Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Top 10 Influential Novels




These past few weeks, each time I post I feel like I am apologizing.  I made some big promises right before the new year about the changes that would be coming to Puddles and I haven’t exactly lived up to them as of yet.  These phases move slowly and recent developments at my day-job have kept me from moving them along at the desired pace.  However, here are a few updates:

1. Podcasts – We will resume doing podcasts as the weather starts to turn.  I need to brainstorm on some topics to discuss with old guests as well as compile and cajole new guests into doing the podcast.  I want to retool a little bit in order to get some humor and wider enjoyment out of each podcast. Look for new podcasts in March.

2. Free Forest City Redemption Project – This has been delayed, but I’ve taken a more hands-on approach to obtaining all the files and the first tracks should be posted in the second week of February.

3. Guest Writers – I am working on swindling and tricking guest writers into helping out with the content on the site. Mr. Mark Jack has been doing a fantastic job and Alex Ramsdell will occasionally drop his well-thought philosophical bombs on us from time to time.  However, we need more writers to create a greater variety of content and voices on Puddles. If you read this blog and are interested, you can also feel free to contact me and we can discuss an arrangement.

4. Fiction – This is the furthest off (as well as the Second Redesign), but the most important.  I fell in love with writing because of the art of fiction and my life is forever devoted to it.  I will be working on this vision non-stop.

With that update out of the way, let’s get to today’s post:


I’ve been looking at Puddles of Myself a lot lately. What I mean is that I have been regarding the site—the content, the organization, the visual appearance—and trying to figure out the impression that it leaves, the message that it sends to visitors.  I have been writing a lot about sports, music, TV and other random (sometimes funny) observations.  However, my identity as Matt Domino, as an emerging brand called Puddles of Myself, actually comes from my true passion, which is the art of writing and the art of completed fiction.  No matter what happens here, my only satisfaction will come from the legacy of my fiction.  That may sound like a daunting or perhaps depressing fact, but it is the only true thing that I can probably say to myself or to any person that I attempt to interact with.

What all this leads to is the fact that there are probably ten books that have directly influenced me as a lover of fiction and as an aspiring writer.  When you look at this list of ten books I know that there will immediately be some outrage.  You will claim that there is a lack of female writers; that most of the novels come from the Modernist period; that all of the books are from the western tradition.  And all of your observations will be true.  I came from a liberal arts education, so I have heard the full argument for reading fiction from all over the world, for not sticking with a set “canon”, for not even using the word “canon” to define literature.  However, I am who I am. I enjoy reading novels by white men from the western world because I am a white man from the western world and very often those white men put things into a perspective that can enlighten me.  I’ve read novels from Africa; I’ve read novels from India; I’ve read novels by women writers; I’ve read novels from the 17th century and I can assure you that they are pretty terrible.  I’ve read novels from the past ten to twenty years that focus on obscure countries and parts of the world, but leave you feeling sort of used and cheated, since they become platforms for enticing the reader using an exotic setting, for making the reader feel bad that he or she doesn’t know more about things that happen in the world and then leave the reader feeling self-satisfied, when he or she can turn to a friend or acquaintance and say that they know something.  I may be ignorant for saying so, but that is not the sort of fiction I enjoy reading.  That is not the fiction that made me fall in love.  If you read this blog, then you know that I feel passionately for and believe in only the things that move my soul and cause me to give word, to pass the story along about why this thing should be loved or known. I look for that quality in novels. I look for novels to move me to that frenzied pitch. I look for novels to teach me about the human soul and how we can move through the world and continue to be happy despite every sign and symbol that is there to confuse us.  These next ten novels have wholly influenced my viewpoint on life and on writing.


10. East of Eden - John Steinbeck

Why:  I first read this book in the tenth grade.  At that time it was probably the longest book I had ever read. There are a lot of people who think that John Steinbeck is overrated.  I don’t believe that.  He uses simple language that concretely draws you into the story and place.  His sentence structure isn’t as artful as Hemingway’s so he isn't as celebrated for his use of simple language and sentences.  East of  Eden is a chronicle of a family over time in America, specifically California but it is really a story about good and evil, which Steinbeck makes very obvious.  The fact that he makes it so obvious is what a lot of people criticized about the book. I just re-read this book last winter and, while the themes are up front, this book very much assimilates all of Steinbeck’s other works: kindness to strangers, the appreciation of hard work, the comic goodness of life, attention to family saga and sadness, biblical allusion.  It is very much a tale of America and I will always see it in my head that way.  In addition, the theme of the Hebrew word timshel, or “thou mayest,” perfectly sums up American history and perhaps History in general.  We all have the ability to change, no matter if we are marked with good or evil. We can make what we want of the world and the universe.  That is all very powerful and meaningful stuff.  When you add all of that soul-stirring material to the fact that I first read this novel after basketball practice, in the warmth and safety of my home, while listening to “Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin, you have to figure that its going to have an influence.

