Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

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Day 7: A Book I Can Recite/ Quote

Although there are books that I have read repeatedly, from which I can quote (or at least paraphrase) bits and pieces, such as Huxley’s Island, Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction, or maybe even Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Henry V, there are none that I can really quote with any degree of respectable accuracy, from memory (ok, maybe with the exception of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs & Ham).

The words that I do tend to internalize, verbatim, tend to come from poetry instead of prose. I can recall with relative ease many of the works by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lord Byron, William Carlos Williams, and Percy Shelley. It’s the lyrical, almost musical, nature of poetry that makes it easier for me to remember. I have an uncanny ability to recall song lyrics, even from terrible songs, after only a couple of listens. Anything set to music seems to go right into my long-term memory, and poetry shares that same musical quality.

Writing this post is making me remember a wonderful poetry anthology titled Beowulf to Beatles: Approaches to Poetry. I came across this book by chance. I had just moved to DeKalb, Illinois and was feeling incredibly homesick until I found this great old used bookstore right on the main street. I remember walking in and feeling intoxicated by the smell of the old books with their yellowed pages. My homesickness melted away as I browsed the shelves, and I walked out with an old ratty copy of the book, who’s $1.50 price tag fit right into my budget at the time. In this book, as the title implies, the poetry of Byron sits comfortably next to the lyrics of Bob Dylan, just as they do in my mind.

It’s an old textbook, I believe, but a great addition to anyone’s library, certainly anyone who loves either poetry or music. I loaned my copy to someone years ago and haven’t seen it since, but inspired by this post, I just re-ordered it; a used copy, just like I remember it.

Day 1: My Favorite Book

It’s day one of the Thirty Day Book Challenge, and I honestly thought that deciding on a favorite book would be a much more difficult process. I was convinced that I would spend hours going through a seemingly inexhaustible list of books, only to be able to, maybe, narrow it down to a list of five or so “favorites.” I thought that “favorite” was way too strong a word to use, and far too absolute. Moreover, as I’ve written before, I find that books change with each reading; our relationships with them changing as we grow and change ourselves. As Eco argued in his many works regarding literary interpretation, we bring so much of ourselves into our understanding of a text, that it is impossible for an interpretation to remain static, and if that’s the case, then how can a book that was my favorite at twenty, still be my favorite at nearly forty?

As it turns out, however, I do have a favorite book, and it was a surprisingly easy decision to make. My favorite book is Aldous Huxley’s Island. It became my favorite book the first time I read it, and although it has been challenged from time to time by other wonderful works, a simple revisit to the island of Pala and I am reminded why this book continues to move me in ways that I find it difficult to describe. And although my understanding of it has changed over the years, each time I read it I fall in love with it again… and again.

For those that haven’t read it, Island is Huxley’s counter-point to his earlier Brave New World. It’s a novel about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist Will Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. The very first line of the novel is a wake up call, not only to Farnaby, but to the reader as well, with the mynahs calling us to pay “attention” to the “here and now,” and it gives us the first glimpse of the perfect world that Huxley has created for his Pala denizens; a world unmarred by rampant consumerism, a society of choice and freedom, a culture rooted in both intellect and introspection where kindness and empathy are lauded, and one in which every moment is lived and experienced.  It was his last major work, and very much a culmination of his philosophical and sociological intellectual peregrinations.

I’ve owned countless paperback copies of the novel, each read and reread to the point of destruction; their spines held together by tape, pages wavy and curled from contact with water after being read by the pool, on the beach, in the bath, and ink from my annotations running into the text rendering the pages nearly illegible. I also have a hardcover first edition (one among a small collection of Huxley first editions that I am a proud owner of), that was given to me by a good friend as a birthday present many years ago, and is still one of my most prized possessions. My current reading copy was stolen out of my classroom back in November when I last reread the book, and that particular copy had a veritable archaeological treasure trove of layers of annotations dating back about twelve years. Needless to say, I am sad to have lost it.

Back in November, I wrote a post titled “The Pull of Huxley” and soon after I reread Island. As I mentioned earlier, each successive reading of a book yields varying interpretations and experiences, and this latest reading of Island was no exception.  Like with every other time I’ve read it, the book did, as any good book should, take me out of myself and force me to look at things differently, but unlike other times when the book seemed intensely personal and introspective, this last time the book seemed to speak to the larger global, political, economic issues at hand.

Turn on the news at any given time of the day or night and what we see and hear is more reminiscent of Huxley’s dsytopian Brave New World, than his peaceful Island. In a world as full of division, dogmatism, and belligerence as the one we live in today, reading Island reminded me that, at the very least, I can make the world a better place for myself, my family, and those around me. It is easy to forget that we have the ability to create our own little Palas, even if only on a small scale. This was also the first time I’d read the book as a parent (the last time I read it was a year or so before I had my daughter), and this time around Huxley seemed to be speaking to that part of my life, reminding me to raise my daughter to be someone who lives openly, compassionately, and thoughtfully. One thing does remain the same with each subsequent reading of Island, however, and that is that it never ceases to challenge me, and anyone who reads it, to be better, to live in the present, to be more mindful our ourselves, our world, and each other, and to regard kindness as a true virtue.

