Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The twelve books that impacted my life the most

A friend posed the challenge: which 12 books have impacted me the most?  (Note, not those I enjoyed the most or am most proud to have read).  So here it is, in the approximate time order.  On a different day, the list might be different.  I am a little surprised at the list, myself.

1. (1960's) The King James Bible, by (various authors): I was required to read this in church from about the age of 8 years old, and read much of it again later in life out of sheer fascination for its beautiful language and varied content, as well as to help fend off attacks by my near-ultra-religious relatives.  Though I am no Biblical scholar or an expert, I've also read several books about The Bible, and during my graduate studies, I translated several fragments of the old testament written in Old High German and Middle High German.  I've even read about the history of the Bible and its myriad translations and all the politics surrounding that.  It's a pretty fascinating and raucous history.

2. (1970's) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan: I didn't exactly enjoy this book, but it expressed so much of my own frustration that had never before been uttered,ranging from whether having children should be the entire focus of a woman's life to why women shave their legs and dress as they do.  This book was, for me and many others of my generation, sane-making.  It helped rescue us from a deep sea of expectations surrounding our femaleness.

3. (1970's) Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) by Rainer Maria Rilke: This rambling novelette is, among other things a retelling of the prodigal son tale; it contains an unforgettable description of death by illness, as well as many thought-provoking, poetic sequences.   There exists no more thorough an exploration of how people live than this.  All of Rilke's writings remains on my bookshelf in both English and German.  Read it in German if at all possible.

4. (1980's) Unwiederbringlich by Theodor Fontane:  This haunting novel is not generally available in English, though one can find (with difficulty) an out-of-print British translation entitled "Beyond Recall".   The title literally means "Unbringbackable".   The plot is deceptively simple: a religious and serious-minded woman marries a responsible but light-hearted nobleman, they have two kids and live by the sea peacefully for years, until the husband becomes infatuated with a young woman at court and leaves the wife (only to be rejected immediately by his young girlfriend).  Husband and wife eventually reunite, but soon afterwards, she commits suicide.  The novel has linguistic motifs in the same way that "Peter and the Wolf" has musical motifs.  Reams have been written about this book, and it has been televised and made into movies (in German) more than once.  The German text is available free for electronic readers.

5. (1980's) The complete set of books by George Ohsawa and Herman Aihara about food and health:  These two authors first explained to English speakers how to eat (seasonally, locally, and by other measures) for good health per the philosophy of traditional oriental medicine.  In this crazy world, it's still probably the best food advice to be had.  I forgave the authors some excesses and distilled the best of their writings for my own use, with good results.

6. (1990's) The Religions of Man by Huston Smith: Smith was a well-known professor of religious studies, and he wrote this book as a teaching aid. The first dozen pages of Smith's two chapters on Jesus and the Buddha are without parallel; Smith presented Jesus and Gautama as great and compassionate radicals with much in common with each other.  Because of this book, I did a bunch of additional reading about Buddhism and Taoism, in particular.

7. (1990's) Mary Baker Eddy by Gillian Gill.  This description of a woman who started out life penniless and homeless, and who in her middle years founded a religion which is still going strong decades after her death, is astonishing.  It is also well documented due to the Christian Science church having given the author unprecedented access to their archives.  The wealthy, elderly Ms. Eddy ended up becoming the nemesis of Mark Twain, of all people on earth--which only goes to prove that reality is stranger than fiction.

8. (2000's) Lincoln Reader, by various; edited by Paul M. Angle.  This dog-eared old book, dated 1947, was found in my father-in-law's library.  Like many before me, I found myself glued to this book, rereading parts of it many times, and then I read several additional books about Lincoln, whose life defied all expectations.

9. (2000's) Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy.  This book by a bug expert spoke to the bird lover in me, and as a result, I completely changed my gardening habits and which trees and plants I would tolerate in my yard.  Bug-eaten plants which I had formerly rejected started to look good because I realized they were "in the food chain" of wildlife and thus helped the native flora and fauna, as opposed to imported plants which are resistant to local pests and also quite often dangerously invasive.

10. (1990's) Jesus, A Life by A. N. Wilson: This iconoclastic "biography" of Jesus sifts through the morass of myth surrounding this historical figure and discusses what is knowable--and not knowable--about Jesus as a man. 

