Under the Tenfluence: Books

I finally tracked down my last missing Prehistoric Zoobooks, but have not had the time to put them in a proper post, it is still on the list though. I am working more on my dissertation at the moment and with a new routine at home due to the arrival of my son at the end of June things are a bit up in the air with anything that isn’t deadline/need-based driven. To that end though here is something that I am retrofitting for a full post that was done in a series on Facebook. It was one of those “10_____ that influenced (or some other verb) me” chain tags that go around from time to time. I usually ignore them, but this one came an a time of reflection on my own habits and what I was writing about early American readership so I decided to take something flippant and approach it in a way I could use it for a blog post. In fact, for people starting out blogging or online journaling these types of lists may provide a nice ease into the pool.

I was finally tagged in one of those throwaway things that inspire and thanks to my friend Blake, I have now had a long weekend full of existential crisis. He completely blew the rules (whatever they are) buy posted 9 in a square grid and saying “Ciao” for Guatemala. I have seen the last few run through the “no explanation, blah blah” and I wonder if that is to increase the chance of people doing it if they don’t have to do anything but pull an image off the internet and post it. This one is about books, I will think about the albums later. The 10 books that had an impact on you, or impacted you, or influences you, or inspire you, or whatever. I started listing mine out first ten without thinking, really, and ended up with a pretty interesting trend that had really shaped my current dissertational status, sometimes for content, sometimes for style, and sometimes as introductions to the person writing. 

#1: The Red Badge of Courage

The summer between my fifth and sixth grade year my grandfather gave me a Walmart 2/$1 copy of The Red Badge of Courage. I have never been a huge military history buff and he absolutely hates anything about the Civil War (he keeps chalking that up to having been killed in it, really). So it was an odd choice. Luckily though, the whole point about this book *isn’t* necessarily the war itself. It is more of the idea of war, and our place within it. The intro to my edition even says that “the plot itself is a somewhat rambling sequence of campfires, troop advancements, battles, and retreats, interspersed with gruesome scenes of death and human destruction.” It is all about the transformation of Henry’s life that make it interesting. Actually for me it is the whole cloud of irony that hangs over the entire book that really made it great. Crane’s whole approach to the romantic notion of warfare (bravery, chivalry, et al) and the military stereotype is brilliant, and this is in 1894. But that is the life of Crane who was a freelance author for newspapers fond of reading the monthly Century Magazine. The Red Badge of Courage was originally sent to McClure’s Magazine and they sat on it for 6 months before Crane asked for it back and sent it out again. Eventually it was cut down (55000 to 18000 words) for serialization, which ended up in a kind of syndication and made Crane famous. He was a war correspondant for the Greco-Turkis and Spanish-American War, and died at a health spa in Badenweiler in the turn of the century German Empire. So my relationship with monthly magazine serials, newspapers, and ironic stories filled with death (which I tend to find funny) really began before I entered Jr. High. 
Sometime in 2003 on one of my reset nights of staying up all night I happened to catch the miniseries Rough Riders presented in one long swoop on cable a run time of at least 4 hours (I think). But is had a great, if historically misaccurate version of Crane, which has tended to remain the avatar for the author in my mind:

There are many great parts in the film, and it should be good watching for high school classes  and even college. (I want to use it in my Real vs Real course one day) but this little sixty-seconds of so exchange at 2:57 or so sums up a lot about life’s philsophy between a career soldier and someone from the outside familiar with a larger picture:(This is worth the full 18 minute watch, but the part about Wes Hardin and Clay Allison really should give us all some food for thought.

