How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List

If you’re a fan of the WITWAR extended network, you’ve probably seen the recent posts by occasional collaborators MediaMaven and Petpluto wherein they discuss the books that most heavily influenced their lives and shaped who they are today.  I’m nowhere near as well-read or as skilled at literary discussion as either of them, but I figured it would be fun to try my hand at this little exercise.  So, without further ado, here are the books that led me to become who I am today (in chronological order):

1. 1984 by George Orwell (Year read: 2000) – One of the only books that I read for two different classes in high school (my choice the first time, course mandate the second,) I found 1984 to be one of the most entertaining yet horribly depressing books I’d ever read.  Even more than I remember the events in the book themselves, I remember one particular reading session:  I had just gotten into book three (the torture/philosophical treatise section) and was so deeply invested in Winston’s fight for independent thought that I actually started getting physically uncomfortable when my mother asked me to stop reading and do something else (can’t remember what now.)  I literally had a mild case of the shakes, and my mother warned me against reading any more once I’d finished whatever chore I’d done, but I insisted that the only way out of this mess was to plow through to the end.  I can’t think of another case in my life where I was so immersed and invested in a book.  After all, the battle for independent thought versus totalitarian oligarchical control was being waged at that very moment!

Additionally, 1984 had the same effect on me as it did on most of its readers, which is to say that it instilled a healthy level of mistrust of large organizations.  I remember getting chills down my spine the first time I noticed the shocking parallels between 21st-century society’s dependence on Wikipedia and Winston’s old job at the Ministry of Truth (where all historical accounts were edited in a wiki-like manner as it suited the whims of The Party.) One thing I always had trouble wrapping my head around, though, was the concept of the Thought Police.  Since there was no Minority Report-esque precognitive detection system, the only way for the Thought Police to ensure completely comprehensive monitoring of all potential thoughtcrime would be to constantly monitor every man, woman and child in The Party.  How do they have enough eyeballs to monitor all those screens, never mind the time it would take!  And while that’s happening, who is policing the thought police?  The only solution I could come up with (years after reading it, mind you) is that most people in The Party have never had an aberrant thought, and once Winston is neutralized they really won’t have anything to worry about anymore.  I still find that a weak argument, but it’s better than nothing.

The last thing that 1984 taught me, perhaps counter to Orwell’s intent, is that the last battleground (the one that matters more than all the others) is one’s own personal perspective and principles.  This notion was explored magnificently in the “one inch” prison scene of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, which revolved heavily around the concepts introduced in 1984.  It even made its way into the film adaptation largely unaltered, which is always nice to see.

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (Year read: 2000) – Some folks like Catcher in the Rye, some identify with A Separate Peace, some ladies are big fans of Go Ask Alice, but my personal favorite slice-of-life coming-of-age novel is filmmaker Stephen Chbosky’s first prose work, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Granted, it’s been a long time since I’ve read it (and I gave away my copy to someone who had lost hers) but the impression it had on me can still be seen today.  Like Charlie, I was not popular in school (not so stereotypically unpopular as to be constantly bullied, but neither was Charlie.)  Like Charlie (and in large part because of Charlie,) I have a fascination with mixtapes and mix CDs that extends beyond their basic utility:

[Rant]One of my greatest regrets about the ongoing march toward perfect personal audio technology is the loss of the mix tape/disc,  because it’s extremely difficult to translate the metanarrative they create (and the experience of listening to someone else’s collection of songs the way they intended you to) with closed-system iPods and DRM-locked mp3 files.  Is there a 2010s equivalent of Charlie’s “autumn leaves” mixtape, with the hand-drawn autumn leaves on the cassette liner notes? [/Rant]

Charlie’s hobby (and Chbosky’s narrative technique) of writing diary-style letters someone he does not know but hopes will appreciate them essentially predicted the Livejournal/Xanga phenomenon years before it took hold.  It inspired me to keep an open online diary of my own (on the now-forgotten opendiary.com) and helped me to write my way through some of the roughest and most awkward moments of my high school years.  But the final parallel that I drew/draw from The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that perfect moment when Charlie is riding through the tunnel with his best friends and exclaims that he feels “infinite.”  I consider myself blessed because I’ve had one of those moments (and for those who care, it was set to the tune of “Gainesville Rock City” by Less Than Jake as we rode over the Driscoll Bridge on the way back from a show at the Birch Hill,) and it will stick with me through all the days of my life.

