Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fifteen authors: reflections on a Facebook 'you show me yours' list

The challenge came over my Facebook wire the Wednesday before Thanksgiving: "List fifteen authors, including poets and playwrights, who have influenced you and will always stick with you. Do this in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag at least fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what authors my friends choose. [...]"

I bit. Here are the authors I posted, alphabetically by name:

  1. Pat Barker
  2. Carlos Castenada
  3. J.M. Coetzee
  4. Umberto Eco
  5. Herman Hesse
  6. James Joyce
  7. Ian McEwan
  8. John Milton
  9. Haruki Murakami
  10. W.G. Sebald
  11. Will Shakespeare
  12. Gary Snyder
  13. J.R.R. Tolkien
  14. Mark Twain
  15. William Butler Yeats

Following the rules, I cobbled together my list in a very few minutes. I took a few minutes to browse my bookshelves, which skewed the results toward authors whose work I happen to have handy. The quantity limit guaranteed that I'd leave off a load of authors who have influenced me and will always stick with me, but the time constraint meant there was little room to measure and consider which of those other authors should have bubbled up into the top fifteen slots. And there's the circumstantial factor too: I compiled this list at a certain hour on a certain day. If you ask me next week or next month, I might come up with a very different set.

Disclaimers aside, though, the list typed above is the one I came up with on the spur of the moment. Circling back, here are some thoughts about why each author came to mind.

Pat Barker - This author's Regeneration trilogy (the other two novels are The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road) brought the human cost of World War I to vivid, harrowing life for me. Her novel Life Class, also about the first world war, read less powerfully to me but remains an important element in my mental map of a war that ended forty years before I was born yet whose human and geopolitical effects continue to reverberate in this century. Barker is certainly not the only author of vivid work that circles WWI: Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong comes to mind; and the novels of Joseph Roth ... Louis de Bernières, Ernest Hemingway, T.E. Lawrence ... but Barker is the one whose work came most vividly to my mind the day before Thanksgiving.

Carlos Castenada - Was the author really a disciple of a shaman named Don Juan? Or any shaman at all? I never really cared. Castenada was among the most evocative of several authors to extend the borders of reality, as I conceive(d) it, out into metaphysics as I grew into adulthood (yes, of course there was more to it than reading...). Also cf. Herman Hesse, below; and Michael Murphy, author of Jacob Atabet, who didn't make this list.

J.M. Coetzee - Lucid prose, brutal geographical and human landscapes, impassable moral conundrums, deep sympathies running through all of it. There's a reason Coetzee was awarded the Booker Prize twice, and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Umberto Eco - Eco has proven that being a medievalist can be fun. The Name of the Rose was the best book I've ever read about a library. I usually find obsession with mysterious secret societies (and their close relatives, conspiracy theories) to be numbingly silly, but Foucault's Pendulum kept me awake for nights on end.

Herman Hesse - There's something faintly embarrassing about my youthful enthusiasm for Hesse's orientalist fantasias, but there you have it. Like Castenada, and Eco on this list, Hesse was instrumental in opening my eyes to worlds behind the world's surfaces.

James Joyce - I blogged about Ulysses during Banned Books Week this year ... ever since I read his work during my years as a student, Joyce has stood, in my mind, for a fundamental shift in literature, in which the conception of heroism in western "high" culture was radically democratized.

Ian McEwan - Incandescent sentences. McEwan writes with a scalpel, I'm sure of it. His novels' endings often disappoint, but nothing could keep me from his delicious prose.

John Milton - I can't think of John Milton without remembering the late Julian Boyd, one of the most inspiring professors with whom I had the privilege to study at UC Berkeley. Professor Boyd was ill during the term I took his Milton seminar. I learned afterward, when I visited during the next term's office hours to thank him for an unforgettable introduction to Paradise Lost, that he was bedridden the whole quarter, and only dragged himself to campus by force of will when it was time to teach. He remembered our class only as a series of incoherent rants. But out of his riveting lectures, lunatic or not, I came to appreciate how rigorous application of etymological resonance could slither past conscious 'defenses' to work an author's moral instruction on a reader.

Haruki Murakami - This author's melancholy nostalgia, the fluid borders he draws between dream and reality, his fascination with Western pop culture, his fearlessness in depicting human depravity without stooping to dissociated voyeurism -- not to mention his love of cats -- has compelled my attention repeatedly, from The Windup Bird Chronicle to Norwegian Wood to Kafka on the Shore. His rendering of atrocities during Japan's occupation of China is indelibly burned into my literary and political memory; and Kafka Tamura's wonderfully intricate search for his origins and himself has entranced me through multiple readings and one of the best reading group discussions ever.

W.G. Sebald - Sebald's meditative peregrinations -- across Europe, time, and all the world -- evoke as powerfully as any modern writer's work the individual's helpless transfixion before the tides of history. The grainy black and white photographs interleaved through his prose (is it history, memoir, fiction, journalism?) deepen the mystery and amplify the dreaminess of Sebald's exacting observation. I've blogged about Sebald's work in Time, History, and Human Forgetting and More on place in fiction.

Will Shakespeare - I don't need to explain this one, right?

Gary Snyder - In sharp observation and incisive analysis, in poetics and in politics, with a keen eye and a wry wit, Snyder teaches that human culture is a rich melodic line amid a symphony of parts and players in the great music of being. His Back on the Fire (essays) was my top pick in an April blog post, Books everyone should read.

J.R.R. Tolkien - Exposing me to Professor Boyd's lessons on Milton (see above) before I was old enough to understand them, Tolkein gave the gift of of myth reimagined to the latter half of the twentieth century, casting deeply imprinted stories (Norse mythology, Beowulf, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen) into philologically rich yet accessible and gripping adventures in a fantastic and oddly, enchantingly, wishfully plausible world. Condolences to George Lucas and J.K. Rowling, who failed (in this viewer's and reader's opinion) even to come close.

Mark Twain - Is it the bitter humor? The fantabulous hyperbole? The skewering of provincial America? A rich rendering of boyhood longings for independence and adventure? It's everything. To read Twain as a boy is to learn that books can make one giddy, and to relish the ride.

William Butler Yeats - Lush verse, elitist arrogance, hopeless romanticism, a view of Ireland through mythically-tinted lenses ... but, really, it's the finely tuned language that echoes, year after year, in the mind's library.

And who else might have made the cut on a no-limits list? It's hardly possible to be exhaustive. But authors offered by my Facebook friends gave me a lot of ideas.

The professor of English who recruited me into this Fifteen Authors game listed a number of childrens' writers among the grow'd-up sort, several of whom certainly influenced me in ways that will always stick with me: Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary.

Other FB friends listed authors I might have included had they come to mind in the moment ... Annie Dillard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alexander Pope, Tom Robbins, Henrik Ibsen.

Then there's the science & speculative fiction read in my teens and twenties: Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, Philip José Farmer, Robert Heinlein, Ursula LeGuin.

Not to mention Homer, Ovid, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, Joseph Roth (whom I did mention, actually, above), C.P. Cavafy, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Wolfe, George Orwell, Kurban Said, Walker Percy, José Saramago .........

I mean, really. Fifteen?

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful list! Most of the authors you chose are my favorites as well, though my author list is quite different from yours. Fifteen is too random and narrow scope for sure.

    Matthew Felix Sun