#2 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Nothing about this is part of a regularly schedule program or a complete breakfast, but here is the second installment of I don’t remember all the details I was tagged in but I am making these up as I go and giving you explanations you won’t read about books with which you shall do likewise. Second in line is another Walmart 2/$1 books. The sticker isn’t a sticker. It started that way, but by this second wave it is actually printed on as part of the cover. 20,000 leagues under the Sea is sort of that you have to read adventure story, at least it was for me after my grandfather talked about how many times he had read it in school. I come from a long line of book escapists. I enjoyed the story, but I benefitted more from the opening of science fiction to my imagination. I was able to fully immerse in books like this, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle as if every word were true and possible. Years later when I started following up on the authors I would see a lot of “man before his time” stuff to describe Verne. Turns out he wasn’t ahead, he was just in tune *with* his time. Attending public lectures, demonstrations, and exhibits throughout Paris. Good observational skills are essential to writing great science fiction. I like to think that I have them, and that living within these stories, and the rest of the 2/$1 club has given me part of the wealth of experience that I am putting into my dissertation talking about how Sci-fi provides a litmus test of sci-fact, from every major theory that goes the “right” way towards a cult of progress, sci-fi can go back and shoot off as if the opposite were true.

Some of my favorite books ever written were included in this reprint series, and I am not even sure how many they actually made. I also think it harkens back to a time at Walmart when Sam Walton was still alive that was going to provide an avenue to put “classic” literature into the hands of their customers for the price of a canned coke. Now I am imagining a book vending machine filled with these. You see, some times it really isn’t about the stories per se, as much as it might be the book as artifact with context as product as well as a source.

#3 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

20 years ago I was a subscriber in good standing of Entertainment Weekly. As part of their service we received a VHS tape with summer movie trailers on it. This film was one of them. The movie was released on May 19, and my Literary Journal for my English class was compiled and turned in on the 25th. You can see the influence.

The subtitle (inside the “O”) is “A mind-bending experience.” The story is insanity at its finest and a testament to Gonzo-journalism which in 1998 was exactly what I wanted to major in in college, only with less drugs. This was the longest work by HST that I had read, although I had been through a couple Rolling Stone articles before. Aside from the “I do what I want” and less than sharable in polite company attitude/musings there is much you can learn from Dr. Gonzo. Mainly that the truth, especially that truth that they refuse to tell you, is far more bizarre than fiction. Like others on this list, it introduced me to an author and a genre that became an underlying tenet to how I see and process the world. I will recommend a serial read of this, The Great Shark Hunt, The Rum Diary, and one most poignantly relevant today as when it was published “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.” Fun fact: I bought this copy of the book and the soundtrack (which is great by the way) on a driver’s ed class trip to Parkdale Mall which was like 40 miles from where I grew up. The Great Shark Hunt is also great.

The trailer, it just about as stunning quality as the VHS I watched it on the first time.

 

#4 The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House

This installment is a twofer. Easily justified by the George Carlin philosophy of presentation: My rules, I make them up. They are both quick reads and they both basically do the same thing: tell the truth. These works, and others by Tom Wolfe were less of an influence and more of vindication of my own internalization of what I was experience reading theory in college. I absolutely love thesebooks because they take to task the desire for theory over practicality or even enjoyability of art (The Painted Word) and Architecture (From Bauhaus to Our House). I have been thinking more about my relationship with Wolfe’s stuff since his death a couple weeks ago. While reading many of the obituaries and reminiscences it was interesting to see the all the introductions go something like this: “Tom Wolfe, author known for XXXX, passed away..” wherein XXXX was one of his works, which one seemed to change based on the publication. Some were similar, but there were outliers. They also addressed his lifelong trend of wearing white suits, which I usually religate to summer but have endeavored to do more in memory of Tom.

These books also tie back into Fear and Loathing because believe it or not Wolfe and Thompson knew each other, and sometimes worked the same beat. Hunter wrote a delightfully scathing letter to Tom over the coining of “New Journalism.” Later, according to an intervie with Wolfe Hunter had himself along with Tom and his wife thrown out of a restaurant after downing 8 banana daquiries and banana splits. Whether HST was okay with being boxed into New Journalism or not, over the years I began to see Tom and Hunter as two sides of the same coin. Tom in his white suit and Hunter in anything but they became the Spy vs Spy of journalism a la MAD magazine. Only instead of being at war with each other they were at war with “the establishment.” Even if it was a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend I was overjoyed when years after reading these for the first time I found out just how they were connected, that it was professional, and personal, and utterly needed in American literature. That these two books upset so many art and architecture critics is enough to tell you he was onto something. And now that I am working with some professional architects in order for them to help showcase a section of “American” Architecture in the 50s and 60s I think about Tom Wolfe more than once a day, and know that in the end I’m justified because Tom Wolfe was right:

“This is not what is so often described as the lag between ‘the artist’s discoveries’ and ‘public acceptance.’ Public? The public plays no part in the process whatsoever. The public is not invited (it gets a printed announcement later.)” –The Painted Word (I also have a proud Wolfe moment when I got a paper back in graduate school that said “you can’t just dismiss theory!” written on it.)

Here is a link to that letter. Know that it comes with an MPAA language warning, but if you know Hunter S. Thompson you know to expect that you “thieving pile of albino warts.”

Hunter S Thompson’s letter to Tom Wolfe- the ‘pig in the ‘filthy white suit’

#5 Bully for Brontosaurus

This is the book that introduced me to the genius and wit of Stephen Jay Gould. This is one of those collections of essays that you come for one and stay for the rest. What I have always loved about Gould is his ability to take complex ideas and break them out to meet a general reader where they live. His prolific output is only matched by his variety and ability to tell stories. Unlike some who merely rehash old books into knew when a new chapter’s worth of ungulate evolution has come to light, most of Gould’s work is different enough from itself to always learn something. I have often described him as the Dave Barry of popular science writing, but there are many people who required a backstory on Dave Barry, so that might not be the best way to go. This is a fantastic book to gift, not only for content but for stylistic study. We are sorely at a loss of essayists these days, and collections such as this are true treasures. This was one of the first books that I looked at and said “I want to do that” that actually had content I was familiar with. It is also partly to bless or to blame for my blogging and my penchant to write as if I were talking to you or producing something for verbal narration.

I will add here a bit more about the science in popular culture aspect of my work. Gould was one of many guest stars on The Simpsons who provided his own voice acting in the episode “Lisa the Skeptic.”

 

#6 The Bonehunter’s Revenge 

Paleontology is the gateway science drug. It can also be the gateway history of science drug. The great thing about it is that it can be applied in outreach across a wide variety of student interests. When I first learned about Cope v Marsh I set out to learn everything I could about the whole ordeal. Interestingly there isn’t as much as you’d expect. The Bonehunters’ Revenge is one of the ones I picked up. It is one of my favorites although not well reviewed as people compare it to other Wallace books. As it happens this books turned out to be more important for my dissertation than it would have been had I stayed writing about the history of paleontology in America. In particular it is the vehicle that brought this private feud to an adoring public that makes it significant: newspapers.

Specifically the tabloid newspapers, and exactly the New York Herald overseen by James Gordon Bennet, Jr. (We’ll see more of his family and this paper later). Once the public became engrossed in the dirty deeds done dirt cheap in this bizarro world Paleo Spy vs. Spy (two MAD references in one system, that could be a theme here as well), congress started paying attention too. Whether you are #TeamCope or #TeamMarsh it was their tantrums that led to government wondering why it was funding the hunt for “birds with teeth” and began to cut back on apporpriations for such expeditions. This feud was actually a continuation of a broader one that manifested early in the careers and goals of Ferdinand Hayden (Cope’s mentor) and J.W. Powell (Marsh’s mentor). While these reports come a half century after the emergence of the Penny Press and American tabloidism, it shows just how engrained the papers were in daily life and how they could grow to shape things beyond the profit of a newspaper. Fun fact, the first American animated film–incidentally starring a dinosaur named Gertie–was the brainchild of New York Herald editorial cartoonist Windsor McCay who may be best known for his comic strip Little Nemo.

