AVQ&A: Most-recommended books
Welcome back to AVQ&A;, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you'd like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week's question: What one book would you most like to make the rest of the world read?
I suspect this list is going to generate a lot of intellectual, literary wonders ("Why don't more people read and love Ulysses the way I do?") and political / social / philosophical world-understanding books that shaped people's lives, so I'm going to counter with a quick, lively read that shaped how I read fiction: Diana Wynne Jones' Dogsbody, a strange little fantasy I first encountered when I was 9, and have been in love with ever since. To this day, I don't quite understand why J.K. Rowling is such a history-making success, while Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote very similar books but started decades earlier, is so overlooked. Even so, amid all her twisty, funny novels about troubled kid wizards and complicated curses and such, Dogsbody stands out as one of the most different books I've ever read. It's a thoroughly accessible YA novel in which the dog star, Sirius, is forced into the body of an actual dog and sent to Earth as punishment for a crime he doesn't remember committing. Maybe nostalgia and affection for one of the first really creative speculative novels I ever read have colored my tastes, but this remains one of my all-time favorite books, and proof positive for me why Jones belongs on the shelf next to Rowling (or above her), and for that matter, C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and other classic purveyors of enduring fantasy.
Sometimes I wonder how the world really sees J.G. Ballard. As a Burroughs-ish, postmodern provocateur? A clinical social satirist? That sick dude with a hard-on for car wrecks? He's sort of all those things, but to me, he'll always be the science-fiction master who ushered my love of the genre—and maybe the genre itself—into adulthood. When I was 17 and in the midst of falling in love with Joy Division, I read that the band's song "The Atrocity Exhibition" was based on a book by some guy named J.G. Ballard. I tried to track down some of his stuff and eventually found a collection of his mind-warping short stories from the '60s, Chronopolis—but it didn't prepare me for the next Ballard book I discovered, The Crystal World. The 1966 novel is a sluggishly paced, oneirically plotted metaphysical mind-fuck that seemed to break most of the rules of literature I'd learned up to that point. I'd later figure out that it shared much with Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness—anyone who's read or watched Empire Of The Sun knows Ballard's view of colonial decay—but with The Crystal World, Ballard encased his demons in a vision of the world that was slowly turning, as if by some quantum leprosy, into crystal. And his prose? Like a hypodermic needle hovering over my eyeball. The book marks Ballard's turning point from the catastrophe-of-the-month formula of his early work to the richer, ingrown dystopia of his '70s masterpieces like Crash and Concrete Island. It's also the novel that changed my idea of what science fiction could be—and rewired my teenage brain along with it. If, God forbid, you only get to read one Ballard book in your life, The Crystal World should be it.
Every summer, my wife and I meet with the teachers that our son—a high-functioning autist—will have in the fall, and recommend they read two books. The first is Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, which offers an entertaining, moving, and reasonably accurate introduction to the particular behavioral quirks of the autistic. The second book—the one I'd push on the rest of the world if I could—is Paul Collins' Not Even Wrong: Adventures In Autism, which combines a kind of shadow-history of the disorder with Collins' memories of how he reacted to his own son's diagnosis. By bringing the stories of "Peter The Wild Boy" and modern computer programmers into his own personal narrative, Collins looks to expand our understanding of the autistic spectrum and see that some people we encounter every day may be undiagnosed autists. The point isn't to make otherwise normal-seeming folk start thinking of themselves as disordered, but to keep parents of autistic children (and all the friends and acquaintances of those parents) from thinking of autism as binary. Dealing with the autistic can be difficult, even life-consuming, but just as there are autistic traits in a great number of people who seem neurotypical, so there is a degree of normalcy to the autistic. We're all on a series of scales, from smart-to-dumb or weak-to-strong or easygoing-to-irritable, and we'll do better with the autistic in our midst if we think of them as having specific gifts and challenges, just like anyone else.
Mine is Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, a big novel that methodically sifts through all that it might and might not mean to be a sentient being in the world today. It was written between 1921 and 1942 (when the author died before finishing), but its inventiveness and instructiveness make it more than contemporary still. I've never come across another book so diligent and precise about the very act of thinking—its prospects and limitations, each always more present than we ever seem to know. Whether he's off on a wowing metaphorical riff or dialing into a conflicted emotion that rarely gets anointed with a name, Musil is the most controlled writer I've ever read. And he's fun, if control in the midst of an open-armed embrace of chaos is your thing. One other note: The book is split into two volumes (the second one incomplete), but Vol. 1 could stand just as well on its own.
