Day 11: A book by my favorite author

I have been neglecting the book challenge for a while now, simply because as I look ahead, I can’t really see myself addressing some of the upcoming challenges, i.e. “a book whose main character I’d like to marry.” I mean, what am I, 12? Moreover, it seems to me that this challenge is best-suited for people who have read only a moderate amount. Clearly someone who has not read at all, or too little, would find it impossible to complete, but it’s equally difficult for someone, like myself, who has read so much. It’s proven nearly impossible at every turn to come up with a single book to respond to the daily challenges. But I began this challenge and so I will press forward and see it through.

Today’s challenge, despite my complaining above, is not too difficult. My favorite author is Umberto Eco, and I think anyone who has been following my blog since the beginning will say that it’s obvious. I have written about him repeatedly (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and as I was getting my blog off the ground I had to curb my desire to write about him more lest this become an Eco blog (not that it would be a bad thing). He has been my favorite writer since I was introduced to him in my first college English Comp. course, and have loved his work ever since, his fiction and non-fiction equally.

His work is superbly intelligent, philosophical, historically rich, and always challenging,  while at the same time expressing such a love of language and the written word that reading it evokes a feeling of sheer joy.  They are brimming with an almost excited intertextuality that create these wonderfully complex literary labyrinths. Through his brilliant and beautiful use language, his fiction, which often revolves around the theme of the power of words to shape reality, has the ability to create universes that the reader can easily lose themselves in, as I have repeatedly. In short, reading Eco’s work fills me with a giddy excitement and happiness that I seldom feel with other writers (except maybe Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, both who are linked to Eco in many ways).

Insofar as a particular fictional work by Eco, I’ll select my favorite to discuss briefly here, Foucault’s Pendulum. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times, each subsequent reading revealing something new and unexpected. I mean no hyperbole when I say that no two readings of this book have been the same. The book, sometimes referred to as the “thinking man’s DaVinci Code,” (they’re in an entirely different league if you ask me), tells the story of three bored editors who, on a bit of a lark, start feeding random bits of a seeming never-ending list of conspiracy theories (think Freemasons, Illuminati, Templars, Rosicrucians, Blavatsky, etc.) into a computer program, Abulafia, who invents connections between their entries. As with many of Eco’s books however, what is written becomes reality, and as they re-write history, their immediate realities are greatly affected.

A superficial read will reveal an exciting and enthralling story, but it is far more than that. I am always surprised the level of historical detail, and although not a philosophy book, it is indeed deeply philosophical in nature. It is far less about the conspiracy theory than it is a book about language, symbol, text, and reality. It evokes Saussure and Meillet in the sense that in this narrative, language is a system where “tout se tient” or where “everything hangs together.” The narrative is only half as exciting as the revelation that language is everything, with lines such as “To arrive at the truth through the painstaking reconstruction of a false text.” or “what our lips said, our cells learned.”

Another thing that makes this book, well any book by Eco, so wonderful to read is the care he takes with words. The writing is beautiful and the joy he takes in the written word is clearly evident. These are the opening lines of the book…

That was when I saw the Pendulum. . . .

I knew- but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing – that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by π, that number which, however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of π, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.

Eco wrote, in his essay “Postmodernism, Irony and the Enjoyable”  that the perfect postmodern book is one that can be enjoyed both for its surface story, but which also contains a rich philosophical subtext. This book, along with the rest of his novels including his most recent The Prague Cemetery, seamlessly fit that description.


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.

Day 3, Revisited: Books that have made me laugh

I was looking through some of my books this past weekend in a vain attempt to put some order to my shelves, and I realized that I was completely wrong in my response to day three of the Thirty Day Book Challenge. I had originally selected Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, and although I certainly did laugh my way through the book with its unapologetic irreverence, as i looked through my less obviously funny academic books, I realized that they were the ones that truly made me laugh.

I’m not kidding, let me explain. I don’t tend to find humor in obvious places, but I do (I think) have a sense of humor. The vast majority of my reading consists of academic non-fiction, and let me tell you, these historians have a wonderful sense of humor! I think I’ve laughed more reading Isaiah Berlin and Peter Gay than while reading anything labeled as comedy. Thankfully, I annotate my books heavily so I can back this claim up. Allow me to submit the evidence, although I know that I will be dropping some serious “cool points” by showing this…

and yes, even footnotes can be funny...

