Sunday, November 2, 2008


"Identify those 3–6 books that have in some way influenced or affected you most deeply, 'spoken to' you the loudest, and explain why--in personal terms. All books, whether 'Great Books' or not-so-great books--books of any kind, genre period, are fair game." [1]

--Ronald B. Shwartz, editor, For the Love of Books; 115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most, (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1999).

After writing eight out of "100 Things about Me" last week, it felt pointless to continue with that meme, so I am taking up this more fitting question.

1. The latest "World Population Data Sheet" from the Population Reference Bureau

Photograph from CARTOGRAPHIES, by Tatiana Parcero. [2]

When I was working as a proofreader for a school-library book publisher in 2001-2002, I used to dread the geography reference books. Proofreading their many fiddly statistics was tedious. Then, one week I proofed Kenya and Norway back to back:

...blah, blah, blah, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Kenya is 6.1, one of the highest in the world.
(For comparison: the population of the USA is about 300 million. Six percent of that is some 18 million people. That's the equivalent of the entire populations of Arizona + Alabama + Maine + Oregon, and you can throw in Wyoming for free, with room to spare.)

...drone, drone, drone, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Norway is 0.1.
Zero point one.

We all know about this discrepency, right?
So why did this statistic change my life?
Because I despise sentimentality--I distrust people who use emotionality to promote their causes--and here I'd found a fact-based resource, the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), that I could trust (more or less).
Tell me 6.1 percent vs. 0.1 percent and skip the heart-wrenching photos.

Playing on emotion is playing dirty. Sentimentality masks facts, and you can use it either way. Show me pictures of dying baby polar bears in support of environmental legislation and I will show you pictures of polar bears biting the heads off baby seals.

Bald numbers can be manipulated, sure, but they are closer to the bone than images of majestic bald eagles soaring in free skies.

When I later came to compile books in the geography series myself, I would first print out the detailed PRB statistics on each country. I came to love the PRB for the story I could read in its numbers. When I looked at the stats on Mali, I wept.

But look--statistics are sure not the whole picture either.
They don't count the music.

2. Festival in the Desert

While I was researching Mali, I came across the CD of the 2003 music festival, held annually in northern Mali, on the edge of the Sahara desert.
I'm far more of a book person than a music person, but this recording hit me with as much force as anything I've ever read.

The fact that some of the West African musicians, such as blues guitarist Ali Farka Touré, sounded just like Mississippi Delta bluesman John Lee Hooker brought home to me, viscerally, in a way no written or visual material ever has, that enormous sweeping tracts of American culture come from Africa, and that, in fact, I had it backward:
Touré doesn't sound like Hooker, Hooker sounds like Touré.

While this has political ramifications, what thrilled me was I heard and felt in my body the truth that alongside horror, music and storytelling also travel and survive. These are part of being human, they come with the package. We carry them in our heartbeats.

You can also hear the "parallel musical universes," side by side, on the CD compilation Mali to Memphis (Putumayo World Music, 1999).

3. So, there's a music album and an online data sheet. To answer the question as written, how 'bout a book? No. 1 would have to be the Confessions of Saint Augustine.

Dozens of other books come to mind, but this book sits smack in the middle of my life, burning burning burning burning.

[--The Wasteland, III.308, T. S. Eliot.
Painting by Champaigne, 1660. (Veritas doesn't mean Augustine went to Harvard--in fact, he was from what is now Tunisia, North Africa. It means "truth" in Latin, as you probably know.)]

I ran aground on the Confessions when I was thirty-one, in a classical history class I took on a whim. (I was always dropping in and out of college.)

Because of it, within five years, I had earned a BA in Religious Studies and Latin (that second major is a joke [2], but nonetheless a direct result of wanting to read Augustine in the original); left my partner of thirteen years; started an affair with my classics professor; been baptized in the Catholic Church; and started reading John Donne (he of my Star Trek vid "Kirk: To His Mistress", made only four months ago). I was in such a state all the time during those years, I even lost twenty pounds.
Those are only the most obvious surface changes.

Well, Augustine was the grown-up, superbrain version of characters that had attracted me since childhood. If I made a list of books that influenced me as a child, they are almost all about seekers.

I read over and over, for instance, the short story "Alberic the Wise," by Norton Juster (better known for The Phantom Tollbooth).
Alberic, a medieval loser, tries and fails at one thing after another: stone sculptor, stained glass maker, etc., until finally he ends up accidentally crowned king.

