I have a list of books that I enjoy pulling down from the bookshelf every six or seven years and re-reading. They are in no particular order, THE DANCING WU LI MASTERS, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE and DEATH OF A SALESMAN.
I first read The Catcher in the Rye in high school and like most kids was captivated by the tone and temperament of Holden as he deals with his understanding of the world. The turning point for me to cause me to return to the book and re-read it was much later in my life during an EFM class (Education for Ministry a course put out by the Sewanee school of theology to help develop lay leaders) that was as much a counseling session for middle-aged women as it was theological. (there were eight women and two guys so you know how that went) But there was a woman in there who was old enough to be my mother, she had gone through a horrible divorce after thirty plus years of marriage with a cheating husband. Anyway I was always supportive, and tried to help her reframe her perspective of the world, much like Holden had to in the book as he heads toward Phoebe. Anyway at the end of the first year she gave me a card, and inside the card she had written that I have a large mitt catching souls in the field of rye before they go over the cliff. It framed the metaphor in a completely different light, and now I enjoy re-reading the book to see if the wisdom from bumps, scrapes, triumphs, and satisfactions of aging yields new insights into the metaphors in the book. It reminds me of a sermon, the priest was taking flying lessons. There was a red barn near the airstrip and as he would circle the airfield he could always look down and find the red barn as a point of reference for his location. Sometimes rereading books serve as a red barn for me as the barn never moves but I continue to move and spiral up and down in life.
The other book from my impressionable youth is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. What an incredible read. Obviously it has a lot of autobiography in it to be so raw. But the blend of philosophy and travelogue works so well for a narrative. I want to write a story like that one day, a study of dichotomies. As I have grown I have experienced some friends and family suffer from mental illness, depression, and ultimately suicide. Their dissatisfaction with the world led them to a state of despair that ended their lives. The protagonist is saved before an untimely death by shock treatment but he is broken by the experience and yet he relived it on his trip. I love the study of “quality” and the Socratic method of discovering “truth” as told by Pirsig. I keep coming back to this book because I see the struggle in our culture between technology and the ever accelerating pace of the digital world and the “green” or “back to earth” romantic movement as becoming more and more reconciled. The sax player didn’t need to understand the construction of his instrument only how to string together the notes. On the internet you need to learn how to put together the pages with HTML to have the freedom to create what you want without limits of a canned site. The enjoyment of the moment, the impressionism of the situation seems more in harmony with the understanding of how it all works for me anyway. Maybe it is me but right now it seems to blend more now than it did in the seventies.
The next one is the drama Death of a Salesman. First, I have no respect for Arthur Miller who had a concubine some 50 years his junior at the time of his passing. What a letch! But his work, it is shallow and bitchy in its grasp of the world almost as juvenile as Holden Caulfied’s understanding of the world. It would be interesting to re-write this with Holden Caufield as the narrator. Yet my life has been tied to this story from the time I played Biff in a college production. I am a salesman, I had a son who was a football player. I have had my ups and downs, (but thank God I never met another woman in a hotel room or anywhere else for that matter). It speaks to me as a salesman, a profession where attitude is everything. My dad also loved this play, not enough to see me perform as Biff while I was in college but he loved it nevertheless. In fact he loved all forms of derision thrown at salesmen for whatever reason. He would sing the Simon & Garfunkle song “Keep the Customer Satisfied.” Anyway he loved the line, “…a dime a dozen.” Maybe it was his perspective as a manager and not a salesman. As I grow older, get slower, and have adult kids I like to go back to this play and identify with Willie more and more. What Miller didn’t understand was the thrill of victory when a sale is made, all he saw was rejection and failure when the prospect says no to you. He really didn’t grasp the relationships built during a career, people you hit it off with and keep doing business because you like each other.
Finally I love science, I am a closet nerd. So when I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters I was captivated. If you haven’t read this book you need to since it explains quantum mechanics and new science in simple layman’s terms. I re-read this because I miss so much every time I go through this book. The book speaks to the dichotomy of science and religion and our grasp of the universe and how it works. Steven Hawking, who wrote A Brief History of Time, says religion is about authority and science is about observation and logic. I think it might be the other way around now. What with the intimidation of the “peer review” scam of global warming and the scathing disrespect by the pack toward any critic or doubter drives away dissent. As technology improves so does our ability to observe and measure phenomenon. The Hubble Telescope has completely changed our understanding of the heavens as the increase detail in the pictures allows astronomers to see deeper and deeper into the universe. Anyway this is a fantastic book, and worth reading and rereading to understand quantum mechanics, and what the gigantic particle accelerators are trying to accomplish in their search for the “God” particle and why it is important.