It was minus nine degrees when I woke this morning. My street caked with ice and snow after a 24-hour storm dumped more than a foot on Massachusetts.
While I brewed a cup of coffee in my kitchen, staring out of the window (and feeling the frost radiating through the glass), it was difficult not to think about poetry. It was that type of day. Cold, wintry, and contemplative.
A certain poem struck me – a fragment really. So I dug through my library until I found it.
I think Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured this kind of day best:
Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow,
Descends the snow.
Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.
This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded.
Now the whispered and revealed
To wood and field.
From Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times”:
“This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?”
Sounds like “Coketown” could be Silicon Valley. And this mentality could be the platform for the Republican party.
Ah, Dickens, so ahead of his time.
I don’t often read books more than once.
There is only so much time, after all, and so many damn good books. So why keep going back to the same well?
That said I am guilty of reading six books three times – at different stages of my life. These are the books I consider extremely special. They speak to me at a different level.
They are my old friends, comfortable, yet unpredictable. Familiar, but still capable of surprising. They aren’t necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although all of them are considerably impressive, but they are among my favorites.
Here they are – in no particular order:
Probably the most misunderstood Christmas tale ever written. A Christmas Carol is a terrifying, sad, lonely, grotesque portrait of a man consumed by self-loathing and greed. But it’s also what happens to us when we forget how monumental small gestures of kindness can be and that every person – no matter how insignificant by society’s standards – is a living, breathing human being worthy of being heard.
I read A Christmas Carol every few years and the story becomes more powerful and more emotionally charged the older I get.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain’s most important novel can be read at several different levels. When you first read it you usually revel in the adventure of it. The language and the plot. But on subsequent readings you begin to see and feel the novel at a deeper level. That’s when the story is no longer about Huckleberry Finn, but about Jim, the runaway slave. The story is really about Huckleberry Finn’s gradual recognition of Jim as a human being and the moral bankruptcy of slavery and a society that would embrace it.
I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school and later just after college. I read it for a third time about five years ago and was completely taken aback by its complexity. It is once again on my rather large stack of books to read.
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Perhaps the greatest book ever written to explain Taoist philosophy. The book does the impossible – using the character of the stories of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh to explain the great wisdom of the Tao. It’s funny, brilliant and awe-inspiring.
I try to read it when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It reminds me that little things do matter, but not that little things we all get caught up in. It reminds me to slow down. To think and feel and to be grateful. What’s not to love about that?
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I don’t even know if I like Catcher in the Rye, making it the exception of my six books. The first time I read it I was in high school and had to, but enjoyed it. The second time I read it was shortly after college and I thought it was magnificent. The third time I read it I was a new father and disliked it. Thought it was overrated – whatever that means. Catcher in the Rye is a difficult book to pin down – which is why is sticks around with such determination. It a lot of ways Holden Caulfield speaks to a very specific audience – disenfranchised youth. When you grow-up, you’re no longer on Holden’s side.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises is a great novel. Terse, blunt and course at the same time as being complicated, deep and elegant. Hemingway says more in a pause than many writers say in an entire novel. It’s the spoken and the unspoken. The gestures and the movements. Characters say one thing and mean another. The do one thing, but wish they did another.
I read The Sun Also Rises because I wish I wrote it. I wish I could write like that. It inspires me.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
It annoys me when people dismiss To Kill a Mockingbird as children’s book. Because it isn’t. When I think about the great American novel, I think about this book (and The Great Gatsby, which I’ve read twice). It is so American. So southern. It juxtaposes childhood and adulthood, good and evil, justice and injustice. In many ways it is a sequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – as it reminds us of the sins of American and those among us trying to right those wrongs.
Have you ever read a book three times? If so please share the book and the reason why.
It’s coming on Thursday.
Well, maybe not the true “End of the World,” but financial collapse and the end of our collective 401(K) plans. Hopefully, the less extreme elements of the Republican Party will come to their senses and save us from this dismal fate.
