Foundational Books

I’m making a list of books that have touched me at the very depths of my soul, and they fall into two groups, books about reading and the superiority of culture over barbarity and books that speak to one of the aspects of my self.

These are not simply books that I enjoyed. There are hundreds of those. Rather, these are books that shook me to the core and have become part of who I am.

The books about reading and the beauty of the literary culture that have shaken me are (in the chronological order of my encounter with them):

1. John Fowles’s The Collector. I read it in my late teens, and it transformed me completely. I wrote about how this book extracted me from the post-Soviet vulgarity and materialism before, so I won’t repeat myself.

2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov that I read when I was 21. I was young but already had the capacity to recognize that it’s not a pornographic novel but a book about books.

3. Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game that I read at 23 and that persuaded me to become an academic.

4. Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia that I will keep reading and rereading my whole life.

5. Martutene by the Basque writer Ramon Saizarbitoria. I read it in 2015, I think, and I’ll never get over the intense enjoyment of that great novel.

6. Diaries by Rafael Chirbes that I can only read in small portions because the joy is too intense to process all at once.

Now, for the books that aren’t about reading. These are the ones that hit right in the middle of some aspect of my personality.

1. Marina Tsvetaeva’s Poem of the Mountain. I first read it when I was 14 and I found in it a perfect expression of my female sensibility. The way Tsvetaeva expresses womanhood is 100% mine. I call it a book because it’s a very long poem in many parts. I knew most of it by heart back then.

2. Vladimir Dudintsev’s White Robes and Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle I also read in my mid-teens. They are about the costs of totalitarianism, and I don’t have to explain why that speaks to me.

3. Volodymyr Vinnychenko’s The Sun Machine is the greatest Ukrainian novel of all time. It’s set in Germany but Vinnychenko’s Germans are very Ukrainian in every way. This is the novel of my Ukrainian identity.

4. Benito Pérez Galdós Miau is a novel by the great Spanish realist that I read when I was in my early twenties. I love everything about Galdós but Miau is not only very Spanish, it’s also about hunger. And that’s a subject no Ukrainian can pass untouched.

5. Clarín’s La Regenta is a 19th-century novel about sex and ambition. There is an English translation, and if you don’t read it, you’ll truly do yourself no favors.

6. Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian speaks to my identity of an ideological immigrant. I also read it in my early twenties and will never get over it.

7. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a book I read in my early thirties. It’s one of the greatest Christian novels of all times, and it clicks with my Christian sensibilities.

8. Rafael Chirbes’s En la orilla (I think it was translated as On the Edge). I read it in 2015, and I have no explanation yet for why it hit me over the head as much as it did. It’s the same with Castellanos Moya’s Moronga, read in 2018. I guess it’s harder to figure out the impact of the more recent readings.

The list is heavily Hispanic for obvious reasons. It’s also very male. I love many female authors but, aside from Tsvetaeva, they haven’t hit me over the head and changed me at the core. It’s a mystery to me right now why Chirbes’s unemployed older carpenter in En la orilla feels like part of myself in a way that no female character has ever come close.

11 thoughts on “Foundational Books

  1. Been meaning to read The Glass Bead Game for ages, but not getting around to it. Perhaps now is the time to give it a go. I know my library has it. Right up there with Oswald Spengler on my perpetual to-read list, I’m afraid.

    I think I was too young when I read Les Miserables. Completely didn’t get it. Think it’s worth a second look?

    The books I’ve read that really changed my outlook about things… I don’t think any of them were novels, and I wouldn’t categorize any of them as great literature. They were just books that gave me information, and sometimes a perspective, I hadn’t encountered before. Stuff like Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery— there’s plenty about that book that people criticize, it’s not a work of philosophy, it’s literally a hippie manual for lay midwifery– but I was really biophobic at twenty and that book fixed it for me. It was the book I needed to read just then. Might not work for anybody else.

    Definitely John Holt’s How Children Learn, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millenium, Donna Williams’ first couple of memoirs, starting with Nobody Nowhere, some of Olga Bogdashina’s work, Elizabeth Wayland barber’s Women’s Work, and… I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember the title (and search engines are not helping at all!), but there was a book about the trial of Russell Means and Dennis Banks, which forever jaundiced my view of both professional activists and the FBI. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society, Daniel Greenberg’s Free at Last: the Sudbury Valley School, Your Money or Your Life, and probably about twenty other books I’m leaving out. I carried Erica Wilson’s Needlework around with me for probably fifteen years, before I realized I’d memorized it and didn’t need it anymore 🙂

    I’m not sure I’d recommend any of those books, generally– like in an “OMG Everybody needs to read this!” kind of way. I got a lot out of them because of my own peculiarities, but… YMMV.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, what a great post!

      In Les Miserables I definitely recommend at least the first 14 chapters that are about the Bishop. We all have the Bishop inside us and we need to bring him out more often.

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    2. For clarity: all those books mentioned are ones that helped me build an internal model of how the world works, and which I constantly refer back to, when trying to make sense of… events, problems, whatever perplexing situation I find myself in. Foundational in that sense.

