In “My back pages (part one)” I listed my favorite/most influential books. Here are some further thoughts on my choices:
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. Senior year of college I wrote a graduate-level thesis in which I explored “the sense of the numinous” in this book and works by Hawthorne, especially the story “Young Goodman Brown.” This book is haunting, beautiful, disconcerting — this feeling of foreboding, this feeling that there’s some reason to be uneasy, this feeling you can’t quite articulate — but by the pricking of your thumbs, you’re certain something wicked this way comes. Like Goodman Brown on his journey through the creepy woods.
Side note: I wrote to Bradbury around that time and told him what I was writing — about the links I detected between him and Hawthorne. He wrote back and told me I was absolutely on to something — that he had devoured Hawthorne when he was a boy. I then sent Bradbury one of my early poems, which he proceeded to totally trash, scribbling criticisms and insults all over what I’d sent him. He then sent me one of his own poems — as an example of how to write a “good” poem — and it was this godawful thing called “When Elephants Last In the Dooryard Bloomed,” which I proceeded to totally trash, scribbling criticisms and insults all over what he’d sent me. I mailed that to Bradbury and never heard from him again. But “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (along with “Martian Chronicles,” “The October Country” and “Dandelion Wine”) remains one of my favorite books.
Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle. I basically kept rereading the books my cousin John had given me until I got to high school and got into a creative writing class. Then I just started reading what I saw other people reading — The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, J.D. Salinger; Johnny Got His Gun; Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck; All Quiet on the Western Front; The Chosen by Chaim Potok; Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. Totally random. Then someone lent me a copy of Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I’d never read anything like this. I then read Cat’s Cradle and then Slaughterhouse Five, and I was blown away. I realize now that Vonnegut is in many ways a very traditional writer, but his use of language, his humor, his dark themes, his distinctive style, his drawings, his sadness — I decided he was a great writer, and I still think so.
Huckleberry Finn. I didn’t really understand what cousin John had given me until I took some classes with a professor named David Sadkin, who was a friend of Leslie Fiedler. Sadkin told me I should read Fiedler’s “Love and Death in the American Novel.” Then I started to realize what “Huck Finn” really was — it wasn’t a book for kids; it was a book about race, friendship, love, ignorance, innocence, evil and America — and a great powerful symbolic and cleansing river.
Ragtime. Vivid characters. Great sense of the place and the times. I also very much like “World’s Fair.” Great idea, weaving real historical figures and events into fiction. I think I might do that in Half Moon. Maybe I’ll do it in Gloryville and Rip, too.
Dharma Bums. But “Dharma Bums” (and “Desolation Angels” too) reflect the Kerouac I like best, the avant Kerouac of “Book of Dreams” and “Pull My Daisy.” My friend Bob Lax, who knew Kerouac quite well, was re-reading “Dharma” and “Desolation” around the time he became fatally ill. I remember Lax and I lamenting the fact that after these books Kerouac began the downward plummet into life in a tract house filled with beer and daytime TV and his smohering mother and a sad, sad bitterness as Kerouac ultimately couldn’t escape the ghosts of Lowell and his brother Gerard.
One Hundred Years of Solitude. A world of fiction within fictions. A world of beautiful magic and blessed coincidences and small events with huge implications.
The Trial. First Kafka I read, for some reason, was “Amerika.” Then I read “The Castle,” “The Trial” and, yes, the one where the guy turns into an insect. Yes, the symbolism in these books is a bit obvious and overwrought, but Kafka was the first fiction I read that seemed to have universal implications. Right around the same time, I remember, I read “The Fall” and “The Plague” by Camus, and felt they were somehow related to Kafka.
USA . I like the experimental style, the grandeur and the ambition — the newspaper blurbs, the newsreels, the camera’s eye — the whole thing still makes me think of Steinbeck on LSD.
Paterson . I like this for many of the same reasons I like USA — the audacious premise, the passion and intellect. I think I’ll steal that idea for “Half Moon.”
Kaddish. The mystic feel, the deep emotions freely expressed, the way a personal sadness becomes universal grief.
Leaves of Grass. This one book encompasses all — all of America, all of life.
Three Men In a Boat. Absolutely perfect, funny, understated, very British, book-length humorous travel essay by Jerome K. Jerome about three young men touring the waterways of England by barge. Direct link from Jerome to the Goons and the Pythons
North of Boston. Frost’s greatest, darkest, most beautiful poems are in this thin volume.
Circus of the Sun. So Bob Lax is at loose ends and lands a sort-of-a-job with a small traveling circus. Lax has also converted recently to Chrisitianity, following the lead of his friend Merton. So, of course, the circus performers and the circus — the raising of the tent in the morning and the dismantling of the tent at night, the beauty and grace, the love and devotion, the patterns, these all represent something greater — they represent the very story of creation itself. Love had a compass….One of the greatest books ever.
Up in the Old Hotel. You want to be transported to another world? Want your tour guide to be a writer who’s a great stylist, a great reporter, a great chronicler of lost worlds? The only problem with reading Joseph Mitchell is that I get real nostalgic for a New York that no longer exists (if it ever really did)– in fact, it stopped existing decades before I was born, but Mitchell still makes me nostalgic for it.