If not we can always cuddled up in the fallout shelter with a good book.
Here are my 5 favorite books about the end of it all.
Stephen King wrote “The Stand” all the way back in 1978 – but it still holds up. A super flu – nicknamed Captain Trips – sweeps across the globe and kills 99 percent of humanity. The ragtag collection of survivors have to deal with all kinds of issues – like what to do with a lot of dead bodies. They fall into two camps: Good and Evil. The good in Boulder, Colorado and the evil in, well, Las Vegas, of course. I don’t think King picked Boulder because it’s a liberal stronghold or Vegas because it is conservative – but heck it works for me.
Don’t read Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” if you have any suicidal tendencies because it may be one of the bleakest novels ever written. If you can get through it without shedding a tear you may already be a member of the Tea Party. The story is about a man and his son as they try to survive in a world without a sky and without any nature. There are no trees. No flowers. Nothing, but a scarred landscape of ash and misery. The two follow a road to the ocean where they hope to find some remnant of civilization.
Max Brooks did the impossible. He wrote a literary zombie novel. World War Z takes place 10 years after a zombie apocalypse. It compiles stories from all over the world about how individuals survived the plague of
Republicans undead. It is compelling, action-packed and also taps into what makes us human. An amazing achievement for a book about zombies.
From zombies to
Tea Party members blood-sucking vampires. Richard Matheson gives us both an End of the World yarn about the last surviving human in a city infected by human beings transformed by a virus into vampires. But he also gives us a real vampire tale – when vampires were horrendous, misshapen monsters instead of GQ models with pouty lips.
It would have been fun to get Kurt Vonnegut’s take on the pending default and government shutdown. He was no fan of totalitarian extremists so it is fair to say he would not have like the Tea Party. Instead, we get his wonderful and hilarious novel “Cat’s Cradle.” Let’s just hope that Ice-9 is fiction and isn’t something the Republicans are going to roll out on Thursday. Get ready to laugh, but cry at the same time as Vonnegut’s satire guts modern man and all our foibles.
Have an End of the World novel you’d like to recommend? Please do!
From the 1979 Travis McGee novel “The Green Ripper” by John D. MacDonald:
“‘How did the conference go?’ I asked.
He shook his weary head. ‘These are bad days for an economist, my friend. We have gone past the frontiers of theory. There is nothing left but one huge, ugly fact.’
‘There is a debt of perhaps two trillion dollars out there, owed by governments to governments, by governments to banks, and there is not one chance in hell it can ever be paid back. There is not enough productive capacity in the world, plus enough raw materials, to provide maintenance of plant plus enough overage even to keep up with the mounting interest.’
‘What happens? It gets written off?’
He looked at me with a pitying expression. ‘All the major world currencies will collapse. Trade will cease. Without trade, without the mechanical-scientific apparatus running, the planet won’t support its four billion people, or perhaps even half that. Agribusiness feeds the world. Hydrocarbon utilization heats and houses and clothes the people. There will be fear , hate, anger, death. The new barbarism. There will be plague and poison. And then the new Dark Ages.'”
Travis McGee, the hero of many MacDonald thrillers, quips: “Should I pack?”
From Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”:
“‘Yet a gentleman may not keep a public-house; may he?” said I.
‘Not on any account,’ returned Herbert; ‘but a public-house many keep a gentleman.'”
A zinger is so much more satisfying when it’s not only scathing, but clever.
Take Dorothy Parker as she nearly collided with Clare Boothe Luce as they both tried to get through a doorway. Luce smiled and said, “Age before beauty.”
Not missing a beat, Parker slipped through the door, and said, “Pearls before swine.”
Here are some of my other favorite literary insults that have that certain zip.
Mark Twain on composer Richard Wagner: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
William Makepeace Thackeray on Jonathan Swift: “A monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind — tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of manliness and shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.”
