Well that was fun, wasn’t it? I mean that nice, two-year bit of semi-hope and change. But now it seems we’re back to the grind.
You don’t have to be prescient to see Congressional gridlock just up the road. Our favorite almost-vice president is laying the ground work for a 2012 run at the White House via reality television. Our populace while handing the House to Republicans, elected another Paul to Congress, this one named after the author of Atlas Shrugged.
No matter your political persuasion, if you’re anything like me you’re feeling just a wee bit of the ol’ cynicism creeping in. And it’s times like this I’m reminded of a story one of my favorite poets, Philip Levine, told about his time studying under John Berryman.
It was in the middle of the 1950s when “nothing intellectual seemed very important in American life,” said Levine. One day Berryman waved in front of the class a newspaper filled with names like Eisenhower, Dulles, and McCarthy, “and the various idiots of our time.”
“Kids, this will pass,” Berryman told his students. “These idiots will be replaced by other idiots.” Then he picked up a copy of the collected works of John Keats.
“These will not pass as long as our language is spoken,” said Berryman about the poems. “Some things are transient and some things come close to being permanent. Don’t lose sight of that.”
More and more, I find myself thinking of this story each morning as I scan headlines. Whether you’re a Teapartier or an actual reformed anarchist like Levine, I imagine that from any political vantage point, we all seem to be just a bit hell-bound.
I don’t want to get into my personal political beefs. There’s probably a cable news channel doing that for me. Honestly, I don’t care so much about yours. We could fight forever about the various idiots of our time. But like us, they all will pass.
Berryman got that right. He got a lot of things right, so much so that he couldn’t handle the world and its various idiots. But this is important. There are things like Keats that will outlast, outshine, and flat out-mean any of these clowns in the news-cycle rodeo. Honestly, most of them don’t deserve our attention.
But there are things that do, things that will continue to shout after the various idiots’ sound and fury dies down into a gentle, earthy hum. Everything passes, but some things remain longer, rattle the cage louder and serve as balm for the rest. Here are 21 books to get you through the hard times and dark nights. These are favorites, the ones I keep turning to, my literary mixtape to you, made to drown out the various idiots, wherever they may be.
The Inferno by Dante
Few of us had it as bad as Dante, a Florentine homeboy who spent the last third of his life in exile from his beloved city. Did he get a Twitter account to clap back at his enemies? Go on “Dancing with the Stars” to reignite his political brand? Nope. He wrote one of the most beautiful, terrifying epics in the Western World, imagined a hell so horrible and just that sinners are tormented by beastly versions of their own worldly misdeeds, and then he carefully and thoughtfully placed each of his political enemies in the circle of Hell they most deserved. Even the Pope! (Especially the Pope!) While The Inferno serves as the ultimate fantasy of political retribution (which circle for Palin? which circle for Rangel, Clinton, W, Rumsfeld?), it also is the story of a soul lost in the spiritual wilderness. It shows us the way home.
WATCH Roberto Benigni perform, in the original Italian, the second canto of Dante’s Inferno. It is the description of the Fifth Circle of Hell—those who have lusted—and the heartbreaking story of two adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca.
Heredities by J. Michael Martinez
If you have the misfortune of being trapped in meetings while bombarded with business-speak, academic-speak, or other types of linguistic nonsense, Martinez is the cure to language cancer. The lyrics in his first book of poems sometimes sing themselves beyond meaning, leaving your ear humming while your mind runs to catch up. But this is not just a book of musical beauty. Its poems leap beyond bland politics of identity into a messy gulf between language and the self. In the poem “Maria,” the speaker asks “Are you married to your name / Mother?” Read these poems after watching sense being beaten out of language, and your faith in both might just be restored—just not in a way you might expect.
READ a selection of J. Michael Martinez’s poetry from the journal Word for Word.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Rilke called this Sumerian poem “the epic of the fear of death.” It’s also the story of Gilgamesh, the king crazed with political power, and how the gods decided to humble him through the death of his best friend. It anticipates some of the best parts of the Old Testament. But really, it’s about hubris, a sin that we’ve all been guilty of. And it’s a reminder. Live wisely, live mercifully, protect each other because immorality is for the gods, not us.
