Patrick Nachtigall, a friend and fellow bookist, responded to a FB post I “shared” recently. It was a photo of a library of books to which I’d written: “My Life Theme.” He asked, “What are the top 5 books that influenced you (not counting the Bible)?” I don’t know if he excluded the Bible because he knows me well enough to know that it would be in my top five or because he knows we me well enough to know that it would not be….
At any rate, he asked; since the response to my earlier blog/FB post about the top 10 books of 2012 was greater than I expected, I thought I’d share my response to Patrick with anyone else who might be interested. He asked for five; I’m sharing 10 (although I could add a few more) because I’ve been alive a long time and five is just too few. Well, so is 10, but I want to be reasonable and try to respond to Patrick’s request for influential books. I am prioritizing, so I am answering his question and he can stop at number 5 if he chooses.
I will say that each of these has been and, in significantly current ways, still are influences. So, here goes; unlike David Letterman, I will start with #1:
1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare. While I think that Hamlet and Lear are tied for his greatest plays, Hamlet has been more influential in my life. I am Hamlet; you are Hamlet; we are all Hamlet. No one portrays more clearly and viscerally the anguish of the human dilemma in the face of immorality. Anyone who has ever struggled with making choices that are thrust upon them in circumstance largely beyond their control will find hope in Hamlet. Hard hope, to be sure; yet, still hope.
2. The Kingdom of God by John Bright. I’ve written about this book in my blog entry about Milo Chapman; he’s the person who gave it to me. This book changed in fundamental ways how I understand the Bible and, therefore, how I read it. It is a “big picture” book that provided me a conceptual framework that I still find useful not only in my personal study but also in my teaching. For anyone trying to make sense out of a book that appears to be a set of short stories written by a bunch of different authors, put together by a not very competent editor, Bright provides a framework (think straight edge pieces in a jigsaw puzzle); well, at least, that is what it did for me at a time when I desperately needed those straight edges.
3. Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Carl Jung. Another gift book. Don Johnson gave me this book in 1972; it is a classic. Powerful in so many ways. In life and paradigm altering ways, this book awakened something in me that has never died—my call to journey and meaning through my God-given capacity to make meaning even when life seems foundationally meaningless.
4. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. This book, read several times over the years since I first stumbled on it, is the door that opened the way, resetting my journey and introduced me to a whole new spiritual sensitivity—the contemplative life. No, “seven,” itself, is not so much about that life, but it did introduce me to one of the most distinctive and important religious voices of the 20th Century. Though reflective of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, Merton’s honest, confessional, transparent journey, his love of literature, and his desire to find a place to stand—all of this moved me to know more and read more and discover what I hope is a more sacramentally oriented life.
5-6. To Know As We Are Known and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. These books completely re-arranged my sense of what education is and the role of the teacher. The discovery of the power of transparency and powerlessness and the hard and wonderful journey toward relational teaching—no one who reads Palmer can ever think about who he or she is; no teacher who reads Palmer can remain the same. (I really want to add another here: The Return of the Prodigal by Henri Nouwen; perhaps I’ll make another list.)
7. Paradise Lost by John Milton. I will never forget the graduate class on Milton in which we moved, line by line, through this amazing, formidable story! I will never have a greater understanding of the power and consequences of self-deceit than what I read here. Needless to say, the power of poetry has seldom been greater; the audacity, ego strength, and self deception of Lucifer have never been more profoundly portrayed—nor the light shed on my own self-deceit greater.
8. 100 Modern Poems (Rodman). This is an old anthology; I include it as much as a symbol of so many poems that are too many to include. I stole this book from my oldest brother’s library when I was still in high school. I’ve always been pulled to poetry; have thought of my self as a poet from time to time; but this book took me to places that I didn’t know existed and began a life long yearning for poetry and the penetrating use of language to unveil truth and reality.
The next two books are novels. In a way similar to 100 Modern Poems, these two stand in for oh so many, many novels. In novels, I get lost. I get to experience worlds that I will never know—at least to the extent that it is possible from another’s perspective. These two novels are as nearly complete as I can imagine, although in quite different ways. Both, finally, respond to these questions—the questions of the human condition—in powerful and mysterious ways: What matters? What really matters?
9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I would say about this the same I said about Paradise Lost—complete, whole, true. No one has ever said more or better about how to live well—and badly—in this flawed world. I think anyone who desires to come to terms with what it means to live well in a world that, at best, is morally flawed and not just a little confusing and in which we are called to live and find meaning—well, you can’t do better than this.
10. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Kind of an odd book to include, I know. It is a deeply flawed book (yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction to what I said about it in the intro to these two; but, then, so is War and Peace). It is a novel that can’t quite decide what it wants to be—a novel, a pilgrimage, a study in motorcycles, a reflection on parenting, or a philosophical treatise. So, it fails, I think, because of this uncertainty—but it also succeeds because of it. The novel as philosophical discourse. Personal philosophy—and the desire to find unitive meaning—as life force. Life as journey and passion as madness. Road trip!
Of course, in another month, a similar list with some significant changes might show up. Even as I write this (see numbers 5-6 above), I think of others: The River Why? and The Gift of Asher Lev. But, what do you expect from a unapologetic book-nerd—a bookish?