Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Lit Links

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?


DarkoV said...

Oh, WP, you are the evil one. I think I can bore even myself to the cliche-ish tears with this comment. So, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (apologies to Bertrand Blier).
Going to McGill in that fine and chiily city of Montreal, as a student I was both poor and cheap, a combination that left heating as a non-priority. So, to keep the blood flowing rather than freezing, I tended to camp myself at either a (richer) friend's flat or at

McLennan Library Building.

Trapped (entirelyof my own doing) in a major I loathed, I spent the majority of my time at McLennan reading books not in my major. In my defense, the unemployment rate was very high (over 15% in PQ) so my major, though high in misery, was also high in employment possibilities.
So, to the books.
Jumped into the ocean of Russian lit, with favorites being:
Mikhail Sholokhov: "And Quiet Flows the Don", "The Don Flows Home to The Sea"
Ilf & Petrov: "The Twelve Chairs", "The Golden Calf"
Mikhail Zoshchenko: "Nervous People and Other Satires", "Scenes From the Bathhouse"
and other novels by Nabokov, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn (especially was affected by his "Cancer Ward"), and, of course, Dostoevsky ("The Eternal Husband and Other Stories" was a favorite)
Peter de Vries (of course): "Blood of the Lamb"
George Santayana: "The Last Puritan"
Carlos Castaneda (I'm a bit embarassed here..) "The Teachings of Don Juan"
Robert Persig: "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"..because I thought Zen was "cool" and motorcycles "cooler" and I ended up mostly riding a ten speed and not attending Catholic services in college. The book was that alter-life I was living in my head.
Mordecai Richler:"The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz", "Joshua Then & Now" and a slew of others. Loved the immediacy and muddiness of his characters,
P.G. Wodehouse: Just a lot of Jeeves & PSmith. A consistent place to find humour when things were not going well. This also led to Stephen Leacock, Sati, and the Huge stacks of Punch magazines that McLennan had in their mag section. I still give some dough each year to McGill, and it's all due to the literary wealth I was able to enjoy in that fabulous library.

These would be the top books that I can recall with memories of fondness & wincing.

Whisky Prajer said...

Persig - of course! Forgot about him, for a moment. Richler and Nabokov figure in my own list, too. I must admit however that the Eastern Writers have with precious exception posed themselves as serious stumbling blocks to me. Such a delerious writing style! I clicked with Dostoevsky for a moment, when the passions of the people around me seemed as wild and out of control as my own, but he's not someone I can easily return to. Kundera was, stragely enough, more comforting. Then there's Bohumil Hrabl, in a league entirely of his own making. Wondrous, magnificent stuff.

It occurs to me now that I first read John Gardner in college, particularly The Art of Fiction. That certainly shook things up for me. But kudos to you for fessing up to Castaneda - someone we all read, regardless of his lack of presence in our curriculum.

DarkoV said...

I knew this was going to happen. More "must reads" to add to the list. I'm now planning on dying when I'm 122 to complete the task. Ashamed to say I'd not heard of Hrabl (Hrabel?), but I will shortly. As far as the Russky writers goes, the huge dramas and historical scope always drew me in. With Zoshchenko, Ilf & Petrov, and Voinovich (who I'd neglected to mention, which is unbelievable since his "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin" is one of my all-time favorites), I found the needed "advice" or state-of-mind that did me well to get through the over-laden and primitive bureacracy that was university life. The USSR under Lenin through Krushchev were actually quite similar to my experiences with the circle-jerk administration of college, but without the bloodshed. These 4 writers' skewed and humorous eyes helped me out a lot.

Kundera? I didn't read him until after I'd graduated. Frankly, I don't think I would have appreciated him as much as a pimply college youth. Same with Marquez. It worked out better that I was older.

Scott said...

I loved Doestoevsky in my undergrad classes but find myself curiously unwillingly to go back there now.

I confess that the book that 'rocked my world' was my textbook -- a "Literature (4th ed.)" that featured short stories by Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor. Both authors hooked themselves into my brain and never let go!

Scott said...

"curiously unwillingly"?
I type WAY too quickly...(sigh)

Whisky Prajer said...

Scott - I'm pretty sure "curiously unwillingly" is a term frequenlty used by Dostoevsky's translators.

DV - If you find Hrabl's I Served The King of England, you'll probably devour it in less than a weekend - several years before you turn 122. It's short and (bitter)sweet. Also, looking at your list of Eastern writers, I'm reminded of that bold and glorious day I browsed my university bookstore and chose to buy Vasily Grossman's Life & Fate. This was ... 1986? I'm not at all sure "Glasnost" was adopted policy, yet. The book had precisely the sort of title that appealed to my vanity as a brazen pup in the halls of academia. Grossman's prose was as cold and bitter as the wind-swept, war-torn Russian Steppes. Given that I was reading this in Winnipeg, you can go ahead and take a wild guess as to whether or not I ever finished that enormous book!

