Sunday, December 8, 2013

Books that stuck . . .

Recently, on Facebook, folks have been passing around a post about “books that have stuck with you,” or some such wording. I usually don’t respond to requests that require me to post my list then tag a bunch of friends. I don’t like to bother friends with stuff like that. Friends usually have enough to keep them busy. Most of my friends are writers, artists – people who have to keep busy to keep going. Also, a lot of these Facebook requests require to rate your “favorites,” or something you think is best, or better than something else. I don’t like ranking books or movies or songs – I keep things fluid in that regard.
But John Carl, I believe, tagged me in particular, and since part of the directions were that I don’t give the selections that much thought (“fifteen books in fifteen minutes”), I quickly came up with a list of books I remember and that have become part of my consciousness. The books are me and I am the books.
Even when you give something “little thought,” thoughts take a lot longer to play through. I listed the books, and the list generated discussion, and the discussion generated more discussion.
A book that has stayed – or “stuck” – with me. Did it mean a book I read in my youth, or just any book I’ve encountered over the years? Some of my earliest memories are of exploring books, going through the pages, whether I could read them or not. From age three on, I was poking around in books.
There were lots of books whose titles I don’t remember – just picture books. If I don’t remember the titles, did they stick with me? Well…
My dad made a bookcase. A long one, with two shelves. Plenty of books on there, but with the exception of some Reader’s Digest omnibus collections of condensed books, some cookbooks and a ten- or eleven-volume thing that was a sort of children’s encyclopedia, I think it was called the “Childcraft Library,” the books were all in Polish. It didn’t matter much at the time, since I could read neither Polish nor English. I didn’t read so much as sense the presence of words. And I also sensed that there was something important about these things, these “books.” If they weren’t important, why would someone build a case to hold them?
There was book of illustrated bible stories. I think it came out from Golden Books. I remember in particular an illustration for the David and Goliath tale – a marvel to me for depicting a decapitated giant without resorting to blood and gore. The artist posed the body of Goliath in such a way that his body reclined over a downward turn in the terrain. Further back, David walked away, holding high Goliath’s head. His posture and expression seemed quite triumphant. I wondered over that picture for a long time and on many occasions. I think I wondered why he so triumphant, walking away with a head that was of no earthly good to him. I mean, why not just leave it there next to the body? Was he going to get some sort of prize for bringing the head back? Was he going to have it stuffed and hang it on his wall? I couldn’t guess. Bible stories were like that. They made no sense to me, and yet they were apparently very important to grownups and older kids. I think I was less interested in the stories themselves than in the fact that people found those stories so important. Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses – Moses had to be important; they had made a whole movie about him, and about the ten commandments. God split the sea in half, made pillars of fire, sent lightning down to smash golden idols. They didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but visually they were fascinating.
The most I could make out about God, though, was that “He” had a really bad temper.
Of the Polish books, I found out later that one impressive set of volumes – in uniform size and binding – were the works of Henryk Sienkiewicz and the epic poem Pan Tadeusz. My parents revered these works, but they never read them, not where I could see them. Of course, they read them when they were children, remembered them vividly, and both my parents could quote passages from Pan Tadeusz.
You might think I’d have learned more Polish from my parents, but I didn’t. I think my parents were sorely divided on the subject of teaching my brother and I Polish. On the one they, they wanted us to learn the language of our heritage. On the other, when they spoke in Polish they knew we wouldn’t understand them. They had their own language – the secret language of adults. In the end, I think, the most I learned of Polish were the basic Catholic prayers, the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. My mother typed them out, in Polish, and taped them on the wall of our bedroom, just above the nightstand and below the crucifix that hung above it.
I do remember my dad reading to my brother and me a children’s edition of Robinson Crusoe. I vividly remember his reading of the scene where Crusoe comes upon the footprint in the sand, his placing his foot within it and discovering that it did not fit his own foot, that there must be someone else occupying the island. At this time, I won’t place too much significance on my remembering that scene, although I can. It is fraught with significance. But I will say that it impressed me because of its vividness – words making a picture in my imagination – and because the scene illustrated a basic sort of deduction – reality could be tested and examined. I needed to test reality because my home life did not resemble the “normal” world I encountered by watching television, or observing the behavior of the other kids in the neighborhood. The world of home and the “normal” world did not match up. I just couldn’t figure it out.
