Ten Significant Books

So, my dear auntie Cindy has posted one of these silly Facebook games, and I feel obliged to play along. That being said, bibliophiles, you are challenged to pick 10 books that have affected you in some way. They need not be high literature or particularly savvy (I had a difficult time not listing ten Dr. Seuss titles), but 10 books that have stuck with you over the years. Not necessarily your favourites, but ones that have helped define who you are.

Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree: I love Silverstein’s work (especially his “adult” works, which are particularly raunchy but maintain his characteristic silliness). The Giving Tree was my de facto introduction to his world, and stuck with me since I was barely old enough to read it. Not only is it a story of love and devotion, but it is a story of growing up that rings a certain sweet sadness as the boy’s life progresses. In hindsight, it reminds me of my childhood home and how the area around it (and the house itself) has changed so drastically since I was young.

Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh: My parents always referred to me as Pooh Bear, but as I grew up, I dabbled with the different archetypes–I tried being a Tigger for a while, and I found myself a Rabbit for some intervening years, and I was an Eeyore during the “Dark Times”, but I find myself most comfortable as a Pooh. Quiet, subtle irreverence has always been my trademark. Reading The Tao of Pooh brought to words the thoughts and philosophy I found myself following all my life. The Tao is one of quiet joy, of making the most of what you have, and–most importantly–sharing that simplicity (of spirit, but never of mind) with those around you.

George Orwell, 1984: Orwell’s masterpiece terrified me when I first read it as a disaffected, cyberpunk-influenced teenager. The story of one man’s futile attempt to free himself from the most sinister bondage of them all–the kind that you can’t even tell you’re in–reflected in my mind the sort of “subjugation” that I found myself entrenched in by popular culture in the late 1990s. It began to strike chords after 2001 when it seemed like the US government was taking pages from the novel to use as their own playbook in the so-called “War or Terror”. Since the Snowden and Manning revelations, the details are more relevant than ever. While it may not be governments themselves closing in on the ubiquitously surveilled future, the repercussions are the same, and they’re why I dedicate myself to fighting the “good fight” against this totalitarian madness.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451: In the 1990s, thanks to the rise of “reality” and “trash television”, popular culture was in an ever-hastening race to the bottom. Going against the cultural grain was seen as akin to sedition, and teenage politics dictated Balkanization by various cliques. When I was young, I desired more than anything to fit in, but I eventually gave up those ill-placed dreams in favour of being true to myself. My personal journey of being true to myself paralleled that of Montag’s discovery of the evils of enforced conformity. Even still, with the gentrification of the Internet, the open exchange of ideas has become laughable as everyone has insulated themselves in a so-called “echo chamber”. Those that dissent are “silenced” through the threat of public “unfriending” or–barring that–actual “unfriending”. In extreme cases, “microaggressions” against “sensitive groups” have led to actual threats against teachers and professors and rampant political correctness is threatening not only learning, but the freedom of speech in general. When we are afraid to challenge each other’s ideas, culture and learning stagnates, and we risk Guy Montag’s world of enforced political correctness. It was true then, and it’s still true today.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: “Don’t panic” and “Always remember your towel” are as true in allegory as they are in real life. In addition to the many life lessons learned not only from the original entry, but the entire series, Adams’s style and delivery helped cement certain sensibilities into my psyche. Wit drier than James Bond’s martini and “creative” simile pepper my writing and my speech sometimes through homage, but usually through a lack of more accurate wording. Always keep an open mind; try to be at least “minimally prepared”; everything is infinitely improbable; and most importantly, look at every challenge as an opportunity to learn about something, and relay that learning to the next poor bastard so he doesn’t have to reinvent the warp drive every time.

Ayn Rand, Anthem: Ayn Rand is the loudest voice of my inner cynic, but she helps me keep my balance. Here are a few things I’ve learned from her novella: No matter what they tell you, do what you know is best for you because you’re the only person inside your head. The masses toiling for the benefit of the few will never find happiness. True happiness lies in taking care of yourself first; because if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. True altruism is paraded as noble by the ones who benefit from it the most. Helping others is never doing it for them, but teaching them to do it for themselves.

Swami Prabhupada, The Journey of Self-Discovery: Borrowing the old cliche, life is not a destination, but a journey. I met a Hare Krishna pilgrim when I was living in Athens, Georgia, and he offered me a copy of this book. It sat on my shelf for some years until I finally read it cover to cover. While I don’t subscribe to the Krishna religion (despite my esteem for George Harrison and the Beatles), I found its teachings quite enlightening. As fate would have it, I finished the book just before the Dark Times, and its references to the cyclical nature of the Universe helped cement the “All Things Must Pass” refrain that helped keep me pushing forward. Knowing which things are out of your personal control and letting them go in order to concentrate on the things that are is the only way to succeed through any crisis, and it was meditating on this truth that lit the way for me to return from exile in Middle Georgia after the Dark Times.

Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist: “There must be more than this provincial life” and “Go west, young man, and seek your fortune” notwithstanding, the idea of a Personal Legend is very strong in my own philosophy. Each person must follow his or her Personal Legend to the treasures to be found at the end of the story. In Coehlo’s prose, when one is pursuing his or her Personal Legend, the universe conspires to help. It’s “Who dares wins” or “Fortune favors the bold” taught in a lyrical allegory about a young shepherd who leaves everything familiar to journey to a faraway land in order to find himself and the treasure he dreams of each night. It ended up sounding awfully familiar.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth: The stories that echo through the ages are of particular interest to me, and Campbell’s work guides me through the tales that connect us as a species. The similarities between seemingly disparate cultures are striking when you look at the aggregate, and the explanations of the metaphors can still apply in modern society. Through Bill Moyers’s interviews with Campbell, I was introduced to heroes and villains that I never knew and I was encouraged to learn more about these characters and how they not only shaped the people of their times, but also influenced future generations of epics that are still told today.

Pekka Himanen, The Hacker Ethic and The Spirit of the Information Age: I’ve never been an “early to bed, early to rise” type, and when I get into a problem, I often obsess over it until the solution hits me over the head like a ton of bricks. This is the hacker ethic in a nutshell: the oft-misunderstood work ethic that falls outside of a regular 9-5 schedule. We’re a strange lot and we like to work on projects that are uniquely ours, putting blood, sweat, and tears into the soul of whatever we happen to be fixing (or breaking). I have recommended this book to girlfriends, parents, and anyone else who wants to get a peek at how someone like me ticks. It’s the closest thing to a thorough explanation of how someone like me thinks that I’ve found in over 30 years.

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