Jason W. is a reporter for a metropolitan newspaper in the Midwest. He and his wife also own a yarn shop. Their children are “progressive.”
[Ed. note: comments after the article make some great additions. Please add your "Rock My World Book." Thanks.]
I grew up reading a lot, and indiscriminately. Lots of Reader’s Digest condensed books, comics, some classics I didn’t understand at the age I read them. Wuthering Heights springs to mind.
Here is a list, somewhat random in order, I know, of books that affected me in my youth. Lots of the particulars are lost in the ruins of time, but what I do remember is being incredibly excited reading these.
Somewhere around the age of 16, I happened upon The Sun Also Rises at my school library and it clicked – not that I understood the nature of Jake’s affliction – but I knew then and there that there was such a thing as great writing. I also liked all the drinking, and the heroic spin on bull-fighting.
I was always very handy and a nerdy jock, if that makes sense. So, I fell in with Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog and Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. These got me dreaming about things like alternative power generation, building my own house, greening America and making maple syrup. The Catalogs were sort of more complicated versions of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, not the usual bedside reading of a boy from Springfield, Massachusetts, whose teen years were spent in Chicago.
I began to delve into the literature of the counter culture in college. I fell in love with Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. (I think I fell as much in love with his wife Mimi, who was Joan Baez’s sister.) That book is coupled in my mind, for some reason with Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion. It is even more of a self-liberation manifesto then Cuckoo’s Nest, in my estimation.
Through the good graces of my professors and fellow students-in-arms at Northwestern, I delved into the Beats, namely Ginsberg’s Howl, which now seems quaint and outdated to me, and Kerouac’s On The Road, which seems to grow in stature each time I read it.
My political readings led me to Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution about Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky. My appreciation of Trotsky’s sophistication and democratic utopianism grew and my abhorrence of the other two gangsters helped me understand the danger we were under from Sovietism. I also was thoroughly blown away by Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, a book that taught me that, yes, we are human beings underneath, but the soul of an oppressed person suffers in ways I could never fathom. It also told me that the oppressed very often will try to oppress the even more oppressed among us – Cleaver’s attack on James Baldwin for being gay.
Not far off the politics path, I was transfixed by Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use Of Human Beings, a book written in 1950 that still resonates with its message about how machines and computers can, and will in the future, amplify the potency of the human race. In my mind, married to Weiner’s work is Camus’ The Rebel, perhaps the most convincing and reassuring explanation of Existentialism and atheism ever written.
I cannot leave Catcher In The Rye off my list, but I also cannot leave off A Separate Peace, John Knowles’ brilliant study of adolescent male bonding, rivalry and self-recrimination. I hope boys today find it as compelling and enlightening.
Ah yes, what Baby Boomer reading list wouldn’t have drug-related books on it? My prescriptions were Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (and) Heaven and Hell, discussing his mescaline experiences with the likes of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. The other is the inimitable Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.
When I first got to college, the Greeks were, well, Greek to me. My first-year English Lit professor urged me to read The Odyssey. It is and always will be my Greek masterpiece and Odysseus will always be my hero, for he is the man who survives on guile and wins with courage and physical feats only when pressed.