SEE the original cuneiform text of Gilgamesh
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Set in the mess of the Vietnam War, O’Brien’s book reaches toward making sense of that war. But it never quite does, at least not narratively. Call it what you want, a novel, a short story collection—it holds moments that will haunt you: the VC water buffalo; Mary Ann’s transformation, culottes complete with a necklace of tongues; the last chapter, Linda’s hat and Timmy skating. Things doesn’t attempt to make sense out of the big world. But O’Brien shows us that telling stories helps us make sense of our lives. In the end, after the wars and politics, after our belief in life after death, the story of ourselves is what’s left.
LISTEN to an NPR interview with O’Brien in March 2010 on the 20th anniversary of The Things They Carried.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
The names alone in Pynchon’s 60s faux-psychedelic potboiler will take your mind off our world’s madness—Oedipa and Mucho Maas, Pierce Inverarity, Dr. Hilarious. But just as our heroine Oedipa’s quest for the origins of a Jacobean play keeps leading back to her own America, so will Pynchon’s novel spit us back out to ours. If, after surveying the surface of chaos and Orwellian chatter that covers our country, you sense that there might be some nameless, malevolent grand mover at work behind it, you’ll find company in The Crying of Lot 49. Just don’t expect answers. As Mike Fallopian says, “You never get to any of the underlying truth.” That doesn’t mean it’s not there.
LISTEN Pynchon obliquely references the Beatles and Beatlemania in The Crying of Lot 49 when he writes about a popular band, The Paranoids. Here’s the Beatles responding back to Pynchon’s reference in an outtake from the White Album entitled "The Paranoids".
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
As if you needed to be reminded how difficult it is to live a thoughtful, intelligent and compassionate life. Wallace offers this reminder, but these essays show that even at our most profanely disturbing (“Big Red Son”), our most cynically disgusting (“Host”) and outrageously manipulative and craven (“Up, Simba”), we are all humans, even the ones on the other side of whatever divide—political, linguistic, gastronomical—the essays examine. Wallace reminds us that no matter how difficult, an examined life is really the only kind worth living, despite all of its Sisyphean-yet-strangely mundane obstacles.
WATCH A selection from David Foster Wallace’s infamous and painfully honest interview on The Charlie Rose Show.
Political Fictions by Joan Didion
In case being plugged into the 24-hour news cycle has caused you to forget, 99 percent of what passes for political dialogue/communication/governing is a carefully crafted façade designed in the same manner, and with the same goals, as a Burger King Whopper. And if you have forgotten, Didion’s collection of political reporting will remind you what we consume every day. It ain’t pretty. But if we are all wandering around a rhetorical house of cards, there is some comfort in that. Each decade believes wholeheartedly in its own apocalypse (see Kenyan Socialist, FEMA Camps, a Palin presidency, backscattering, et al). Yet here we are. As Bill Hicks said, this is just a ride. No one points out the cardboard scenery better than Didion.
READ an excerpt from Political Fictions.
Foley’s Luck by Tom Chiarella
If Didion holds up our political language for inspection, ultimately deciding that it’s meaningless, Chiarella’s stories do the opposite with our private languages. A collection of stories that follows the life of its namesake through childhood, love and family, and divorce, Chiarella’s book is a reminder of the importance of family. And not in a reactionary, “Focus On-” type of way. It’s a reminder that our connections with those closest to us, emotionally and physically, deserve the lion’s share of our attention, our emotions, and our energy. Each story inspects the everyday interactions that cleave us to our loved ones, shows us the strange power of these relationships. If we are lucky, we can catch momentary glimpses of their wild and deep power.
READ Tom Chiarella’s articles in Esquire, where he is the Fiction Editor and Writer-at-Large.
Fraud by David Rakoff
Rakoff just published his third collection of essays, Half Empty, and if it is anything like his first two, it’s a tour of cultural absurdities led by a very loquaciously weary and self-aware, neurotic guide. That is to say, he will pull jagged laughs from the part of your soul that you either didn’t know existed or that you wish didn’t. Fraud is Rakoff’s first book. Whether it’s attending a Buddhist retreat headlined by Steven Seagal, playing Freud in a Barney’s department store window, or appearing as an incidental character on a soap opera, Rakoff’s dagger eye for all of our pretentions, our attempts to not-so-convincingly convince the world that we aren’t frauds, cuts us all off at the knees. Including Rakoff. Especially Rakoff. More often than not, his spite dissolves if not into compassion, than into something like empathy. In a world full of jerk-offs, we are all brethren.