#7 The Sun and the Moon

With a good editor this would have been a three book series. As it stands it is still one of my favorites and parts of it have popped up in my work and research ever since I discovered it. This book is the history of newspapers in America, it is the history of science fiction in America, it is the history of popular culture in America, it is the popular science communication in America, and it is the history of hoaxes in America. While the New York Sun penny paper is the main star here, it’s early rival The New York Herald, under the eye of James Gordon Bennet, grew influential enough to have rivals of its own. It covers the earliest printing of court reports and all other sorted things which before 1835 weren’t fit to print. Other players taking the stage to the background of moon man bats included, P.T. Barnum and his first humbugs, Edgar Allan Poe and his first forays into sciene fiction, including those that influenced Jules Verne, and an unassuming but brilliant writer and social commentarian Richard Adams Locke, whose parable in six parts took the newspaper reading world by storm and increased circulation of cheap newspapers beyond anyone’s imagination.

Once the roots of these papers had found suitable soil it would take a digital revolution 165 years later to budge it, and then it only changed formats. One of my favorite stories of all time comes from this book. It comes from Charles Dickens visit to the US (which he loathed unapologetically). Stepping down from his coach he was appalled to find a dirty working class mechanic with a newspaper under his arm. Apparently the very idea that newspapers could be for everyone offended Chuck’s sensibilities. This is a well-read audiobook too, with the narrator reading the newspaper articles in their author’s accent. This is particularly useful as Bennet was Scottish. Now I am guilty of reading everything that Bennet wrote in that same accent. If you are giving it a casual read I recommend the audiobook over the printed. Although it does say the same thing, it doesn’t seem to get as convoluted listening to it. 

#8 Annals of the Former World

Continuing the introspection of what books influenced me in some way or another is this collection of John McPhee stories. Most of McPhee’s work comes in at a couple hundred pages and range, no pun intended, from Alaska to Florida, and oranges to canoes. There really isn’t a bad one to get you started. Annals of the Former World takes you though the heart of the continent from east to west. If you ever find yourself getting your kicks on Route 66, or in that general direction, this book will take you through the past of the present that you are ignoring listening to your audiobook. This was one of the first books that really captured geology in a way that was readable and shareable with people who haven’t been baptized will all the smutty sounding vocabulary of the geologic trade. There is plenty of technical jargon in here that will keep the practicing rockhound satisfied, and probably bore your more Dan Brown summer readers.

Annals of the Former world won the Pulitzer Prize, and two of the books that are collected were finalists themselves. This was one that got me thinking about spinning my history studies more towards the history of science–I got out of science and into history so I could reclaim my use of adjectives and metaphor–thinking here is a nice model to work with. Well guess what McPhee is *not*, yes, a historian. You know what he *is*, (if you’ve been following along this should be easy) a journalist. This may have been the most useful pointless exercise that I have been tagged in on Facebook. I will end with a nice little paragraph from McPhee’s wikipedia page which juxtaposes him with the two New Journalist spies I wrote about earlier. Many of the topics in his New Yorker Pieces are bits of larger works. If you don’t have time for 700 pages of geology, I would recommend starting with Adventures with the Archdruid. That, in my opinion can give you the best summation of McPhee’s style.

“Unlike Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, who helped kick-start the “new journalism” in the 1960s, McPhee produced a gentler, more literary style of journalism that more thoroughly incorporated techniques from fiction. McPhee avoided the streams of consciousness of Wolfe and Thompson, but detailed description of characters and appetite for details make his writing lively and personal, even when it focuses on obscure or difficult topics. He is highly regarded by fellow writers for the quality, quantity, and diversity of his literary output.”

You can delve more into McPhee’s New Yorker work here.

For good measure (and a little tri-fold symmetry) I should also specifically include this piece about Lacrosse which was illustrated by Ralph Steadman who lent his talents to depicting the gonzo world of Hunter S Thompson.

#9 Sea of Glory

I bought Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory on a whim the first or second year I worked for H.E.B. Grocery. Since it was a “Plus” store it had books and magazines among other non grocery things. It was on the red dot clearance rack for what I thought was $7 but in actuality turned out to be $7 off, so it cost me $5 more than I had figured. I was more interested in the time period than the fact it was a navel voyage since there are relatively few books written about the antebellum period.