3. Fight Club by Chuck Pahlaniuk (Year read: 2001) – I read somewhere (I think it was on a blog from Petpluto’s blogroll) of a young woman who sought to find a decent guy who didn’t list Fight Club as one of his favorite books or movies.  Frankly, I think this is a bit harsh!  Sure, most of the meatheads who blather on at length about how life-changingly great it is are probably frat-boy man-children who only like it because it encourages them to beat each other up for the sake of all that’s good and right in the world, but I like it for a different set of reasons.  Chuck Pahlaniuk’s first major novel really does have an enjoyable narrative, and its twist (now so copied that it’s a trope not only in his books, but in much of mainstream action media) really did catch me completely flat-footed.  I enjoy the anti-consumerist message, and the celebration of imperfection.  In fact, my favorite quote comes from a scene in the novel where Tyler builds a driftwood statue in the sand that, for one perfect moment, aligns with the shadows to make a perfect representation of a human hand.  When the narrator asks why he constructed it so that it would only be in the correct proportions for a minute, Tyler answers that “a moment is all you can expect from perfection.”  It’s a message I wish more people of my generation would take to heart: There is no reward for “collecting them all,” or for having the perfect living room arrangement or the perfect car or the perfect physique.  If what you’re doing with your life isn’t worthwhile, doing it perfectly won’t solve the problem.  Better to find something in your life that is fulfilling and dedicate yourself to it.  Does that mean anarchy? I wouldn’t say so.  But I wonder what Tyler would say if he could see how companies like Google and Craig’s List are toppling the old top-down board-dictated structure of culture in society.  He’d probably say they’re not going far enough, but he’s kind of an @$$hole and I wouldn’t follow his lead anyway.

4. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Year read: 2002) – It may not seem like it, but I identified quite a bit with Jack Kerouac (or, more accurately, Sal Paradise) and his wacky adventures with his uniquely spectacular friends.  It’s why I always strive to be the “straight man” in the dynamics of my friendships, because like Jack/Sal,

I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

I may never have hitchhiked across the country, or worked on a migrant farm, or partied in a mexican brothel, or done most of the things Jack/Sal did, but I did make damn sure to take the chances afforded to me to experience the company of the “mad ones” and share their wanderlust and joie-de-vivre whenever possible.  and I would say that I am all the happier and more well-developed for it.

5. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson (Year read: 2004) – Who knew that one of my favorite books of all time would come out of Connecticut, of all places?!  (no offense, Petpluto.)  Perhaps the book responsible for my reluctance to abandon my principles and dive fully into the world of marketing, Sloan Wilson’s classic treatise on the dark side of corporate success does a fantastic job of illustrating why it may not be better to be a “company man” after all.  In these trying times it seems like a moot point to discuss a reduced expectation of success, but even before the economy tanked I wasn’t completely sold on the whole corporate-ladder-climbing way of life.  After all, what does it profit a man to gain a six-figure salary and lose his soul?  Tom Rath has the double-edged luxury of experiencing this firsthand [side-note: I find it weird that a real-life Tom Rath wrote the very successful Strengthsfinder book and personality test, designed to help people find rewarding careers doing work they find fulfilling] when he is offered the chance to work directly for Bernard Hopkins, a powerful executive who both demands and provides in great quantities.  Rath thinks that this job will make his family happier, his marriage stronger and more secure, and his life more successful.  It turns out to do the exact opposite, and it’s only by refusing to toe the corporate line and by being honest both with himself  (about his work-life balance) and his wife (about his wartime affair) that he is able to put his life in order and take real steps toward a happier and more fulfilling future.  It’s a tale that gives me hope for my future in the business world, which is important since the present isn’t all that great right now.

6. Culture Jam by Kalle Lasn (Year read: 2005) – In the arrogance of my youth, I believed that I understood the techniques of marketing messages well enough to be impervious to them, and that their siren call did not influence my behavior.  Lasn’s Culture Jam proved me wrong, both directly and indirectly (I nearly went on an anti-consumerist product consumption binge, but was stopped by someone who pointed out the poetic irony of it.)   Lasn is about as subtle and unbiased as Michael Moore in his anti-media-manipulation polemic, but his arguments stem from deep belief in strongly held principles, and he doesn’t rely on outright manipulation of facts to make his point.  I only wish I could share his vision of the future, though, (particularly his emphasis on detournament) but it is too radically idealistic for me to wrap my head around.  There are a few specific endeavors by Lasn that I do actively support, though: Now that I’ve finally checked “participate in black Friday madness” off my bucket list, I fully intend to celebrate Buy Nothing Day this year and in the years to come.  I’d say that I plan to celebrate TV Turn-Off week, but that really isn’t any different for me than most weeks (Digital Detox Week, on the other hand, will prove to be much more of a challenge.  And it’s coming up next week!)  I haven’t bought a new pair of sneakers since 2005 (shortly before reading Culture Jam, actually) but intend to buy a pair of Blackspots when it comes time to replace them. Not just because I want to support the cause (which I do), but also because they seem like the better alternative to their Nike-owned competitors.

7. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Year read: 2006) – This one can actually be summed up fairly quickly.  Watchmen is the book that didn’t just remind me of what I loved about comics as a kid, it showed me just how incredibly complex and well-written a comic book can be, and gave me a glimpse at the exciting possibilities being explored by sequential artists.  Watchmen pulled me back into the world of comics with renewed vigor, and I hope that it did the same for even a fraction of the million people who bought the book prior to the release of the film.

8. Wanted by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones (Year read: 2008) – Even I didn’t expect this book to end up on the list, especially considering my history with it. But the more I considered the intent of this exercise, the more I was forced to confront the fact that the final lines of Wanted have really stuck in my craw and motivated me to live my life differently.  It may have been Millar’s intent to call his readers to action, or he may have just been being a d!ck and mercilessly mocking the fans that support his career.  Regardless, the following quote has spurred me to take more control of my life on several occasions:

There, happy now? Pleased to see the mystery resolved? … God, you’re such an ***hole, and I speak from experience. It only seems like yesterday I was at your level on the Pathetic-o-meter. Why should you give a **** how my life works out? You’re killing yourself working twelve-hour days, getting fat on cheap take-out food, and your girlfriend is almost certainly ****ing other guys. Just because you’ve got a plasma screen TV and a big DVD collection doesn’t mean you’re a free man, mother****er. You’re just a well-paid slave like all the other cattle out there. Even this comic was just a fifteen-minute respite from how hard we’re working you. You used to think the world was always like this, didn’t you? The wars, the famine, the terrorism, the rigged elections. But now you know better, right? Now you know what happened to the heroes. And you know the funny thing? You know what makes me laugh now that I’m on the other side? You’re just going to close this book and buy something else to fill that big, empty void we’ve created in your life.

I won’t include the final line of dialogue for modesty’s sake, but you probably remember it.  Who wants that to be an accurate summation of their life? Certainly not me, I can tell you that much.  And while I may not have a great job doing what I love and fighting for what I believe in (yet!) I certainly have no delusions about how happy my material possessions will make me, or how important my short-term happiness is when compared to the rest of the world.  The mission I have charged myself with is “make your real life somewhere you wouldn’t want to escape from,” which seems to be what Millar is trying to say, in a roundabout and highly offensive way.

9 & 10. All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin and The Dip by Seth Godin (Year read: 2009) – You might remember All Marketers Are Liars from an earlier episode of Operation Backlog Slog – It’s the book that  proved to me it is possible to be a marketer without completely compromising your ethics (but it’s certainly not easy.)  That book, and Seth Godin in general, were recommended to me at a time when my faith in the field of marketing/advertising/etc. was at an all-time low, and thanks to his works I haven’t given up on it yet.  It’s certainly not easy, though, and you really have to know how to pick your battles.  This leads me to my other favorite Godin book, The Dip.  Interestingly enough, The Dip has something in common with Wanted in that it’s a work that I did not particularly enjoy reading.  Sure, it’s short and written in very engaging language, but the lessons it offers are harsh indeed, and I wasn’t really ready to hear them the first time I read it.  I intend to pick it up again, though, having experienced a fair amount in the intervening months.  The Dip covers some of the same ground as Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling Outliers, but Godin attacks the same idea from a different perspective.   You can read his blog post addressing the similarities here.   The essential lesson that I took away from The Dip (begrudgingly) is that with any activity worth doing, there is a point (called The Dip) where the effort you put into it must be greater (often a great deal greater) than the enjoyment you get out of it.  The key to a successful life is finding an activity that you’re willing to push through the effort/output dip (whether it takes 10,000 hours or just 100) to become the best at.  If I can do that, I’ll be happy to chip away at the mountain of difficulty until it’s nothing but a pile of rubble.

Well, that’s all I’ve got.  It may not be pretty, it may not be impressive, it may not even be good, but it sums me up pretty accurately. I hope you enjoyed this peek into my personal history, but I hope even more that you learned something (or were inspired to learn something) along the way.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post! I too, loved The Perks of Being a Wallflower back when I read it in 1999/2000, and 1984 (around 2001/02). I think you did a great job of explaining the effects of the books on you, and now, like Pet’s, I want to read many of the others on this list, including Seth Godin (I have Outliers out now) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (how’s the movie?)

    As to your rant, I agree, and you will enjoy this book, which also shares your sentiment (lamented in the introduction and the epilogue). Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield, is a memoir of the author’s life with his wife. Both music critics, their story is told through the music that bonded them together. It’s very ’90s-tastic (I heard of the band Big Star from this book), wonderful and sad and plain terrific. Sheffield has been a longtime writer at RollingStone and I absolutely loved him, in all his geekiness, in high school. I know you will love it.

  2. […] John Won’t Be Posting Posted on April 18, 2010 by petpluto John, as he posted in his How I Became Who I Am: My Most Influential Reading List, is a sometime Culture Jammer. And this week, he is going to be participating in Digital Detox […]

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