Here it is, twelve days into October, and I still don't have my National Book Month decorations up. No matter. I'm inviting all of you to celebrate with me by sharing the titles of two books--more if you can't help yourself--that have taken up permanent residence in your brain and changed the way you think about people, ideas, life, or the world. Small stuff like that.
I got the idea from Kathy Sierra at Creating Passionate Users (an excellent blog, but, disappointingly, not about orgies in opium dens). A few days ago Kathy asked her readers to recommend one fiction and one nonfiction book "that you wish more people would read" and to add a sentence or two explaining why. So far, she's gotten 121 responses. Obviously, this is a subject people are--hate to say it--passionate about.
One of my own favorites is Kathy's nonfiction runner-up: the late Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, republished last year in a 20th-anniversary edition. Long before the Internet and reality TV, Postman saw the ways in which the media, and especially television, degrade public discourse by lulling us into satisfied stupefaction. It's an angry book and an exceptionally well written one; I re-read it every so often to whet my indignation.
But Kathy got there first, so here are my all-new, all-original picks:
Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences, by Lawrence Weschler. Few people can write about art without sounded like pompous jerks; The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl is one exception; Robert Hughes is a second; my friend Carol Kino is a third. Lawrence Weschler (who also writes for The New Yorker) is perhaps the most adventurous and accessible of them all. Weschler is an unabashed enthusiast who makes mind-reeling connections between things you'd never think were related: the Bosnian war crimes tribunal and the paintings of Vermeer; a photograph of Monica Lewinsky and the Mona Lisa; a 1969 Rothko painting and an image from the first moonwalk. Read any of the 30 short (and gorgeously illustrated) essays in this book and be excited, energized, and enlightened.
Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban. Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction generally leaves me cold, but Riddley Walker is sui generis. It's set in the nuclear winter of some future England, where humans and dogs are enemies. Twelve-year-old Riddley, newly orphaned, undertakes a coming-of-age quest in which Punch and Judy puppet shows--one of the most ancient of Anglo-Saxon theatrical traditions--figure prominently. But it's the language, not the plot, that sets this novel apart. In Hoban's vision, and Riddley's first-person narrative, the English language has become as deconstructed as society itself; England is "Inland," America is "Eusa," and the Archbishop of Canterbury (whose office has somehow survived) is "the Ardship of Cambry." Punctuation? Fuhgeddaboudit. Working your way through text like "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs..." isn't easy, I'll grant you. Riddley Walker demanded more focused attention than anything I'd ever read. But the rewards go on and on. Check out Graphesthesia, a terrific annotation site, and this Language Log entry about Riddley Walker and eggcorns.
Over to you now. No need to be as prolix as I've been, but don't feel constrained, either. Join the conversation by clicking the Comments tab directly below.