Walden. The deceptively simple language and philosophy in this book changed the world.
Collected Poems (Emily Dickinson). There’s Emily Dickinson — and then’s there’s all the other poets. The daring language, the vulnerability combined with a weird inner strength, the “slant” way of looking and thinking, the haunting images, the hymns and prayers, the mystery men in her life, the invented language, the white dress, the whole thing….Of all the writers from the past, Emily Dickinson is the one I’d most like to meet.
My Life and Hard Times. So much style, so much wit — and so many people running for their lives through the streets of Columbus, Ohio, because they think the dam just broke.
The Bible (King James version). Because of its language, because of its drama, because every single story line in every single novel ever written is here, and because it raises the ultimate questions and at least tries to answer them. It has the aura of the divine about it, but it’s ultimately the most human book ever.
A Human Comedy. Simple stories, simply told. For the most part, I think Saroyan is a clumsy and not very deep writer. But this story of the little boy in a little town in Califorinia is a little book I read over and over.
Tortilla Flat/Cannery Row. Same thing. I never get tired of these books. The characters. The friendships. The longing. My daughter visited Salinas a few years ago and brought me back a cheesy “I visited Cannery Row” souvenir, Better to visit by reading these books.
Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. My father and I used to watch the old Sherlock Holmes movies on TV, on weekend afternoons when the Yankees games got rained out, and old WPIX would dust off the films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. This led me to the books, starting with “Hound of Baskervilles.” The game’s afoot. The fog. The knock at the downstairs door as another mysterious client arrives. The carriage wheels clicking on the cobblestones. The violin and the cocaine. Dr. Watson. Irene Adler. Don’t you wish this world really existed?
A Christmas Carol. The essence of Dickens. The great storytelling. The great sense of place. The great characters. The decency.
History of Yonkers (Rev. Allison). When I found this book, written in the late 1800s, it was like I’d found King Tut’s tomb or had translated the Rosetta Stone. After I read tihs book, when I walked through the old sections of my hometown, I felt like I was in the present and in the past at the same time. I could feel the presence of the people who’d walked through those old streets a century before.
The Sketch Book, Washington Irving. “Rip van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the Knickerbocker tales, the Catskills legends, the old Dutch settlers of New York — somehow the world created by Washington Irving always appealed to me — you can still get glimpses of that world if you stroll around some parts of lower Manhattan. I believe Washington Iriving and Joseph Mitchell would have gotten along famously.
Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. A beautiful, inspiring, ambitious, resonant story — it is, of course, about war and faith and trust and love and paradises lost. Just like all the great books.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I once drove through Shillington, Pa., Updike’s hometown. I kept looking around to see if I could spot Rabbit Angstrom. I think I actually saw him.
Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington
Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler
From Ritual to Romance, Weston
First two are books recommended to me by David Sadkin. First time I clearly understood how America and its literature were entwined. The Weston book is mentioned in the footnotes of “The Waste Land.” I was totally engrossed by all the pagan Holy Grail vegetable cult stuff — Weston’s kind of like Joseph Campbell without all the pretentious bullshit.
Book of Dreams. Visions of Kerouac. Dharma Kerouac. Desolation Kerouac. See above.
The Seven Storey Mountain. Young Thomas Merton fathered an illegitmate child. He used to hang out all night at the Harlem jazz clubs and then show up for his morning classes at Columbia still decked out in his evening jacket. Then he came under the influence of some powerfully spiritual people — including young Bob Lax — and stunned his friends by becoming a devout Christian — so devout that he became a cloistered monk. How could that happen? How did it happen? One of the greatest spiritual autobiographies — a man who came to grips with his demons, saw a clear path to happiness and fufillment, and followed that path. You may not agree with his choice, but you admire the clarity of his vision, hias intellect, and the depth of his feelings.
Fables, Robert Lax. Book of Proverbs? Aesop’s fables? These are way better, little nuggets of wisdom with big meanings. “Alley Violinist” is from this book.
Book of Friends, Henry Miller. Sure, Miller was full of himself, a misogynist, a self-promoter, but these very vivid portraits of people in his life are great stuffr. I don’t like his fiction. But these essays (and the companion volume, My Bike and Other Friends) are so entertaining that I went on to read, and like, some other great Miller including “The Air Conditioned Nightmare” and his account of his travels through Greece, “The Colossus of Marousi.”
Tickets for a Prayer Wheel and Holy the Firm. Philosophy and poetry blended perfectly and sweetly. Spare, simple language, like the best prayers and hymns. A wide-eyed wonder and questioning combined with a great intellect and great love of live and its mysteries. Annie Dillard is one of our greatest writers.
Tales, Edgar Allan Poe. Haunted man and haunting stories.l Plus he invented the American short story, picking up the baton from Washington Irving.
The World of Washington Irving (and others in the series by Van Wyck Brooks)
Made me realize that Irving, Melville, Whitman, all those guys, were all people — and made me understand clearly, for the first time, where they fit into America and into their times.