LISTEN to an interview with David Rakoff.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
If you’ve lost a little bit of your wonder at the world, its possibilities, and your potential place therein, well, who could blame you? There doesn’t seem to be a day that goes by that cynicism isn’t rewarded. Lorrie Moore’s many gifts as a writer include the ability to mine daily life for its acute and often depressing humor. But in her first novel in more than a decade, Moore proves she can move from comic riffing to an emotionally full vision of the world. Tassie Keltjin, the novel’s protagonist, is a newly arrived college freshmen, simultaneously awed by and pushed to lay claim to the new life the university introduces, a life that is suddenly expansive enough to stir not only Tassie’s wonderment but the readers. I should warn you that there is a moment involving a brother and a coffin, a moment alive with wonder’s flipside, grief. You will be moved. It’s a book that reminds us that wonder and grief are simply sides of the same coin, that a world without each isn’t really a world you or I would want to have.
READ Lorrie Moore discuss A Gate at the Stairs in The Guardian.
The Ticking Is the Bomb by Nick Flynn
Around the time the Abu Ghraib photos became a part of our consciousness, Nick Flynn learned he was going to be a father. The Ticking Is the Bomb is part memoir, part journalism, part meditation on parenthood and part screed against torture. It’s all confrontation. Flynn puts new-father worries next to a travelogue to Istanbul where he meets and interviews some of the victims from the Abu Ghraib photos. No matter where he takes you, those images are never far behind. The question that never quite gets asked in the book tugs at you on every page—How do we live in a world of atrocities? Flynn is honest enough to resist an answer, but this book, as painful and immediate as an exposed nerve, offers a kind of peace in confrontation.
WATCH Nick Flynn discuss The Ticking Is the Bomb at Strand Bookstore in New York.
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
I am going to warn you: This is a book about reading books. I will also warn you that Anne Fadiman’s collections of essays will sink into you like a person slipping into a warm bath, favorite book in hand. The opening essay is about Fadiman’s marriage—not the nuptial ceremony, because that could be undone, but the week-long marathon five years after the wedding during which Fadiman and husband finally combined their book collection. If this sounds like your idea of commitment (or if you find yourself, say, proof-reading restaurant menus), then I need say no more. Reading Fadiman will be as satisfying as finding someone with whom you can finally speak your native language after years of exile. If not, I bet you’ll still be intrigued. Few things are as interesting as listening to an intelligent person speak of their obsessions, and few writers are as intelligent (and as obsessed) as Fadiman.
READ "Marrying Libraries," the first chapter from Ex Libris on Google Books.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Chances are you’ve come across this book before, and there’s not a whole lot to say that hasn’t been said. It’s the beginning of American literature, among other things. It’s got tons of stuff that offended different people in different times (and continues to do so), which means Twain got a lot right. But the scene where Huck decides to save Jim is the real reason to pick up this book. It’s one of the most radical and beautiful moments in American literature, a rebellion against God and country, against all of it. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says. It’s wickedly beautiful, a scene that celebrates the best of who we are on one hand, individualistic and right-minded, and extends a righteous Fuck You to the worst of us, the close-minded, the hypocritically religious, the blind defenders of an unequal status quo.
GET The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for free at Project Gutenberg.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
If you can’t find yourself in Tolstoy’s book, you’re either not looking hard enough or you’re Stiva Oblonsky. Forget culture, forget class, forget circumstance. Tolstoy wrote a book that sings of what it is to be human. There is no way to follow whichever character you are in this story and not feel older, wiser, and somehow more yourself after finishing it. If you’ve already read it (or, God help you, seen the movie starring Christopher Reeve), then Anna’s trip to the train station is more terrible and perfect the second time. Read it to see not only how much Tolstoy got right, but how much dignity and potential good is buried in each of us.
GET Anna Karenina for free at Project Gutenberg.
Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
If you read books, you probably have an opinion of Franzen, even if you haven’t read his books. I’m here to tell you that Freedom, Franzen’s new novel, is as good (if not better) than his previous Great Big American Novel, The Corrections. I’m also here to tell you that The Corrections is one of the few things in the last 10 years that not only lived up to its hype but surpassed it. In the same way Tolstoy knows you from across a continent and a century, Franzen knows you. Only he has the advantage of knowing each of us in our social, political, environmental, technological settings. If you’ve read The Corrections, read Freedom. If you’ve been avoiding the only living novelist to make it on the cover of Time magazine in the last decade, give in. As the Berglund family painfully learns in Freedom, danger lives in self-denial. (It lives too in self-denial’s opposite, which is of course freedom.)
WATCH Jonathan Franzen interviewed on Oprah.
Girl Trouble by Holly Goddard Jones
In “Parts,” one of the standout stories in Jones’ standout collection, the mother of a murdered girl walks into a furniture store to confront her daughter’s killer, who’d beat his conviction and is in line to take over his father’s retail empire. I won’t quote Jones’ description of the store—nothing short of the story’s context can do it justice. But it is chilling in its verisimilitude, capturing both the soulless quality of American retail that you can never seem to completely shake, and the soullessness of the coming encounter. This moment is reason enough to read Girl Trouble, but each story is its own reward. Jones captures teenage America in a way that scrubs it clean of its hyperbolic self-importance to show the lives of teenagers, despite what they or we think, are weighed down with a vast importance that few of us actually understand.
READ Holly Goddard Jones write about a major source of girl trouble: perfect teeth.
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Only Vowell could pull off a book like this. For 250-plus pages, Vowell gives us the story of John Winthrop and his Massachusetts Bay Colony, along the way detailing 17th century Puritanical/Christian doctrine, petty political infighting (over wainscoting, in one instance), and the horrible story of the Pequot War in a way that a very witty television critic might fill us in on the saga that is “The Jersey Shore.” Vowell’s gift with popular history is her ability to put events not so far removed from the Dark Ages into a modern American context, to explain the roots of American Exceptionalism, a belief that continues to shape our country.
WATCH Sarah Vowell be adorably bookish in this Daily Show interview promoting The Wordy Shipmates.
Search Party by William Matthews
If ever you wake up hurt and alone, William Matthews is exactly who you need to talk to. He’s dead, but his poems still pulse with wit, with rue, with hard-earned wisdom and wry humor. Search Party has everything you need to get you through a world that doesn’t seem to care about you—grief, humor and the voice of a kindred spirit who finds the right words for what you feel but can never say. More often than not, Matthews’ poems are weary celebrations of the world—every part of it. He ends the poem “Little Blue Nude”—which yokes together Renoir, a crackhead, Ben Webster, an apartment break-in, a bottle of Côte-Rôtie and dogs shitting in Central Park—with a description of his poetry: “It’s a reverie on what I love, and whom, / and how I manage to hold on to them.”
READ William Matthews’ poem "The Search Party" at the Poetry Foundation website.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s explosive novel of African American identity is essential reading. But more than that, it offers us a sort of metaphysical solution to a problem we share with its nameless protagonist. How do we live in a political world gone mad? Ellison’s answer? Disappear. Reappear. Never let them pin you down. Throughout the book the Invisible Man is mistaken for a character named Rinehart, who either does or doesn’t exist (or both). Rinehart might be a preacher or a hustler or everything or nothing. Just as he denies the world a fixed identity it needs to control him, so too can we deny labels that feed into this mess we’re in—liberal, libertarian, conservative, conservationist, constitutionalist, radical left, right, fringe and feminist. There is something to be said for staying invisible until the whole damn façade crumbles. And Ellison just about says it all here.
SEE details of artist Jeff Wall’s work After "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison, The Prologue at the Tate Modern website.
Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot
Finally, there is Eliot. Whatever you might think of him, if you’ve ever been overwhelmed by absurdity, by hopelessness, by the coming destruction both personal and greater, then you have a brother in Eliot. Read the Quartets a bit every day, read them out loud, read them when you despair most. These poems will not let you down. “In my beginning is my end,” writes Eliot in “East Coker.” But time here is not rigid, not final, not the enemy. Time is a warm bed and the skin of the person you love. It is part of us, and we are a part of it. “I am here / Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.” Read it all. Read it aloud. Read it to understand it, and then give up on understanding. Then see if CNN bothers you anymore.
LISTEN to T.S. Eliot read a selection from Four Quartets.