Recently I got tagged on social media to post about my 10 favorite books. I did the tagging, but then thought that I need to go further. I wanted to actually explain why these books had such a profound impact on my life and the major things I took from them. So I am blogging about it here.
10 books that have affected my life in a major way…and why (but in no particular order)
- Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien
- Republic – Plato
- My name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok
- Meditations on First Philosophy – Rene Descartes
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
- Thus Spake Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
- Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
I could go on and on about the books on this list, but let me try explain my ideas in a few brief blurbs.
- Return of the King – J.R.R. Tolkien: I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time in High School. The great thing about it was that I came to it unspoiled. I did not know anything that was going to happen so every single plot point struck me as brilliant and interesting. I have heard people say they could not get through these books but I devoured them. RotK affected me greatly because it is the book with all of the iconic moments which truly made this story powerful. You have Eowyn’s reveal, the battle of Pellenor Fields, the army of the dead, and everything comes down to our final climactic moment with Frodo and Sam in Mount Doom. That Gollum is the one who unwittingly saves the world is such a brilliant plot twist because it showcases Tolkien’s true genius. Not even the protagonists we have been following can win the day, not even Frodo can resist the ring. No one really can, except for Gollum. He has been twisted, bent, broken, stretched out, and even had his mind split by the ring, but somehow Gollum is able to do what no one else can do. He is able to resist the control of the ring, and he does so because of love. He loves the ring so much that even its malicious influence cannot move him to save it or to be careful. Gollum’s final act is to topple into the abyss with the thing he loves most in all the world, so taken is he by the joy of being reunited with what he most loves.
- Republic – Plato: This was not only my introduction to Philosophy as an undergrad, but this book continues to challenge me intellectually and spiritually. Plato’s dream of a perfect society that was never really meant to be, ultimately serves a higher purpose. In everything Plato pushes you towards philosophy, towards a truly transcendent love of wisdom. For only through philosophy can we attain that which is best of all that there is in the world, the greatest good and the thing that we do not understand.
- My name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok: This book actually put me on a path that would ultimately find me at odds with the religion of my childhood. The main character realizes that he must sacrifice faith for the love of art. I realized that it must cease to seek the approval of a society that does not approve and instead seek some kind of solace in my own art, in philosophy.
- Meditations on First Philosophy – Rene Descartes: This book introduced me, above all things to the attempt to reconcile religion and reason. I read Descartes, and wrote my senior thesis on this book, as a struggle to justify one’s faith. Descartes tries to prove the existence of God, the compatibility of science and catholicism, and in so doing he perhaps unintentionally opens the way towards the very scientific atheism he was trying to avoid. I struggled for years with the attempt to reconcile these 2 things, and in many ways I still struggle.
- Frankenstein – Mary Shelley: This was the book that introduced me to the dark side of science and technology. Although this is a work of fiction, I found many parallels between Victor Frankenstein’s quest for power over life and the modern scientific quest for power over nature. I could just as easily have put the Abolition of Man on this list but Frankenstein struck me in a more profound way. Also, I never found the monster relatable, sympathetic, or even remotely human. The monster was the analogy for artificial intelligence. It shows up as a robot or a computer in other books but each time it is the same. We have made a being in our image, our own twisted perverse and frightening image. The discovery that we can do this fills us with dread rather than pride. For in so doing we realize that there truly are no limitations to science, and that it intrudes everywhere and on everything. It tramples over all in its unstoppable quest for absolute domination.
- Thus Spake Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche: If Descartes was my introduction to an attempt to reconcile faith and reason, then Nietzsche was my introduction to the attempt to destroy them both. This book is fantastic, otherworldly, allegorical, metaphorical, metaphysical, and ultimately a work of beautiful poetry. Nietzsche’s text is all the proof you need if you want to become an atheist. Yet strangely I have met many a theist who simply dismiss Nietzsche’s mad ravings. Or else, they read him as a kind of grotesque entertainment, while completely missing the point that he is screaming out. “God is dead” is not the same thing as “There is no God.” Rather “God is dead” means that Science has won, and religion is secondary in our world. I do not see how even the most conscientious of Christians can deny this, though I am continually reminded that they do. Perhaps Nietzsche spoke too soon? Possibly, but then ask yourself, “how does a computer really work?” You don’t actually think that device in front of you is a miracle, you think it is cold and unfeeling inert technology. It works according to the rules which science discovers and technology replicates. There are no more miracles and mysteries in a world where we have invented weapons of mass destruction, and even religious terrorists use the internet to win converts.