11. (2000's) Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston.  The war on junk, materialism, and stuff is endless in American society.  I already knew I needed less stuff and more meaning in my life.  This practical how-to manual, filled with humor, helped me know how to go about it.  I ignored a lot of the Feng Shui part, but the clutter-clearing advice in this book is unsurpassed.  And, she will make you laugh.

12. (2010's) The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.  This book by a modest and honest man impressed me and reminded me what is important.  Tolle has studied all over the world in order to distill out the best parts from many traditions in an attempt to suffer less emotionally and to know how to live.

We all contribute to the killing of as many birds as cats do; we just don't get our hands dirty in the process.

A recent New York Times article about feral and outdoor pet cats "killing billions of birds" annually is showing great popularity.   And it's helpful to urge people to spay their cats and to keep cats indoors whenever possible.  However, cats have already been introduced into the wild, and the overall problem is now insoluble.  You might reduce feral cat numbers significantly by killing outdoor cats, but they are so smart that some would survive, and those would multiply again.  I write this not as a cat lover, but with a cold assessment of all the factors involved. That cat's out of the bag, as the old saying goes.

I'd like to put the cat problem in perspective against overpopulation, climate change, weapons, and pollution.  To me, these are more basic problems that also lead to situations that "kill billions of birds" every year.   To explain why I think this, let me first pose a question.   The Zaire strand of Ebola, a dreaded hemorrhagic virus, kills 90% of infected people; thousands have been perished from it in multiple outbreaks. Why then has it not spread to kill everyone around the world?

You might think the answer would be sanitation or modern health care--and those may be factors.  But the main answer turns out to be that the ebola virus multiplies too quickly within its host, and the host tends to die before the virus has a chance to spread widely enough to keep on going.  Similar to ebola, humanity can be viewed as a virus that is killing off its host, the earth and its plants and trees, much too quickly.   We all see it around every single day--construction, building, growth--much of what people like to call "progress".

Many people act as though they live in isolation, instead of realizing they are stranded on a planet with seven billion other humans.  They are selfish when sharing space locally with others, and they continue to destroy necessary resources more quickly than they can be renewed, living mainly for almost immediate gratification.  And they vigorously defend "their rights" to do so.  Noise, air pollution, water pollution, guns and crime, over-consumption of non-renewable fuels--all of this is a result of there being too many people needing too much too quickly.   Do you doubt that humanity cannot survive forever this way?  Perhaps not even for much longer.

But, but you say--I can't fix any of those problems any more than I can solve the feral cat problem.  In a fit of despair, it is easy to say, why even recycle?  Why deprive myself of anything now?

While I cannot control other people, I can make my own choices. I can decide to restrain myself in several ways that will not constitute a terrible sacrifice for me.   I can choose not to cut down trees that would otherwise live for centuries longer than my own and provide habitat for animals.  I can choose to eat less meat (which beside improving my own health, kills fewer animals).    I can also choose not to create more humans by having children, which is arguably the single most effective thing a person can do to help save the planet.  I will even go so far as to argue that not having children can improve the lives of many people.

This opinion of mine, of course, is destined to be very unpopular.    I am certain to be made fun of, if not threatened, by folks who haven't looked deeply enough into the matter, or who simply don't care.   People will feel they are being judged if they have had children.  I'm sorry, it's true, I am judging them in a sense, but not with hostility.  I just want this to be talked about going forward.  All of the kids and adults who now exist, exist.  But why do so many people make having children a major life goal?

Now, I don't advocate banning people from having children; it wouldn't work anyway.   The efforts by China, for example, to persuade people to limit family size to just one child per couple has been met with all kinds of resistance.  But I do want to express what I believe--that's the big right of a free country, right?  To express views that might be deemed unpalatable to some.  I do want to stop the intimidating taboo of silence about overpopulation.  It is too important not to talk about it.   The question of why everyone wants to have children deserves examination. Does having kids--or more kids, as the case may be--really make life so much better?  I am not persuaded.