Basketball Equivalent: Tim Duncan.  There is nothing fancy about John Steinbeck’s writing, but book after book he gets it done just like Tim Duncan has in the NBA. Although,  I don’t see Steinbeck as a silver and black man (more of an orange or sepia and darker brown).  They both excel at the fundamentals and, no matter how much you want to write them off (as I have done with Duncan), you simply can't.  Each one can also flash surprise moments of brilliance, such as Steinbeck when Adam is dying in East of Eden and Tim Duncan when he nails a perfect 14 foot bank shot.





9. Desolation AngelsJack Kerouac

Why: Kerouac is criminally overlooked in the history of American literature and this is his best book by far.  While On the Road and Dharma Bums may be more polished, Desolation Angels is his most honest and visceral work (well, Big Sur may be more visceral but you can pick and choose).  The first part of the novel better exhibits Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” philosophy more than any other part of his “Duluoz Legend.” The fragments of Kerouac’s happiness, isolation, paranoia, cosmic visions, and nostalgia for childhood, paint an accurate portrait of his (“the narrator’s”) psychology.  The middle section of the novel where Kerouac visits his various friends in the United States and abroad captures his “bop prosody” at its best as Kerouac drinks tokay in back alleys in San Fran, runs around jazz clubs in New York, takes an epic trip to Mexico and then a solemn car ride back, and drinks wine in a wealthy family’s home in Washington D.C. with Gregory Corso.  Kerouac’s love affairs in this novel are also his best written.  However, the real merit of the novel comes from the end where Kerouac starts seeing the sadness in the holy visions of his travels.  He even takes an ill-fated trip across country with his mother to show her what the joys of his life have been for the past decade.  He soon realizes the hollowness and the mortality of all he has loved.  There is a strange seriousness, an inevitability that pervades this novel – perhaps a Catholic guilt or weight – that makes it Kerouac’s best and most interesting work.  It had me endlessly contemplating becoming a wildfire watcher for most of my college summers, so that I could come back from isolation and spring upon the world.

Basketball Equivalent: Allen Iverson. Both Iverson and much of Kerouac’s work were misunderstood. Desolation Angels exhibits Kerouac’s firm belief and investment in a style that perhaps wasn’t going to pay off, the “instantaneous prose,” which is akin to Iverson’s belief in himself as the only way his team was going to win. Iverson’s plight was covered in Free Darko’s The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball and Kerouac’s has been discussed in about a dozen documentaries and among many college students and twenty-something hipsters.  They both could be explosive and retain a humble love of tradition.  Each one could bring you to enlightening moments of religious joy and pity in the strangest of times.


8. Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe
Why: Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling account of his fictional alter-ego, Eugene Gant, is one of the best American novels that many colleges and universities seem to never want to teach.  Writers and artists are appreciated in cycles and Wolfe has been at the down point of the cycle for a long time, waiting to be rediscovered.  This was Wolfe’s debut novel and its story of a misunderstood, but passionate youth and his large, dysfunctional, but memorable family was something that I clung to in college.  This novel always reminds me of summer and it is the novel that I most closely associate with riding a train (although, Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again actually begins on a train).  Eugene is a sensitive youth that we watch grow from a young boy to an eccentric student and aspiring writer on his way to Harvard, leaving the South for the first time. There are terrific passages of small town life and family history and heritage that make you feel at times more a part of America than you have ever felt.  For me, though, it is the character of Ben, Eugene’s shadowy, stubborn older brother that sticks with me.  Ben chooses a solitary and hard life of work that Eugene admires and doesn’t quite comprehend.  Ben is the sibling that Eugene feels the closest to, yet Ben is so hard on Eugene because he wants to make sure he realizes his talent and doesn’t become trapped in the South, a slave to the whims and desires of his family.  It was Ben’s desire channeled through Eugene to be free of institutions such as family, a desire that spurned on Eugene’s own creative desire on, was something I related to in my brooding and drunk college years. I could go on and on about this book and it was just as good when I read it last spring.