Alberic realizes that though he is finally considered a success, he is more unhappy than he has ever been. He gives up all his wealth and power and once again hits the road, declaiming a philosophy I, aged ten, took as my own (and retain to this day, I suppose):
"It is better to seek for what you may never find
than to find what you don't really want."

I also took as my guide Taran Wanderer, a volume from Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain (far better, to my taste, than Harry Potter, Narnia, or even LOTR, at least partly due to the presence of a real-life girl, Eilonwy). Taran is an assistant pig-keeper who, like Alberic, hits the road to try to find out who he is and discovers, as seekers do, that he is, in fact, himself.

OK, so what slammed into my heart was that Augustine wrote so compellingly of the pain of the search, of seeking and seeking and not finding. And then the deep sweetness of finding something that makes that tolerable, which he calls God. We will always be pilgrims in this life, he says, and our societies and institutions--the Church too--will always be imperfect; but we rest in the love of God.

Now, Augustine is problematic, to say the least.
Alas, he becomes crusted over with Certainty, the root of fundamentalism and even terrorism. In his frustration with his fellow humans, he goes so far as to condone the use of religious violence "for a good cause."

But even there, he is helpful--as a warning.
I can follow him--I can imagine his dismay, made a bishop against his will, stuck in the backwater of a crumbling Empire (he died in 430 as the Vandals were literally at the gate of his city), settling squabbles over stolen sheep, when what he wanted was to live like Plato (or Plotinus anyway)--and he had the brain and the passion and the energy to do so.

He can be quite funny about it all, in a twisted-knickers way--probably inadvertently. Sometimes he sounds like the Woody Allen of Late Antiquity.
(Along the lines of "I love humanity, it's people I can't stand.")

So, I love Augustine even in his mistakes, because they're the ones I would make, do make.
Getting all tangled up in believing in free will, but being sure nonetheless that there's right answer... Believing that we are made in God's image, but despairing over how we besmirch that...

Similarly, I totally get how his "sex addiction," as we would now call it, led him to issue some rather intense advice on the matter. Which does not endear him to the modern West, but I do think people who suggest we would have no sexual hang-ups if Augustine hadn't promoted them rather overlook the power of hormones...
Ditto original sin.

Stop right there, Fresca!

OK, that's my three major influences for today.
I'm going to go for a walk before I start spouting my unwritten dissertation.

[1] Shwartz, in For the Love of Books, goes on to say, "There was no conceived format [for answering the question]. ...they were left to fend for themselves, and any slant would inevitably illluminate not only the books but the writer's own sensibility. ...even the way they might resist or exceed the question, were all to the point."

[2] I found Tatiana Parcero's "Cartographies" photographs through a post on the fantastic blog Creative Mapping. "Dedicated to the creative use of maps," it led me to the excellent blog Strange Maps, which offers everything from a map of world cannabalism to a map of McDonald's locations in the southern US that serve sweet tea.

[3] My BA in Latin isn't entirely a joke. True, I can't translate anything into or out of Latin, but there's no doubt it entered the bloodstream of my language.
Plus I can still quote from memory one of my favorite lines in any literature:
"In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum et deus erat verbum."
"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with god, and god was the word."

--That's the opening line of the Gospel of John, of course, which I could include in this list of influential books; but Augustine's Confessions outranks it.


deanna said...

We will always be pilgrims in this life, he says, and our societies and institutions--the Church too--will always be imperfect; but we rest in the love of God.

The year my daughter studied Augustine, she had many similar reactions to him. Problematic, yes. Good-hearted, though, I think so, too.

fresca said...

I find that most people who condemn Augustine have never actually read him. There's plenty to dislike, but the man's formidable intelligence and crazy mad love of God are worth wrangling with.

Lady P said...

What a fan-fucking-tastic post.

I've put The Festival in the Desert on at TOP volume.

One of my (millio-myriad) less pleasant characteristics is the seething searing envy I feel towards my successor as arts correspondent (for a radio station) who got to GO to the festival. I got to go to the Cannes film festival and interview Tommy Lee Jones, but that just doesn't cut it. And I got to see Tinariwen live in Africa and interview them but that also doesn't cut it.

See what I mean?

Even the word verification agrees - wallica.


fresca said...

Pen! Thanks--I loved writing this post and rather wondered if anyone would read it, but at least two of you have, and that's good enough!
But that you are even in the position to be envious of a colleague who got to attend the festival makes my own envy flare up.
And Tommy Lee Jones! I LOVE him!

So now I am unhappy and must put on the CD also at top volume to cheer myself up.
And put on my pithelmet! And pour a glass of red.
Ah, I feel better already.