Slate is going to College this week. Among the many articles of interest is this survey of "Books that rocked my college world", a list compiled by Slate-appointed "famous people". There are a few titles that recommend themselves to me, most notably Nicholson Baker's choice: Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy by "chemist-epistomologist" (Baker's term) Michael Polanyi. In Baker's telling, Polanyi's analysis seems to be precisely the cheerful sort of head-scratching I can get into. I've had a few items waiting in my Amazon docket: looks like I'll be making my "Free Shipping" points this week.
When I considered the books that rocked my college world, I finally had to tip my hat to a sentiment voiced by Robert Stone, in one of those laborious reconsiderations of American Literary Icons. The subject under scrutiny this time was Jack Kerouac, who was being uncermoniously exhumed in several biographies. Stone has his own history with Kerouac. It seems Stone's mother (a bit of a flake, in his telling) sent him a copy of On The Road while Stone was in the Merchant Marines. Stone went on to hang out with Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey, during their maddest years. He struggles to acknowledge the genuine appeal of Kerouac, and says finally that American writers inevitably fall somewhere on a scale set on either extreme by Kerouac or Hemingway (Stone's preferences tilt toward the latter, he says).
If I acknowledge the masculine hubris of that sentiment and briskly move on, I'll amend it somewhat for my personal needs and say that both writers embodied a romantic recklessness that, for better and for worse, influenced some of my own decision making and nudged me right out of my college world. There's future blog material here, because the older I get, the greater my disenchantment grows with both writers. Those two behaved like absolute shits, but they established their own "eXtreme" schools of writing, so they both receive "Get Out Of Jail Free" cards - for now. You kids out there: I managed to read On The Road without becoming a reckless driver and a sweat-drenched speed-freak; similarly, I finished The Sun Also Rises without turning into a drunken anti-Semite with a passion for the bull-fights. See if you can't do the same.
Getting back to "cheerfulness" for a moment: I think that's the quality to C.S. Lewis's writing that has always appealed to me, even in his flawed and blustery "apologetics". We've been reading The Chronicles of Narnia to the girls, in wary anticipation of the movies. As with The Lord of the Rings, there is an imagery evoked by the words that I will regret losing to the movies, and Adam Gopnik correctly identifies their intrinsic appeal. He occasionally overstays his welcome when it comes to critical commentary - "the futile hope of the mystic", my ass - but many of his observations are acute:
The British, of course, are capable of being embarrassed by anybody, and that they are embarrassed by Lewis does not prove that he is embarrassing. But the double vision of the man creates something of a transatlantic misunderstanding. If in England he is subject to condescension, his admirers here have made him hostage to a cult.
Gopnik works hard at staking out the middle ground, which for the most part makes for a rewarding read - here.
Hey - what were the books that rocked your college world?