Basketball Equivalent: Scottie Pippen. This comparison seems a little stretched as I am thinking about it now because I don't think that Wolfe could do everything in the way that Scottie Pippen could.  However, Look Homeward, Angel is often overlooked among the big boys of the era such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Winesburg, Ohio, and other books much as Scottie Pippen is overlooked among the other greats of his era just because Michael Jordan was his teammate.  Both Wolfe and Pippen had a Southern sensibility to them and came from humble beginnings to arrive at peak artistry. Scottie was a bit more economical in his game than Wolfe ever was in his epic tomes.


7. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Why: I still firmly believe that this book is Ernest Hemingway’s best novel. It is certainly, without a doubt, the quintessential expatriate novel.  I read this novel when I was studying in Ireland for the first time (a late bloomer, I know) and one night, while under the influence, flung it across the room and screamed, “This is not writing!” due to the simplicity of the sentences.  Yet, upon my next three subsequent readings, I have realized the true impact of it. It is in many ways a modernist novel with what must be inferred by the reader.  Its sentences, while seeming straightforward, actually contain strange structures and dictions that are certainly in line with something Joyce would have devised, though probably not as radical.  That the language is so simple is one of the things that brings you back to it.  Like many of the liquors the characters drink in the novel itself, it is a palette-cleanser.  While, and after, you are reading The Sun Also Rises the concept of writing becomes so much clearer.  You understand what can be done with language, with the economy of it, just as Joyce made you realize what could be done with the imagination of language. The novel is extraordinarily accessible and the characters are memorable.  Lady Brett Ashley is both the most annoying woman you’ve ever encountered and also a character who deserves some modicum of pity, someone you want to take care of, like so many women in the world.  Robert Cohn is like any third wheel friend you’ve ever had, yet you feel his plight as he is treated as an outsider.  Bill is one of the most underrated characters in fiction and he has a certain depth that develops over subsequent readings.  Mike and Pedro Romero are perhaps a little simpler and are drawn as somewhat on the opposite end of the spectrum for what can happen to a man.  And then there is Jake.  Jake who knows the world, who knows concierges, bartenders and waiters in France and Spain and New York who all remember him and treat him like a quiet friend.  There is something about Jake and the way he simply does work or reads or goes someplace to drink among the chaos that is so simple and seems to be something to strive for, even though his life is a mess.  The section where Jake travels alone after the fiesta and goes swimming and reads on the beach is some of the most poignant and surprising writing I have ever read.  Each time I read this book it surprises me even though it is so straightforward.

Basketball Equivalent: Bill Russell.  I have never watched footage of a Bill Russell game so I have always been averse to his status as perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time.  For a long time I never read a Hemingway novel so I was just as averse to the claim that he was the most influential writer in American literature.  Well, I have grown and I can admit that they are both extraordinarily influential in their respective fields – right down to their beards. If you ask smart basketball players who they would most like to emulate, they would say Bill Russell or Michael Jordan.  If you asked smart writers who they would most like to emulate, they would say Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce.  And Hemingway was never better than in The Sun Also Rises; it has everything that was Hemingway.


6. As I Lay Dying- William Faulkner

Why: Faulkner is one of my absolute favorite writers and this is my favorite book of his.  It contains everything that Faulkner aspired towards: family history, southern ignorance and pride, corruption, spiritual vision, varying perspectives, exploration of language, and exploration of consciousness.  Darl is one of Faulkner’s most interesting characters and, due to his level of intellectual and spiritual torture that he shares with Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury, was a huge influence on me as I was learning how to think and write and also how to create a “strange” character. The range of family perspectives is especially dazzling when Faulker switches from Vardaman’s simple, sometimes abstract voice, to Anse Bundren’s lazy, scheming mind and then to Cash’s honorable, straight-ahead, workman’s voice.  There is even a section devoted to Addie Bundren’s voice from the afterlife.  What makes a technique like that work is how much the rest of the novel is grounded in the hard world of the Bundren family and all of their beliefs and ignorances. When Addie’s voice is heard, you don't find it strange, you believe that a dead person would be able to think in the world that Faulkner creates, just as it might in our world.  There is a spirituality, a cosmic nature that inhabits these earthy characters and that was always something appealing to me.  That aspect as well as understanding why the technique itself worked helped me to learn more about being a writer. And beyond all of this, there is some truly beautiful and rhythmic writing throughout the book as well as some elemental statements about life.