It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’

This book is my favorite because it opened my eyes at nineteen, and because it continues to open my eyes, even at thirty-nine. I suspect the same will be true in five, fifteen, and twenty-five years from now. It is my favorite because it reminds me that humanity can, despite all of the terrible things that we do, be a force of good in this world. And quite simply, it is my favorite because it is a book that reminds me why I love to read.

Now, close your laptops and go get a copy of Island, and remember…

“Attention,” the articulate oboe was calling.

“Attention. Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.

“To attention,” said Dr. MacPhail.

“Attention to attention?”

“Of course.”

While looking up an image of the Island first edition, I came across this image of the first page of the novel, with notes in Huxley’s hand, and it was too good not to share. I found the image here.

7 x 7 Link Award

Another award! Whoa! And here I thought it was going to be a bad day after my pants unceremoniously ripped (in a rather embarrassing place) as I got out of the car this morning. Things are most certainly looking up!

First, let me thank Janine over at Shambolic Living for this award. Everyone should definitely pay her blog a visit.  Her blog is wonderfully down to earth with some pretty amazing photographs, too.

According to the rules of this award, I’m supposed to:

  • Share something about myself that no one knows
  • Link 7 of my posts that I think are noteworthy
  • Nominate 7 bloggers to receive this award

Insofar as the first rule… I think I already said more than enough earlier today.

Here are my seven favorite posts. It’s nice to be able to shake the dust off and breathe some new life into them.

  1. Love and Byron
  2. Playing with the Moon
  3. On Love and Forgetting: A Personal Note
  4. Allen Ginsberg and William Blake
  5. The Pull of Huxley
  6. You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?
  7. The Distance from the Moon

And now for my favorite part, passing the award along to seven other bloggers.

  1. To a Dusty Shelf We Aspire
  2. Abominations
  3. Proper Noun Blog
  4. Being Arindam
  5. SubtleKate
  6. Poetry Poems Poets
  7. Deidra Alexander’s Blog

Book Fair Weekend

November is always an exciting month.  The weather is getting more tolerable (for South Florida, anyway), Christmas is in the air, Thanksgiving dinner is being planned, and the Miami Book Fair International rolls around.  I’ve been making my annual pilgrimage there since the mid-80’s, and have always really loved it.  One year I even had the opportunity to meet both Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame).

This year I didn’t get to see any authors or other presentations (time just didn’t allow), but I did spend the better part of what was a beautiful Saturday strolling through the book-lined streets of downtown Miami.  My daughter had the chance to experience the excitement of having a book signed by the author just for her, and I had the joy of looking through tent after tent of used books, indie books, old books, rare books, and everything in between.  In the end, I walked a way with only a couple of books and one or two little gems, but it was a well spent afternoon.

Bill Bryson’s “At Home,” a “Foucault Reader,” and a 1922 copy of Huxley’s “Chrome Yellow.”

A funny aside:  When I went to pay for the Foucault Reader the gentleman that I paid looked at me strangely enough for me to ask if everything was alright. He said that it was odd that a woman was taking an interest in Foucault.  I wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or not, so I just smiled politely and walked away… but little does he know! I’ve been reading Foucault since I was introduced to him in a “Queer Literature” class in 1996!

The only disappointment this year was the absence of the “Antiquarian Annex.”  I collect old and rare books (at least those that my budget allows), and the Annex was always my favorite part of the fair.  So many beautiful bindings, illustrations, first editions, and some books so precious that they sit, untouchable, behind glass. Walking through the Annex always felt a bit like a walk through a small slice of the history of books and reading. There were a few antiquarians there, but nothing like in previous years.  Here’s to hoping they bring it back in the future.

Despite the missing Annex, it was an absolutely lovely Saturday afternoon, and I look forward to going again next year.

The Pull of Huxley

Sometimes it seems as if all the forces in the universe converge to focus one’s attention in a certain direction, or towards a certain thing.  Lately, it seems as if all things are pointing me towards Aldous Huxley.  A few days ago I posted a series of images of illustrations by William Blake.  For me, Blake and Huxley are inextricably bound together.  In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake first wrote that famous line that was later quoted by Huxley (as well as used in the title)  in his Doors of Perceptionabout his experience with mescaline,

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.

Also, this morning while clicking through various articles and blogs about the Occupy Wall Street Library situation, I came across this article, “Michael Bloomberg’s Brave New World.” In it Amy Goodman writes,

As the night progressed, the irony of finding Huxley’s book grew. He wrote it in 1958, almost 30 years after his famous dystopian novel, Brave New World. The original work described society in the future where people had been stratified into haves and have-nots. The Brave New World denizens were plied with pleasure, distraction, advertisement and intoxicating drugs to lull them into complacency, a world of perfect consumerism, with lower classes doing all the work for an elite.

