Five Books Which Changed the Course of My Life
In setting out to write this article on five books that changed me, three of them came to mind right away. They were all three fiction books. After pausing to think for another second, the last two came to me: bing, bang. These last two are not fiction. I haven't been able to read fiction basically since I graduated high school. It doesn't move me like it once did.
The five books which altered the course of my life are presented in the chronological order in which I read them. My hope is that someone somewhere will read this list and, if moved to do so by "the Spirit", will someday take up one of these books and be moved by them as I was.
Actually, I don't care what you read. I am not here to preach. What one believes one day will fall away like everything else. A book is not an eternal thing. The following were just markers on my own subjective path. And I share them with you in the spirit of sharing.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
I read this book when I was 15 or 16. I think I was a sophomore in high school, an age which I believe is ripe for "developing your own 'adult' outlook on life." I suppose I was feeling the normal teenage angst.
Let's get more specific. I was dying inside as I increasingly saw modern society as a Big Soulless Machine bent on bending you to its will. Like it had been doing for awhile now.
Anyway, I found Cat's Cradle somehow. I think it may have been sitting on my dad's bookshelf.
It's been about 13 years since I read the book, so there's a lot I don't remember, such as the specifics of the plot. So I'll just focus on what I do remember:
- A fake religion called Bokononism; complete with fake quotes from its fake holy book sprinkled meaningfully throughout the book.
- A race to escape the entire extinction of the human race by a chemical called Ice Nine. (The Grateful Dead later named their publishing company after this apocalyptic chemical.)
- Something called a karass. This was a tenet of Bokononism which said that you are connected to a bunch of people who you may or may not ever actually meet, but your lives coordinate to bring about whatever is your cosmic destiny.
- Black humor galore. Vonnegut is (was) so funny. He was so dark and so hilarious. He wrote like no one else before or since. And he wrote Cat's Cradle in all these tiny little chapters. There was somewhere from 80 - 150 chapters in this book; each a page or two long. So great. It made me want to be a writer, a dream I kept for a few years until it just sort of naturally faded away.
Basically, Vonnegut spoke to me where I was at. It was really nice. Here was this old guy who was using his writing to say to me, "I think like you, too. I think our society may very well be completely bonkers. So here's some jokes about the whole situation that you and I can share."
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Out of all the books on this list, I'm sure that Brave New World is the one that ends up on the most other people's lists as well. Although it's basic bent is similar to Cat's Cradle, maybe it is written in such a way that it has a wider appeal. I don't know. I do know that it's required reading in a lot of high schools, which is where I was introduced to it. I took it home and read it over spring break.
I identified with the Savage, the main character who is a last bastion of non-subservient humanity. It's a sci-fi book set in the future. As soon as old people die, their bodies are burned for fuel. And everyone stays happy by taking doses of a government-issued drug called Soma.
Anyway, what was the book's effect on me? It gave further credence to my notion of being an alienated "savage". The last human who still had a soul :-P I no longer think that way (usually) but Brave New World definitely encouraged me to develop my revolutionary tendencies. These got steam-rolled eventually as I grew into my 20's and had to give up the ghost. (The ghost being victimhood.)
Books numbers 4 and 5 coincide with some of that shedding of the revolutionary skin. Maybe it is nothing more than growing up. But for awhile there I enjoyed playing the role of the "lonely ghost uttering a lonely truth," to steal a line from another influential book. Being a self-centered world-changer always ends badly, though, and accomplishes nothing.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
When I was 18 and still a senior in high school, I read this massive book. The author, David Foster Wallace, unfortunately shot himself earlier this year. No, I think he hung himself. Regardless, he is dead.
In Infinite Jest, everyone is addicted to something. Over 1,100 pages a lot of neurotic addicts come and go and come again. Interestingly for those who have read the book, we are now in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. (Aka 2009.) In Infinite Jest, the years are known by the company who sponsors them, not by numbers such as 2008, 2009 AD, etc. This is because customizable on-demand entertainment received through an Internet-like setup has all but destroyed advertising opportunities and spaces.
Like I said, all the characters are addicted to something. One of the main ones, Hal, is addicted to smoking pot. And he always has to smoke alone. He eventually loses the ability to correctly judge how he is coming across to other people. This may or may not have something to do with the pot-smoking. But regardless this is where the book begins. And from there it jumps back in time and arcs through everything that led up to Hal's loss of communication skills. (Which is a lot of stuff.)
