked them, mentioning that establishment by name, in the footnote!

Last book read:

Ignatius Rising: The Life Of John Kennedy Toole, by Rene Pol Nevils, Deborah George Hardy. This is a biography about the author of my favorite comedic novel, the farcical A Confederacy of Dunces. I reread both of these books in one week shortly after Katrina devastated New Orleans, which is the setting of Confederacy, and which I love. I am fascinated by Toole, whose sense of life, as far as I can tell, resembled my own in many ways, but whom, I remind myself from time to time, it is good not to resemble too much.

Five books that mean a lot to you:

(I list these in no particular order.)

A Confederacy of Dunces [link above], by John Kennedy Toole. This is my favorite comedic novel hands down, and was recommended to me by a Marist Brother (of all people) in high school (of all times and places). I have read it something like six times and laughed out loud at several points even on the sixth reading! Its main character is one-of-a-kind, the humor very original and funny on many levels. This novel captures the feel of Toole's native New Orleans very well, despite (or because of?) the fact that its central character is a medievalist and a slob extraordinaire. (I think "slob extraordinare" was from a book jacket or a review, but it's such a good phrase for Ignatius J. Reilly!)

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is, by far, my favorite work of fantasy fiction. I've read it something like four times.

Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. I am unusual among Objectivists: I went straight to the philosophy. The fiction was next. This was the first of Rand's works that I read. Incidentally, my favorite of her novels is The Fountainhead.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks. This book of clinical tales from the frontiers of neurology was my introduction to neuroscience and to one of my favorite authors. A friend recommended it to me because Sacks often would explain the neurological deficits of his patients with philosophical analogies. Sacks does a masterful job in these explorations of showing what an amazing thing the human mind really is, while not letting us forget that his patients are human beings.

Sacks is a writer's writer. If you love good writing, you'll really enjoy his prose. And if a book about neurology sounds too dry or depressing for you, have no fear. His personal journals and books on botany are excellent reads. His Island of the Colour-Blind is the best of these and, is, I think, where the breadth of his intellect shines best.

An Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, by James Weldon Johnson. This may seem like an odd choice, but I enjoy the read, am fascinated by the picture it presents of a bygone era, and find its lesson -- that one must not cower from a good fight no matter how hard -- valuable and powerfully put.

Tag five people to continue this meme:

Nothing doing.

If I'm going to refuse to be tagged, I'm not going to go off and start tagging people myself! Nevertheless, I would be interested in reading the replies of anyone else who wants to participate. I'll happily link back to yours if you wish. Or leave a comment if you don't blog, but want to join the fun.

-- CAV


Blair said...

Hi Gus, I took you up on your offer. Check out my meme over at The Secular Foxhole.
Your selections look intriguing and I may give a few of those a whirl.


Adrian Hester said...

D'oh! One of the books I collected over the past few months to send you was Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which seemed fitting repayment for steering me towards Black No More. I guess I'll just have to find another appreciative recipient.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks. I'll see whether anyone else does so and toss out all those croutons -- er links -- in a day or so.


Appreciate the thought. Actually, I'd considered Black No More, along with a few others that dealt with issues pertinent to Southern culture.

I think I'd have slightly preferred Toole's other novel, The Neon Bible for its amazing portrayal of the more stifling aspects of Southern culture, but I chose to limit myself to one book per author.


Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, ordinarily I ignore these sorts of questionnaire, but this is more interesting than any others I've seen. However, I'm going to change some of the questions.

Total number of books owned: Well over a thousand, but it constantly varies because I usually sell books I've read to a used bookstore to keep from drowning in them.

Last books bought: His Share of Glory: The Complete Short Science Fiction of C.M. Kornbluth and The Poems of Marianne Moore.

Last books read (basically, the books I finished this week): Rex Stout, And Four to Go; Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light; Steve Martin, Shopgirl; Joe Queenan, Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon; and Ronald Richard Roberts, The Ditches of Edison County (the last two I reread for the nth time).

Six books you have read in the past ten years that mean a lot to you (or have heavily influenced you): I've changed it somewhat since it makes answering rather more straightforward, and better than that it allows for more interesting answers than near-echoes of Gus's. (Particularly Confederacy of Dunces, which I should point out Gus introduced me to.) I chose six instead of five as more representative of my interests, and in most cases each of the six stands as the root or the summation of a bundle of books.

(1) Martha Bayles, Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. An excellent history of American popular music in the 20th century by a thorough-going jazz-bo who dislikes rock even more than I do. Her history of jazz is a bit off and I don't agree with all of her judgements, but she argues for them quite well. Above all, she pays close attention to the racial aspects of popular music without playing any race cards. Also, her book introduced me or re-introduced me to several of my favorite contemporary essayists, Stanley Crouch, Ralph Ellison (whose Shadow and Act almost beat out Bayles), and Albert Murray; it's also linked for me with Gerald Early, an interesting enough writer on the same topics. (For example, I would probably rate Motown a bit more highly in esthetic terms than Bayles does, however watered-down and flattened-out a variant of R&B that it is, and I'd rate its social importance very highly even on Bayles's terms: Before Motown, there was mainstream pop music and Black popular music, but Motown made a certain bundle of Black popular styles fully mainstream. Gerald Early's One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture made that point quite well.)

(2) Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table. One of the wittiest light reads I know of, with fine character humor and many delightful barbs and apercus. It also can stand as a symbol of the many essayists (more generally, prose writers) I utterly hated in high school, but who somehow became much more intelligent and gracious in the decades since: Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Henry Adams. (And John Stuart Mill for that matter, whose prose I love reading even when he's off-base, which is lots of the time.)

