It’s the craze that’s sweeping the blogosphere: That List of Books that Influenced Me! (See Julian Sanchez, Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum.) Naturally I’m late to this and I can’t be bothered to pare it down to ten. Also: This is an incomplete list.
What I find is that these books tends to clump into groups. For example, there are the books that have rooted me in the past, made me aware of fictional characters like Tugboat Annie and Penrod that were once hugely popular and are now largely unknown. It’s made me distrust claims that right now we’re in the middle of earth-shattering events that we’ve never faced before, when it turns out we’ve likely been through it all before. They’ve made me aware that there a lot more strange corners of the world than I’m likely to run into in my personal experience. Due to all this, I’ve tended (for good or ill) to be more flexible in my thinking, more accepting of the exotic and less prone to hysteria.
Two of the biggest influences of my sense of film aesthetics were books I read in high school: When the Shooting Stops (1979), by Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen, and The Great Movies (1973), by William Bayer. When the Shooting Stops highlight the important role of editing in the production of a film. It also introduced me to the important point that the audience can never be totally sure about who is responsible for what you see on the screen. We tend to credit or blame the director, but it’s as likely to be an accident. William Goldman’s 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade is also a big influence on me, along these same lines. The Great Movies is sort of a catalog of film; I don’t recall if Bayer is particularly insightful about the works, but it served as my first instruction in film.
Classics of the Horror Film (1974), by William K. Everson, has long been a favorite. It’s full of widely-known classics, as well as obscure works. Hitchcock/Truffaut (1983), the book-length interview by François Truffaut was a huge influence on my sense of film; I haven’t cared as much about Alfred Hitchcock in years, but he was possibly the director I studied the most in younger days. The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983) by Michael Weldon was also a book I’ve read cover-to-cover many times.
Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train (1975) helped set a structure in my mind to the development of popular music over the course of the 20th Century. Even though he only discusses six artists, he’s really talking about key archetypes and it’s still highly relevant today. By the time I became musically-aware in the early Eighties, I had become hooked on punk and hip-hop (which both share a DIY aesthetic) and I believe that they remain the two key developments of the last 40 years. The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1989), by Nelson George, sets up the environment in which hip-hop began in the early Seventies; Rap Attack, by David Toop, provides the history; Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop (2004), by Joseph G. Schloss, really impacted my sense of the music itself. On the punk side, Dick Hebdige’s 1981 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style had a big impact on my feelings about punk culture. Various editions of The Trouser Press Record Guide, edited by Ira A. Robbins, expanded my sense of what fits in the “alternative” scene. The Lester Bangs collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung also continues to shape my thinking.
As for politics, there are a few books that spring to mind. I became obsessed by Nixon and Watergate at some point and read everything I could get my hands on. One book that stands out is Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976), by J. Anthony Lukas. I can remember arguing with my classmates in 1987 whether the burgeoning Iran–Contra scandal was worse than Watergate; I argued it was not, although when all the facts emerged later, I think I turned out to be wrong. Reagan’s Reign of Error (1987), by Mark Green and Gail MacColl, was the sort of fact-checking that’s become common online, but wasn’t seen much back then. They first published an edition before the ’84 election, and then this second edition in time for the ’88 election. Anyone who thinks Reagan is a paragon of folksy common-sense wisdom would be well-inclined to do a little research. Finally, Theodore H. White’s series The Making of the President was a terrific look at how politics works. I recall specifically being impacted by reading The Making of the President, 1972 (1973) at the same time as Hunter S. Thomson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973) and Timothy Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus (1973).
Harlan Ellison was, at one time, a big influence, upon me, as Ray Bradbury had been before him. One book in particular stands out: The Glass Teat (1973), Ellison’s collection of columns on television. It’s amazing how relevant much of it continues to be today. At the very least, it’s worth reading in order to understand TV’s past, in order to better appreciate what we have today. I’d also have to include Fred Allen’s Treadmill to Oblivion (1954), a book I picked up at a library sale when I was 13 years old. When I actually got to listen to Old Time Radio, I discovered that Allen was far from the funniest guy on radio and TV (that would be Jack Benny), but he was clearly a smart and creative guy in a medium that didn’t encourage that sort of thing.
In college, I devoured the works of Colin Wilson and Robert Anton Wilson. Colin Wilson’s studies of the strange & unexplained don’t hold much interest for me now, but his A Criminal History of Mankind (1984) is still quite interesting. Wilson looks at crime over a couple thousand years and concludes that “we [and] recognize that criminality is not the reckless aberration of a few moral delinquents but an inevitable consequence of the development of intelligence, the ‘flip side’ of our capacity for creativity.” As for Robert Anton Wilson, his book The New Inquisition (1986) is probably most influential, in terms of suggesting that “reality” is only what we all agree to call such. What’s of value is not so much his attacks on mainstream science, as his calls to avoid dogmatism of any kind. Along these same lines, I’d have to name Secret and Suppressed: Banned Ideas and Hidden History (1993), edited by Jim Keith, a “guidebook to alternative views of contemporary events and world history,” including mind control, assassination and secret societies. Again, I would never suggest taking any of this seriously, but it’s important to be exposed to these ideas, almost as a form of inoculation. You are strongly encouraged to also read Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” With all the conspiracies proposed by the Tea Partiers and the Militia types, it’s critical to understand that we’ve been here before, many times.
For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Expert’s Advice to Women (1978), by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, was also a key text, in developing an understanding that societal changes don’t always happen by chance, but are instead sometimes deliberately shaped. Ehrenreich and English look at the expert advice doled out to women over years by professional experts, such as ministers, doctors and psychiatrists, that told them what they should be and how they should behave.
As for fiction, I’d list Penrod (1914), by Booth Tarkington, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), by Mark Twain, as two big favorites of my youth. They’re definitely not a sugar-coated vision of childhood. In particular, I read all sorts of Twain, as a kid, mostly his short stories. Freddy the Detective (1932), by Walter R. Brooks, and the whole Freddy series was big favorites as well. Brooks wrote 26 books about the adventures of group of talking animals that lived on a farm in rural upstate New York; it sounds cutesy, but they are not. Kevin Drum mentioned the Oz books in his list; the only one I had was Kabumpo in Oz (1922), by Ruth Plumly Thompson, the 15th book in the series. It’s way weirder and more imaginative than the Wizard of Oz motion picture and it’s why I haven’t been a big fan of that film since I was in the second grade. The Saturday Evening Post Carnival of Humor (1958), edited by Robert M. Yoder, was another one of those books I’ve read many times; it includes works by S.J. Perlman, H. Allen Smith, P.G. Wodehouse, Ring Lardner, Nunnally Johnson, James Thurber, and Don Marquis.
Finally, I have to include Amok Fourth Dispatch. At one point, this was a catalog of books that you could actually buy from the Amok bookstore in L.A. but the original store went out of business, and later re-opened at a different location, and the work wasn’t a list of books you could order, but rather a “Sourcebook for the Extremes of Information.” It’s a book listing other books, about extreme behavior, exotic cultures, the occult, true crime, alternative science, pulp fiction, conspiracy theory, radical politics, and on and on. it’s the kind of book that blows your mind with the idea that the world is so much bigger and stranger than you ever thought.
So, that’s really 30 books in total, but they’re books I think about all the time, even if I haven’t read them in years, and they continue to affect my view of the world.