Basketball Equivalent: Charles Barkley. The southern parallels are obvious, but its really the size I am referring to. Both Barkley and As I Lay Dying are compact but each are full of beauty and power.  Barkley was 6’4” but played like he was 6’8” or 6’9”.  He was a fierce rebounder, a prolific scorer and a fantastic passer—he just couldn’t play defense. Depending on edition, As I Lay Dying checks in at a shade under 200 pages, but the depth of the writing, the variety of the voices, the drama of the interactions between family members and their ill-fated journey makes it seem like so much more. Faulkner would make more complex works like Absalom, Absalom but he was never more concise, beautiful, difficult and powerful than he was here.  And like the novel, Barkley is also known to make elemental statements about life.




5. All The King’s MenRobert Penn Warren

Why: I’ve touched on the influence this novel has had on me on this blog before.  I first read the book in the first semester of my freshman year at Skidmore.  I read it in Professor Tom Lewis’ class, a professor who went on to be a big influence on my college career.  I had never heard of Penn Warren, but the novel immediately floored me. I still have visions of lying in my freshman room and turning page after page of the book.  I still remember how I was baffled, during my senior year, how sometimes I could feel so removed from things, like Jack Burden could.  How by just sticking my hands in my pockets, I could make myself clean of any external, dangling issues or consequences that I was somehow connected to.  The writing is poetic and dense, but is balanced by some of the most crackling dialogue in American literature.  Jack Burden’s narrative is endlessly entertaining and engaging.  You can’t help but be caught up in his history at Burden’s Landing and his oft-doomed love of Anne Stanton and his oft-doomed friendship with her brother Adam.  The character of Adam Stanton and his drive to work and do good has grown in stature each time I read the book.  Then, of course there is the looming figure of Willie Stark and his rise from a backcountry hillbilly to the governor of Louisiana.  Penn’s writing takes left turns and goes on tangents that end up becoming logically tied up and along the way he has shown you some truly mesmerizing images. There are endless quotes that I could list from the novel, ones that still baffle me, but there are some that will always ring true like this one:

"There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren't you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under you foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn't really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place."

I just had to throw that one up there to exhibit the magic and the intoxication of a Penn Warren sentence.  All The King’s Men is a page-turner and it does have a dramatic ending.  However, the last pages stick in my memory all the time, as well as the description of the stormy nights at Burden’s Landing and of the vivid memories of Anne Stanton and Jack Burden’s love.

Basketball Equivalent: Grant Hill.  The glory of Grant Hill’s early career has long been forgotten, just as All The King’s Men is in many ways forgotten.  Hill had the skill and knowledge of the game of basketball that made him a poet, just as Robert Penn Warren was a poet.  However, Hill also had a muscularity to his game, an ability to take the team on his back much as Robert Penn Warren could undertake one of the best American novels of all time.  Each man was educated at a southern college that had a good basketball program (Hill at Duke and Penn Warren at Vanderbilt) and both were extremely well-educated and both well spoken.  I really like this one.


4. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Why: It may be a slight rip-off of Ulysses, but it is an extraordinarily beautiful book. The Waves may be more mesmerizing, ambitious and haunting, but Mrs. Dalloway reminds us about the joys of everyday life and how to appreciate all those people that pass through our lives.  In some ways, Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway, though certainly reliant on Joyce’s breakthroughs, is more enjoyable than the shifting narratives of UlyssesMrs. Dalloway shifts between several perspectives, but does so in a more omniscient manner that is reminiscent of Tolstoy.  We seem to float from the mind of Clarissa, to Peter Walsh, to Septimus Warren Smith and then to his wife Lucrezia Smith.  The fact that Woolf completely commits to this approach and does it so fluidly is why the novel is such a success.  The party scene is especially a triumph as we get a brief glimpse into the mind of nearly every character that is mentioned in the novel.  The language, as it is in nearly all of Woolf, is poetic and lyrical—there is a reason she is known as perhaps the best lyrical writer in the English language.  There are terrific small moments like Peter Walsh sitting on the bench and falling asleep, Clarissa watching the woman in black go to sleep from her bedroom window and deciding that she must return to the party, Richard Dalloway’s quiet, but strong and honorable perspective and ultimately the struggles of Peter Walsh and Clarissa to think about their past love.  Woolf’s use of the stream of consciousness, especially in its Tolstoyan light, has been a huge influence on me as well as Woolf’s overall lyricism.

