A Prefatory Preamble to an Introduction to . . . Five Books

All college subjects offer their majors a few tricks. Math majors, for example, in addition to understanding the significance, if any, of Fibonacci’s Number, learn to quickly multiply any number by four—simply double it and double it again. Ornithology majors learn to tell immediately if a bird has rabies—it doesn’t: birds don’t get rabies. History majors with a minor in futurology can prognose whether a civilization will collapse. It will. They all do.

As an English major, I learned how to do well on essay tests. One simply rewrites the essay question in a way that plays to one’s strengths and away from one’s, errrr, weaknesses. For example, in studying Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” a student might be assigned a question like:

“Does Woolf consider poems or novels superior? Explain.”

Not having read the work in question, an honors English student will immediately manufacture:

“As Yeats told us, ’The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” Although Virginia Woolf wrote 10 years later and a country away, her essay draws upon the wisdom of ‘The Second Coming’ . . .”

This opening immediately impresses the professor reading it, for all English professors who have been doctratized in the last half century believe W.B. Yeats’ 22-line, two-stanza poem is the supreme literary achievement in human history. A reference to it earns any writer a B+ at the very least. In fact, a case can be made that understanding (or simply memorizing) Yeats’ poem should be enough to be awarded a B.A. in English.

(An aside, as an older man, attending undergraduate school during the Reagan administration, many of my professors had not gotten the Modern Language Association memo on “The Second Coming.” For those older scholars, I had to pull the bait and switch with “The Wasteland.”  My favorite lines to quote were: “twit twit twit/jug jug jug jug jug jug.” Look it up.)

All this introduction is a preface to a further introduction. John Warnke, my childhood friend, and I have reconnected. In a column last week, I betrayed John’s childhood faith in me and revealed his love for Cindy Bechtell, from whom neither of us has heard in 45 years. John, more properly Lieutenant Colonel John Warnke, USA, Retired, tracked me down with, I suspect, the intention of wreaking vengeance for my actions. Then, luckily for me, he got distracted and we swapped stories about life and families and work.

Now that John has been introduced, our foreword is nearly complete. Nearly, because John sent me an email that referred to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book he’s recommended and that I’ve just ordered. At the tail end of his message, John said:

“It’s one of the books on my shelf of 5 books if I ever have to hop in a spacecapsule or boat to escape some earthly calamity and can bring only 5 books with me.   Which leads to …. What 5 books would you bring ?”

That’s a hard question, John. Did I tell you I was an English major?

Chapter One

A friend wrote me recently asking me which five books I’ve reread most as an adult, a fair question that asks for no explanation of quality or reasons for inclusion. The five books I’ve found myself returning to over and over are, obviously, readable, but they also have enough meat on the bone that I always find something new to gnaw over. Just as Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a better work of art, but nowhere near as damnably hummable as the score to The Music Man, so are any number of novels better than those below. Still, they are brainworms that will infect you.

Number one on the list is not on the list, because it would take up 80% of the space there: the four volumes of George Orwell’s collected essays, columns and other non-fiction. Instead, in no particular order, here are my five most reread books:

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller

The Great Gatsby by F. Scot Fitzgerald

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

I’d advise you to buy these in hardcover if available. Otherwise, purchase multiple copies the first time.


After-Easter Religious Sale: My Teenage Messiah-hood

I started a religious movement once, and despite miracles, a slogan and an interested group of followers, it fizzled out.  In my mind, I had all the pieces set, but just couldn’t find lift-off. I was a 16-year-old boy who’d dragged a lot of kindling and firewood to the top of Durham’s Mount Sinai, then waited for lightning to strike. Before long, I got distracted and wandered off. Story of my life. Still, how many folks do you know who have even tried to start a cult?

Some of you have read about the K-SOFA cult, where a group of my students murdered three people thinking they were doing me a favor.  That cult ended with me in prison, my best friend dead and my former students confused about the differences between Hero and Villain. Sorry, that never happened. It was the premise for an unpublished novel.

Some of you may have read about the K-SOFA cult, where a group of my students murderously attacked the writing skills of a bunch of writers in order to vote me to the top of a popularity list.  That cult ended with me voted out of Chuck Palahniuk’s writing site, and my students smiling smugly. That was not my cult. That cult formed itself organically. I strenuously oppose any praise of that cult, while retaining my right to smile at the prank.