Okay, I don't want to sound like I'm assigning homework, but if I could push one book on everyone, it would be The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. And—and this is where I tend to lose people—not in translation, either. It takes about half an hour to learn the basics of reading Chaucer's Middle English, assuming it's well-annotated, and the payoff is worth it. It's another language, sure, but it's a language you already know on some level, just waiting for you to reclaim it. You may never read Dante in Italian or Flaubert in French, but reading Chaucer in its original form is the birthright of anyone who speaks English.
From learning a different way of speaking, it's only a small step to learning a different way of thinking, and part of the beauty of The Canterbury Tales is the way Chaucer establishes a plurality of points of view drawn from a cross-section of the world around him. United in their journey to a holy place and their love of storytelling, Chaucer's pilgrims share stories rooted in their characters and their stations in life, which sometimes are at odds with one another: The Knight delivers a noble-but-already-almost-antiquated story of adventure; the vile Pardoner contributes a haunting morality tale; the Wife Of Bath uses her own lively autobiography to segue into a story of perhaps-undeserved redemption that asks what women want; the Miller, Reeve, and Cook try to top each other in obscenity. The stories themselves, generally speaking, hold up brilliantly as stories, but, beyond Chaucer's mastery of the language, the genius comes from the framing. Some of the pilgrims are more right than others, but nobody here speaks with absolute "auctoritee." They're traveling together explaining the world around them—and those above and below—using stories, the best tools at their disposal. What emerges is a snapshot of another time filled with people who want from life much what we want today: security, knowledge, happiness, sex, a sliver of the divine knowledge, revenge, intoxication, wealth, and power. If you don't recognize the best and worst parts of yourself in these pages, you aren't really looking.
If that's checked out, try You Can't Win, Charlie Brown by Charles Schulz, which is good for many of the same reasons.
My must-reads aren't really world-relevant—they apply to the population with which I interact daily. College students (and prospective college students, and their parents) have certain gaps in their perception of the world which, as a professor, it is my job to fill. To me, those lacunae are so egregious, and cause such harm, that I find myself pushing the same books on bewildered undergraduates over and over. In my field of Christian theology, it's Richard Friedman's Who Wrote The Bible? or Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time. And most of my Southern-born-and-bred evangelical students are in need of education about their faith's scriptures and founder; I rarely meet a student who couldn't benefit from those books. But there's no doubt in my mind that all young people need to read Daniel Pink and Rob Ten Pas' manga career guide The Adventures Of Johnny Bunko. If I were a billionaire philanthropist, I'd finance a project to get it in the hands of every American age 16 through 25. They need to hear the book's half-dozen simple lessons about how to prepare for the rest of their lives—that they can't formulate an ironclad plan for an unpredictable economy, that persistence trumps talent, that what you can give is as important as what you can get, and more. If my students (and their parents) would read and listen, I'd see more young people following their passions and developing flexible, fungible skills instead of training for a career ladder that's already melting away under their feet.
Howard Zinn's A People's History Of The United States: 1492 To Present. Because you don't really know where you're going unless you know where you've come from.
If I could force just a single book on the sum of mankind, I think it would be Samuel Fuller's A Third Face, a wonderfully written, deeply humane, utterly essential memoir of a glorious American life. Or rather lives, since Fuller packed at least three or four kick-ass, colorful lives into his own larger-than-life existence. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Fuller began as a paperboy on the streets of New York, worked his way up to being a teenage crime reporter, then segued into script-doctoring before serving as an infantryman in the Big Red One in World War II. Like so many of his fellow soldiers, Fuller returned from war a changed man; he evolved into a filmmaking maverick revered by the French New Wave, but woefully underappreciated among his countrymen. It would be easy for Fuller to be bitter. Following Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, he found less work as a writer-director than as an instantly iconic bit player in movies directed by his fans, like Jean Luc-Godard's Pierrot Le Fou and Wim Wenders' The American Friend. Fuller struggled to get projects off the ground, then watched his films get taken away from him and butchered. But A Third Face is informed by an enormous spirit of generosity as well as a smart, informed, iconoclastic patriotism. It's the work of a man at peace with himself and his legacy, in addition to an epic look at what it means to be a man, a citizen, a journalist, and a storyteller. Utterly fucking essential.
I would never force anybody to read a book, because if the American education system has taught us anything, it's that forcing people to read is the number-one way to drive them to videogames and shitty reality shows. But I strongly recommend that every man, woman, and child pick up a copy of my favorite book of all time, Greil Marcus' Mystery Train. Part music criticism, part history lesson, part blowhard ramble, and all mind-expandingly brilliant, Mystery Train is a love letter to American music and myth. It's a book that will make you fiercely patriotic for all the right reasons. Marcus' America is populated by weirdoes, sex addicts, con men, and visionaries, and they're all grooving to the same honest, filthy, heartbreaking music that forms the bedrock of pop culture to this day. Mystery Train will also turn you into an Elvis fan, if you aren't one already, and loving Elvis is good for the soul.