01 After Lorca by Jack Spicer
02 The Construction of Homosexuality by David F. Greenberg
03 Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
04 Funeral Rites by Jean Genet
05 Sunflower Splendor, ed by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo
06 Auto-da-fé by Elias Canetti
07 A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, ed by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone
08 A Dream of Red Mansions/Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin
09 The Great Code/Words with Power by Northrop Frye
10 The First Scientist Anaximander and His Legacy by Carlo Rovelli
After my friend Jose Arroyo invited me to several challenges on Facebook,i.e. 10 Albums in 10 Days and 10 Films in 10 Days, I responded with an even more difficult challenge: 10 Books in 10 Days, with an explanation of how the book affected your life, thought, or work. Above are the ten books and below are the covers and write-ups for each.
I left out all childhood books, which would have included The Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web and the Mushroom Planet books. I also left out tween and early teen books like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, I, Robot, Childhood’s End and The Martian Chronicles. Finally I left out the late-teen, early twenties Russian literature phase Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol included in the exclusion. What emerged were books between the intersection of my life as a gay man and my own writing practice. I encourage others to make and post such a list on Facebook, Twitter and/or here on WordPress.
Book One of Ten
After Lorca by Jack Spicer, 1974, the gay, American poet, Jack Spicer imagines a series of letters about poetry written to the dead Federico Garcia Lorca. Interspersed are his “translations” of Lorca poems, some of which are actually completely new poems. He also has an introduction written by Lorca in which Lorca questions and dismisses the whole enterprise. “Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca, as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place. The analogy is impolite, but I fear the impoliteness is deserved.”
Playful and irreverent, Spicer’s slender volume combines gallows humour, gorgeous poetry and deceptively simple declarations bout the poetic method to make for a perfect gem of book that accorded with my existing sensibilities at the same time as it gently re-shaped them, ultimately producing new outlooks and approaches to poetry that I did not previously have.
As with many of the books on this list, it is a friend who introduced it to me and I am mortally grateful to Mark Sinnett for giving me a photocopied volume in the early 1980s, a scan of which is attached below. After Lorca is also included in the Collected Books of Jack Spicer.
Book Two of Ten
The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988, by David F. Greenberg. An encyclopedic cataloguing of homosexuality across cultures and historical periods, Greenberg’s book is one of a number of scholarly works that came out in the 1980’s and 1990’s that expanded our understanding of what being gay had been, is and could be. It’s spirit, and that of its sisterly scholarly works, helped to infuse activist movements like Queer Nation, as well as artistic endeavors. It certainly consciously, and unconsciously, infused my journalism for gay newspapers in the 1990s, as well as my own creative writing, especially the performance piece Sodom etc/Sodam agus araile, 1992, Gallery 101, Ottawa. Its footnotes lead to a bottomless rabbit hole of writing and thought by and about queerness. Whatever scholarly bones one has to pick with Greenberg and his methods (In particular, I am sure his curt dismissal of Michel Foucault galls many.), this book remains a valuable resource for anyone interested in human sexuality in general, and homosexuality in all its particular peculiarities.
Book Three of Ten
Invisible Cities, 1972, by Italo Calvino. “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have,” one of my favorite quotes from one of my most cherished books. The descriptions of cities encountered by Marco Polo, as related to Kublai Khan, exemplify what Calvino discusses in his collection of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, literature as the flame refracted through the crystal, exquisite structures that reveal thought and emotion even as they refract it. WH Auden expressed a similar approach when he said that poetry was like a game; it is no fun if there aren’t any rules. In his essay entitled Exactitude from Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Calvino writes: “The book in which I managed to say the most remains Invisible Cities, because I was able to concentrate all my reflections, experiments, and conjectures on a single symbol [the city]; and also because I built up a many faceted structure in which each brief text is close to the others in a series that does not imply logical sequence or a hierarchy, but a network in which one can follow multiple routes and draw multiple, ramified conclusions.” Beautiful in its own right, Invisible Cities is also an example of an approach to literature that was deeply influential on my own writing. Once again, a shout must go out to Mark Sinnett for introducing me to this book in the early 80s.
Book Four of Ten
Funeral Rites, 1948/1953, by Jean Genet. Is it possible to imagine 20th century queer culture without the influence of Jean Genet? I could have chosen any of his books, as I was equally entranced by all of them, but I have selected Funeral Rites, as it most clearly explores a very gay-male aspect of queer culture: eroticizing the oppressor. Written to commemorate his lover, Jean Decarnin, a young communist killed by Nazi-collaborators in Paris at the end of World War II, Genet’s visceral, homoerotic fantasies/realities about desire, power, grief and violence would be much imitated, but never matched because Genet, unlike many, allows his vulnerability to shine through every dark page. This eroticization of the oppressor would find a more joyous expression in the artwork of Tom of Finland, but Genet keeps us in the real world of stiff cocks, puckered asses, spit, sweat and cum. Genet was the first seriously queer writer I encountered as a young homo, and his writing is still the best for those wishing to shed the skin of “normalcy.”