H.G. Wells on Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”
Virginia Woolf on James Joyce: “The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
Oscar Wilde on Charles Dickens’s “Old Curiosity Shop”: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”
Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound: ““A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”
Vladimir Nabokov on Ernest Hemingway: “As to Hemingway, I read him for the first time in the early ‘forties, something about bells, balls and bulls, and loathed it.”
Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Mark Twain on Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig up Jane Austen and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
Any of your favorites to add?
Hidden behind a pane of smeared
In a messy kitchen,
gazing out over the brick
scattered with pine needles
behind the white picket
Flashes of barefoot daughters
squealing with joy.
kicking a soccer ball.
And a weight of anxiety
Replaced by the lightness of
and bouncing hair.
One of Americas most under appreciated writers – at least by readers – is Richard Yates. None of his novels were ever best sellers and, in fact, none of them sold more than a few thousands copies during his lifetime.
But he was published despite the sorry state of his sales (likely not possible in this day and age).
Yates can write. Take this passage from his 1965 novel “A Special Providence”:
“And it must have been in the same square that he watched two litter bearers come trotting in perfect rhythmic unison through the rubble, using their legs with the skill and delicacy of dancers so that their upper bodies wouldn’t jog the load: from the waist up they could have been men on bicycles. The man on their stretcher rode as smoothly as if he were in a hospital bed, and Prentice thought with envy of how dreamlike and sweet it must be to be borne that way, floating horizontally away to rest and peace and care.
In the middle of the square the bearers came to a halt and eased the stretcher gently to the ground. They rested for a few seconds, standing wide-legged with their hands on their knees, like winded athletes. Then still moving as one, they squatted to take up their load again; but almost as soon as they’d raised it they set it carefully down, and both of them crouched over the wounded man, tenderly lifting his blanket to feel and scrutinize him.
And then, with a terrible abruptness, they tore off the blanket, tipped the stretcher high on its side, and sent the man rolling hideously out into the slush. They didn’t even look down at him as they turned and ran, heading back to wherever they’d come from, one of them hauling the collapsed stretcher on his shoulder and the other humping along at his side. All their unanimity and grace was gone: they ran with the heavy-footed clumsiness of exhausted laborers.”
Try to find a passage that so encapsulates the humanity and the horrors of war more effectively, more vividly than this one. You’d be hard pressed to find it.
I’ve been rediscovering the Beats recently. It has been, after all, 15 years this month since Allen Ginsberg died.
My second going with the Beats (my first when I was in college) has not been as fulfilling. Suddenly, Ginsberg seems more self-absorbed than self-aware.
That feeling hasn’t been as intense with Jack Kerouac, but reading “The Dharma Bums” has been disappointing. Kerouac isn’t that good a writer. There are moments – no doubt – of intense beauty, especially when he’s writing about nature. But most of Kerouac’s dialogue falls flat and his characters are one-dimensional.
And worse, he can be boring.
But there are gems and there’s little doubt that Kerouac captured a movement in America – chronicling the discontent of America in the late 1950s and setting the foundation for the revolution and upheaval of the 1960s – when convention fell apart and American innocence (if there was ever really such a thing) fell apart.
This passage from “The Dharma Bums” captures that spirit:
“Give me another slug of that jug. How! Ho! Hoo!” Japhy leaping up. “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that’s the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everyone and to all living creatures, that’s what I like about you Goldbrook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead.”
That’s one hell of long sentence.
It’s everything that’s right and wrong about Kerouac – and the Beats for that matter. The passage starts out stealing, but sails into an intense philosophy that strikes a nerve and then peters out in a vague and disappointing manner.
But the bright and original parts of the passage – about the coming revolution and our consumer society – click. And you can see how the thinking was adopted by future writers from Don Delillo to Douglas Copeland (but not so much the writing itself).
Kerouac had influence on a movement – a way of thinking and approaching life – but he really wasn’t a literary influence.
What do you think of the Beats? Have you read them? Do you think they are still relevant today?