My cult, the group I started and hoped to lead forever, the Peace, Love and Death Cult was formed in the spring of 1975, when I was a junior in high school. Come April, normal boys’ thoughts turn to love; mine gravitated toward organizing a group of followers to do my bidding.  (On second thought, it could be I was thinking of nubile female followers whose bidding would be very different from that of my male postulants.  I’m thinking of you, (XXX—actual name has been deleted on legal advice.  I mean, when I was 16, I could have a crush on a 15-year-old girl, but, at 59, to talk about the desirability of that girl is really creepy.  Even if she’s now 58.)

I mentioned miracles. Yes, there were miracles. I performed them.

The first of these involved stealing crutches from the Oyster River High School nurse’s office. (In the previous sentence, the word “stealing” can also be translated as “stealing.”) I carried the prosthetics down the hallway to the school library, placing them in my armpits as I entered. Hobbling to the nearest table, I crawled on it, then stood, propped up by the crutches. Standing on a library table got everyone to look at me. Drawing attention was never enough for me, though—I wanted a full oil painting of devotion to my every move. All eyes, minds, hearts and, in the case of the female students, nether regions needed to focus, as I threw my now-unnecessary aids to the side, watching them fly end-over-end in opposite directions. Pausing for adulation-–or at least milking my fame—I then declared,

“I’m healed. I’ve healed myself! Eliminate the middle man! Join the Peace, Love and Death Cult.”

And ran out of the library on my newly-strengthened legs.

This miracle led to the least amazing or supernatural act for a high-school messiah: another one of my hundred heart-to-hearts with Mr. Shapiro, an assistant principal, about the thin line between boyish pranks, which he could understand, and assault, disrespect and blasphemy, which he couldn’t. I do remember apologizing to Mr. Shapiro for flinging my crutches away, and agreeing they could have hit someone in the eye. He appreciated that contrition until I told him such an injury would be another opportunity for me to demonstrate my healing power.

As I recall, the vein in the right side of his forehead started throbbing maniacally at that point, a sign I knew well and which usually signaled further lecturing through clenched teeth. The end-of-the-school-day bell rang, though, and before he could do any more “counselling” or “guiding” or “disciplining,” I hopped up, gave thanks for my self-healing abilities and walked quickly out of his office. I suspect Mr. Shapiro reached in the back of his bottom-right drawer and withdrew a bottle of brandy with my picture on it, although I have no way to confirm this, of course.

Gathering three disciples, I prepared for my next miracle. (In the previous sentence the word “disciples” can be read as “friends who happened to be walking out the door with me.”) Strolling away from school toward the baseball backstop, I ran over and scaled half the wire wall, stopping to put my arms out to the side, looking like a hovering crucifixee. When the disciples, two boys and a freshman girl with an ill-fated crush on me, pointed up at me, other students stopped, and I called down to them,

“You don’t know what you’re doing. I forgive you. I forgive myself. Eliminate the middle man! Join the Peace, Love and Death Cult and jump down from your cross!”

At this, I pushed away from the backstop and fell the five or so feet to the ground. Unmessiahlike, I messed up the landing, and stumbled to the ground. Not to be deterred, I stood back up, bowed and proclaimed my resurrection.

That was the cult’s zenith, its high point, its apogee. In retrospect, I made some mistakes. (I understand that among my believing friends those “mistakes” can be seen as heresy, blasphemy and poor taste, the troika of the trendsetter.) My biggest mistake was the name. No, it wasn’t the word “death” in the title.  I could easily have turned that upside down in later marketing materials.  Reversals are old hat in the new religion game—first will be last, death will lead to life, cash will be credit-card numbers, etc. Piece of cake.  No, my problem was in the word “cult,” which apparently is not an honorific. Cults get labeled as cults; they don’t just pull the crown down and put it on their own heads.  If you know you belong to a cult, you don’t really belong to a cult. Put another way, cults believe they are religions, one true paths, the way: a cult is a religion with a lousy PR department.

After the crowd had dispersed from watching my “standing up after falling down” miracle, my disciples and I wandered into the woods to ignite the sacramental herb. This might have been a good time to proclaim my message to a focus group, expand it from the middle-man stuff and tighten up my presentation. Instead, as I recall, we got into a heated discussion about the relative merits of Who’s Next versus Dark Side of the Moon. For those religious scholars among you, the messiah-wannabe fell strongly on the side of the grittiness of Pete and the boys over the otherworldliness of Pink Floyd. My place was in the here-and-now, favoring immanence over transcendence. By the time we left those woods, I’d forgotten my divine destiny, my call to rid the universe of any barrier between mankind and Maker. I just wanted to go home, put on headphones with Blood on the Tracks flowing through them, and devour a bag of sacramental Mint Milanos, perfect actions for my next gig: the Ayatollah of Immanence.