Saturday, August 29, 2009


Ten Books

I ended up tagged by a number of people for one of thse Facebook meme things. Since this one revolves around books, I decided to go ahead and respond-- and, of course, use it for my blog post. The question is, what are the ten books which changed your life? I've posted a little before on authors who wrote things that deeply affected me, but I think there's a real difference between that and singling out books that changed things for me. I'll avoid rpg books for the moment, as that's another more narrow topic. At risk of repeating some things I earlier posted, here's what I've come up with-

1. Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny) The first sci-fi book I really read that went in a philosophical direction. Or at least went that way and I actually followed what was going on. I always had a fascination for mythology grow up-- I had the two D'Aulaires illustrated books of myths and used to pore over those. Of course I was a DnD player early on so I got the rest of my references for that from the early Gods, Demigods and Heroes supplements. So I had some of that in my head when I hit this book-- a story in which a colonized planet is ruled by a group who have adapted the trappings of the Hindu pantheon and established that metaphysics as the basis of their control.

Of course you don't know exactly that at first and the pieces slowly come together. But the process of uncovering that also echoes the competition between other Eastern philosophies of the time. I don't think I can disentangle all of that. But it sent my head spinning- and really made me interested in the impact of culture, myth and technology. I'd say a good portion of the reason I went down the path of Anthropology as a major in college was at least some echo of thinking about that. That and it seemed the most logical major for application to gaming-- that's how it looks in retrospect.

2. Story (Robert McKee) Like any aspiring writer, I've bought a lot of writing books. Some have been better than others. But most are either too concrete or too fluffy, filled will dictums or stupid exercises. McKee's book is the first that actually addressed the needs and structure of a story. Mind you he's talking in the particular context of a movie script, but I think what he has to say applies to most fictional narrative. He's got me looking at things with a much more discerning eye. I think that's the best kind of learning book-- one not necessarily that gets you to change everything, but one that give you new tools to look at an analyze what you're doing.

3. Popular Culture (Albert Goldbarth) I had little or no experience with poetry up until graduate school. I didn't care for rhymed poetry and free verse left me irritated most of the time. The sole exception to that was Richard Braughtigan's stuff and even parts of that struck me as a little too hippy-dippy for my taste. Then, of course, I had to teach poetry in grad school so I did a crash course in modern stuff. I found some things I liked, but even those really felt distant-- as if I was enjoying the artifice more than the actual poem. It wasn't until I hit Albert Goldbarth, with his wild long lines, his contemporary subject matter, and his solid and concrete writing that I felt any kind of kinship with the art. I love his stuff, even his worst stuff. His was the first book that managed to elicit a serious emotional reaction from me. That book has too many poems that do that to me. I measure every other book of poems against that and most don't measure up.

4. Ubik (Philip K. Dick) I've mentioned before that I came to PK Dick by way of Blade Runner, or rather his original novel. It would be a little while after that before I would pick up more of his books. Some were good, others were a little off. I didn't care for the short stories which were usually the ones I ended up with. Then I read Ubik. I like meta-fiction, and even more I like books which mess with your sense of reality. Dick's notorious for that in his novels and this one handles it the best. We get a rich deep background that ends up thrown out the window early on as the situation continually changes. I think this was the first book where I absolutely bought into the tricks which the writers was playing. Mind you, those devices have become more commonly used now-- the unreliable narrator and the unreliable nature of reality (The Usual Suspects, Momento, etc) but that really threw me. It still stands in my mind as the best example and sparked a life-long fascination with those kinds of ideas. Unfortunately I've read and seen more bad versions of that than good, but I still love it and it certainly affects my thinking about stories and narratives.

5. The Place of Dead Roads (William S. Burroughs) I was a Laurie Anderson fan in high school. At a record store I found a two album set of her performances, along with another performance artist and William S. Burroughs. The Burroughs pieces were strange and funny- and he seemed like an accessible like of humorist, perhaps like Perleman or Thurber. So eventually I ordered a random book of his-- in the days before Amazon or anything like that, when you couldn't really track down obscure authors-- not that he was obscure, just not as readily found in stores. I don't think I can properly explain how much this book freaked me out, coming into it as unprepared as I was. If you've read Burroughs, you may know what I mean. I won't say I liked it, but I did read more of his stuff and more than anything it opened my eyes to a whole class of really weird writing. It is more of a visceral reaction that's stuff with me...a little hard to explain.

6. Moomintroll Midwinter (Tove Jansson) I was a pretty voracious reader as a kid, between bouts of drawing maps for dungeons and rolling up random characters for games I'd never run or play in. I had a pretty clear image about what “kids lit” was like-- a few goofy ideas and a simple premise. But this book was the first I read that created a completely new fantastic world: whole and complete. I loved it for its internal logic, for the fantastic characters and the strange sense of not all that much happening. If I love world building as a creative exercise now, I owe at least some of that inspiration to this book.

7. The Continental Op (Dashell Hammett) I'm pretty sure Gene recommend it to me. I'd read some detective fiction before this, mostly a great deal of Agatha Christie. But this was so different, so anti-hero, so well-written and- as stupid as it sounds- so real that it really affected me. It broke me of a lot of the conventions I had about heroes and heroism, and made me much more affectionate for the reality of the ordinary. I haven't read these stories in a long time, but I remember the flawed character as one that stuck with me-- making hard decisions and sometimes not measuring up to the task.

8. Dictionary of the Khazars (Milorad Pavic) Another books that weaves together wild imagination, made up history and a strange blending of the mythic with the real. I love that stuff and this book showed me that it could be done in a non-standard format. I came to Borges and Howard Waldrop after I read this, but all of those are of a set-- people who approach telling you a compelling story from a different direction. There's a sense that all of the pieces of greater stories are buried in what they tell you and you have to connect those dots. For me, that's what a rich role-playing game does and it echoed what I wanted from that.

9. Beginning Logic (E.J. Lemmon) In college I did pretty badly in my math classes. I came in thinking about doing something with physics, but then I hit pre-calculus and suddenly I just couldn't figure it out. I went to tutorials, I dropped and retook classes until finally I was able to just barely pass. And so a Liberal Arts student was born. Eventually I realized I'd have to take another math class-- then I spotted a Mathematical Logic course. My sister Cat ended up taking it with me as well and we really loved it. I loved breaking arguments and propositions down to their basics and figuring out how to order them. I still try to do that today when I approach things. I actually have some problems with the whole set of Rhetoric as argument forms, because at base I try to read them as proofs. This was the text we used for that class and I still have it on my bookshelf in the other room.

10.Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern (Ernst Briesach) I liked history as a subject in high school and college, but for some reason it never occurred to me that it could be a major or a real field of study. I had an impression of it as a fairly linear approach, with some evidentary analysis and a pretty limited set of things. I'd read history growing up-- Bruce Catton's books on the civil war, some stuff on Rome and so on, but none of it grabbed me. When I was studying in Cairo, I saw this book on a shelf and for some reason picked it up. Until then I hadn't really realized that there existed a concept like Historiography, the study of how history itself is told. I didn't really realize that there could be competing narratives, directions in approaches and a strongly political and social bent to the narratives. I knew that history had been done differently in the past, but I never made the connection. For a person essentially always writing histories, mind you about fictional world, this was a huge revelation. I really made me a much more careful observer of what a particular story about something says about the context and the agenda of the storyteller.