What are five books that changed your life?
Inspired by Ms. Genevieve.
When I was eight, Franklyn M. Braney's "The Nine Planets" made the planets much more fascinating than my science class and much closer to my future than even "Star Trek" reruns on television.
Now combined in one volume, these two books helped focus national
attention in the early 1980s on the movement for a nuclear freeze. The Fate of the Earth painted a chilling picture of the planet in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, while The Abolition
offered a proposal for full-scale nuclear disarmament. With the recent
tensions in India and Pakistan, and concerns about nuclear
proliferation around the globe, public attention is once again focused
on the worldwide nuclear situation. The author is at the forefront of
the discussion. In February 1998, his lengthy essay constituted the
centerpiece of a special, widely distributed issue of The Nation
dealing with the nuclear arms race. The relevance of his two books for
today’s debates is undeniable, as many experts assert that the nuclear
situation is more dangerous than ever.
When I was 12, Jonathan Schell's "The Fate of the Earth" (a slim blue paperback) accompanied me to New York City, where the rest of my confirmation class at Grace Episcopal Church of Silver Spring, Md., walked around, saw the sights, caught "Dreamgirls" on Broadway and crawled into sleeping bags to doze on the floors of St. John the Unfinished Cathedral. His description of the devastation a nuclear blast over New York City would wreak on the population fried something in my head. It started me off onto Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon" and Nevil Shute's "On the Beach." It's part of the reason I enjoy things like Margaret Atwood's "Oryx and Crake." A taste for apocalypse, I guess. Um, why am I a journalist again?
Charles Keil examines the expressive role of blues bands and performers
and stresses the intense interaction between performer and audience.
Profiling bluesmen Bobby Bland and B. B. Kind, Keil argues that they
are symbols for the black community, embodying important attitudes and
roles—success, strong egos, and close ties to the community. While
writing Urban Blues in the mid-1960s, Keil optimistically saw this
cultural expression as contributing to the rising tide of raised
political consciousness in Afro-America. His new Afterword examines
black music in the context of capitalism and black culture in the
context of worldwide trends toward diversification.
When I was 17, Charles Kiel's "Urban Blues" made social science and anthropology seem as cool as learning how to play guitar.
Paul Beatty's hilarious and scathing debut novel is about Gunnar
Kaufman, an awkward black surfer bum who is moved by his mother from
Santa Monica to urban West Los Angeles. There, he begins to undergo a
startling transformation from neighborhood outcast to basketball
superstar, and eventually to reluctant messiah of a "divided,
When I was 24, Paul Beatty's "The White Boy Shuffle" gave me a painfully funny version of myself, a young black man deeply uneasy about the lines of force the society formed around him, a G.K. over whom I could laugh myself sick.
Zadie Smith's White Teeth is a delightfully cacophonous tale that
spans 25 years of two families' assimilation in North London. The Joneses
and the Iqbals are an unlikely a pairing of families, but their intertwined
destinies distill the British Empire's history and hopes into a dazzling
multiethnic melange that is a pure joy to read. Smith proves herself to be
a master at drawing fully-realized, vibrant characters, and she demonstrates
an extraordinary ear for dialogue. It is a novel full of humor and empathy
that is as inspiring as it is enjoyable.
Years of Rice and Salt, takes a look at our last 600 years, with the
added twist that the Black Death has wiped out 99% of the European population.
Into that gap step the Chinese, the Islamic nations, the Indians, and the Native
Americans. Robinson is obviously very interested in how history happens, and
The Years of Rice and Salt is the perfect forum.
When I was 30 and 31, Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" was a wild, funny, comforting read and Kim Stanley Campbell's "The Years of Rice and Salt" was deeply inspiring and utopian, pan-theistic but not Panglossian. I'll let you flip a coin as to which one should be the fifth book.