Smile Politely

Hitting the books

Now that the Internet has revealed demonstrably that everyone in the world is just as witty, self-satisfied, and incisive as everyone else, as well as being a movie critic, the humor/political/generalist columnist is little more than another superfluous annoyance.

(Ryan, my dear no-longer-quite-so-reluctant townie, you know I love you, but Road House is exhausted and I’m not ready to relish your inevitable, upcoming tales of babydaddyhood, having been through this business myself and having shelved those anecdotes behind my income tax returns from the last century.)

So, thanks to my Kindle, Droid, Audible, Amazon, and the Urbana Free Library –- not to mention Roger Ebert’s incessant posts about his voracious reading habits –- I have found myself juggling a dozen or so books to occupy my need for constant consumption of brainfood and novelty.  Facebook isn’t cutting it.

For those who aren’t Twittering their way through a revolution at the moment, here is a compressed rundown of my current active reading list.

1. Allen Ginsberg Collected Poems 1947-1980 –- A former friend once declared that Ginsberg was not really a poet.  Strictly speaking, maybe so. He’s not academic or painstaking.  Like Kerouac, he types. But there is no greater chronicler of the urgent zen moment, no better historical conjurer of the ’50s and ’60s or the underbelly of America.  Plus, James Franco is hosting the Oscars and Howl: The Movie is out on DVD.  A must-see.

2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas –- Fascinating bio of the German theologian and pacifist who plotted to kill Hitler. Dietrich B. was an intellectual who loved New York, art, black American church services, and determined that religion thwarted what Jesus was really all about. The Nazis hanged him.

3. Solar by Ian McEwan –- A comic, smoothly written novel from the author of Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and Saturday. A Nobel-prize winning scientist with a messed-up personal life (five ex-wives and a frostbitten penis) sets out to harness the power of the sun to save the planet. He was aggressively apolitical, to the fingertips. He disliked the overheated non-arguments, the efforts each side made to misunderstand and misrepresent the other, and the amnesia that spooled behind each issue as it arose.

4. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon –- If I finish a page a day, I’ll be done in about three years.

5 and 6. Red by John Logan –- The Broadway production starred Alfred Molina as the sublime abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, struggling to paint an ill-fated (but beautiful) series of commissioned paintings. The play captures the creative impulse unnervingly well, as does The Pittman Painters by Lee Hall about 1934 coal miners who take an art appreciation class and became celebrated primitivists. The cost and value of being an artist comes alive in both works.

7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -– I’ve barely scratched the surface of this as an audiobook. They dance, they fight, they get married, they think about money. Why do I keep thinking about Jane Austen?

8. The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb –- Taleb was a Wall Street trader with such prophetic mathematical powers (outlined in his book, The Black Swan) that Malcolm Gladwell profiled him with praise.  This slim volume of pithy epigrams (“To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.”) provides perfect quotes for Facebook status updates. The guy is stuck on himself, but it’s fresh to the point of sometimes being a slap in the face, to wit: “Literature comes alive when covering up vices, defects, weaknesses, and confusions; it dies with every trace of preaching.”

9. Martyr’s Mirror: The Story of Fifteen Centuries of Christian Martyrdom From the Time of Christ to AD 1660 (also known as The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith) by Thieleman J. van Braght –- The 1,000+ page Anabaptist classic contains scores of stories of Christians who were martyred (hanged, burned alive, beheaded, eviscerated, etc.) by other Christians for their differing theology of nonresistance (refusal to participate in war) and adult baptism. Inspirational for the intensity of the conviction and readable as literature as well. 

10. Moon Handbooks Guide to Cuba by Christopher P. Baker –- The tourism industry has tainted if not wiped out the authenticity of travel adventure in Latin America.  Cuba may still offer a break from cell phones, credit cards, Starbucks, and Facebook.  Spring break is just weeks away.

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