I've been tagged
by Paul Cella.
(1) How many books do I own? I haven't a clue, but certainly in the hundreds.
(2) What's the last book I bought? Well, assuming I bought it from Amazon (which seems likely) the last two books I bought (same order) were A House for Mr. Biswas
and Albion's Seed
, which both fall into the category of "don't I own this already?" and then I discover I don't, and so order them. BTW, I want to buy a good translation of the complete short stories of Anton Chekhov; can anyone recommend one?
(3) What's the last book I read? Well, readers of this blog know that the last book I read is A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity
by Daniel Boyarin. Now, I'm reading Ovid's Metamorphoses
and The United States and the Pacific
by Jean Heffer.
(4) Five books that mean a lot to me? Right.
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I first read this book in college, when I had fairly conventional left-leaning views. This is the book that made it clear to me that the only Socialism worth talking about is the solidarity of the barricades, and that therefore (this is not Orwell's conclusion; it's mine) Socialism as a political theory requires eternal war. Also a marvelous introduction to Orwell's style, which is the among the best plain styles executed in English. And if for nothing else the book is worth reading for the description of what it's like to be shot.
- Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic, by Ahad Ha'am. I feel a little weird mentioning this one because I haven't read it since I was in college, but it had a big impact on me then. Ahad Ha'am gets tagged as a utopian rather than a realist, a critic rather than a builder, and a sentimental Jewish nostalgist rather than either a hard-headed secularist or a believer. He probably deserves all of those descriptions - but he's also been proved right on a host of matters that still bedevil Israel and Judaism. His solutions are often wrong (and always outdated) but many of the questions are still highly relevant.
- Henry IV part I. The play that made me fall in love with Shakespeare. I had an English teacher sophomore year of high school who, when he was ready to begin teaching this play, began with a lecture entitled, "Everything You Need To Know." This was the history of the Kings and Queens of England, from Boadicea to the Glorious Revolution. I remember almost none of it. But I remember reading through the play line by line in class, and learning how to read both in the sense of how to understand such a rich text as a play like this and how to read it, aloud, so that it will play with the hearer. And the play itself is a masterpiece, one of Shakespeare's most complex plays in terms of poetic imagery and plot, with some of his most compelling characters (Falstaff first among them). I still get excited when I find that someone's going to be putting it on.
- Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes. Another book I read in college, and another epiphany contrary to the author's intentions. Hobbes, after all, was just trying to illustrate the importance of a strong sovereign to social peace. But what he achieved was something different: proof that a natural rights/contractarian view of society can, with complete logic, devolve into a manifest totalitarianism. And I don't think that's an exaggeration: Hobbes is quite clear that the sovereign is - and must be - above the law, and the only way to make that fact manifest (which it must be, to be effective) is to violate the law - that is, to rule through terror. Hobbes could never have forseen the ideologies that would justify the great terrors of the 20th century, but he laid out the unimpeachable reasoning that leads to that conclusion. This is also the first book of philosophy that I really got, and that made me understand what the whole point of the philosophical game was. And I have been wary of foundational as opposed to historical understandings of society and the state ever since I read it.
- Ulysses, by James Joyce. I considered naming Middlemarch, or Anna Karenina, or Moby Dick, or Don Quixote instead, all personal lode-stars in the realm of the novel. Or I considered naming a more personal lode-star, like The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, or Housekeeping, or The Unconsoled. But Ulysses is personal in a way that the other giants are not, and is a giant in the way that the more personally-connecting books are not. I first got an inkling that I would marry my wife when wandering around Ireland together in 1993, reading Ulysses as we went. And I still identify with both Bloom and Stephen, and I still weep with pity and joy when I think about poor Bloom's little life, its tragedy and its luminocity.
But really, who can reduce oneself to just 5 books? I can easily think of another dozen that had a big impact on my thinking and my life. And I hope I continue to encounter books that can so move me. What a sad thought to think that I might not.
(5) Tag five more people? I suppose this means you're it.
Jerry Pournelle (though perhaps I should have cited The Mote in God's Eye as a book that meant a lot to me - which it did, back when I read it - if I wanted him to play)