Book Five of Ten
Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry, Ed. By Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, 1975. All of the books on this list have influenced me, but his book was life-changing. I had been writing poetry for about a decade and had some exposure to Chinese poetry, but when Michael Leon gave me this book, a whole new universe opened up. It fired my interest in Chinese poetry, culture and history, and the Chinese language itself, which would eventually lead to me to live in China for 5 years. Over 1000 poems that span 3,000 years form the Shi Jing (The Classic of Poetry) to Mao Zedong, Footnoted and with a brief bio for each poet, it remains perhaps the most accessible entry to Chinese poetry. It is inexhaustible, yet only a tiny tip of the iceberg that is Chinese literature, after reading it many times cover-to-cover, I can still dip in on any page and be amazed.
Book Six of Ten
Auto-da-fé, 1935, Elias Canetti, I love black humor, morbid fascinations, grotesqueries of all kinds, and no book combines them all with such dense, yet flowing prose, as does Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fé. The main character, Peter Kien, is about as unlikeable a character as you are likely to find in fiction, a Sinologist who loves books more than he likes people and who hates women more than anything. His decision to marry his housekeeper, Therese, because of a hastily and mistakenly formed impression that she too respects and honors books, unleashes a chain of events that draws in a hunchback named Fischerle, Kien’s psychiatrist brother and a host of criminal elements, with all the characters driven by conflicting monomanias, and leads to the (anti)climactic event referred to in the title of book. It is all as if Heinrich Boll’s The Clown was mashed up with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. I am fairly certain that it was Eduardo Cordeiro who introduced this novel to me in the 1990s.
Auto-da-fé inspired me to read Canetti’s most well-known books, Crowds and Power, and The Memoirs of Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, The Play of the Eyes, which, in turn led me to Los Sueños/Dreams, 1627, by Francisco de Quevedo, cited by Canetti as his favorite book. Particularly amusing are Quevedo’s descriptions of Poets in Hell: “Ah, What I saw and learned about poets! A devil approached and said to me: They celebrate their sins in the same way that others weep for them…If they love their ladies the most they give them is a sonnet or two, or a bundle of eight-liners…What’s more, poets seem not to have the least idea about whose flag they fly under; for instance, their names are those of Christians, but they have the souls of heretics, they think like Arabs but use the language of ancient pagans.” Sounds about right to me, but I think it is a good thing.
Vying for this spot on the list were, in addition to the Boll and Peake books mentioned above, The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić, which recounts the centuries of religious and ethnic strife in the Balkans through the history of a bridge, and Serbian Diaries, 1996, by Boris L. Davidovich, a gay man’s recounting of his cruising for sex in Belgrade as the then-Yugoslavia descends into war and ethnic strife.
You shouldn’t be afraid of the dark
Or of worms
Now you can play with the rain
And see the grass come up
You shouldn’t put dirt in your mouth
And sit still waiting for me
We’ve given you some flowers
To console you for being little
(Translated by Maxin Kumin and Judith Kumin)
If it only contained this one poem, Book 7 of 10, A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now, 1980, Edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone, would make it onto my list, but this book contains worlds. Arranged in an overlaying mesh of original language and historical period, the poems presented span from Sappho to Margaret Atwood [That’s some leap!], and from Emily Dickinson to anonymous folk songs from Morocco that express sentiments like: “To look at an ugly man/gives me a headache” and Algeria : “Be happy for me, girls,/my mother-in-law is dead!/In the morning I found her/stiff, her mouth shut./Yet I won’t believe it/till I see the grass/waving on her tomb.”
One of my favorite discoveries from the book was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the 17th century Mexican nun, poet, philosopher and scientist whose poem titles are almost as long as her poem, for example: “She Proves the Inconsistency of the Desires and Criticism of Men Who Accuse Women of What They Themselves Cause,” which contains stanzas like “Has anyone ever seen/a stranger moral fervor:/you who dirty the mirror/regret it is not clear?” and the pithier but delightful, “In Which She Satisfies a Fear with the Rhetoric of Tears.”
In searching for an online cover shot of this book, I saw that at some point it was “Revised and with an Expanded Section of American Poets.” I also notice it costs $35. In the 80s, mine cost me 95 cents at a second hand bookstore. Second hand book stores in the 80s rocked.
Book Eight of Ten
A Dream of Red Mansions, as the title of is usually translated, the original Chinese being 红楼梦 red/storied building/dream, but the best available English translation goes by the title The Story of the Stone, which has basis in the text, if not in the original title.
