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.

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

Allen Ginsberg and William Blake

Photograph by Cynthia MacAdams

For the last couple of days, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with the Beats. I read through Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (triggered by watching the Republican Iowa Caucus), followed by plenty of Gregory Corso, a little Rexroth, and some McClure, too. But today has been an Allen Ginsberg kind of day. Without planning to, I wove Ginsberg into my AP European History class via Blake and Romanticism (more on that in a minute), and I somehow even managed to work his poem “America” into my AP World History class.

During lunch, I sat and watched this BBC interview with him, which reminded me of the many reasons that I had fallen in love with him in college. He epitomized the kind person who lived with his eyes open to all around him, and his mind open to all the world had to offer. He was a kind, gentle soul with a keen mind. Needless to say, he was also an incredible poet.

As I talked about in a previous post, my love of the Beats stretches back about twenty years, when I was asked by an ex-boyfriend to write a paper for his twentieth century American history class. I chose to write about the Beat Generation’s role in the 1950’s countercultural movement because at the time, I was an English major focusing on English Romanticism and I had heard that there was a connection between William Blake and Allen Ginsberg.  I found out that he had had an ecstatic vision while reading Blake’s “Ah, Sunflower,” “The Sick Rose,” and “A Little Girl Lost” from Songs of Experience. He claimed that it was a pivotal moment for him, one that shaped his views of writing, his life, and the nature of the universe itself. In his “A Blake Experience,” Gingsberg wrote,

…the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers — and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me…Now I began understanding it, the poem I was looking at, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earthen grave voice in the room, which I immediately assumed, I didn’t even have to think twice, was Blake’s voice…

Looking out the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very

ancient place I was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about — in other words that this was the moment I was born for.

In 1948, Ginsberg immortalized that moment in his poem “On Reading William Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose.’

Rose of spirit, rose of light,
spirit whereof all will tell,
is this black vision of my sight
the fashion of a prideful spell,
mystic charm of magic bright,
o judgement of fire and fright?

what everlasting force confounded
in its being, like some human
spirit shrunken in a bounded
immortality, what blossom
gathers us inward, astounded?
is this sickness that is doom?

With that, I then set out to read as much Ginsberg as I could get my hands on, seeing in him what I had seen in Blake so many times… the ability to make simple language a thing of almost unbearable beauty, a depth of thought and feeling that seemed nearly unending, and a the gift of a sense of liberation as my eyes read their words. They were different, to be sure. Blake, the English Romantic, mystic and rebel, who challenged his contemporaries and his readers to think more clearly and to feel more deeply. Ginsberg, the gay poet from Patterson, New Jersey, mystic, and rebel, who also challenged… wait, maybe they weren’t so different after all. Different times, different voices, but connected by their ability communicate in a manner that transcended the words on the page.

An essay titled “William Blake and Allen Ginsberg: Poets of a Fallen World, Prophets of the New World,” states that,

Whether truth or madness, Blake’s voice was certainly that of a prophet in the more general sense of the word, for he was a denouncer of the evils of the world around him, calling for a return to God and a renunciation of worldly things for spiritual. William Blake wrote at one of the most important and turbulent junctures of history, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution which in his day was radically transforming the fabric of life in city and country, creating totally new and alien problems with which the old monarchies of Europe could not cope.. . .As a poet and mystic, Blake took the stance of a radical visionary against the established order of his time.

The same can certainly be said of Allen Ginsberg. He and the Beats, like Blake, wrote during a pivotal time in Western society. For Blake and the Romantics, they were the responding and reacting to the unyielding rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment, and the complete transformation of the world around them triggered by the Industrial Revolution. For Ginsberg and the Beats, they emerged as America clamored for normalcy after the upheaval of World War II. They wrote as mainstream, white America fled from the cities and into the suburbs in an attempt to recreate the “Donna Reed” ideal that the mass media was selling. It was an America whose heterogeneity and diversity was being traded in for uniformity and conformity. Ginsberg and his fellow poets embraced Eastern mysticism over American Christianity, favored cold-water flats in crowded cities over the white-picket fenced in suburbs, and with their words attempted to lift the veil off of the country.

The same article later states that,

If we take a step back from Blake and see him in his historical context we see that he marks the beginning of a fundamental change in English language poetry. The poet, rather than representing the voice of the civilized, cultured society, became the voice of alienation and separation from society. The poet was outside the culture’s limiting structure, disillusioned by its elitism, social injustice, industrialism, materialism…

Once again, the same can be said of Ginsberg and his contemporaries. They, too, were fundamentally changing poetry, with, as Kerouac coined, their “spontaneous bop prosody,” the cadence of jazz, and the use of what Ginsberg called “kitchen English.” Their poetry became the voice of the people, and even more so, the counterculture. Their disillusionment was clearly, beautifully, and eloquently expressed in the language of the street.

