Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Soldier's Reading List

In her review of William Styron's memoir Havanas in Camelot, the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani slipped in the following parenthetical aside:

"How many Marines today, one wonders, turn to Keats,
Housman and Emily Dickinson in stressful moments?"

Kakutani's question was rhetorical, and the implication was that today's jarheads are immune to the wonders of literature.

As it happens, I'm involved with an organization called Operation Paperback, that collects "gently used books" and sends them to troops abroad. Most soldiers involved in the program ask for certain genres of books, like history, crime fiction, technology books, etc. But some ask for very specific titles. This morning I received an email from the the good folks at Operation Paperback with some specific requests, including this one from a soldier I'll call Jim Domenico (I've changed his name to protect his privacy):

"Outer Dark", by Cormac McCarthy
"Hero with a Thousand Faces", by Joseph Campbell
"Catch-22", by Joseph Heller
"The Cement Garden", by Ian McEwen
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", by Robert Pirsig

McCarthy and McEwen are two of the finest writers in the English language today. Interestingly, both of Domenico's choices here are of earlier, more obscure books. "Catch-22" is arguably the best novel of the Second World War. "Hero with a Thousand Faces" is a classic book about the psychological roots of mythology. (I don't know much about "Zen...", except that it is a cult classic.)

Domenico's choices aren't common, but not unique either. I've had requests for Shakespeare, Russian literature and philosophy, along with more popular works. It seems to me that the reading choices aren't widely different from the rest of us.

Tom Wolfe has long argued that the American novel has suffered because too many writers lead cloistered, writerly lives. They graduate college, go off to some bucolic college to get their M.F.A., then move to Brooklyn or Berkely and spend their lives surrounded by other writers. Wolfe argues that they should, like Hemingway and Steinbeck, go live in the real world, where their fiction will be informed and strengthened by living a non-writerly existence.

So too for readers. I've read much of Ms. Kakutani's work, and she is undoubtedly intelligent, well-read, and able to appreciate literature in a way that most of us can't. But I suspect Mr. Domenico, who is stationed in Baghdad, has seen things that she hasn't, and will understand the sacred violence of Cormac McCarthy's fiction, the madness of war in "Catch-22", and the heroic journey's of Campebell's mythic figures in ways that Kakutani can only imagine.

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