Tuesday, August 29, 2006

What have you been reading?

I was tagged for a literary meme by a blogging friend of mine. This is something just right for me.

1. One book that changed your life

O.K. This may seem a somewhat strange choice to those who do not know me but, to those who do, it will make perfect sense. I think that out of all the books I have read it would have to be Alexandre Koyre’s From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe that changed my life the most. It did so by getting me to think about issues that in the end led to my academic career and many more books. And would you believe that I do not have a copy of it right now?

2. One book you have read more than once.

There are a few fiction and non-fiction books that I tend to reread at irregular intervals. However, I find that it is poetry that is most rewarding in terms of rereading. In fact, I would argue that most poems are an acquired taste – you have to read them several times to really get into them and to fully appreciate them. So, the books that I have read hundreds of times and plan to read hundreds more are books of poetry. Among these is The Concise Columbia Book of Poetry which was given to me by a friend as an introduction to English poetry. Much worn and appreciated.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island.

What would I want to have with me on a desert island? Depends on whether I was marooned or vacationing. If vacationing, I would probably take something by Joseph Conrad with me that I am yet to read, maybe Nostromo. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m not going to wait till I get to the desert island but will start as soon as I get my hands on a copy. If I was marooned, however, I would chose something much more practical such as All you need to know about how to survive on a desert island and be rescued. Failing that, the complete works of Lenin, for kindling.

4. One book that made you giddy?

Giddy? That’s a big ask. I find that I get something of the kind of emotion from reading poetry and a different kind of giddiness from reading science. In terms of poetry, the best example I can think of is reading Rilke’s New Poems. Several poems in that collection caused me of gasp at their force and make shivers run up and down my back just thinking about them. The two that come to mind immediately are “The archaic torso of Apollo” and “Pont du Carrousel”. There are many translations. In terms of science books I could list highly technical texts but, instead, I think that Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World is the better example. The reason is that Sagan writes very clearly about the kind of giddiness I am speaking of – the sense of wonder at the elegance of the universe.

5. One book that you wish had been written

I don’t know about books but I do know about poems. I wish that Coleridge had not been interrupted in writing “Kubla Khan” and was able to finish the whole poem in the moment of opium assisted inspiration instead of speaking with his untimely guest and then returning to snatch fragments from his memory, leaving the poem an enchanting ruin of the majestic structure that had existed in his mind. The first couple of stanzas are so perfect that, even in its actual state, the poem is one of the greatest in the English language.

6. One book that wracked you with sobs?

I can’t remember what books actually caused me to cry but I can say which had a big emotional impact upon me. One that comes to mind is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Another is The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I could also add Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad and Hunger by Knut Hamsun. The books share two characteristics that made them as powerful as they were. The first was their moral seriousness – each was concerned in some way with moral questions and did not try to give easy answers to them, instead being willing to delve into the complexity of reality. This leads to the second characteristic – psychological realism – the characters, such as Greene’s famous whisky priest, described in the books are fully rounded people, with their reactions being necessary given their psychological make-up. As such, these books are the mirror opposite of books like those written by Dan Brown, in which the characters are mere pawns moved around at the author’s whim.

7. One book you wish had never been written

I could say The Bible but that would be a silly example. Humans are not religious because the Bible was written and, if it weren’t Christianity, some other religion would have come to dominate in the world, possibly causing even more harm. In fact, the problem is that much the same could be said about any book one might care to mention here. There is the saying that one should not trust a man who has only read a single book. This is as true of one good book as of one bad book. So, there is no book that I wish had not been written. Mind you, I may one day come to feel that way about a book of my own that I come to see as inadequate.

8. One book you’re currently reading

I like to have several books on the go at once. Among the ones I have open right now, I am (re)reading Stuart Vyse’s Believing in Magic. If someone is interested in the psychology of superstition this is the best place to start. At times it feels like a travel guide through psychological theories in the way that it jumps from one topic to another without tying them together properly, unfortunately. This is because Vyse intended it as something of an introduction to psychology – and it works in that way, too. Still, there is no better book that would gather together the various empirical results that have been obtained in the last few decades.

I have also just finished Collapse by Jerod Diamond. Diamond is a polymath and brings this broad knowledge to the books he writes. Collapse is about the various reasons for which various human cultures have disappeared. Not surprisingly, he makes the point that many of the same forces that led to previous collapses are at work right now and that we are in danger of a similarly grisly end unless we begin to change how we deal with our environment.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.

I wish there was just one. Very often someone will come up to me and say “There’s this book you have to read!” After listening to them I often agree, so they then ask when I will read it. Usually, my response is, “Probably never.” They rarely like that and always ask, “Why?” Well, as I explain, the number of books ‘that I absolutely have to read’ is greater than the number of books I can possibly read in the decades I have left (not even taking into account the fact that I am also supposed to write and spend time on such other things as helping to bring up my daughter).

10. Now tag five bloggers

Right. I tag Sportin’ Life and Doombreed. That’s not quite five, I know. But if everyone tagged five people we’ve have the whole population of the galaxy tagged after a fairly small number of iterations – that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.


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