Staff Picks: Favorite Nonfiction from the Imaginary Bookstore of Mr. Bib!
I am still hung up on nonfiction this week, and books which make people who they are. Also, my son and his buddyDashiell Jones
film version ofFahrenheit 451
, me reliably sobbing at the end, with the old, dying man teaching his grandson to "be" a book. It caused me to want to review those books which make up my personal canon, which made me (for good or bad) what I am. Not always "great" books, but those that helped to create taste and inspire curiosity and form this reader's worldview and psycho-social makeup. And then I heard onDemocracy Now!
of the death ofJustice Gus Reichbach
, who as a youth was one of the brave students atColumbia University
who in '68 brought student activism to the attention of our benighted nation, insisting on the connection between community justice and corporate profit and the war against the people ofSoutheast Asia
, not to mention the power of student protest. Which made me remember the little paperback version of one of the first books I offer below on this, my own list of nonfiction books and memoir read between the age of early adolescence and early young adulthood and which say, perhaps like those people in the forest reciting, a lot aboutMr. Bib's
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relationship to reading and writing...and maybe yours, too?
Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World by Louis Fischer. My late mother was a World War II refugee who read little beyond Readers Digest and horrible religious tracts. I suspect she was introduced to this well-argued hagiography by way of taking a community college literature appreciation class. She also owned a dusty paperback of Albert Schweitzer's life story. The two of them sat near each other on the shelf.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin.
I think I found this in the school library at West Junior High in Downey. Or maybe it was assigned. Do kids still read this, about a white man undercover journalist who poses as African-American, risking his life to expose (to people who should already have known) what racism looked like? Today I guess he'd be working for Pro Publica or Mother Jones. He was also a friend of the Trappist monk and anti-war teacher Thomas Merton.
The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary by James Kunen. Pretty sure you saw that one coming. Gus Reichbach and Kunen and SDS and sit-ins. Makes an excellent high school graduation present.
Student as Nigger by Jerry Farber. I just know (!) that no kids read this today, a manifesto arguing the master-slave power relationship of professor to student. Provocative title, and even truer today, what with the corporatization of higher ed, the "consumer satisfaction" model constructed for learning, and the privatization of pedagogy. Don't get me started!
Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman. Thanks to biblio-buddy Wayne Clayton for turning me on to Goodman, probably in senior year of high school. This social critique of, well, high school, and all of the above, rocked the world forty years ago. Great documentary about him, available on Netflix, modestly titled Paul Goodman Changed My Life. Memoirist, political philosopher, gay rights pioneer, teacher, intellectual, poet and mensch, he seems not to get the kind of attention he once did, and deserves despite changing a whole lot of people's lives.
If They Come in the Morning by Angela Davis. Knew her name of course, the revolutionary Black Panther professor targeted by Gov. Ronnie Raygun, and as an undergrad myself jumped at the opportunity to hear her speak at Cal State Long Beach. My mind, as they say, was blown. Today she militates against the prison industrial complex, the latest incarnation of our racist Cold War.
Listen, Little Man by Wilhelm Reich. Get the little copy with illustrations by William Steig. Reich himself went crazy as a loon, but before that linked the psychological critique of alienation with the politics of repression by way of fascism. "They call you Little Man, or Common Man. They say your day as dawned, the 'Age of the Common Man.' You don't say that. They do, the vice presidents of great nations, the labor leaders, the repentant sons of the bourgeoisie, the statesmen and philosophers. They give you the future, but ask no questions about your past. You've inherited a terrible. Your heritage is a burning diamond in your hand. That's what I have to tell you."
Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom by David Edwards. If you are a friend of mine, you've either been gifted a copy of this book or heard me go on and on about it. I need perhaps to reread it to make sure it's as important to me now as when I first found it, but am pretty sure everything about this anti-"self-help" book challenging that stupid narcissistic genre remains urgent and applicable to our self-hating and yet egocentric political-cultural opera of reality avoidance in favor of "self-improvement" or "self-realization" selfishness. (Fuck you, Dr. Wayne Dyer!) Edwards applies the Chomsky-Herman critique of the propaganda model of corporate media and advertising culture and its purposeful atomization and commodification of all human experience.
Living My Life by Emma Goldman. The essential political autobiography but also an extremely well-written literary memoir by the communalist anarchist-feminist-revolutionary who somehow remains immune to even the kind of snippy sarcastic slander most of her pals get from the liberal media. She's got too much integrity. My sexy girlfriend (now wife) used to wear the popular t-shirt of Emma and her quote about dancing for revolution.
Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution by Adrienne Rich. An essential critique by the acclaimed poet of family hierarchy, patriarchal expectations of the "sacred" role of women as singularly objectified. I remember being especially moved by Rich's honest assessment of her own feelings about her son.
Empire as a Way of Life by William Appleman Williams.The title says it all, and the book
argues it. Pleased to see that the newest reprinting of this classic study includes and introduction by Andrew Bacevich, the retired military scholar and anti-war activist whose son was killed in Iraq, where empire is a way of death.
Sexual Politics by Kate Millett. Saw her speak at CSULB. I skipped a lot of boring classes
to hear great thinkers, activists back when maybe the system had money to pay them.
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn. Duh. Taught this book (with people's lawyer Bob Myers) by author of A People's History of the United States to Santa Monica College students in a class called "Social Problems" (I've always wanted to be one myself), its ostensible focus on the place of nonviolence in the American Civil Rights Movement, but mostly it was what used to be called a "consciousness-raising" course. People need to re-embrace that phrase, says me.
I'd have to devote a whole other blog post or ten to the Situationists, Guy DeBord and Raoul Vaneigem, so stick around for that. Meanwhile, that's my own organic baker's dozen of titles recommended by your (not at all) humble hypothetical bookstore clerk and cafe server for a Sunday morning. Now, back to Orange County, another imaginary place, after five wonderful weeks in Nor Cal with poets, prose writers, novelists and screenwriters at Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Feel free to share names of your own formative books in "Comments."
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