Through my readings of Ginsberg this week, I came across this poem that I hadn’t read in years. It was published in 1972, the year I was born, and although not as famous as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” it’s always been among my favorites. It’s titled “Xmas Gift,” and there has always been something about it that strikes me as being reminiscent of Blake. Perhaps it’s the lines about invented universes, and creatures giving birth to themselves.

I met Einstein in a dream
Springtime on Princeton lawn grass
I kneeled down & kissed his young thumb
like a ruddy pope
his face fresh broad cheeked rosy
“I invented a universe separate,
something like a Virgin”–
“Yes, the creature gives birth to itself,”
I quoted from Mescaline
We sat down open air universal summer
to eat lunch, professors’ wives
at the Tennis Court Club,
our meeting eternal, as expected,
my gesture to kiss his fist
unexpectedly saintly
considering the Atom Bomb I didn’t mention.

Lastly, here’s a reading by Ginsberg, of Blake’s short poem “Ah! Sunflower.”  One of the three that started it all. Just beautiful.

You can’t step into the same river twice… but what about books?

A few weeks ago, in response to my post about book covers, a fellow blogger linked me to this fantastic cover of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.  Every decade or so this book tends to find its way back into my mind and back into my hands, and linking me this image did just that, and a couple of weeks ago I reread the book.

I first read this book in college in a  class titled “Science and Literature, a joint effort of the English, Physics, and Biology departments, taught by multiple professors. I was a physics major with a Literature minor, and this class seemed to merge my interests seamlessly. We had finished a series of lectures on thermodynamics, and of course, my favorite, Maxwell’s Demon (that little imaginary guy that can stop a closed system from become entropic), then were assigned Pynchon’s novel.  I read it in day, then reread it again the next day, since I wasn’t sure about what I had just read at all. After I closed the book for a second time, I remember thinking that for such a small book, it sure packed one hell of a punch.

At the time it was a book that spoke to both my love of science and words. It was playful yet insightful, it included my guilty pleasure (lots of conspiracy theories… did the Tristero actually exist?), and it spoke to some universal truths about trying to stop our lives from becoming entropic, and about our constant struggle to separate real information from all the “noise” around us. In short, it was the right book at the right time.

So a couple of weeks ago I contentedly reread the words that had elicited such a powerful reaction from me so many years ago, yet, when I put the book down, I felt, I don’t know, different. It was not as powerful as I had remembered, and the story now seemed thinner, with far less substance. Then Ken borrowed and read the book, and upon returning it to me he asked what it was about the book that I liked so much. I found myself answering with one word, nostalgia. The book was a signpost in my life, it represented some aspect of who I was at 19. But I’m clearly not 19 anymore, I’ve experienced 20 years of life between then and now, and I began to realize, that the book had changed. Not the text, but what I brought to the text, and that, as Eco would undoubtedly agree, fundamentally changed my reading of the book.

Then last week I wrote about Byron. Here a similar but reverse thing had happened. When I first encountered Byron in high school, I thought he was trite, superficial, and clichéd. But it wasn’t Byron that was lacking, it was my lack of experience. I had nothing to reference. I had not loved nor lost love yet. How could I possible “feel” Byron without a life full of experience to bring to the reading? In the case of the poetry of Lord Byron, it was the wrong text at the wrong time, and it took a lot of living on my part to make it the right text for me. Once again, what I brought to the reading changed my experience of it.

Now just a few days ago, I read this article announcing that Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first novel, The Sea is My Brother, was about to be released. The next day, another blogger posted this, where he said that he probably won’t read it, that Kerouac exists in the past for him, and I thought, is he right?

There was a time when I lived and breathed the Beats.  from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti, to Corso, McClure, and Burroughs… all of them. I immersed myself in them and their lifestyle to such an extent, that I even began to write a book about them (an excuse to lose myself in their more intimate, personal material… letters, diaries, drawings). I got nearly 200 pages into the book before I stopped. I suppose that at the time I was using their lives more as an example then a cautionary tale (that would come later), and I just never finished it. Be that as it may, the Beats occupy a very important place in my personal history with books, and I’m afraid of attempting to step into that river twice. I share Chaz’s hesitation to read this new (well, old) novel, in the fear that it will change what he and the rest of them signify to me, I almost rather leave them untouched, frozen in time, where they are.

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote,

This book will perhaps be understood only by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it – or similar thoughts. It is therefore not a text book. Its purpose would be achieved if there were one person who read it with understanding and to whom it gave pleasure.

and he’s absolutely correct. Books are experienced in light of what we bring to them, and our experiences of our texts are constantly reformed… as we change, so do they. Sometime for the better, as with Byron, and sometimes I suppose it’s better to leave the books where we first experienced them, our memory of them unmarred by the passage of time. This, however, should never stop us from enjoying all that books have to offer.  As Eco writes,

The “reader” is excited by the new freedom of the work, by its infinite potential for proliferation, by its inner wealth and the unconscious projections that it inspires. The canvas itself invites him not to avoid causal connection and the temptations of univocality, and to commit himself to an exchange rich in unforeseeable discoveries.