Stream Series: The Books That Formed Me. A Brutally Honest List.
Don't say I didn't warn you about these volumes.
The Stream is running a series for the summer on the books that formed our writers. I will list the key seven here. I shall be candid. That means I don’t necessarily recommend that every one of you go out and devour each of my most influential books. Unless you want to become a lot more … like me. And that clearly would have its downsides.
Nevertheless, I am commanded to turn over this list. I will briefly describe each book, and its impact on me. Employ the list with caution.
My romance with Tolkien’s exquisitely worked out alternative ancient history of Western man began with the TV cartoon of The Hobbit. It aired when I was 12 and captured my imagination completely. It didn’t hurt that the hero was a half-pint.
This is the fifth in The Stream’s summer 2019 “Books That Formed Me” series. Editors, writers, and friends of The Stream will share the books that helped make them who they are. See Al Perrotta’s list here, Nancy Flory’s here, Aliya Kuykendall’s here, Michael Brown’s list here, and Rachel Alexander’s here.
For eight long years, I was usually the shortest boy in my grade, a fact the nuns in our school helpfully highlighted by lining all of us up in height order. (I’d like to go back and visit those sisters in their retirement homes, and ask them what possible purpose that system served.)
The grandeur and moral seriousness of these works moved me profoundly. It gave me a taste for heroism and a hunger to battle evil. It fed my desire to write, and stoked my creative fire. Once I devoured all of Tolkien’s books, it also led to the single greatest disappointment of my life: When I learned that the books were all fiction. Somehow I’d gotten the notion that they were newly discovered history, perhaps of a realm in the “middle of the earth.” Realizing that couldn’t be the case was worse than learning the truth about Santa Claus.
This was a book my parents bought unwittingly from a Catholic group that was in trouble with Church authorities. (Even Pope Pius XII thought it too conservative.) Nevertheless, it offered a gripping and upbeat view of the role of the popes in history. As I read it in early high school, I didn’t quite ken the notion that books might be a tad tendentious. I kind of thought that if something was printed, it must be wholly true. So I absorbed, along with the book’s uncontroversial listing of the accomplishment of great popes, its version of 20th century history. And took it with me to Yale. That’s why I blurted out, in a classroom discussion, the “fact” that the cause of World War I was … a conspiracy by the Freemasons to destroy Christian monarchies. Didn’t everybody know that?
So the dusty old volumes of this 20-book set stood neglected on our public library shelves. But I’m grateful to the secular Jewish librarians in the Steinway Branch of the Queens Public Library for keeping them around. Because the teachers at my “Catholic” school were energetically purging everything before the magic year 1968. I might endure feminist rants or Sandinista propaganda films in class. Or pseudo-learned explanations of how the Resurrection was really just a “psychological event.”
But I always had the Encyclopedia to go back check things against. Then come back in the next day and pedantically correct the butch nun or burned-out hippie ex-seminarian who led the class.
From this old, exquisitely scholarly reference book I learned moral reasoning. Ancient and medieval history. The basics of theology. I also learned all I needed to report my school to the local bishop and the Vatican for heresy.
I discovered Erik Maria Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn through his columns in National Review. An Austrian aristocrat, novelist, and world-traveler, he was also a political theorist. At age 16, I sat down and devoured this manifesto. It debunked the foolish “left/right” spectrum in the popular mind. You know, where at each extreme you have a totalitarian socialist state running concentration camps — just killing different victims.
Instead, Leddihn grouped Stalin and Hitler together on the left, as partisans of Collectivism who served the “herd mentality.” On the right were defenders of complex, traditional societies that valued personal freedom and tradition. Hence the “far right” would include George Washington, Ludwig von Mises, and Charles de Gaulle. A much more useful scheme for thinking about politics, it formed my thought for life. It did, however, cause some false impressions at college when I cheerfully told people that politically I was “far right.”
I dug out this book in the library, after reading several of Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious satires. Reading them, but perhaps not quite understanding them, since what they mocked were particulars of 1920s Britain. I delved into the richly detailed, exquisitely characterized Brideshead Revisited and found something quite different. Namely, a serious effort to explore the nature of friendship, the problem of evil, and the redemptive meaning of suffering. (I read the novel five times.)
But along with its philosophical contents, I picked up all sorts of details about life at Oxford in the 1920s. Those were only enriched by the magnificent TV series that aired in my senior year of high school. I assumed, for some crackpot reason, that since the architecture of Yale was modeled on Oxford’s, the same fashions would prevail. So I spent my summer doorman’s earnings on rounded collars, tweed jackets, and pleated wool pants.
As soon as I arrived and saw everyone dressed either a) from The Preppy Handbook or b) in dashikis and PLO kufiyas, all my Oxford clothes went in the closet. All I had left to wear were stone-washed jeans and Def Leppard t-shirts, which had been de rigueur in Queens.
Written by a dour Frenchman in the early 1970s, this novel predicted our current headlines. I mean down to the smallest details. I think that the still-living author, Jean Raspail, should be suing for royalties. But who would be the defendant? The United Nations, maybe? George Soros?
The Camp of the Saints depicts the destruction of Western civilization by mass immigration. He pictures elites drunk on their own self-righteousness, or else consumed by hatred of their ancestors and disinterested in their descendants. Politicians who’d rather see the country perish than risk being called names in the media. Third world activists eager to exploit the West’s decadence and cowardice. It even has a pope a lot like Francis, whose vision of Christianity is watered down Kant, with a strong dose of Marx.
This novel woke me up from my teenage neoconservative vision of an America enriched by endless cheap labor, where every citizen could afford to live as an aristocrat with servants. It taught me the fragility and preciousness of our civilizational heritage. And of course, all that made it hard for me to find a job in conservative circles in the 90s.
Everyone should read this novel. Not just once, but more like once a year. I unsuccessfully pitched Regnery Publishers with my idea of a children’s edition. The book needs to be made into a movie, which means of course that it never will be. Our grandchildren won’t miss it, though. As trends look now, they’ll just watch it play out on the History Channel.
Written by Robert J. Ringer as a sequel to his bestseller, Looking Out for Number One, this book appealed to me. I was the diminutive bookworm in a rough-edged, blue collar school.
A young Niles Crane, trapped on the set of That Seventies Show. Also, I grew up in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani arrived like the British returning to a chaotic former colony to run up the Union Jack. Riding the subways was scary. Using ATMs was dangerous.
I learned from this book how forming and projecting an attitude of absolute, almost deranged self-confidence is 90% of most battles. That helped me greet a mugger once with an explosive threat of gruesome violence that sent him running down the street. And at Yale, I used the book’s technique to prepare for a meeting with a left-wing instructor, who’d given me a C- for a paper that argued feminism was in fact a mental illness. I coached myself:
You’re not some hapless sophomore begging for a better grade. You’re the chairman of the department, scolding a wayward TA for his biased grading policy.
So I sat down in his office, leaned back, and made a bridge of my fingers. In a weary, patient tone, I inquired, “So perhaps you can explain the problems you had understanding my paper.”
I got an A- instead.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.