Another bunch of books that have stayed with me: no, not comic books; that’s a whole other story. It was a stack of paperbound books that sat in the lower right corner of the bookcase. Not “shelved” – stacked. They weren’t like American paperbacks. They were what we call now “trade”-sized paperbacks. No illustrations on the cover; no blurbs. The paper was cheap and thin and smelled with a distinct “non-American” scent. The covers weren’t even made of paperboard, just a slightly heavier grade of paper. The covers, titles, texts – all in Polish.
They did, however, have pictures.
There were pictures of soldiers in uniforms. They were pictures of soldiers holding guns. There were pictures of big cannons, of bombers flying overhead, of demolished cities.
Pictures of war.
I understood war in terms of action and activity – shooting, fighting, bombing. Kinesis. Motion. It was fascinating.  Have to admit it was fascinating. I’d seen some war movies on TV and I think my folks took me to see Pork Chop Hill, Ski Troop Attack – a few other war movies. War was in the movies, and I don’t think it could really be avoided. War was reality, or so it seemed. My parents both lived through the Second War War. My father lived in Lublin during the occupation. Nearly all his friends had died by 1945. My grandfather served in the Polish Army and nearly ended up as one of the officers executed by the Soviets in the Katyn Forest – though I didn’t learn that last fact for years. My mother went to school in Scotland after she, her mother and her sister nearly circumnavigated Europe to escape the Nazis.
Which is to say, there was some talk about “the war” in the household. Not a lot of talk. But talk of the war could not be avoided.
So these pictures of the war fascinated me. Unlike what I saw in the movies, they were “real.” It wasn’t the sort of sharp, well-lighted, “pretty" photography that an American cinematographer could perform. They were black and white – and gray. Gray upon gray. Everything gray. The images were often grainy and muddy, the sun too bright, the shadows too deep. I was a kid, but I could sense the authenticity of these images.
Then I reached the last pages of the book.
These were photos taken in the concentration camps.
Remember, I wasn’t much older than four, and I was looking at photographs of bodies – human bodies, naked bodies, bodies so starved you could make out the ribs, the knobby joints of every limb, the skin tightened against every cheekbone, the eyes fallen into the hollow recesses of their skulls. Dead eyes, hollow mouths, twisted teeth, wide open nostrils.
Bodies stacked in brick niches next to what I later discovered were oven doors. Bodies piled on little carts, stacked high – higher than you could imagine a cart so rickety and primitive could bear.
I stared at those photographs as much as I stared at the ones of all the military hardware and the uniformed combatants “doing their jobs.”
I stared at them more. And when I stopped staring I could still see them.
To a four-year-old, war makes a sort of sense. Not a “good” sense. An insane, twisted sense – it’s still a sense. A bunch of guys on one side shoot a bunch of guys on the other side. The other guys shoot back. Somebody “wins,” the way you win a ball game, or a game of checkers. That’s what it seemed like. And World War Two “made sense” in that “we” were fighting some very, very bad guys. Even for a kid, there was no way to mistake Hitler for George Washington – no way to mistake David for Goliath.
But those photos from the camps –
I will not pretend to understand them. I will not pretend to have derived lessons from them. I can’t say that I felt that what happened, what the pictures documented, was evil, because the placing of meaning to words and images is a complicated thing, and I was just too young to comprehend anything so big.
All I knew was that it was awful, it was terrifying, and I was frightened.
It was out there. The war was over, clearly enough. We were living in Chicago, in America, and everything was “all right” now, wasn’t it?
At least that’s what my parents tried to tell me, when I asked them about the pictures.
Nevertheless, it was out there. Whatever made what I saw in those photos a reality could still be out there.
I knew nothing about history as history. The difference between what was, what is, and what will be was too much for a four-year-old imagination.
It’s probably too much for a fifty-eight-year-old imagination, still remembering the afternoon I came upon that stack of books, in my dad’s den, in the bottom right corner of the bookcase.
So that book, whose name I don’t remember, whose words I couldn’t read, but whose pictures I could see, and did see – that’s the book that has probably stayed with me the longest and has had the most profound effect on whoever it is I have turned out to be.

