Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Top 100

I wanted to do something different for my one-hundredth post. I first thought I'd list my one-hundred favorite books or (not quite the same thing) the hundred books that I think about most often. But I wasn't sure anyone would want to read that list any more than I relished the thought of making it. But I still want to do something special, so here are some samples from the list that exists only ideally, with a short description of a scene or idea from each that comes to mind often.

First, three books that helped me understand and value my melancholy temperament:

• Blaise Pascal, Pensées. My first encounter with the greatest book never written was actually in Peter Kreeft's Christianity for Modern Pagans, a gloss of what Kreeft considers the "most important" of the fragments and notes that Pascal collected, so maybe I should list Kreeft's book instead. In any case, it is the words of Pascal that follow me. "Between us and Heaven or Hell there is only life halfway, the most fragile thing in the world." His prescient statement that we live lost in the universe between things so small we can't understand them and things so large we can't understand them, his view of mankind as monstrously fallen princes, his analysis of entertainment as a defense against thinking about death, and his explanation of Jesus as the only key that fits the special lock that is humanity -- all showed me the sacred value of sorrow.

• G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. On Christianity's explanation for and acceptance of both sorrow and joy, Chesterton says,
Any one might say that we should be neither quite miserable nor quite happy. But to find out how far one may be quite miserable without making it impossible to be quite happy — that was a discovery in psychology. Any one might say, "Neither swagger nor grovel"; and it would have been a limit. But to say, "Here you can swagger and there you can grovel" — that was an emancipation.
That section certainly emancipated me.

• Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln's Melancholy. Shenk doesn't just diagnose and explain Lincoln's melancholy; he argues persuasively that nineteenth-century America saw Lincoln's temperament as crucial to saving the Union. The best story in the book tells of the day Joshua Speed took on Lincoln as both a roommate and a partner in his store based on five minutes' acquaintance with the man and his personality. Speed explained later that anyone so sad must think deeply and give proper attention to details.

I feel quite confident that I am the only person in the world ever to have read all four of the next books.

• Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers. In one scene, the Musketeers dare each other to have lunch in a ruined bastion in the middle of an active battlefield. Their cheek, joy, disdain for their enemies, and confidence in their training make the experience an inspiring model that I aspire to match.

• Sidney Lanier, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This children's version of the great English saga, by an unjustly forgotten American poet, taught me at nine years old the beauty of words and elegant turns of phrase. It begins, "It befell in the days of the noble Utherpendragon, when he was king of England, that there was born to him a son who in after time was King Arthur."

• Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman shows how commercial television contributed to the end of deep thinking and meaningful political debate in America. As an example, he compares the Lincoln-Douglas debates (in which the participants spoke for up to an hour at a time without a teleprompter, while the audience stood for six hours to listen) to modern presidential debates (in which a buzzer interrupts each speaker after two minutes). If television coverage of every disaster must be followed by a toothpaste commercial, our attention spans must shorten and our engagement with what we see must become more shallow. All to say that if you're going to watch TV, something like Gilligan's Island is the best thing you can watch, since its structure and theme actually suit the medium.

• Russell Johnson, Here on Gilligan's Isle.The man who played the Professor celebrates the history of this great television show and the people who made it. Along the way, he demonstrates clearly that the Professor had the ultimate authority on the island: whether it was two beautiful girls in trouble or a captain and a millionaire arguing over who's in charge, they always called for the Professor and looked to him for answers. I'm probably a professor today because of the way Russell Johnson made scholars look important and good.

The best anecdote in the book involves Alan Hale, Jr. Producer Sherwood Schwartz had a hard time casting the Skipper; he knew that only a very special actor could play a character who would remain loveable even though he always yelled at and hit the character kids would identify with most. After seeing Hale by chance in a restaurant, he knew he had found his man. Schwartz's instincts were right on the money: Hale played the part to perfection and identified with the character so much he wore the hat for the rest of his life. Years after the show's run, hearing of a seriously ill boy in the hospital, Hale went to visit him and walked jovially into the hospital room declaring, "Don't worry, son. Everything's going to be all right now. The Skipper's here." Johnson wraps up the story by asking rhetorically, What child wouldn't have believed him?

Well, there's a sample of the one-hundred books I think about most often. Perhaps for the two-hundredth post, I'll talk about seven more.

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