(3) G.R. Collingwood, The Idea of History. One of my quasi-professional interests is the philosophy of the historical sciences. Collingwood's book is a classic in the philosophy of history in the stricter sense, that is, the philosophy of historical method and the nature of historical truth rather than Hegelian bloviating, and Collingwood was both an historian and a philosopher. This book is a history of and a philosophical inquiry into the idea of history (what history should be and how it should be practiced) from the Greeks to the early 20th century. It's a staunch defense of history against the positivist tendencies of the age, in which Collingwood argues that history is essentially the story of human actions (not human events, which is a broader category full of trivial things, but of goal-directed activity) which can be practiced essentially only by the interpretive recreation of the past in the mind of the historian based on a sympathetic grasp of all the evidence. Methodologically this is spot-on; philosophically his defense is flawed--Collingwood pretty much accepted the division between the natural sciences and the human sciences (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, more precisely), where the German academic division corresponds closely to the Kantian division between those sciences involving the human will and those that do not, and thus argues for a fundamental difference between the two that I don't think is actually there. As a result, or so I remember it, Collingwood comes too closely to the view that history is whatever the historian would reconstruct of the past, in which the fact that different historians with different interests and specialized trainings nonetheless often converge to much the same view (though with great differences in emphasis) of what must have happened in the past is due not primarily to the fact that they're dealing with one reality but that they have fundamentally similar minds; thus he doesn't bother much with an analysis and defense of the rules of evidence and argumentation that can be used to decide between rival interpretations of the past. It's not the book on the philosophy of the historical sciences that I most agree with (G.R. Elton, J.H. Hexter, Marc Bloch, and Pieter Geyl would probably rate more highly there), but it is the one that has most provoked me to think.

(4) Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Hapsburg Dilemma. Of the many writers I read on the intellectual and philosophical issues of the social sciences and humanities (which I read in voraciously), Gellner is the one I most enjoy reading, and of all his books, this one I like the best. (Anthropology and Politics: Revolutions in the Sacred Grove comes very close.) In positive terms his philosophical views are a shopworn British positivist empiricism, which is simply inadequate, but as a critic and analyst he's superb. This book has the finest dissection of Wittgensteinian nonsense and drivel I've read couched in a brilliant analysis of his intellectual and cultural background in Hapsburg Vienna; Gellner is the only writer I've read who makes Wittgenstein's two philosophical approaches (they can hardly be dignified as systems) not only clear and coherent but inescapable and ineluctably connected, given his almost autistic personality. He also gives an excellent analysis of Malinowski's views, one of the most interesting of anthropologists. (E.E. Evans-Pritchard is probably the most interesting, but his views were largely shaped by Malinowski.) And besides that, the book also contains one of the finest discussions of nationalism, ethnic movements, and liberal versus traditional societies (Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, another pair of polar opposites that lose all their urgency when translated as "society" and "community") in 19th century European thought that I've read. Who could ask for more?

(5) The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. With Auden my favorite 20th century poet.

(6) Ross Macdonald, The Far Side of the Dollar. For the last, it would have to be one of the great hard-boiled detective novels by one of the Big Three. Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key or Red Harvest almost made the spot, and Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake or Farewell, My Lovely gave them a tough run, but in the end it would have to be one of Ross Macdonald's post-1959 novels; and because they all have much the same broad themes and structure, choosing one is a matter of sheer personal taste. The Underground Man almost made it on the literary merit, but The Far Side of the Dollar impressed me a shade more. Macdonald earned a doctorate in English literature in Michigan and wanted to become a serious novelist, but discovered this allowed him far too much self-indulgence. Detective fiction allowed him to explore themes he wanted to explore while rigorously requiring all the skills of a storyteller--plot, sufficient characterization and motivation, and pacing. Quite often his plots are so involutedly intricate that I have to make a chart of all the characters and their relationships and update it constantly as I'm reading--to many people this would be a demerit, but it suits my taste quite well. After 1959, his novels quite often concerned two or three generations of a family in which solving a contemporary crime inexorably leads to uncovering other crimes, buried but never forgotten, whose consequences continue into the present and destroy lives until Macdonald's detective, Lew Archer, secures justice by understanding the buried past. In a way his novels represent the triumph in American culture of a watered-down version of the better side of Freudianism (or, better, a non-sectarian version of psychological analysis): The sins of the fathers are passed on to the children unless they are cured by unflinchingly unearthing the crimes of the past--attaining justice and peace through self-knowledge.

That was fun. If it's too long, it's Gus's fault for posing the questions in the first place!

Gus Van Horn said...


Ah! I was hoping I'd provoke a response from you, and fearing it would be longer than my actual post!

Yes, Hole in Our Soul was quite good, and I read that on your recommendation. In fact, I'd recommend that to anyone. A few other on you list look interesting, particularly Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and The Idea of History.

You were, of course, one of the people I was thinking of when I said, "I am nowhere near as voracious a reader as many of my friends."


Grant Jones said...

If you haven't read Edward Cline's Sparrowhawk series dramatizing the founding of the United States, run to your nearest book store.

Toiler said...

These kinds of lists always remind me of the Objectivist view that a value requires both an object and an agent. Everyone is different.

Not even Objectivists can agree on art. While some absolutely rave over a book or a movie, others just shrug and say, "It's not bad." Some will even hate it.

Even when you correct for peoples' dispositions, or for misinformation and other errors, you still can't get everyone to agree on art.

For a writer, I think the experience is like fishing in a well-stocked lake. Sometimes you easily catch your limit and go home early. Sometimes you fish all day and catch nothing. Other times you are surprised by what finally takes the bait.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the recommendation.


"Even when you correct for peoples' dispositions, or for misinformation and other errors, you still can't get everyone to agree on art."

I think that is, as I think you imply in your next paragraph, due to the fact that so many values are optional.