How-to Read – Part 3 : My Top Five Books And Their Impact

To close off this little series, I’d like to present my five favourite books.  A lot of times, when we want to sit down and read a good book, we ask ourselves, what’s a good book I can sit down and read ?

So, I have hoped to make that a bit easier.

On top of that, I want to take a bit of time with each of the books and explain why / how they’ve impacted me and how I have sought to change because of them.  Just like I outlined in How-to Read – Part 1 and How-to Read – Part 2.

So, without further ado, here they are, in no particular order :

The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”

                       – Oscar Wilde

Central to this book is the idea that youth and beauty are supreme;  and behind that is how utterly superficial society is.  Seems similar to our own culture.

Dorian is a young and handsome man who has a portrait painted of him by an artist named Basil.  While he is sitting, he hears the clever ( and hedonistic ) views of Lord Henry – who begins his appeal on the power of youth and beauty.  And, as it turns out, Lord Henry is clever enough to intrigue Dorian, because he’s not gonna be that 10/10 forever.

Here is where Dorian makes a wish that the painting would age, not him.  He wants to  be free to enjoy this power of youth and beauty for an eternity.  After that it’s pursuing everything he wants.  Love, betrayal, guilt – it’s all here in Dorian’s attempt to live a life worth living.  All the freedom in the world because he has what the world wants : looks and youth.  But freedom at what cost ?

The book impacted me, not because I think youth and power are ultimate ( I’m not handsome enough to think that ), but because of the struggle Dorian faces as he jumps headfirst into whatever he wants.   That quote above seems so nice – that the only regrets one would have in their life is not having any regrets at all.  And part of that is nice.  There is a part that encourages the reader to pursue dreams and not be stuck in the eternal traffic of “reason” ( really self doubt ).  But, the other part is not so nice.   That part of it is Oscar Wilde throwing a philosophical idea explicitly in your face and contrasting it with the consequences of choices.

The consequences of choices and the struggle of living on with those sins.  It is something we all face – living on after making mistakes.  How do those mistakes define you ? Is it worth it to throw morality to the wind and enjoy the wild life ? Is it worth it to tighten your belt and live a perfect life of purity ? Read the book and think it through.

“All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.”

– Oscar Wilde

Slaughterhouse-Five

“- Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Yes.
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

The bombing of Dresdon forms the backdrop for this novel; and with that, fate, free will, and suffering.

Billy Pilgrim maybe experienced time travel – he thinks he is “unstuck in time”.  This book is a non linear telling of Billy’s life, from him being an american soldier, optometrist, alien zoo animal, and chaplain’s assistant.

Billy is in WWII, wandering away from the war, and then time travels to his future as an optometrist.  He gets unstuck in time again, back in WWII and gets captured by Germans.  While being captured, he teleports to the future, and gets stolen by some Tralfamadorians – “aliens” who are pretty fatalistic.

And that’s how this book rolls on, teleporting, experiencing his life in a mish mash of scenes, seeing his own death, but needing to keep on living.  And he keeps on living, survives a bombing, the massacre of Dresdon.

And there’s a reason for all this confusing and jumping around.  Vonnegut is saying that’s what war and death are – confusing, and impossible to understand.  Billy begins to see this, especially after he “lives” out his death, and then flashes back the rest of his life.  But now he’s a fatalist.

This book taught me a lot.  It makes you think through death and suffering and what is worth living for.  In the midst of all of this, Kurt Vonnegut tries to expose what being human is all about.  He talks about how life goes on, even when things are hard.  How sometimes, some of life is inexpressible, but it doesn’t stop life from ticking on.  And that can get you down – maybe even a bit fatalistic.  Or it can make you find joy in each moment, and worry a bit less about the end of it all.

So it goes.

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

East Of Eden

“But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.”

– John Steinbeck

East of Eden, in one sense, is a retelling of the biblical story of Genesis; a re-imagining of the first few chapters but set in the early twentieth century.  It follows the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons; their ups, downs, and all-overs.

Samuel Hamilton is a charismatic blacksmith; an immigrant to the Salinas Valley from Ireland, trying to raise his nine kids on some harsh, dry, can’t-grow’nothing, land.  And he remains hopeful and pleasant.  As time passes, Adam Trask buys the best land in the valley, a veritable Eden.

Adam’s life is then explained in a flashback.  His brutal brother and harsh upbringing and his running away and joining the military.  His meeting Cathy, a woman with a so called ‘malformed soul’, and without knowing her past ( it is dark to say the least ), he marries her.  And on the eve of the wedding, she ( spoiler alert ), sleeps with Adams brother, and gets pregnant.  Except, you don’t know if she’s pregnant with Adam’s or Charles’ twins.

