If you’re reading this, than my guess you love reading and see the value of the written word. However, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, the missionary position, and not experiment and dabble into other positions. It’s worth taking the time to feel out some other subjects when you read. I’m not talking about just a bit of casual play, but going out and doing the who bibliophile kara sutra.
I realize that there are many other valuable ways to learn and gain experience, but reading still remains deepest and richest treasure trove of expression that we have. Just as one might surf the net for one’s sexual delights, I still think a bit of action in the bedroom blows it away (pun intended).
So what to read? My first answer would be everything and all things that appeal to you for a start. I met my friend Craig for lunch and he told me that he had stopped reading fiction as it was taking away from his “serious reading.” I was taken back, as some of the best learning and insight I’ve ever had was from fiction. As another friend told me, he was reading Mario Pizzo’s The Godfather while reading about management, and the cross pollination was insightful and the examples and consequences much farther reaching than what could be found in only management textbook.
Granted, I feel that Shakespheare, Goethe, Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf have more to teach than Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel, but it doesn’t mean that both are withou merit.
For me as I’ve written elsewhere, Agatha Christie has been one of the best teachers of how to be a sales person that I know. Along with Dr. Suess’s Sam-I-Am. (Asking good questions and persistence, there is sales in a nutshell)
History too expands our insights into what has flowed before us and encompasses all of the other fields. And specifically from history, biographies of individuals can show you the possibilities of the human condition: see Alexander conquer the known world, sail with Magellan through the seas, tap into the creation of a new music with Duke Ellington. We learn how governments act and individuals react. We see the flow of philosophy, poetry, and the arts and how it impacts life and the everyday. How the Surrealist Manifesto links Freud and Jung or how Eloit and Kafka could see that the war was tearing apart the European continent and putting each person in an isolated place.
For me, after history, biography reins supreme as a teacher of learning what is possible and how to model what is great.
Poetry also holds a special place for me. The poem, the images, rhythms, and turns of phrase can describe the indescribable with such unbelievable emotion. To bring the life and experience of the world into a few short lines is amazing. Some teachers make poetry hard. Of course, learning techniques and marking out measure and finding symbols and metaphors can depend meaning, but they can also be a barrier to just starting out and learning the liquidity and music of words and joy and insight of the juxtaposition of two seemingly different images.
In 7th Grade, on our reading day or a day we did homework in class, Mr. Craig Bowman, one of my favorite teachers, would play The Moody Blues, “Nights in White Satin” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and tell us that that was poetry. Poetry was alive, everyday, and real. He also made us memorize poems and stand in front of the class and recite it. The poetry has stayed with me over the years and often given me comfort. Though I can’t recite it word for word anymore, many of the turns of phrase and images live with me. Here a some that have stayed with me:
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2
When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed, of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies —
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days —
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use
If thou couldst answer “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse”,
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.
This taught me the importance of carrying on my beauty, that I had when I was in 7th Grade. Now my sons “sum my count and make my old excuse” and it does warm my blood.
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 taught me the importance of keeping friends.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee — and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
We had to memorize the first stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” These lines still haunt and delight me in sound and image. Often, when speaking to someone, I’ll say to them, “Let us go…” and the rest of the image warms my being.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table
And I remember struggling with the long, William Butler Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” But to read these words out loud, and even without the meaning, the music created is exceptional.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
And what sex-crazed, horny 7th Grade boy wouldn’t love Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And then there was Archibald MacLeish who wrote the coolest turn of phrase that a 7th Grader would hear:
Quite unexpectedly as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe
What the hell was an armless ambidextrian? Oh, that was fantastic! The whole image quit unexpectedly blew the top off my mind.
Poetry was alive and it shows us the potential of our world. Slip of your shoes, have a sandwich and read a poem.
And let’s not forget the sciences. If I was stuck on a desert island, the one book I’d take with me is Euclid’s elements. And if I could take, two, I’d ask for the Greek version of Euclid and a Greek dictionary. His proofs were as beautiful as Bach’s Partitas. Of course, it took time and a great teacher to help me understand geometry and move past what I had learned in public school. In junior high, when I first met geometry, I felt frustrated and Dad helped me with the proofs and understanding the theorems, but to no avail. In graduate school, a great teacher, Teri Martin, showed me the historical significance and it became much more interesting: to realize that Euclid was simply trying to describe the ideals of the known world in shapes — trying to mentally describe perfection. The idea influenced me so much that I based my doctoral studies on Buckminster Fuller’s geometrical ideas of synchronicity.