Briefly: Infinite Jest is the name of a movie that Hal's father made. Before he exploded his head in an oven. Because he was a depressed drunk. Maybe it was something else. And the movie was the perfect movie. It was so good, that whenever anyone watched it they couldn't stop watching it. They couldn't walk away. And as soon as it was finished they'd hit Replay and watch it again. And again and again. All the while soiling themselves. Forgetting to eat. And they'd die. Watching Infinite Jest was a death sentence for sure. The book revolves in part around a mad search for the original copy of the movie.
For anyone "touched" with addiction in one way or another this book is bound to resonate. If you can stick with it and just keep on putting pages behind you. It is written I think quite amazingly. And more than even straight up addiction, I think it's really about a passivity brought on by modern technology. A sheepishness?
A Note About the Last Two Books
The last two books are drastically different from the first three. But their impact on me has been at least as profound.
Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge by Arthur Osborne
Partly as a result of the previous books I became a spiritual seeker. I had always thought a lot about the big questions in life, like, "How odd that anything at all exists!?" I can remember being five and thinking such thoughts. Also this one: "How lucky I am to be born in America, when I could've just as easily been born into a very impoverished family in a third world country, or even as a slave in 18th Century America."
And I went on my spiritual quest reading the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita. I read Thomas Merton, the Catholic Trappist monk. I read New Age stuff, and Carl Jung. I read astrology, Buddhism (Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan), John of the Cross, Gnosticism, alien channelings, the Seth books by Jane Roberts (amazing), and a whole lot more. Hinduism seemed to move me as much as anything, if not more.
One day I heard of Ramana Maharshi. He was billed as "the greatest sage of the 20th century." So I went to Borders and lo and behold they had a biography of him, called Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge; written by an Englishman who knew Ramana before he dies in the 1950's.
I brought this book home and I read it. And sometime while I was reading the book I realized that this was the greatest story I had ever read -- and it was true. Real life. This guy had realized the final truth, perfect peace, whatever you want to call it. After all my searching I had finally come to the end of the road (at least externally). It ended at Ramana, an Indian whose "sense of being an individual" left when he was sixteen years old.
Since discovering this sage, I have not searched as wildly as I once did. Now if I am reading something spiritual, it is often out of the Advaita tradition that aligns with what Ramana Maharshi spoke about. His basic instruction was always to investigate the sense of self or the "I-thought". Upon investigation it always vanishes. I have found this to be true. If you try to turn around and actually look at the I that you think you are, you will never get a glimpse of it. Maybe because it's not there? The I that I think I am doesn't exist. But the belief that it does, that I am a real entity, that there is an I in here and that I is what I am, this is what Ramana urged people to investigate. When the false belief in being an individual eventually crumbles under this investigation (vichara), then there is no more suffering.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki
And yes folks, I'm going to jump right from the greatest sage of the 20th century to a guy who first came to my attention on his late night infomercials hawking his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad; a book which is probably full of embellishments, but remains indisputably one of the most life-changing books I have ever read.
The whole basis of the book is (supposedly) that Kiyosaki's real dad was a well-educated and hard-working man who remained essentially poor his whole life. This is contrasted with Kiyosaki's friend's dad, who becomes super wealthy and (supposedly) mentors him on how to achieve the same.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad spends the whole book basically pounding the same lesson into the reader's head over and over again: you can't get rich by working; you have to own businesses and property if you're ever going to escape the 9-5 rat race. Period. End of story. No other way (unless you're A-Rod, which you're not).
I found this book in my mid-twenties, when I was just beginning to get tired of my paycheck to paycheck life. I was despairing of ever being able to take a vacation, or retire, or save up even a dollar. I had become just cracked enough to be open to maybe giving "pig capitalism" a second look. Afterall, my previous artistic and spiritual heroes weren't exactly handing over their royalty checks to help me try to live in their footsteps. Maybe I should give this make money thing a try.
It's a couple years later, and I don't count myself out of the rat race yet. But I continue to push on and attempt to innovate ways to make it happen. Kiyosaki taught me a totally different way to think about money with Rich Dad, Poor Dad, even if it is an awfully written, cheesy infomercial book. I still contend there is something very special that comes out through its pages and sinks deep into you. You will probably never be able to get it out once it's in there.