My original intent in graduate school was to study scientific expeditions in Victorian England, mainly because that had proved to be an easier sell than wanting to write about Game Rangers in British East Africa. I was pretty well versed in expeditionary forces and camps and leaders in the US from Lewis and Clark onward, or so I thought. I had never heard of this expedition, and that annoyed me more than anything. Even looking more into it there was only a few things written in the “professional” journals, and a neat Smithsonian exhibition somewhere around its 150th anniversary. Reading this book snapped a few things into place to make it the initial cornerstone for my dissertation: Titain Peale was involved, and it started with a hole in the earth.

Hollow Earth Theory has always interested me more for the mythology that has been built around it than anything else. It also provides a great point to go back and look at Science Fiction writing as it continues on as though some theories are true and explore any wisdom (or commentary) that that particular reality may impart. It is also a great introduction to Jeremiah Reynolds who actually managed to get the thing organized and ultimately himself disinvited from the journey. A newspaper man by trade besides taking up the cause for a hole at the pole he ended up stranded during a mutiny where he was introduced to a dangerous whale off the coast of South America (where his post mutiny group landed) called Moche Dick. His article influenced Herman Melville’s book which ultimately explains most of everything in the 19th century. His essays on polar exploration influenced Edgar Allan Poe as well, who, in the story of Arthur Gordon Pym “borrowed” several (most) lines. Pym influences a French guy named Verne and we get him trying to finish the story in The Sphinx of the Ice Realm.

I have read this and listened to the audiobook while driving back down to Texas, and still laugh about how it ended up being such a large part of my professional life. It also reveals a huge oversight in American Scientific Biography as James Dana needs a good 700 page bio from his familial ties to what becomes Scientific American to his checking Darwin’s theories of islands once this voyage makes it to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii, or post-now, Hawai’i). He had read a newspaper article the explained Darwin’s island growing theory he had developed a few years before in the Galapagos. Let’s all just take a moment and put the hope out into the Universe that Dana isn’t shadowed in his own biography as “The American Darwin.” One of the only things that might save him from that is that there are only a handful of us that see Darwin as a geologist.

The book also explains that with the help of the material specimens collected by the Pacific Railroad Surveys and the U.S.-Mexican Boundary survey (both guest stars of my dissertation) the materials collected by the U.S. Ex. Ex. forced the hand of the early Smithsonian decision makers to abandon their initial plans for a research base only and not a collection of cabinets to an enormous collection of cabinets. With 400 tonnes of stuff coming in that was government property the only place to store it was the nation’s attic. So, in quite a few ways this little sea cruise was as big an influence on how some American cultural things played out and this book was a large part of my decision to write about it. 

Bonus points here, when I got to OU and met some of the other graduate students it turns out that one of them was going to use the U.S. Ex. Ex. for their research on the contributions of the US Navy on American Science. We actually share a birthday–further still in a graduate program of fifteen,  three of us shared a birthday; which is an interesting coincidence if I do say so myself.

#10 Watchmen

This one may be the odd one out, but it really made me see the whole medium of comics and graphic novels differently. Comics weren’t a big part of my life until late elementary and early jr. High School. I had several books of comic panels that had belonged to my mother, Heathcliff, Hi and Lois, Beetle Bailey, etc. and I would get Garfield books at/through the book fair, but superheroes weren’t really it at all. I think the first one I got was in like 5th grade from a flea market because it was 10/$1. The only one I can remember was the one where Hawkeye was shot in a drive by shooting and had to get a new costume. When I started reading them in earnest it was X-men and they came from the loneliest magazine rack you’ve ever seen in a Brookshire Brothers grocery store. I sent away for some catalog in the back of one and ended up with opportunities to buy back issues for pennies and issue so I tripled my collection then, getting important “collector” issues like The Death of Multiple Man in some X-factor I wasn’t familiar with. The fun thing was they put me on a mailing list and one or two flagged me as under 18 to it went to the only other James Burnes in Fred that they could send it to, my grandfather.