Philosophy and religion give insights into the human condition as well. Open up to the human condition, suspend closure, and allow your mind to open. Enjoy the Greek and Roman myths. The epics of Gilgamesh, Homer, and Moses. Learn to ask hard questions like Socrates and Nietzsche, then spend some time to think about the answers. They will lead to more questions and more answers until you’re forced to suspend closure even more.
My parents had a library and I was so lucky to have a set of Compton’s Encyclopedia to thumb through. And there was a wall of books: John Steinbeck’s Tales of King Arthur and I felt scared going through all of Stephen King’s horror. The room had a wood floor covered by my great-grandmother’s oriental carpet.The shelf with the books my Dad had built to fill the whole wall. I sat on the carpet and the books called down to me like a Siren, and I would open them and smell the pages and read a few lines of Pearl Buck, Voltaire, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. I remember the one’s close to the floor, as I was short. I had to stretch to reach the 9 volumes of Durant’s Story of Civilization or the complete works of James Fenimore Cooper. Sometimes I would stand on a chair and I could reach grandma’s copy of Shakespeare from High School with an embroidered leather cover. And an antique copy of Mark Twain’s short stories where I read the funny diaries of Adam and Eve. I say antique, but in this case, it was just an old book probably bought at a second hand store. There was a college anthology of poetry I’d thumb through. And I loved to look at the mammoth Atlas of the World.
I find that today, we have so much more access to books. On my tablet, nearly every classic is available in the public domain, so philosophy, history, and great stories are open to me for free from websites like the Poetry Foundationor Project Gutenberg.
Let me not forget to mention a bit about all the work that is also published online, such as blogs and websites. There Blogs and websites contain wealth of information, that like the library in Alexandria, it could be easy to get lost. Dive in and look around and search for hidden gems and treasures. The wonder of these is that you can build a community that has far reaching and diverse ideas. Websites like Medium open up a world of writing on any subject one longs to read.
Try to read a new book often, maybe even one a month. I really liked Goodreads to push me to read more. (Feel free to follow me) And then jump into something new. If you usually read non-fiction, try a fiction book. If you read fiction, try non-fiction. If you read mysteries, try a classic, a Western, a fantasy, try history, try a book on math, read science, try a subject that you used to love in school, but have since forgotten about. I used to love math in 7th grade, but then after a couple of bad experiences, I fell away from math. Then in college, I had an excellent teacher who taught me the sublime joys of Euclid. I went back and read a mathematics book and loved it.
Read outside your comfort zone and try something new. Steve Chandler wrote in his 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself that smart people read murder mysteries. I thought to myself, “I’m smart!” But I did not read murder mysteries. I went out to the book store and bought three Agatha Christie novels and loved them! Lastly, if you don’t have a library card, get one! The wealth that is being unused and untapped at the library is amazing. There is no reason not to fill your mind with bright ideas every day of your life and all of it for free!
If you don’t know where to start, look for something fun that you thought would be great to read. I’d also recommend, How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. Also, at the end of the book, there is a reading list and also a few lists of books that have changed my world and I have loved. This month, aim to read a new book.
To get you started, here is an eclectic list of 32 books that influenced my life. And I admit it, they are heavy on the fiction side:
Danny and the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
The Stand, Stephen King
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
The Right to Write, Julia Cameron
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
The Story of Civilization, Will and Arial Durant
The Iliad, Homer
The Odyssey, Homer
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Crime & Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Mark Twain
1984, George Orwell
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
The Complete Works of Shakespeare
The Dialogues of Plato
The Elements, Euclid
Canibal in Manhattan, Tama Janowitz
Eva Luna, Isabelle Alande
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
The Castle, Franz Kafka
Lady Chatterly’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence
Martin Eden, Jack London
Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki
Experiment and try new things. It will expand your horizon and add depth to your favorite subjects. As they say, variety is at the spice of life. For sex and literary pursuits, that is definitely true.