Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

books for the ages

Recently a meme flitted around the internet for a few days — a meme about books: “What,” whispered the meme, “are the Ten Books That Have Most Influenced You?” Or something like that; sometimes I have trouble hearing memes, because of the whispering and all. Also because they tend to bore me.

I don't know how to answer the meme’s question, but the question did get me thinking, for once, and what it got me thinking about is this: what books were most important to me at different stages of my life? That one I believe I can answer, at least up until fifteen years ago or so — this is the kind of thing that’s best assessed in retrospect (which is one reason why I’m not answering the meme’s original question). So check out this list:
Age 6: My favorite book then, and for years after, was The Golden Book of Astronomy — how I loved that book. It influenced me so deeply that until I was sixteen I knew that I would be an astronomer. What happened at age 16? Calculus.

Age 10: Robert A. Heinlein, Tunnel in the Sky. An interplanetary survivalist manifesto. I was ten. Enough said.

Age 14: Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End. My first tutor in philosophy, comparative religion, comparative mythology, and dystopian futurism. Also a ripping good read. Roughly contemporaneous with my discovery of Dark Side of the Moon. Not since has my mind been so thoroughly blown.

Age 16: Loren Eiseley, The Night Country. My discovery that the essay could be an art form, and that interests in the sciences and in literature could be profitably and brilliantly combined. I read Eiseley’s complete works that year, I think, but the melancholy humor of The Night Country remained with me more strongly than anything else. The (widely anthologized) essay “The Brown Wasps” just devastated me.

Age 20: William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” History is tragedy. “Why do you hate the South?” — No, Shreve, you damned Canadian, you don't understand. You don't understand at all.

Age 22: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Theology, theory, phenomenology, hermeneutics — all in the mind of one person?? Then anything is possible. Boundless intellectual vistas. I may make it through graduate school after all.

Age 24: W. H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand. Theology, poetry, history, myth — the poet as thinker. The poet as Christian. The Christian who, because he is a Christian, is thinking decades ahead of everyone else about the collapse of psychoanalysis, the end of Christendom, the dead-ends of late modernity. . . . A lifetime’s study commences now.

Age 30: Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. He knows everything — the whole of history. As he wrote near the end of his life, “There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). . . . At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in new form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.” What Auden is as critic and poet for me, Bakhtin is as theorist and thinker.

Age 35: Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. If I could have every young and thoughtful Christian read one book, it would be this one. There’s no one quite like Newbigin — or perhaps it would be better to say that there have been few like him since Augustine: the bishop-missionary-theologian.

Since then . . . well, I’ll tell you in a few more years.

UPDATE: I've decided I'd be remiss if I didn't add one more:
Age 38: W. H. Auden, “Horae Canonicae.” I had read these poems several times over the years, but it was only in my late 30s, as I was writing a book on Auden, that their true greatness began to dawn on me. They have permanently and profoundly shaped my understanding of what it means to be a human being living historically, and being accountable for one's own history; and it is through these poems more than through anything else that I have come to understand the meaning of Good Friday.


  • Glad to see Bakhtin getting some attention. I think reading Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics forever altered now just how I read Dostoevsky, but how I think about literature.

  • Absalom! is still my favorite by WF. I've been out (way out) of the theory business for a long time, but almost thou persuadest me to hit up the Bakhtin again.

  • I'm surprised that *Black Lamb and Grey Falcon* isn't on this list. I've heard you say several times that you consider it the best book of the 20th century. But I suppose often the books we think are best aren't necessarily the most influential on us...

  • Interesting list. I've read the Newbigin, and would highly recommend it, and possibly Absalom, Absalom. My Faulkner reading days are so long ago I can't even be sure of that...
    But the rest of the list is almost entirely brand new to me. How am I ever going to catch up with all the great books at my age - I become a pensioner tomorrow.

  • Mike: maybe pensioners have more time to read?

    Wes: that's right, personal influence is quite different than assessment of greatness. Thus the absence of Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante from the list!

  • Where's Carlos Castanenda? And no Niebuhr?!

  • Casteñeda, Niebuhr — I always get those guys confused.

  • But when I was sixteen or seventeen I read the Don Juan books in one week. At the time I thought they were pretty cool but I didn't have a source for peyote.

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