Thursday, April 18, 2013

Robinson Crusoe Needs Bifocals

What a crappy week we're having in domestic and world events: Massive earthquake in the Middle East, exploding fertilizer plant in Texas, gruesome violence in Boston, floods in Chicago and more stonewalling from our do-nothing Congress.

When I'm feeling down -- which seems to happen a lot lately -- I take refuge in my desert island. It's not an actual island, of course, no actual refuge off the coast of Cape Cod or Dubai but, rather, my fantasy desert island. And my desert island is rather sparse: I'm not too interested in things like spear fishing, harvesting coconuts or building lean-tos -- I can't even fix the kick-stand on my bicycle, and every houseplant we've ever had withers from neglect (fortunately not so the cat, who lets his presence be known through plaintive begging or acts of passive aggressiveness).

All I really care about on my islands is what books I've brought along. As this is not "Library Island", nor that famed island where Ricardo Montalbán would provide martinis, creepy seances, four star accommodations and the like, I've had to be somewhat selective about what books I bring. When I don't, in real life, have enough time read -- that is to say, always -- I like to occupy myself with bibliographies and listomania.

What fuels such fantasies, of course, is the desire to get back to basics: What is really essential? What feeds me intellectually, emotionally and spiritually? Not content to have Harold Bloom or Charles van Doren tell me what's important, I feel some obligation to figure these things out for myself.

So how might one go about developing one's own desert island list? (Some iterations of this exercise throw in free copies of the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare so you won't have to be quite so pretentious). Let me lift up two approaches.

The first way let's call the "personal canon" approach. In the realm of spirituality, it is exemplified in Eugene Peterson's book, Take and Read: Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List. The author lists 63 classics of devotion, reflection and fiction that have been especially important to him as well as to Christians more broadly. Peterson proposes the reader might start out with this list and modify it over the course of five years or so until she has developed her own personal canon.

This is an ambitious exercise indeed. I've made several attempts at doing this, and have found it, at times, pretty frustration -- but, clearly, Eugene Peterson is much more patient and steadfast than I am. I have developed a "long obedience" to reading the Book of Common Prayer and, each year, when McDonald's brings back its green-colored Shamrock milkshake, I make sure to have at least one. But aside from these continuities and a few others, I'm just to fickle. I fear I'm stuck in the Kierkegaardian realm of the aesthetic: Variety is the Shamrock shake of life.

So, for example, when I review books that have made a tremendous impact upon me at key times of my life, I find that they no longer have much affect upon me. For example, I made the mistake of rereading Teilhard de Chardin's Divine Milieu, I book that really rattled my coconut tree 19 years ago and, eventually, developed into the basis for my master's thesis. But today, please pardon me, I find it a well-written but absolutely unconvincing mix of works righteousness, speculative gnosis, and fantastical nonsense. Re-reading this book recalled to my mind the experience of hearing that dreadful hymn we sometimes have to sing in church: "Come Labor On."

One of the most impactful books I read in my whole life was Asimov's I Robot. That was during fourth grade. But I can't see listing it next to the works of Dostoevsky and other momentous books that my overweening superego would insist on including in my desert island. And I devoured Lolita -- but not in fourth grade! -- with a relish that embarrasses me somewhat now.

I guess I'm not going to make a great poster child for the Great Books curriculum. Either I include the books that I'm "supposed" to read, or else I come up with a list that's too personally idiosyncratic and shifts too much with my development. I loved the Screwtape Letters, but how many times can a person really read that. I read The Varieties of Religious Experience with delight on the beaches of the Florida panhandle. Could I make it to the end today? I'm not so sure.

So the Peterson way is a little ambitious. But there is another approach to the desert island book list that I'll explore in my next post.

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