- Brave New World – Aldous Huxley: As much as I loved 1984, what I really liked about this novel was the brilliant scene where the savage, and his newfound friends, decided that they will take down and expose the corruption of their society. They get arrested and taken by the secret police to a tidy little office where well dressed gentleman explains their 3 options. They are free to resume their previous lives, go to the special resort for intellectuals and deviant personalities, or they can enter into the elite group of people who run the world. I always thought that the fact that none of them choose the last option shows the utter despair and futility of their resistance. They realize that the only way they can change the world is to become a part of the system that is destroying it. Of course if they do that then they will not be changing the world at all, they will just be a part of the problem. This is always the problem with politics and power. It is not that power corrupts, but rather that power serves only itself.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick: In a book about futuristic detectives murdering clones whose only crime is that they are illegal aliens I would miss the point and feel bad for the spider. You could pick up on the mass marketing of religion, our cavalier attitudes towards human life, and even the main character’s profound sexual dissatisfaction. But the scene that got to me was when the replicants, the clones, decide to kill a spider that they find. You see in this strange and futuristic earth, almost all forms of animal and plant life have been wiped out. You cannot find so much as a cockroach anymore. The profound isolation of that is felt throughout the whole book. So when the replicants decide to rip the legs off of a spider, one by one, I felt an overwhelming sense of horror. It was as if these creations of ours had done the worst and most unspeakable evil. The author communicates a terrified pathos to the whole situation. You feel that when the spider dies, the hope of humanity dies with it.
- Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton: This was one of those books I had to read for class in high school, and it is about as depressing as a book can get. Which is precisely why it struck me right where I needed it. I was raised to believe in the goodness of people, (well the right sorts of people anyways), the goodness of God and the goodness of a divine plan. At the time I picked this book up I was on the other side of it with my religion, I was not feeling particularly friendly, and I had no idea how God could let it all just happen. This book taught me that there are depths to which we can sink, and then the floor falls away and we sink even deeper. That no matter how bad things get, they can always get worse. It shocked me out of my self-pity in a way, and made me rethink my teenage angst.
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad: I read this book, short as it is, in one sitting during a day of airplane travelling. I had just begun to be interested in critical whiteness and critical race studies so this book was quite interesting to me. I got caught up in Marlowe’s narrative and his easy recounting of the strange and horrific barbarism of the Imperial European powers in a desecrated and post-slavery Africa in the 19th century. Marlowe dismissed the naive optimism of those who wanted to impress the white-man’s burden on him. He was there to do a job, and little more than that. Marlowe makes the perfect narrator because he is cynical and immune to the horrors he sees. From the death of his faithful pilot, which Marlowe laments with compassionate racist overtones, to the death of Kurtz Marlowe seems to keep his cool. Yet as the book ends and the characters are left staring into that immense heart of darkness I found myself looking out my window at the night sky. I suddenly no longer felt safe in the world. I felt afraid, but not for my sense of personal security, rather I felt unsafe in my social position. It struck me that Kurtz’s failure to bring peace and civilization to the mad natives was a metaphor for the failure of European powers to civilize the world. Yet it was not the world which was uncivilized, and the heart of darkness is not the heart of the African. The immense heart of darkness is the European heart, the white heart. It is endless in its greed, rage, and hatred. It screams and rails against the savagery of those “native” peoples that it is unable to turn into pulp for its endless mills. I do not know what Kurtz sees or what Marlowe thinks but I myself felt the weight of centuries and it seemed that there could be no reckoning for those actions, there could be no understanding, and there could be no peace.
Thanks for reading, but don’t let my scary language put you off. I really do like all of these books.