Adam moves to California,  hopeful to make a perfect new life with his perfect land and adulterous wife.  Oh, also, Cathy hates California, so she shoots Adam in the shoulder once the kids are born and runs away.  Adam hires a Chinese man as a servant, his name is Lee, and he helps raise the kids.  And from there on out, it’s philosophical talks between Adam, Lee, and Samuel;  Adam’s sons trying to live and find love and then finding out who their mother is.

Steinbeck tells the story of almost three generations in this tome.  He says that this books is the culmination of all his others, that each before was practise for this one.  And because of that, with short space, it is impossible to explain it all ( or even summarize it ).  But this book is a goldmine.  One of Steinbeck’s main goals is :

“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about.”

Except the whole book is riddled with characters unable to choose because of their fears and doubts.  It is filled with people who do choose and find out that being free to choose doesn’t mean life will be any easier.

Because of this, it’s weird to express the impact of this book on me.  I identified with so many characters and situations.  Because of that, my eyes got sweaty when certain things happened – when some characters sacrificed their identity because of their own fears.  Or when they’d look back and wish they’d had been better fathers, friends, and lovers; wishing they had been more courageous and strong.

Even though there is harsh rejection, there is freedom to overcome evil, and be who you were made to be.

“And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

– John Steinbeck

Brothers Karamazov

“He thirsted for this resurrection and renewal. The vile bog he had gotten stuck in of his own free will burdened him too much, and, like a great many men in such cases, he believed most of all in a change of place: if only it weren’t for these people, if only it weren’t for these circumstances, if only one could fly away from the curses place–then everything would be reborn! That was what he believed in and what he longed for.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

The book is a tragedy of a father and his three sons.  Fyodor is the father to Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha – Dmitri though, has a different mother.  All this means is that the three of them, when growing up, spent their time shuffling around in other people’s homes being taken care of.

The three go to visit their father, which they haven’t done for a while, and after Dmitri and Fyodor get in an argument about money and inheritance, they go visit Alyosha’s monk mentor.  That conversation doesn’t go well, and another fight breaks out, causing Alyosha to worry even more about his family’s future.  So, Alyosha, being the caring younger brother he is, talks to Dmitri and finds out there’s a both girl and money problems.  Classic.  He was supposed to marry one girl, but spend his money on being with another woman, Grushenka ( a wonderful name ).

The monk, Father Zossima, is about to die, and instead of getting Alyosha to stay at the monastery, he sends him on his way.  And things get so much more complicated for Alyosha once he does so.  And the rest you’ll have to read about.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that this book can teach you everything you need to know about life.  And, after reading it, he’s mostly right.  The book struggles through faith and reason and doubt, through the burden of being free, and finding redemption in suffering.

I read this book a couple of years ago, and as each character, typifying a philosophical position, lived and decided, I got to watch a debate play out.  The book seems real enough that I felt like I had a glimpse into the results of each way of living.  Dostoevsky gives insight to the reasoned life, the religious life, and the hedonistic life.

Through it all, the main idea is less about finding the right philosophy to exist under, but the right thing to live for.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Bible

“But God led the people around by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle.  Moses took the bones of Joseph with him…And they moved on… at the edge of the wilderness.  And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.”

How can one even begin to summarize the bible ?  I think one of the biggest tragedies about the bible is most people don’t read.  Most people don’t read it because they had to growing up and going to Sunday School, or they feel like in reading it they need to debate everything they don’t believe.  If that’s you, then you should read this.  I believe not reading the bible is a tragedy because it is filled with wisdom for life.  Some of that is pithy fortune cookie phrases :

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life.

Proverbs 4:23

But not all of it is that back pocket, ruminate over a tea, kind of wisdom.  A lot of it is stories of people, and their struggles and decisions and pursuit of redemption.  Kind of seems similar to almost everyone of those classic novels above, huh ?  That’s because a lot of those stories are based on biblical ones.

Those stories, of people going through life, reveal a lot about who we are.  Whether you’re religious or not, there is a great sort of revealing of self that happens when you read the bible.

I’ve been thinking about Moses a lot lately – and not in the way you might have heard in Sunday school.  Moses murdered a guy – an Egyptian who was assaulting one his own countrymen.  And then he fled.  He was scared of the consequences of his actions.  Even crazier, is the motivation for that murder, was sort of pure.  He didn’t want an oppressed people to continue to be downtrodden.  But he went too far.

He flees to the wilderness, and in the story, that’s where God meets him.  He has a change, after about 40 years, and that same passion and motivation for liberating slaves has matured from murderous anger, to something else.  And that is amazing to process.

“You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches.
It sent out its branches to the sea
    and its shoots to the River.”

– Asaph, A Psalm

Wrapping It Up

This is a looooong post.  So if you made it here, let me know :

What are your favourite books ?

How have they impacted you ?

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