In fact, he got them first and my grandmother kept asking me if I was reading “playboy funnybooks.” I was always a bit confused with the whole superman thing, I knew it as cultural thing, and had seen some of the early animated shorts (when he could just leap buildings in a single bound and not fully fly) but I guess I projected his powers onto people I knew and they weren’t saving the city. I came to Watchmen later and it instantly drew me into the realness of living in a world with costumed vigilantes. The logic behind the mythos. A weird inverse morality in the face of the pure American mythos. By the time I picked it up I had been out of comics for a few years, I had to offload my collection–two boot boxes full– because “they were a fire hazard.” Seriously, it wasn’t like we didn’t have 3 bookshelves full of apparently less flammable paper. I had also settled into my sort of default philosophy of Romantic Nihilism in a way that I couldn’t explain it to others, that everything was beautiful and nothing mattered. There are aspects of the Comedian that I really identified with and there were others that I find repulsive, so I had to deal with that internal schizophrenia and its outcomes.

I had actually had practice living in two minds as I was spending recess doing imitations of Jim Carrey and then later getting to listen to my grandparents talk about how terrible he was, they couldn’t stand him, that was all just stupid, etc. Learning that you can share some of the more mundane, (useful?), personal traits from people/characters without subscribing to the bad is a great and powerful thing. I think a little of it goes back to the whole newspaper thing again too with The Frontiersman and Rorschach’s Journal, that is where the truth is. Men in Black taught us the same thing, right? I mean, that’s independent confirmation. The hard black and white truth is cut out of the full fabric of life too, and you can think that as long as they are *believing* something it is as good as if it were true. My second master’s thesis looked at that (it didn’t matter that the Piltdown skull was fake, it still had *real* repercussions on the science and practice of anthropology). Maybe that is a kind of blue pill in the end, and we all choose which lies we are comfortable living with, or maybe there is a varying degree of “reality” that we all experience. There was also a giant owl airship (owlship?) named after the cartoon owl in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone.

The few comics I did keep were some of the dark Marvel What-Ifs. Specifically, “Deadly Inheritance” which saw the Fantastic Four’s powers consuming them, and “The Mark of Cain” where Juggernaut finds himself the only being on earth after a plague. There are two honorable mentions here before I fall into talking about how comics are keeping me sane through my dissertation and they are somewhat tangentially related to Watchmen as they spin some thing cold war related. The first is Red Son, which follows Superman as he fell to earth in Russia and instead of becoming a good hard working American, he became a good hard working communist. The other is similar (and again Fantastic Four–What If really seemed to have it out for them) with the Fantastic Four being cosmonauts instead of astronauts.

I will add that it was also nice to start and end something this long written sequentially by a single author. I wasn’t *too* crushed getting out of comics in the mid 90s because by that point X-men was as full of *see issue XX notes as it was real dialogue. The last thing I remember was something on Asteroid M and Rogue and Iceman were on a road trip after she kissed Gambit.

Another bit of unpopular admittance is that I enjoyed the film. There are some major differences that would not translate to the screen from the page. It was a closer reading than Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which I think was easier to approach than that graphic novel, but where it died in the water was the insistence on including an American character to draw American audiences. The whole Tom Sawyer thing was bland as he wasn’t much of a mean mean warrior so to speak. I didn’t hate it, I just wanted more out of it, but I digress. Even if you didn’t enjoy the movie or hated the changes you almost have to admit that the opening Bob Dylan music video with all the references and stills is fantastic. And the many scenes that are direct copies of the comic panels were amazing.

Without getting into the philosophy or any of the mucky stuff above, the shortest reason to put this on my list of 10 it that it helped me get over the internalized belief that comics (or “graphic novels”) were some how lower forms of literature. That I wasn’t “reading” if I was reading comics. That was internalized because that was what I was told. By the same grandfather that gave me The Red Badge of Courage and was getting my catalogs for “playboy funnybooks.” I think that was finally shattered seeing the graphic novel From Hell on the English Honors reading list or purchase shelf at the Lamar Bookstore (Kampus Korner) when I returned as a sophomore and a half in my undergrad after being out for 4 years. From Hell incidentally, was written by the same guy.

 

 

 

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