Over on Facebook, a number of friends have tagged me in one of those chain-letter things, asking me to provide a list of ten books that have (“regardless of literary merit”) shaped or affected me deeply one way or another. I’m not a big fan of the “tag-and-pass-it-on” thing, so I thought that I’d put a list here on my blog instead. Here are my ten, in no particular order.
1. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Forget the Bible: if I was abandoned on a desert island, this is the one book that I would make sure that I had by my side. Calvino’s strange, brief, philosophical not-really-novel is, I contend, the best book in existence. Marco Polo and Kublai Khan meet in the palace gardens, and the Venetian explorer describes the cities of the Khan’s empire to the ruler, cities that the Khan himself will never visit. Saturated with philosophy, strange and haunting, I could read this book over and over again.
2. Political Systems of Highland Burma by Edmund Leach
Back when I was becoming an anthropologist of sorts, I read this extraodinary book about social change in the highlands of Burma. It was winter, and I was living in a small attic-room in Newcastle. I lay under piles of blankets, and read with feverish intensity. By the time I got to the end, the world seemed a different place. Incidentally, I re-read the book ten years later, and found it as dull as ditchwater, which makes it the only book on the list I do not have much desire to re-read any more. But on first reading, it was the most exciting thing I had ever come across, and it sent my life skittering along new trajectories.
3. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
Bought in a bookshop in South Shields. I worked through the big blue Macquarrie and Robinson translation annotating with a blunt pencil whilst living in a Buddhist community in Newcastle. I know that Hediegger is supposed to be abstruse and difficult (not to say dodgy), but Being and Time seemed to me — and still seems to me — to be about the most concrete experience that there is, the experience of being here, in my body, entangled in the things and the commitments that make up human life.
4. Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Comet in Moominland is a masterpiece. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s with the threat of global nuclear annihilation always in the background, Jansson gave me a way of thinking about what it might mean to live in the shadow of disaster. From Comet in Moominland I learned that, in extremis, there is still a great value to friendship, knowledge and a good cake.
5. The Journey to the West, aka Monkey, aka 西遊記 by Wu Cheng’en 吳承恩
I loved the Japanese TV series as a child, then in my Buddhist days, I came across Arthur Waley’s translation, Monkey. I took this book on retreat several times, and read about the antics of Sun Wu-kong when I should have been reading sutras and stuff like that. Anarchic, weird in the extreme, often bloodthirsty, frequently absurd, and somehow gloriously life-affirming. I read and reread this book, and it gets better and better. The full, unabridged translation is wonderful, and I’m working up to reading it in the Chinese original. Monkey is… irrepressible!
6. The Troubadour of Knowledge by Michel Serres
Wayward philosophising. A book about experience, about education, about translation, about storytelling, about science, and about the invention of things both new and strange. Exhilarating.
7. Other People’s Myths by Wendy Doniger
Wendy Doniger is a good thing for the world. I believe this very strongly. Other People’s Myths is strange, insightful, frequently funny, and just a little bit deranged. I picked up a copy in a sale back when I was an art student and was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of spirit that animated it. This book has had a huge influence on how I write scholarly stuff.
8. In Praise of Blandness by François Jullien
A more recent find, this one. It is a book about the aesthetics of that which is without any flavour. I read it a couple of years ago, and it continues to provide rich resources for thinking. I love this book because it undermines so many assumptions about what is of value, and it pretty much undercuts the obsession with drama and tragedy that is so prevalent in the philosophy and literature of the West.
9. Blindness by José Saramago
An absolutely terrific novel by any account; but above all else it is Saramago’s style—folksy, philosophical, full of irony and sparing with the punctuation—that really makes this such an astonishingly good book.
10. The Zhuangzi (莊子) by Somebody-or-Other (or a whole tribe of Sombodies-or-Others)
I dithered about including this book. I first encountered it, I think, in Wendy Doniger’s book (see above) — which includes the famous passage about the happiness of fish. There’s something maddening about the Zhuangzi. It is slippery as hell — frustrating, maddening, funny and insightful in equal parts. This book has been a kind of half-annoying, half-insightful travelling companion for a long time.
Of all the above books, if there was one that I would want to save—Farenheit 451-style—from the future pyres of some apocalyptic meltdown of civilization, it would be the Calvino. But the reason for this is not because it stands out as a single, exemplary work. Instead, the Calvino matters to me because it has become a sort of crossing-point where huge numbers of my interests and thoughts converge, and a map of all kinds of mental territories that are occupied by a multitude of other books and authors. I find it, as Lévi-Strauss might say, good to think with.
Of course, if you asked me tomorrow, I might come up with a whole other list. This one is pretty light on fiction, and there is no poetry in sight (which makes me feel a bit guilty when I think about those poor poets!). But I think the Calvino would be there whatever day you asked me. And, as for the rest, given that I have to settle on ten, for today I’ll let the list stand as it is…