The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Patrick stole my title…

June 20, 2005

I guess that’s what I get for waiting until everyone else has already posted. Ok, so I need to comply with the “five books I liked enough as a teen/young adult to read again as an adult” meme. After reading some other folks’ lists I am a little weary about posting mine, since I didn’t do all that much reading as a child (my teachers are still shocked that I am pursuing my PhD, as are many of those who ‘knew me when’—lets just say I wasn’t always ‘intellectually engaged’). The bit of reading I did do consisted mostly of biographies, books about baseball, and comic books (at one point I was on the path to becoming a comic artist).

Anyhow, as I understand the original meme we are supposed to list the five fiction books that influenced us enough as children to re-read as adults. However, since the idea of a meme is closely related to a gene, and genes—in their attempt to perpetuate themselves—many times mutate beyond their original form (a mechanism which is crucial to the evolutionary process), I will throw in a wrinkle (a biography). OK, enough equivocating—without further delay here is the list in no particular order:

1) Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck: this was the first book I ever read cover to cover (actually, it was the first where I read at least half of the book). I finished the book in one sitting and was blown away. It was an incredible tale of loneliness and struggle, but also of companionship. The relationship between Lenny and George is far from perfect, but in the end George is acting out of love for Lenny—two social misfits who found companionship, at least for a little while. What I appreciate most about the book is Steinbeck’s treatment of human relationships. I came away with a vivid, emotional appreciation for the importance of such relationships (something I needed to be reminded of from time to time). Additionally, the tragic fate that befalls Lenny (as well as his general treatment throughout the book) always reminds me how despicable the ill-treatment of the weak and innocent is. Most people think of Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden when they hear the name Steinbeck, but for me Mice and Men has a special place in my heart because it forever changed my opinion of literature and reading in general.

2) The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller: The Dark Knight Returns is quite possibly the greatest graphic novel ever written (aside from The Watchmen and the Sandman series). Frank Miller essentially rescued the Batman franchise, which had become somewhat dull and stilted. Miller presented an older, more visceral and violent version of Batman who comes out of retirement so to speak. Like Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns was chock-full-of political commentary, wonderfully commentating on the political climate in the 1980’s (e.g. questioning the morality of President Reagan’s interventions in South America, etc.—Clark Kent carries out a “political hit” in South America for a President that bears a not-so-coincidental resemblance to Ronald Reagan). Additionally, Miller’s characterization of Batman and Superman brilliantly portrays two conflicting normative visions for society: the virtues of order (represented by Superman who has chosen to serve what is described as a corrupt government) versus resistance to an unjust order (represented by the Dark Knight). Miller also makes certain to take equal shots at both the left and the right—a fact that fits with my own internal debate about where I stand on many issues. Finally, as noted above, Miller’s Dark Knight is more violent than previous incarnations of Batman. Unlike Superman, he is not restrained by a moral code (at least, not anymore)—those who commit horrible atrocities are punished in kind with violence. The justice handed out has an explicit element of revenge to it. In general, Miller’s work should not be viewed as a ‘mere comic book’. Like The Watchmen, it is a challenging literary work (well, at least in my opinion) which forces the reader to admit, confront, and grapple with their preconceived notions of society, politics, and justice.

3) The Natural, by Bernard Malamud

–and–

4) The Mick, by Mickey Mantle and H. Gluck: these two books, the first a work of fiction, the second a biography, compliment each other nicely. Both works obviously involve baseball players of tremendous, almost mythical abilities. But the underlying lessons and themes of these works are generalizable far beyond the diamond. In Malamud’s classic (which was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs), Roy Hobbs is a athlete with incredible natural skill. He is fast on his way to becoming one of the greatest players ever until he makes a fateful mistake. Roy emerges years later as a 40-something minor league journeyman who is given a chance to play for the lowly New York Knights. Upon his arrival, Hobbs begins to display his mythical talent and leads the Knights on an improbable pennant run. In my mind, Roy Hobbs strikes a strong resemblance (although I do not think this intentional) to Mickey Mantle. Mantle was a hall of fame outfielder for the New York Yankees. He won the triple crown, finished 12th on the all time home run list (as well as the all time leader with 18 World Series HR’s), is still the greatest switch hitter to ever play the game, and is responsible for the term “tape measure home run” because of his incredible strength. My father used to tell me stories about Mantle when I was a kid, and from then he became my favorite player. Mantle’s story is eerily similar to that of Hobbs—immense talent, careless mistakes, and a lifetime of “what could have been”. Many sports observers note that had Mantle not destroyed his body with careless behavior (most notably abusing alcohol) he would have easily joined the ranks of the big 3 (Mays, Ruth, and Aaron). The lesson learned from both books (for me at least) was that wasted talent is one of the greatest of all sins.

5) The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien: My mother had the Tolkien collection which I eventually made my way over too. I am not quite sure that I ever truly finished each of the books when I was a kid, but I read enough to know that it was an incredible story. As I got older and reread the collection I better understood the symbolism Tolkien utilized, but the great thing about these books is that they can be enjoyed by people of all ages. I already have the trilogy on my bookshelf waiting for my kids to discover.

Anyway, I tag Peter Howard and David Faris.

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Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.