The Duck of Minerva

Books That Still Speak to Me

19 June 2005

I’ve been tagged by Daniel Drezner. As I understand this process, I am now obligated to describe the “five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult.” If I do not comply, I will suffer the same fate of those who break chain letters and chain email.

The problem is that I already suffer from an incurable “Peter Pan” complex (not to be confused with the “Peter Pan Syndrome“). Five books? There are at least a dozen I’ve reread and continue to reread. So I’ll focus on ones that address John Cole’s subsidiary question: “What pieces of fiction [and, I’ll add, non-fiction] meant something to you?”

1. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve read this book repeatedly since I was a pre-adolescent, and I’ve watched the film version many times. As cheesy as this may sound, many of Atticus’ lessons to Scout remain fundamental to my basic moral code. As Atticus says to her, relatively early in the books:

“First of all,” he [Atticus] said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

2. Ursula K. Le Guin’s original Earthsea novels: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. Ged confronts his nemesis; Tenar chooses between betraying all those she loves, or betraying herself; why mortality is a gift, and immortality is a curse. In all three, the racial coding of high fantasy gets turned upside down. What’s not to love – except of course, the Sci-Fi Channel “adaptation”? I adore these books so much because they speak to my own darkness and my own hopes (now in a more existential sense), and because they are such good, slim stories. I sometimes wonder why it is that most of the best fantasy is written for young adults; it can’t be something intrinsic about the young-adult genre, because so much of the fantasy in it, like adult fantasy, is dreck.

3. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. One of the first fantasy series I read (after the Lord of the Rings – which I do read every couple of years but needs no elaboration and so won’t be included on this list – and the Prydain Chronicles). Although one of many series that leans heavily on Welsh and Arthurian mythology, Cooper’s novels stand out not only because they are damn good stories, but because she weaves into young adult fantasy some very adult themes. I still find The Grey King quite moving. As a young boy, it was my first real (literary) introduction to the connection between love and sacrifice. The sequence on the train in Silver on the Tree, and the choice Merriman Lyon makes for an innocent man caught in the struggle between the Light and the Dark, still troubles me. Is ignorance a better choice than knowing the truth, even if the latter reveals the fundamental lie upon which one’s life is based?

4. Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Three loosely linked post-nuclear holocaust stories. The first is the best: American society has collapsed, anti-technology riots have destroyed most scientific records, and so the Catholic Church dutifully preserves the wisdom of old. Monks illuminate technical blueprints, the contents of which they do not understand. A young brother goes out to the desert for his vision quest, and encounters what appears to be the Wandering Jew.

To reveal more would be telling. Suffice it to say that Miller manages to square the circle: his vision of human history is both progressive and tragic at the same time. He is both a realist and optimist, and his stories really brought home for me the basic fragility of civilization and of individual human life.

5. Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. I’ve mostly identified books from when I was really young; The Great Transformation is my token entry from my later (but still young) years, as well as my token non-fiction entry. Polanyi’s wrong about most of his history; his basic economic theories are seriously flawed; and yet he still manages to be correct about the big things: the fundamental conflict between political liberalism and economic liberalism (the reason, in brief, why I am not a libertarian), the utopian nature of the self-regulating market, and so on and so forth. Even though I don’t embrace his own proposals, reading Polanyi helped restore my own commitment to New Deal liberalism.

If I were a good deal younger, I am convinced that Garth Nix’s superlative Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, would be on this list, as would Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

I’m tagging Steve Burt, Kerry Lutz, Robert Farley and, of course, the other members of the Duck.

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