Basketball Equivalent: Bill Walton.  Walton, like Woolf was a lyrical writer, was a lyrical basketball player.  His ability to throw an outlet pass is the stuff of legend. He was graceful on the court and is looked at as the epitome of the passing big-man.  Like the stream of consciousness narrative in Mrs. Dalloway the game seemed to flow through Walton (again, see some great essay writing by Free Darko for more details) and then onto his teammates, making a fluid championship team such as the 1977 Portland Trailblazers were.  Walton and Dalloway both had their careers cut short.  Walton was oft-injured and only had about 4 “legendary” seasons.  Woolf, meanwhile was tortured by mental illness for most of her adult life and committed suicide.  The similarity there may be stretched, but you see where you could draw it nonetheless.


3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why: It’s no secret that I love this book.  Mr. Marshak, my 11th Grade English teacher, was the person who first gave it to me.  I fell in love immediately.  Fitzgerald is a supremely talented writer and there is perhaps no American writer who wrote more beautifully than he did.  The whole idea underneath and throughout the narrative of The Great Gatsby of the night and the images that you see there among crowds of people at parties and of a green light that eternally blinks in the darkness, was immediately enticing to a day-dreaming and disillusioned teenager like myself.  I have read the book almost every year since 2001 and it has become embedded in my mind.  The ideas of America, of what the East means as opposed to the West, the vision of Old Manhattan, the vision, feel and smell of Old Long Island, are so vividly drawn.  The Great Gatsby is a novel that emits a perfume and you are immediately wrapped in its allure.  Much of that perfume stems from Nick Carraway’s narrative, which is at turns nostalgic, pensive, angry, joyful, empathetic, reserved and aloof.  Take for instance my favorite passage:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

What doesn’t that quote tell us about life? About the beauty of the sentence in general?  About what we want and then immediately do not want?  And there are plenty more like that and each person has their own favorite.  Besides, no book perhaps ends more famously or elegantly than The Great Gatsby.

Basketball Equivalent:  Magic Johnson.  The only player that could match the elegance and beauty that Fitzgerald put on the page was Magic Johnson.  Magic’s passes were fine threads of beauty that made their way through defenders, across the polished wooden boards of the court and found themselves into the waiting hands of a teammate who simply had to drop the ball through the net without a sound.  “Showtime” brought the grace to basketball that Fitzgerald brought to the page.  Magic knew his history as did Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald was perhaps more overshadowed in his realm than Magic Johnson will ever be in basketball, but you can’t deny that each man’s ability to make intense beauty out of his craft was and will, arguably, never be matched.





2. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Why: What can you say about this novel? Perhaps I can say that the current incarnation of myself literally owes everything to the character of Levin.  Or perhaps that the scene where Kitty and Levin profess their love for each other is literally the perfect romance scene in literature or in reality (Tolstoy actually professed his love to his wife in a code of the first letters of different phrases that his wife completed).  Maybe we could discuss the fact that Oblonsky is one of the best comic characters in all of literature (better than Falstaff? Possibly.) and yet is so empathetic and drawn with a certain drama to him that balances out his character.  We could also just marvel at the scene where Oblonsky orders oysters.  How about the prolonged exile that Levin takes to his family’s farm where he tries to study the peasants?  Maybe this novel is so great because it takes place over such a large span of years and we get full views into different families and we see nearly all of the characters in some kind of dramatic relationship to each other.  Then there is also the fact that Anna herself is such an exasperating and irrational woman and yet remains compassionate and is looked to as a figure of reason and logic up until her demise.  Further still, you will never look at a train station or a woman’s elbow the same way again. This novel has had a profound affect on me, not only as a writer, but as a human being.  When I want to put myself in the mindset to write the “correct” way, I open this book up anywhere and start reading. Tolstoy has such a mastery over the narrative and you are so completely engrossed in it at all times.  It is logical that modernism proceeded from him, because after this novel and its ability to switch perspectives so deftly, there was only room for stream-of-consciousness to be fully explored and then the very idea of narrative to be questioned.  There was nowhere to go after this.  Now, however, there is nowhere to go but back to it.  To full, character driven stories that follow families over a period of time, that don’t become too sensational, that make us fall into the fiction again as though it were real life. For all we want now, is what is “real.”  This book also contains the best and most moving ending in the history of literature. We pick up after Levin has made a huge realization in his constant struggle with faith and how that relates to the love of his wife and his new child.  A storm has just passed over his country home and his fears of his baby and wife being caught in it are over:

"Oh, you haven't gone in then?" he heard Kitty's voice all at once, as she came by the same way to the drawing-room.
"What is it? you're not worried about anything?" she said, looking intently at his face in the starlight.
But she could not have seen his face if a flash of lightning had not hidden the stars and revealed it. In that flash she saw his face distinctly, and seeing him calm and happy, she smiled at him.
"She understands," he thought; "she knows what I'm thinking about. Shall I tell her or not? Yes, I'll tell her." But at the moment he was about to speak, she began speaking.
"Kostya! do something for me," she said; "go into the corner room and see if they've made it all right for Sergey Ivanovitch. I can't very well. See if they've put the new wash stand in it."
"Very well, I'll go directly," said Levin, standing up and kissing her.
"No, I'd better not speak of it," he thought, when she had gone in before him. "It is a secret for me alone, of vital importance for me, and not to be put into words.
"This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don't know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."
That’s all I’ve got.  And if you know me, if you know who I am now, then that last paragraph basically says it all.
Basketball Equivalent: Larry Bird.  Basketball flowed through Larry Bird the way that fiction and life flowed through Tolstoy.  They called Larry Bird the “Basketball Jesus,” that’s how divine his powers were at the top of his game and Anna Karenina is the top of Tolstoy’s game.  Bird was so good at basketball that in 1986, during a road trip, he decided to shoot all of his shots left-handed.  He and Bill Walton would try to do the same give and go as many times as possible because teams couldn’t figure the simple play out because they were so good.  Bird was one of the best passers ever, one of the best shooters ever, one of the most clutch players ever and one of the best defenders.  He came in the most unlikely package but his soul was placed on earth to play basketball, just as Tolstoy’s soul was placed on earth to show us the way life is through literature.

1. Ulysses – James Joyce
Why: I know that you saw this one coming.  This is and will always be my favorite novel ever.  I am a sucker for the mundane and how we can make the mundane seem as spectacular, epic and profound as it truly is.  No one did that better than Joyce in Ulysses.  As a writer, you might say, well why not Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it is perhaps more economical and more lyrical, more focused.  That may be true, but it doesn’t capture our beloved Stephen Dedalus at his most abstract, his most brooding and his most obnoxious.  Every student of English at college wants to be Stephen Dedalus. If they deny it, they are lying. He is an unlikable character in so many ways, but he is so intelligent that you are drawn to him.  In Ulysses he is Hamlet, struggling to make a decision with his life, living in a tower by the sea, making up theories for the true identity of the ghost in Hamlet and how that ghost might actually be the ghost of Shakespeare’s dead child Hamnet Shakespeare (you have to read the novel to understand how absurd this scene is).  Then you have Bloom and his love of the inner organs of animals, of his wife’s butt and all of his ideas for inventions, like a phone to put in a coffin in case you bury someone alive.  We follow this brooding artist and this ordinary ad man with “a touch of the artist” about him through a day in Dublin.  We meet their rivals, their family, their friends and learn about all of their insecurities and fears. And what we learn is that history is rich and enchanting and can teach us many things, but we can’t ever let it define us, because we are defining history in the present, “the point at which all future plunges into the past.”  The novel asks all the important questions such as “what is the age of the soul of man,” all of the cosmic and spiritual points that I want in my novels.  In the end, though, it really affirms the greatness of everyday life, of the significance even our smallest journeys take on because they are the same stuff as history—there is nothing static in this world, it is all fluid. At any instant, you can be the hero, you can be Hamlet or Jesus or Napoleon or Odysseus or Michael Jordan or your grandfather, you can even be the ghost of your previous self.  We are always encountering ourselves and history and we can move within it in order to create a history that is our own—we can own History.  When a book does all of that to you, moves your soul in that way, you have to be influenced by it.  Even if it does cast a shadow over you that you try to dig out from for the rest of your grown life as an artist.
Basketball Equivalent: Michael Jordan. Joyce is widely regarded as the best writer of all time just as Jordan is regarded as the best basketball player ever.  Jordan is seen as the prototypical image of a basketball player just as Joyce is seen as the prototypical image of the artist.  Joyce was described as “the meanest drunk” by Hemingway, while Jordan was known as the most competitive man in the history of humankind.  The image that Jordan left on the game is as wide reaching as the influence that Joyce left on the English language, which is so wide that you have to watch when you use the words “swoon,” “soul,” “snow,” and “epiphany” in your writing because Joyce made them so much his own.  Each man is seen as taking the entire history of his craft and wrapping it up into one neat package. For Joyce, that package was Ulysses (as much as he’d liked it to have been Finnegan’s Wake) for Jordan it was his entire career. Each phase of his game calling to mind some specter of the sport’s past like no other player before him.  These two men belong at the top together.

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