Books, Books, the Musical Fruit

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 :: Tagged under: pablolife culture. โฐ 5 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! ๐Ÿ˜„

A lot of big-time, real bloggers are writing about their 10 most influential books. I'll present mine here. Stealing some terminology: this is my 'gut list,' not my 'I've thought about this for a long time' list:

Don Quijote (Cervantes)

Picasso's Quijote art

'Misfit' entertainment is on the rise: Napoleon Dynamite, Eagle vs. Shark, and pretty much everything starring Michael Cera are examples of movies where we celebrate and flesh out the weirdos, oddballs, and losers of society into something a little higher. This 'not-like-the-others' quality is all over my list.

None of them hold a candle to Don Quijote, however. He embodies that cute Akira Kurosawa line: "In a mad world, only the mad are sane." While you the reader know he's off his rocker, and that you're "better off" with your mental state, you can't help but envy him. He's happy as a clam! He's living the adventure! You can almost always open up to a random point in either of the two volumes to see Quijote having a good time, and Sancho being completely lovable.

I feel like my connection with this book is like a lot of religious people's with their Holy Text: I haven't read every word of it, and its been so long since I read it that I'm probably just taking what I want to remember out of it. I'm sure my many memories are easily amended and disproven by someone who's really studied it. But it left enough of a mark on me to bring my dog-eared, notes-in-the-margin copy everywhere I go.

Short Stories (Jorge Luis Borges)


My former Spanish teacher quipped that Borges probably wasn't the most read Spanish author, but arguably the the most reread. You can see why: his short fiction is jam-packed with beautiful imagery, contradiction, love and meaning. They're Everlasting Gobstoppers.

The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga)

Cover of The White Tiger

A recent addition, I just finished this about a month ago and absolutely loved it. Murder is one of the most interesting themes in fiction, especially how we can make someone else killable. The character's progression/descent into murder in a modern capitalist society is entertaining and evocative.

Banvard's Folly (Paul Collins)

Cover of Banvard's Folly

The non-fiction of Paul Collins is some of my favorite reading. This book concerns 13 people who really thought they were going to change the world, only to be wrong, subverted, or laughed into irrelevance. Each one is a treasure chest containing all the right reasons and motivations between predictably flawed humans.

I'm typical of a lot of Brown students in that failure is something I'm not used to, and can't confront. I believe one of the most instructive parts of my education here is to have failed spectacularly on a few instances. You haven't learned much if you haven't been kicked square in the teeth.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)

Cover of Junot Diaz's novel

Another great A List Apart essay has a favorite passage of mine:

Write for a reason, and know why you write. Whether your daily updates concern your work life, your hobbies, or your innermost feelings, write passionately about things that matter.

To an artist, the smallest grace note and the tiniest flourish may be matters of great importance. Show us the details, teach us why they matter. People are fascinated by detail and enthralled by passion; explain to us why it matters to you, and no detail is too small, no technical question too arcane.

Bad personal sites bore us by telling us about trivial events and casual encounters about which we have no reason to care. Donโ€™t tell us what happened: tell us why it matters. Donโ€™t tell us your opinion: tell us why the question is important.

I find this book to be exemplary of this. I didn't think others would like it as much as me, since not everyone is a latino nerd like I am (and Mr. Diaz appears to be). But the book succeeds as wonderful fiction even to those who don't follow the references. I don't know if I'll ever reach others the way this book has through my diverse and precise passions, but I'm more inspired to try.

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (George Saunders)

Cover of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

Most people I recommend George Saunders to (my dad, an ex in particular) really hate his fiction. But I've always loved it. These are earlier stories of his, and like Banvard's Folly, they tend to be very funny and amazingly tragic at the same time.

A lot of times you look around and realize how nutty, depressing, and maddening the world can be: it takes a master satirist to acknowledge this truth, and get you to laugh about it.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea (Yukio Mishima)

Cover of Sailor

This book gave me chills for months after I was finished with it. It was like the nectar of Crime and Punishment wrapped in bacon. Mishima (whose life is also a wonder to investigate) really puts you in the minds of these reasonable, ambitious people and confronts troubling issues of psyche.

The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)

Cover of The God Delusion

This will get some eye rolls, no doubt. I was something of a skeptic before I read this, in the closet and afraid about my lack of faith. This book helped me realize its nothing to be afraid of.

Dawkins frequently gets described as someone who's polarizing, employing bitter rhetoric, and gets piled in with Christopher Hitchins as a Mean Atheist. Having actually read his essays and seen him speak, this is really just a smear. His tone is civil, and he never says anything that can't be verified. If people think I'm wrong on this, I encourage them to let me know, and we can talk ^_^ But I would be lying if I said I didn't thoroughly enjoy this book, and if I didn't mention I wouldn't be as comfortable with who I am if I hadn't read it.

Edit [2013-07-02]: I'm reading this now in 2013 (Frog reboot!) and groaning. It remains for historical interest only. While the book still stands as having influenced me, and stands reasonably well on its own, Dawkins himself has become something of a caricature in the last few years. Not really a fan any more.

Edit [sometime in 2011?] I spoke too soon. While The God Delusion is approachable and civil, Dawkins can be pretty inflammatory. As apology, listen to Neil DeGrasse Tyson take way too long to tell Dawkins to tone it down, and a wonderful remix of the end of the exchange.

Introduction to the Theory of Computation (Michael Sipser)

Cover of Sipser's work

The computer book to end all computer books. Sipser writes masterfully about computational theory, intent on teaching it to you without just stating it at you. I would recommend this to anybody, CS or not, who has an interest in keeping their brain occupied.

The Little Schemer (Daniel Friedman and Matthias Felleison)

Cover of The Little Schemer

How could I have forgotten this blog's former namesake! Teaches programming, recursion, all the way up to the most elegant and concise demonstrations of the Halting Problem and the Y Combinator that I've ever read, all in a charming voice. More so than Sipser, worth picking up and playing with even if you're not a programmer, and the most instructive book (with other, more general Scheme-powered books like SICP and PLAI) on how I approach programming.

Of course, more influential than most of these are theatre performances I've attended. That'll be another post.

Also, do you see a problem with this list? THEY'RE ALL MEN. I hate that I haven't read more women.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to join my mailing list, drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you ๐Ÿ˜„