Day 9: A Book that Made Me Sick

Unlike the majority of the previous challenges, today’s selection was incredibly easy to come by: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker’s central thesis is that we are now living in an essentially peaceful time, where the chances of meeting a violent death are far lower than in past eras, and moreover, our era is less cruel and less violent (person to person as well as state-sponsored violence) than any other era in human history. He argues this thesis over the course of nearly 800 pages, with the assistance of an overabundance of graphs (mainly containing a single line declining from top right to lower left), and incredibly graphic descriptions of how violent we used to be (more on that later).

First, let me start by saying that I did not like this book. At all. I thought the argumentation was incredibly weak, the thesis dodgy, and that his attempt at history, albeit incredibly descriptive, lacked any real analysis. I know that I’m not in the majority here, and that most reviews were favorable and found his book convincing, but I have to politely disagree. Simply exhausting me with volume (be it of words, graphs, or graphic examples of violence) is not enough to convince me of any argument, not even one, such as this one, that I was predisposed to accept.

But that’s not what today’s challenge is about, and although I did feel “sick” having to read 800 pages of never-ending graphs and poor logic, the reason that I selected this book for today’s challenge is because of it’s incredibly graphic (maybe even gratuitously so) descriptions of the violence that we have, in times past, perpetrated against each other. I don’t like gratuitous violence, not in film nor in print, and although some descriptions presented in this book did effectively serve to further his argument, at times it felt as if he was trying to “gross us out” with these descriptions so that we could, in turn, pat ourselves on the back for having moved so far beyond it. Some of it is even too graphic to post here, but I will provide a couple of examples.

Breached with surprising ease by the cold bronze, the body’s contents pour forth in viscous torrents: portions of brains emerge at the ends of quivering spears, young men hold back their viscera with desperate hands, eyes are knocked or cut from skulls and glimmer sightlessly in the dust. Sharp points forge new entrances and exits in young bodies: in the center of foreheads, in temples, between eyes, at the base of the neck, clean through the mouth or cheek and out the other side, through flanks, crotches, buttocks, hands, navels, backs, stomachs, nipples, chests, noses, ears, and chins. . . . Spears, pikes arrows, swords, daggers, and rocks lust for the savor of flesh and blood. Blood sprays forth and mists the air. Bone fragments fly. Marrow boils from fresh stumps.

Right. Or this,

As the levers bent forward, the main force of my knees against the two planks burst asunder the sinews of my hams, and the lids of me knees were crushed. My eyes began to startle, my mouth to foam and froth, and my teeth to chatter like the doubling of a drummer’s stick. My lips were shivering, my groans were vehement, and blood sprang from my arms, broken sinews, and knees. Being loosed from these pinnacles of pain, I was hand-fast set on the floor, with this incessant implication: “Confess! Confess!”

I read this book relatively recently, and I started reading at the dance studio waiting for my daughter to get out of her ballet class. That turned out to be a poor decision. I had to stop once to step outside for some fresh air, a second time to get a drink of water, and I eventually had to stop reading the book altogether as the other moms were casting strange looks my way as a direct result of the look of sheer horror on my face. Like I said, I don’t do well with such vivid descriptions of violence, and graphic nature of the examples selected by Pinker, compounded by the sheer number of them, quite literally made me sick.

Day 8: A Book That Scares Me

Once again, today’s challenge was daunting enough for me to put it off for a few days while I gave the question some thought. Pinpointing a book that has scared me, really instilled fear, is far more difficult than I thought. I first thought about books like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Shelley’s Frankenstein, or even Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but although those dystopian novels did certainly fill me with a sense of dread about our future and what the kind of world that we can potentially create, it was not fear in a classic sense; my heart didn’t race, my palms didn’t sweat. Then I thought about the works of authors and poets like Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Browning whose work, although clearly dark, is really more beautiful than scary. I didn’t have to check under the bed after reading “Porphyria’s Lover.”

I searched in my memory for a time when I felt truly scared while reading a book, the kind of visceral fear that forces you to keep the light on (even as an adult), and as embarrassing as this post may be, the book that holds this distinction is none other than The Amityville Horror, written by Jay Anson.

The book recounts the experiences of the Lutz family after they move into the now infamous house on 112 Ocean Avenue near Long Island. The dust jacket describes the story as follows.

In December 1975, the Lutz family moved into their dream home, the same home where Ronald DeFeo had murdered his parents, brothers, and sisters just one year earlier. The psychic phenomena that followed created the most terrifying experience the Lutz family had ever encountered, forcing them to flee the house in 28 days, convinced that it was possessed by evil spirits. Their fantastic story, never before disclosed in full detail, makes for an unforgettable book with all the shocks and gripping suspense of The Exorcist, the Omen, or Rosemary’s Baby, but with one vital difference – the story is true.