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  2. How did the Glass Bead Game have that effect on you? I read it when I was around seventeen and I think the book still sits firmly at the back of my self as a case against academic life. It takes a person with plentiful talents and turns him into one with neither the ability to prove himself to a boy nor the wisdom of not bothering to.

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    1. I always thought Knecht was a fool for leaving Castalia. Of course, I don’t have the personality to live in Castalia myself. I’m too much of this world for that. I visit briefly every once in a while, and those are the best moments of my life.

      Another book that attracted me to academia is CP Snow’s The Masters. It’s also supposed to be a criticism of academia but I found it hypnotic.

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  3. “I was young but already had the capacity to recognize that [Lolita is] not a pornographic novel but a book about books.”

    What’s your take on Nabokov’s interpretation of Don Quixote then, or has this already been done to death here?

    “Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game that I read at 23 and that persuaded me to become an academic.”

    It persuaded me to buy private libraries and to try to save books on the basis that anything as baroque as Castalia was meant to be doomed eventually, and that what it tried to represent would inevitably have to be rebuilt on a completely different basis.

    I’ll throw one of mine in while we’re at it: Aldous Huxley’s “Island” convinced me of the necessity of preserving cultures on the basis that they’re one sweep of a “robust politician” away from extinction, especially if they’re orientated around being peaceful.

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    1. This is a good question that deserves a more profound answer than I can give in a blog comment. Nabokov’s vision of Don Quixote is inspired, in my opinion, by his understandable rejection of totalitarianism. Using the term “totalitarianism” to discuss Don Quixote is an anachronism but those of us who have faced totalitarianism do tend to find Don Quixote a repellent character. His “idealism” scares us because we have seen where that kind of “idealist” fanaticism can lead. I think that this is what Nabokov grappled with without ever truly recognizing what bothered him about the novel. I struggled with it, too, until I allowed myself to recognize what it is that I disliked so much about this character. I taught my Don Quixote class this semester as a lesson about the nature of totalitarian mentality. I don’t see the novel as cute and endearing. I see it as terrifying because Cervantes somehow hit right on the roots of totalitarianism 300 years before totalitarianism actually came into existence.

      The novel has been called postmodern because of its metaliterary qualities. But it’s also postmodern in its depiction of an individual who believes he’s God and has the power to create the world anew with his words. Nabokov, unfortunately, never took his insight deep enough to understand that what he sees as the novel’s greatest weakness is its biggest strength. He blames the novel for being violent but violence is always the result of individuals placing God within themselves and refusing to recognize that God is bigger than they are.

      I teach Cervantes differently every time, and this semester this was my focus.

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      1. I’ve asked in part because I’ve long thought about doing Cervantes from a post-modern perspective, in which Don Quixote is openly a dictator of a realm of the mind in the fashion of one of Italo Calvino’s imagined landscapes.

        In this strangely odd odyssey, Sancho Panza would be Don Quixote’s unspeaking foil for terrorising those under his rule, too terrorised himself to speak out against it, but in actuality Sancho Panza is a stuffed animal and all of its thoughts are fantasies in the mind of Don Quixote himself.

        Later, we’d see Don Quixote as what he really is: a small child terrified of the world around him, in which he’s imagined himself a world in which he has total control, with all of the absurdity that follows.

        My Don Quixote would therefore be a little boy of eight years, and he acts out all of his imagined realms with the help of a vast stuffed animal army given to him by his parents.

        Now that you see it, you really can’t unsee it, can you? 🙂

        So perhaps teaching a psychogeography of Cervantes through Don Quixote might also work.

        “I see it as terrifying because Cervantes somehow hit right on the roots of totalitarianism 300 years before totalitarianism actually came into existence.”

        Post-moderns split hairs over authoritarian versus totalitarian regimes a bit too finely.

        Various Khanates in the 13th and 14th century would certainly qualify as examples to Cervantes in the 16th century, and while they don’t resemble the totalitarianism that’s become known in the 20th and 21st centuries, the model of the faithful fighter for a regime of the indefensible (especially as viewed by Christian Europe) certainly would be known to Cervantes.

        That the three models today for totalitarianism are religious, corporatist, and personality cult totalitarianism also doesn’t mean they’re the only possible models.

        Of course we know of a fourth from the Strugatsky brothers and to an extent Stanislaw Lem: scientific state socialist totalitarianism, which became briefly fashionable recently as a realm of the mind for the types of people who wanted to lockdown harder “for the science”.

        Stanislaw Lem has a haunted space station they can visit since they appear to be wishing for that kind of thing, and perhaps all of their fantasies in their minds may be given physical truth … safely somewhere else. 🙂

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  4. I’ve ordered La Regenta after your recommendation (I’m looking forward to reading it during the Xmas Hols) and have gone back to Cultural Amnesia. I agree with you on Les Miserables (I still get quite emotional thinking of the Bishop) and Lolita, though for the life of me I can’t understand what you see in Hesse.

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