I'm tired of the argument that children are what make peoples' lives worth living.  A child, or children, may be a source of great joy to parents, or sometimes, a source of great suffering too.  But either way, do parents really think that people who do not have children are to be pitied?  Yes, that is the stifling assumption that underlies the everyday platitudes that I hear.  People make their choices.  If they have children, they definitely shoulder more financial strain, just like people who build on the shore get their houses flooded more often.  It's a choice, and we don't all have to make that choice.  And we don't have to encourage more people to make a choice just because lots of other people made that choice before them.

If I could make any single change in the world at this moment, it would be somehow to persuade those who are now young not to have children.  I can say first hand that being childless is not so bad.  There are so many things to make life worth living, your budget is not as broken, you have time to develop yourself in many other ways.  And there is no shortage of other people around me needing nurturing and help, so my nurturing side easily can be fulfilled.  Nor am I afraid of what will happen if I live to be quite old (do people really have children merely in the hopes that those children will care for them as they age?),  Nor is there any danger of there not being enough parent-less children--if I wanted a child in my life, I could have that rather quickly, by fostering or adopting.  I can even enjoy the children that friends, neighbors and relatives already have.  So it must be that people mostly want to reproduce a child who has their own genetics, whom (ideally) they can relate to and understand better.   But does it really turn out that way?  I know a lot of parents locked in a state of struggle, either with their children or because of needing to send their child to college, or for many reasons related to their own children and the child's needs having to be a life priority.

Think about this then, if you are considering having a child.  You can no longer expect children to be living in a friendly world.  The world is not friendly to adults even now.  Jobs are scarce, affluence is hard to come by or retain, and the natural environment is rapidly disappearing.  War and crime are spreading.  People are overcrowded in their living spaces already, and have trouble getting along with each other.

Young people, please to look deeply into this "urge" to have children.  Are you going to reproduce by accident?  From social pressure?  At least, if you do decide to have children, do you know deeply within yourself why you are doing it, what kind of life you are setting yourself up for as a parent, and what kind of world your child will inherit?  There is no need to have a child unless you directly choose to do so.  In my opinion, bearing a child is unlikely to improve your life in any way whatsoever, and is in fact quite likely to make your  life more difficult.  Children being born now are less and less likely to thank their parents for having had them as time goes on, because the future of the planet does not look so bright.  I hope I am wrong, and that a significant portion of people become more restrained and more conscious of how we are all connected with each other.  That would indeed be a miracle, and I believe such a thing is possible.

Given my pessimism about the future, all the more reason to enjoy the present.  I'm going to stop now and go have a day.  If anyone even reads this, I fully expect to be considered a kook.  That's how crazy the world is.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A little Schubert therapy

It was around 1820 that a twenty-something Prussian named Wilhelm Müller, survivor of several battles in the uprising against Napoleon, managed to publish a set of about two dozen lyrical poems called Die Schöne Müllerin (which translates to The Lovely Maid of the Mill).  The poems describe a shy, young miller's apprentice whose unrequited passion for the miller's daughter leads him to such despair that he takes his own life.   Within three years, most of the poems were set to music by Franz Schubert, also twenty-something at the time, as a song cycle to be performed by one pianist and one singer participating equally as partners.  

I first heard about Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin song cycle from German professors at the University of Tennessee in the 1970's.  Their praise was so distinctive that, approximately four decades later, I found myself forking out $68 for a seat in the next-to-last row of a side balcony at Princeton's McCarter Theater to hear a rare performance of these songs by tenor Jonas Kaufmann and pianist Helmut Deutsch.  And I did not regret it; although Kaufmann and Deutsch have a very good CD of this song cycle out, they have continued to refine and deepen their understanding and presentation of the songs and have gone beyond even their own CD.  Jonas Kaufmann performed at the pinnacle of what is humanly possible, and so did Helmut Deutsch in his tender and responsive framing of the songs with the piano.

And oh my God, Franz Schubert and the dissonances and the sly changing from major to minor, and all the rest of the tricks of a composer's trade that I might not even know about--all this has kept these lieder popular for nearly 200 years.  And I think they might go another 200 years if the world survives.  And never, in all this time before or after, has any performance been better than this one was.  For what it's worth, it contained rare and precious moments of perfection so that even people who needed to cough were unable to cough, unable hardly to breathe at the time.