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For the record, though, this is the first list I came up with:
1. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
2. The Man With the Purple Eyes by Charlotte Zolotow
3. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
4. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
7. Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
8. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
9. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
10. Who? by Algis Budrys
11. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
12. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
13. A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren
14. Native Son by Richard Wright
15. Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

After some discussion, I added these (I was on a roll): What Is Cinema? by Andre Bazin: The Parade's Gone By by Kevin Brownlow; The Instrumentality of Mankind by Cordwainer Smith; The Individual and the Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy by Ernst Cassirer; The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer; Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges; The Professor's House by Willa Cather; A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor; The Confidence Man by Herman Melville.
And after some more discussion, I added three more books from my misspent youth that have stayed with me: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut; Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan; Journey Beyond Tomorrow (aka The Journey of Joenes) by Robert Sheckley.
And yet three more: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina, which I read in one sitting and drove me nuts because I could not accept what the fictional character of Gnossos does at the end of the story; a book that wasn’t very good (by my standards, whatever they are) but that I also finished in one sitting: The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler; and I would be remiss not to mention Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, who had the courage almost forty years ago to say what some folks still find difficult to acknowledge today.
Poetry? Like comics, that’s a whole ’nother story that would fill another entry at least as long as this.

And you will notice not one inclusion of a book about (or by) dinosaurs. Again, dinosaurs deserve their own sweet, generous chapter. Ask me no more questions and I will tell you no lies.


  1. Our fam had the same thoughts on languages..we could sing Christmas carols & had a few phrases for our great grandma, but Lithuanian was the secret language of grownups.

  2. Yep, Colleen. I think I picked up a bit of the art of reading inflections in conversations. You could tell when they were about to break into an argument, or when they were planning a visit to my grandparents, even.

  3. Interesting list, Rich. I'm so bad at lists like this. It's kind of like the five songs you'd be willing to be stranded on a desert island with or something like that. I think it really depends on the mood you're in when the request comes through.

    I think the first book that really stuck with me was the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I know that Albert Payson Terhune's Sunnybank Collie books, the Black Stallion books and a book on Man O' War got me into the joy of reading (it's where I picked up my habit of spelling "grey."). HG Welles, CJ Cherryh and Harry Harrison led me into the joy of science fiction while Urula K. Leguin and Anne McAffrey lured me into fantasy. Ann Rice helped me really appreciate the vampire tale. Any anthology by Royko makes me happy. Edward Rutherford knocked me out with his novel Sarum as he did with his novel on Russia and London and as did Ken Follett later with his historical fiction. Recently, reading books like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and the Warmth of Other Suns have left a definite mark.

    Oh and Seabiscuit (going back to my love of horses). But there are so many books and authors that have stuck with me. I feel almost like I'm slighting them if I produce a "Best of" list. :)

  4. I didn't read the Douglass autobiography until I was well into adulthood, but it is so vivid and passionate, many, many passages stay with me. So glad to hear that both Cherryh and Harrison got you into SF.When Harry H. passed away earlier this year, I found a copy of The Technicolor Time Machine at the Wilmette library and spent part of the afternoon I was supposed to be "working" reading through his novel.

    Someday I'll tell you about meeting Anne McCaffery at the Chicago Nebs. Janis Ian introduced her to me. That was a night.