Like wine through water

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water.
-Cathy Linton in Wuthering Heights

I’m home from Burning Man, and TWFB is back on the air. There are a lot of interesting threads left from two weeks ago, so forgive me for a flurry of entries by which I hope to address them all.

I was tagged by 28 Toed Hen to answer some sweet, almost naïve questions about what books have mattered the most to me. I can’t imagine a nicer way to return to the blog than that.

What book changed your life?

A lot of books have influenced my thinking, but my decision to leave Thailand early, and begin work on a novel, was the fruit of reading Emerson’s essays overseas. I was persuaded by them that places and events in the world are not absolutes to be experienced, but rather things standing in relation to a self. The self, and perhaps also the horizons where one encounters other people, are the real content of life. Books are one such horizon. I realized that I couldn’t do any work in Thailand, and that that gave the lie to the intense experience of living there. So I left — and thank goodness, since I was playing far too much Yahoo! Hearts anyway in the Internet cafés.

What book have you read several times?

I’ve read The Secret Garden more than any other book. When I was growing up we had, on our two acres, a meadow with an oak in one corner. The oak was old, and covered with Spanish moss: it looked like a bony hand. Underneath the moss was a patch of cool ground where I’d sit and read Francis Hodgson Burnett. After three years, a bad storm broke the tree open, and grass grew up underneath it. Six months later, tree and grass both were gone.

I’ve read Proust twice. It gives one the odd feeling of having lived two lives. I’m going to try to read it again later this year.

What book would you want on a desert island?

Oh, Hamlet. It contains the world: it is funny, sexy, scary, melancholy, elegant, and wise. It is also full of riddles.

What book made you laugh?

Dave Barry’s Bad Habits. Actually, there was one moment in the book that made me physically unwell from tears and choking and trying to read it out loud all at once. It had to do with three-pronged plugs versus two-pronged plugs.

What book made you cry?

There are two novels that have made me cry in the past year, though I’ve known both for many years. I can quote their conclusive lines, though I of course cannot summon the weight of realized and disappointed hopes these lines bring to rest.

When I reflect that a solitary man, reduced to his simple physical and moral resources, was enough to make this land of Canaan emerge from a desert, I find that, despite everything, the human condition is admirable. But, when I take into account all that was necessary of constancy in greatness of soul and of eagerness in generosity to obtain this result, I am filled with an immense respect for this old, uneducated peasant who knew enough to complete a work worthy of God.
-Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees

A new, sad, and cheerless feeling weighed on his heart; he suddenly realized that at that moment, and for a long time now, he had not been talking about what he needed to talk about, and had not been doing what he needed to do.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

In my paper on The Idiot, I wrote: “[Myshkin] shows a passive unwillingness to throw off convention, preferring to hope that his bearing and sentiments will be persuasive enough […] because his humility takes the form of passivity and a desire to assimilate himself, Myshkin is caught and destroyed by a web of commonplaces.”

What book do you wish had been written?

I wish that René Daumal had been able to finish his novel Mount Analogue. Daumal is a mostly forgotten French writer, with similarities to the Surrealists, who destroyed his health in various rebellious adventures with drugs, religious penitence, and travel. He died of tuberculosis before he could finish his novel of enlightenment.

For what it is worth, I also wish that Otis Redding had lived longer. A few weeks before his death, Redding shut himself away in a cabin by a lake, listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When he emerged, he announced that he wanted to begin making a new type of soul music. We have just one recording by which to judge this “new” soul: “Sitting On The Dock of the Bay.”

Lastly, Edwin Drood.

What book do you wish had never been written?

The Candace Bushnell classic Sex and the City. It was later adapted into a hit television show about vapid consumerism, confused feminity, conditional friendship, and the free market approach to love (note: not same as “free love,” at all). Awesome.

What book are you currently reading?

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiography of Lawrence of Arabia.

What books have you been meaning to read?

I’ve been meaning to finish several different books on consciousness, including Godel Escher Bach, Consciousness Explained, and The Phenomenology of Spirit.

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It’s great to be back!