DarkoV said...

WP, Unbelievable! Grossman's Life & Fate was the albatross around my neck for what seems eternity. I had purchased it as a damaged book at this gorgeous 4 story bookstore by the docks in Montreal. About a year later, that bookstore burned down in a glorious blaze, fueled, I'd thought, by the passionate words encased in all of its books. Life & Fate still lay on a shelf in its full weight glory and still unread at that time. I felt the burden of the souls of all of those burned books encased in Grossman's book. It was, as you so correctly pointed out, a tome of dense misery and damnation. I never finished that book. I moved from Montreal back to the States and left that book in my apartment, not so much as a parting gift but as a weight I couldn't bear to deal with any longer in my life.
I never checked to see if that apartment building is still standing; probably afraid to see if the book's curse was still that strong.

Bleak Mouse said...

Numerous books rocked my college world, perhaps because I lived on an intellectual fault, perhaps because it's an age of being rocked by ideas. In fact, my college years stretched from 1968-1977, with five years off for bad behavior, so I'll stick to those from 1968-1972.

Nabokov: Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49, V
Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon
Richard Farina: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me
Henry James: Wings of the Dove (really!)
Tom Wolfe: The Electric Kool=Aid Acid Test
Philip K. Dick: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia
Anything by Graham Greene
Borges: Ficciones
Dostoevsky: The Possessed
Conrad: Under Western Eyes
One or two of Sir Richard F. Burton's many books about African exploration
Kafka: The Trial

and innumerable others I can't recall at the moment.

I was already rolling my eyes at the mention of Kerouac by freshman year in college, perhaps because everyone else was reading him so enthusiastically. Heingway I recall dismissing, rather unfairly, as "glorified true-men's adventure stories." The Farina probably wouldn't hold up terribly well nowadays, and I harbor doubts about Pynchon, whose long-awaited Gravity's Rainbow proved to be a marvel of self-consciousness and self-indulgence. The Wolfe is probably a product of its times, minor if occasionally brilliant. And I probably championed Philip K. Dick at least in part because no one had ever heard of him.

Doubtless I've left out something crucial, but then leaving out something crucial is what college education's all about, I guess.

Whisky Prajer said...

Pynchon & Orwell - the bookends to every college boy's bedside collection. One the master of circumlocution, the other a master of straight talk. In my case the selections were Gravity's Rainbow and Down & Out In Paris & London - "My literary tastes cover the entire spectrum, baby!" (Not that women ever gave due consideration to my bookshelves)

Phil said...

I was sitting in the library one afternoon doing my best to get through something or other when I picked a copy of Vanity Fair (the magazine). I had never read the magazine before, but noticed an article on Sonny Liston. I always had a fleeting interest in Sonny and knew very little about him.

I thoroughly enjoyed the article and never gave it a second thought until a few years later I noticed the book "The Devil and Sonny Liston" by Nick Tosches at the bookstore. I picked it up and realized it was an extended version of the Vanity Fair article I had read years before.

Since that time, I've read nearly everything Tosches has written and am very grateful I wasn't in a studying mood all those years ago.

Whisky Prajer said...

Tosches is an interesting bird - one of those rare survivors from the School of Rock Critics whose interests grew wider and wilder. I sometimes think Marcus Greil is in the same camp, but then Greil grinds out another book on Dylan, or Elvis. Zzzzzzzzzzz. My own introduction to Tosches was quite late. Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams came out while I was working in the bookstore, and in the habit of reading as many book reviews as I could get my hands on. You could see from the reviews that Tosches' crazed, kinetic approach to the life of Dean Martin(!) worked, but that reviewers couldn't quite say how it worked. "Dino" was my intro to Tosches - snappy book.

Phil said...

Have you read anything else by Tosches? Dino is the one book he wrote that I don't like. Maybe it's the subject matter. I never found the Rat Pack that interesting.

"The Last Opium Den" is a short little book (originally a VF piece) that I think is considerably more enjoyable than "Dino".

Whisky Prajer said...

Aside from a bunch of magazine pieces (I'm a bit of a magazine hound. I liked the VF Search for Opium Den - I could see it expand into a delicious book, and its trim size certainly recommends itself), I've read very little Tosches. "Dino" and In The Hand Of Dante - which I didn't finish because it was due back at the library just as I was getting into it. Weird, wonderful, promising stuff.