Sunday, November 4, 2007

Books that Changed My Life

The NY-based literary magazine N+1 recently put out a pamphlet for first-year college students, entitled "What We Should Have Known: Two Discussion," compiling two pointless and rambling, rather sophomoric panel discussions about college and what one should get out of college.

Why anyone should care what these people think is one question, and I could cite several completely arrogant and pretentious moments in this text, but for the most part it is completely banal and full of platitudes: "You shouldn't read fancy critical theory just because it's fashionable." "I wish I'd had the sense that history was still ongoing." "I'm sounding very postmodern right now." "So you have to add Gandhi to the list..." "Back then, I was going to be a poet." In short, a bad conversation that I would have been bummed out to overhear, and am disappointed to see published.

But the most annoying part (besides the name-dropping), is the bullshit "Books that Changed My Life" lists. They follow a fairly set pattern. One or two books of philosophy, Eric Hobsbawm, one or two books of "literary essays," and some 20th century fiction or short stories. A couple classics (Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare) and filled in by totally pretentious, random dinner-party books.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels, but I have NO CLUE what it means to say, "It changed my life." It didn't, and I don't see how it could possibly.

So, here are authors, not books (less pretentious?), who have changed my life:
  • Karl Marx
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Roland Barthes
  • Martin Heidegger
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Noam Chomsky
  • GFW Hegel
  • Marcel Proust
  • Michel Foucault
  • Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Plato
  • Franz Fanon
A list you may as well title, "Books My Father Has Not Read." The idea of a book changing my life can only mean that it changes my *ideas* about the world. Every author on that list stresses the unmasking of ideology, of the appearance of the world, of the bourgeois order, of the thoughts we were brought up with, of how things seem, of common sense, of strict eternal definitions (here I except Plato), and stresses the endless need for reflection, analysis, and reconsideration of how things, so various and motivated, came to be presented as the bland "order of things." Proust is on there because his account of human erotic relations is to me the most convincing, and Plato for his insistence on thought and the deception of appearances. While I have learned a great deal from fiction in my life, I cannot say that even a deeply inspiring book like Middlemarch has "changed my life."

The list may seem like a "Great Books" list. I want to say, it is the opposite of the prevalent American idea that "everything I know I learned in kindergarten"; that I am very unsatisfied by the view of the world that was handed to me by my upbringing, and that everything important in my thought has come in the form of these revelatory ideas which have turned on their head the conceptions I was most comfortable with while growing up. And I am very unembarrassed by this list, although Chomsky is a cheese, and Plato is "obvious."

In any case, this list is a list of most white men; it is either very unpretentious or extremely pretentious (somewhat along the lines of declaring the Iliad to be my favorite book, as opposed to (n+1) Finnegan's Wake or Donald Barthelme). Anyways, so this is an honest list and everyone should read these books. I can recommend some other good books, too.

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