Books have always played an integral role in my life. I read everything—fiction, history, biography, technical manuals, philosophy, poetry, ancient tomes, plays from antiquity, and occasionally Stephen King. Since as early as I can remember, books have taught, entertained, and transported me to new places, both imaginatively and transcendentally. They have inspired me to go on adventures, helped to instill me with a strong sense of self-identity, consoled me in times of difficulty, and even helped me to fall in love (I will forever get a strange thrill when I meet a woman who reads Anais Nin).
Being the bibliophile that I am, I was alarmed to recently learn that nearly twenty percent of Americans of reading age don’t read books at all. While I feel sorry for those who are missing out on the joys and benefits of reading, I prefer to look at that statistic through glass-half-full eyes. At least it means that eighty percent of you are reading. Good for you. (But we can and should do better.)
Here are a few titles to make your way through over the course of the next year. Each was selected for the different ways in which it can enrich your life. These titles run the gamut, from easy breeze-throughs to the ten-ton heavies. Whether you’re a non-reader whose New Year’s resolution was to take it up, or a well-experienced page-turner looking for something inspiring, there is something for you on this list.
In no particular order…
The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” – From the Katha-Upanishad, epigraph in The Razors Edge
This is one of my personal favorites. The Razor’s Edge is the story of Larry Darrel, a young American whose friends and relatives all expect him to go into the pre-crash stock market and to live as a respectable part of high society. After a harrowing experience during his service in the First World War, however, Larry returns home and surprises everyone with his rejection of business and society. Declaring to all that his sole intention is to “loaf”, Larry heads out on a spiritual journey that takes him all over the world—from the fish markets of Paris, to the coal mines of England, to the monasteries of the Himalayas. As he moves through his life, his experiences are beautiful, inspiring, enlightening, and rather tragic.
The book was made into a film starring Bill Murray as Larry, and while movies rarely match up to their source books, it hits near the mark.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
One of Orwell’s lesser known works, this is the true-life account of a period of extreme poverty he experienced while living in Paris and London during the late 1920s. His vivid depiction of the lives of the working poor and the flat-out tramps hits you on a number of levels. It can be depressing, elating, and very often funny, and you go away from it with a new empathy for the less fortunate.
Demian, Herman Hesse
No list of life-affirming works is complete without including something from Hesse. While most recommend Siddhartha (and I do recommend Siddhartha—go read Siddhartha), I want to mention one of his lesser-known works.
Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair, a young boy who—through various means—becomes aware that he is living in what he describes as a “world of illusion” in which all surface things are façade. He slowly becomes aware of the “real” world, an underlying reality that embraces spiritual truths. This awareness is brought on when he befriends a strange classmate called Max Demian, who pushes him to revolt against the superficial world and come to a realization of self.
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts
British-born philosopher and mystic Alan Watts is best known for his interpretations of Zen Buddhism and other eastern philosophies for the western audience.
This is a difficult book to describe, and I could do a whole post on it. Let me be brief and say that it deals with what existence really is, who you and I and everyone else are, and where we fit into the Big Taco of everythingness. It’s good—just read it.
I also recommend listening to his lectures. There is an approachable, life-affirming humor to Watts that is infectious. To quote Watts: “If I am who I am because you are who you are, and you are who you are because I am who I am, then I am not I, and you are not you.”
Solitary Fitness, Michael Gordon Peterson aka “Charles Bronson” (not the actor)
Charles Bronson is a strange person. Known as the most violent criminal in Britain, he has spent the past forty years in jail, and more than thirty of those in solitary confinement. The weird thing is that he’s never killed or sexually assaulted anyone. He was initially jailed for armed robbery, but after that he wouldn’t stop fighting with pretty much anyone he could get his hands on. His greatest joy in life seems to involve taking on large groups of prison guards and holding his fellow prisoners and prison staff hostage. Bronson is known for his short temper, his talent for fighting, and his incredible strength. He holds six world records for his feats of strength, and is unofficially acknowledged for staging more prison rooftop protests than any other prisoner in the United Kingdom.
Put all that aside. As he once said, “I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil, just confused.”
His book Solitary Fitness is one of my favorite reads of all time. On the surface it’s a fitness training manual for anyone without access to a gym—perhaps you find yourself locked up in solitary confinement, for example. It offers a variety of great suggestions for how to work out every part of the body without the use of equipment. It also provides a few rather unorthodox exercises, including one for strengthening and lengthening a certain male body part.
What I love the most about this strange book is the effervescent humor and affirmation of life that runs through each page. For a guy who has spent the majority of his life in solitary confinement, Bronson seems to be having a pretty good time. He may be uncontrollably violent, but he also has an oddly life-embracing worldview.
A movie about him (called “Bronson”) came out a few years ago, and it makes for a pretty good watch.
Ulysses, James Joyce
You might be rolling your eyes and saying, “I know that I should read this book but I don’t know if I have the patience for it.” That’s how I always felt. Over the years I’ve picked up then put down Joyce’s bizarre circus of a novel maybe a dozen times. Finally about a year ago I decided to slog on through.
Much to my surprise, I discovered that Ulysses is a great, fun read. The Modern Library lists it as the number one novel of all time, and it really might be. If you can muster the dedication to make your way through its maze, you’ll not only find the most wonderful experiment in prose ever written, you’ll also encounter a great many jokes, pearls of wisdom, and a beautifully woven tale.
What’s more, if you can finish it you’ll be one of the few who can boast it truthfully. Many have tried, most have failed, but all of literati enjoys pretending to be an expert.
What I’m Missing
In sorting through books to add to this list, I realized how few female writers I have read, and how unfamiliar I am with authors of non-western origin. I intend to change that over the course of 2014. My perception will suffer and remain narrowed until I bring in voices from all walks of life.
Any suggestions? Or is there anything that you would have included on this list?