Clearly the story is fiction, but there was something about the book’s journalistic style that gave it a “scarier” edge. Moreover, I read the book while I was still quite young, maybe 13 or so, after having already watched the movie. The combination of the imagery of the film (as terrible as it was), combined with the vivid descriptions in the book (of the red room, the eyes in the window, of Jodie, and of the little girl singing whenever she entered her room) I was downright scared. I can honestly say that I slept with a light on for years after reading that book. Even more potentially embarrassing is that I reread the book several years ago (I was probably 34 at the time), and I was still scared by it.

A lot of that can be explained (or rationalized), by the fact that I am a product of a Catholic school education, and for better or worse, anything dealing with devils, demons, or possession really does still scare me. I think those Irish nuns really implanted the fear of the devil deep in my subconscious, that no matter how skeptical and rational I am, books like this one will always have the power to elicit a true fear response from me. And let me just add that nothing can or will ever convince me to move into a house with those windows that look like eyes….

Here’s the first part of a segment about the Amityville haunting on that old tv show, “In Search Of”. Creepy.


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 6: Favorite Young Adult Novel

Before I begin this post, an admission… I don’t think that I have ever read a “Young Adult” novel, even as a young adult. I have a vague memory of being forced to read a book titled My Darling, My Hamburger my freshman year of high school, and I also remember finding the book as ridiculously bad as the title. As a result, although it’s the only young-adult book I’ve read, I would hardly call it a favorite, and my memory of it is too dim to even begin to write about it.

I will also admit that I considered skipping day six of the challenge entirely, or maybe just stating that I didn’t and hadn’t read any young adult fiction and leaving it at that. But that changed when I spoke to some of my students. I casually mentioned this book challenge to one of my groups, and quickly the class was consumed by reading suggestions from the students. I was so thrilled by their enthusiasm that I decided that we could take a break from history for a while and talk about books. After a good half-hour of plot summaries and excited interruptions by other students with their own suggestions, I was given a short-list of books, (The Book Thief, Hunger Games, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian) and I promised to buy and read one of them for today’s challenge.

During my lunch time, I headed over to the nearest bookstore and weighed my options. The Book Thief looked excellent, but I didn’t think that one night would be enough time to give it a good, thorough read, and the other books just didn’t appeal to me, except for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I’ve always had a bit of an attraction to darker stories, and as I flipped through the pages of the book I was immediately captured by the Victorian era photographs of very odd, and a bit creepy, children. And what a perfectly Gothic title. The decision was made and I walked out with the book.

The story, written by Ransom Riggs, brings those photos to life as the characters that populate this eerie little book. The protagonist is Jacob, a sixteen year old boy who begins to discover that there is much more to both him and the world around him than he could have ever imagined, and that the seemingly apocryphal stories his grandfather used to tell him were grounded in strange, and often disturbing truths. The story itself unfolds in a home for “peculiar children” on a windswept island off of the coast of Wales. The house, although destroyed in a Nazi bombing in 1940, still exists in some kind of a temporal loop, where these children remain safe and hidden. After the sudden and violent death of his grandfather, Jacob embarks on a quest for answers, armed only with the strange photographs his grandfather used to show him, and a mysterious letter. The story that followed was enjoyable, if not a little predictable, and although I did get pretty engrossed in the narrative, I thoroughly disliked the ending which made a sequel all but necessary (and after checking the author’s website, part two has already been confirmed).

What I loved the most about this book were the photographs, and at times the descriptions of the characters that seemed to make those photos come to life. I’ve always tended to get lost in old photographs, creating stories in my mind about who the people were, and what kind of lives they lived. I did it often as a child, constructing entire worlds from my great-grandmother’s treasure trove of old turn-of-the-century photographs, and I still occasionally find myself doing it, specially when looking at those same old amber-hued images. In this book, Riggs does the very same thing except he takes it much further, he builds an entire narrative based on a group of old photos, giving those strangers both a voice and a story. That the photos he based the book on were filled with strange and eerie images of seemingly supernatural children just added the enjoyment that I derived from the book.

As an interesting side note, Riggs acquired the photographs used in his book from the archives of several major collectors. After looking at nearly 100,000 photos, he finally settled on several hundred, out of which he selected 44 to use in this book.