Written in the 18th Century by Cao Xueqin (with 40 chapters added later by Cao E), it is a sprawling story of the decline of the Qing-Dynasty Jia family. It’s huge cast of characters and the breadth of its story makes War and Peace look like Daniel Steele. Focused on the character of Jia Baoyu, the young adolescent male heir of the Jia family who spends his days surrounded by the women of the family, living a richly aesthetic and dream-like existence, as business concerns and political intrigue swirl around and eventually demolish their way of life. Slated to marry Xue Baochai, he forms an intense bond with his sickly cousin, Lin Daiyu, based on their love of music, poetry and nature. One of the most referenced scenes in the book being Lin Daiyu’s funeral for the flowers. She is so distressed at the sight of the petals that have fallen in the night that she gathers them up and gives them a burial.
It is impossible to overstate the influence of this book on Chinese literary and visual culture. It has inspired endless commentaries, imitations, paintings, poetry, as well as film and television. It is considered one of the four great novels of Chinese literature, the other three being The Romance of the Three Kingdoms/三国演义, The Outlaw of the Marshes/水浒传 (Also called Water Margins in English) and Journey to the West/The Monkey King/西游记. I recommend all four, but especially Dream of Red Mansions. (The Story of the Stone, translated in 5 volumes, also contains an indispensable glossary of characters and the family trees for the Jia and Wang families, you’ll need them.)
Reading this book is a completely immersive experience into a long-gone world that is made instantly recognizable by the rich psychological insights into the characters.
For those who like their reads shorter and racier, I recommend Li Yu (李漁: 1610-80)’s Silent Operas (无声戏) and The Carnal Prayer Mat (肉蒲团). He is a great comedic writer who mocks sexual taboos by (pretending?) to reinforce them.
Book Nine of Ten
Book 9 of 10 is actually two books, The Great Code, 1981, and Words with Power, 1990, by Northrop Frye, but they were written as sister volumes, so I am listing them as one.
It was these two books that introduced me to serious study of the structures of language and literature. Frye’s goal was to treat the Bible as a piece of literature, examine its underlying language, metaphors, rhetorical devices and over-arching structure, and show how it was central to Western literature until the 18th Century and still exerts a strong, if often hidden, influence.
Anyone serious about the examination of literature, and its adjacent forms of film, tv and journalism, would do well to read these books. They will heighten your senses to The Bible’s daily intrusion into all of these forms of expression, sometimes blatantly and obviously, sometimes in a quite coded manner. If for no other reason than to Know Thy Enemy, these books are essential reading. For me they were a methadone that helped wean me off the heroin of religion, by helping me to see the deep, human structures of literature and how The Bible uses and misuses them.
Fortunately, there a plenty of other, positive reasons to avail yourself of Frye’s considered knowledge of literature and language. The books are crash courses in structure, metaphor and myth. The Great Code lays out the approach and Words of Power can be viewed as a series of case studies, always arguing for the centrality of literature to culture.
Certainly, many people would greatly benefit from putting aside for a spell their Barthes, Derrida and Foucault and reading some Frye. Oh, no she didn’t?! Oh, yes, she did! And then they should read the tenth and final book on my list, to be discussed tomorrow.
Book Ten of Ten
The First Scientist Anaximander and His Legacy by Carlo Rovelli, 2007, English translation 2011. Reading Rovelli I was struck by how his writing is complementary to that of Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I put as Book 3 of 10. In Calvino’s essay Lightness from Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he writes: “In the boundless universe of literature there are always new avenues to be explored, both very recent and very ancient, styles and forms that can change our image of the world….But if literature is not enough to assure me that I am not just chasing dreams, I look to science to nourish my visions in which all heaviness disappears.”
Rovelli, an Italian physicist whose specialty is loop quantum gravity, believes in the ability of science to bring new visions of the world into existence, and he uses literature, modern and ancient, to enliven his writing. He believes that science is more than reproducible, quantifiable results, he expounds the necessity of imagination and vision, and he sees visionary imagination as the intersection of science and poetry.
In this charming book he uses as his starting point Anaximander, the 6th Century BCE Greek philosopher who was the first person to realize that the earth was surrounded by space, both above and below. He calls him the first scientist because he was the first person to propose an understanding of the world that did not rely on the gods.
“The idea of formulating an understanding of the world without reference to the gods was a radical one in the sixth century BCE. It had immense consequences, paving the way for the philosophical and scientific developments that grew, in alternate phases, during the next twenty-six centuries. It represents one of the deepest roots of modernity. But it is not an idea that has prevailed. Many, perhaps most, people in our world dissent.”
What Rovelli invites us to do is to live in doubt, to constantly question both what we don’t know and what we believe we do know. This, he states, is the essence of science, and the essence of great art.
I recommend all of Rovelli’s books and chose Anaximander because it is the least intimidating to those who are put off by Einsteinian General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. If Anaximander tickles your fancy, I would suggest you start with Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, 2014/2015 English translation, and then move on to Reality Is Not What It Seems, 2014/2016 English translation, and The Order of Time, 2017/2018 English translation.
Two other books, not by Rovelli, that I highly recommend for those interested in science and the arts are Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy and Literature,2002, by Peter Pesic and The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty by Robert P. Crease and Alfred Scharff Goldhaber.
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