There is no doubt that current events both at home and abroad have a distinct dystopian feel to them, and  Brave New World certainly does provide an interesting analogy.  So more Huxley.

Now tonight, as I sat here on my couch recovering after a pretty tiring day, I found myself watching a documentary on Wavy Gravy (“Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie”), an old hippie, clown, peace activist, and true altruist.  The documentary showed clips from the various concerts he attended and worked, and what struck me was the free kitchen that he and the “Hog Farm” set up at Woodstock.

“What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000. . .”

They carved out and created a little temporary utopia for themselves and their community, immediately calling to my mind Huxley’s last novel (and my favorite), Island.

Island, of course, was Huxley’s counter-point to Brave New World, about Pala, a fictional, island utopia, where our protagonist William Farnaby (“suffering from the disease called civilization”) finds himself shipwrecked. It was Huxley’s last major work, and in many ways, his final testament.  In it he gave free rein to his interests in Eastern mysticism, and the productive and positive use of mind-altering substances.

Lastly, also tonight, Lauraglen, a fellow blogger, replied to my “Perspective” post, writing that the video made her feel insignificant.  My reaction, as I replied to her, was quite the opposite. It made me feel as if I was Will Farnaby from Huxley’s Island, and the video was the mynah bird yelling “attention!” and “here and now boys!”.  Watching the video made me feel small, yes, but that small-ness made my life and those in it seem bigger to me.  The video, like the mynahs, focused my attention on the “here and now.”

My collection of Huxley first editions.

I first discovered Huxley in high school.  I was assigned, like every other high school student in the country, Brave New World.  I adored it.  The way he expressed himself seemed to mirror my thought process.  I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I always found him to be the “easiest” read, because he wrote like I thought.  And I had only begun to scratch the surface.  Soon enough Island fell into my hands right around my first year of college.  We all have that book (or books) that “changed our lives,”  and this was that book for me.  I took me out of myself and really forced me to look at the world around me with open eyes for the first time.  I think it has that effect on most people.  It is, without a doubt, among the books that helped shape me.

Nobody needs to go anywhere else. We are all, if we only knew it, already there. If I only know who in fact I am, I should cease to behave as what I think I am; and if I stopped behaving as what I think I am, I should know who I am.

So I sit here now, picking up Huxley’s Island again.  Far be it from me to ignore the signs. The insight of Eco, the reason of Hume, the perspective of Sagan, the humanity of Huxley… not bad for a couple of weeks of reading.

The Lost Art of Commonplacing

I recently finished reading the last of the “books about reading” that I had sitting on my coffee table.  This one was a collection of essays by Robert Darnton, the author of the essay on Old Regime pornography that I blogged about recently.   In this collection, titled The Case for Books, he writes about the role of the printed book and the research library in this ever-increasingly digital age.  He ultimately finds a place for both.

Of the essays, however, the one that has lingered in my mind these past couple of days is about the early modern European practice of commonplacing. It’s an essay titled “The Mystery of Reading” that was expanded from an article he had written for the The New York Review of Books titled “Extraordinary Commonplaces.” He writes,

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . . They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

A page from Milton's commonplace book.

I had completely forgotten about commonplacing until Darnton sparked my memory. I first learned about commonplace books in an undergraduate literature course on Milton. Our professor, an elegant and intelligent woman, introduced us to Milton’s commonplace book, and at that moment I decided that I was going to keep one.  That same afternoon I rushed to the university bookstore and picked up a beautiful leather-bound journal, and for the next 7 years or so I filled it with quotes from books, snippets of poetry, song lyrics, impressions from my own life.  I carried it with me as I went to countless Grateful Dead shows, and on all my travels both at home and abroad.  I copied passages from Shelley while I sat in my favorite little inn in Annecy, and from  Proust (yes, that was when I read Swann’s Way) while sitting next to a little stream in cabin in North Carolina.  It grew with my experiences and with every book I read.  To an outsider it would have seemed like a disjointed and motley grouping of authors, musicians and poets (William Blake and Aldous Huxley, Tom Robbins and Voltaire, Steely Dan and Sartre), but to my eyes it was a clearer reflection of me then a simple journal would have been.  It was may attempt to “make sense” of my world using the very tools that gave me my perspective, my books (and my music).

All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns.  The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it…

I nearly tore my home apart looking for it last night.  I still haven’t been able to find it. Although its pages (and inside covers, and margins) were filled over a decade ago, I never have even considered throwing it away, and the thought that it might be lost just breaks my heart.  I think I may stop at another bookstore on my way home and get another leather-bound journal, and start keeping another commonplace book.  We readers should bring back the lost art of commonplacing.