Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year in Books

I planned on having more time to write this blog, a couple hours at least, but I ran out. Seems like there's a pattern to that, at least in my life. There is never enough time.

That goes for reading too. Halfway through 2007 I came up with a list of books I wanted to read for the remainder of the year and promised myself that if I made good, I'd buy myself a pizza. I didn't make it through my list (though I feel like I made a pretty decent dent in it), I'm still going to get that pizza, from Joe Peeps, and I'm going to eat it like there's no tomorrow.

There just isn't enough time in the day to read everything I'd like to. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming it can be frustrating. And then I catch myself in the mirror and laugh, because there's no point in getting frustrated. That's just the way it is. I should go into bookstores more often just to remind myself that I'll never read even a quarter of what's in there. What matters is that I make what I read count. And though there's some luck in that, because reading a book is an investment of time, it's about what I take from it that matters. Everything has something to give, no matter how crappy or how good.

Words have such power, and, as the years go by, I fall more and more in their trance. I love all forms of storytelling, but books are my favorite. I wish films were, but there's just not enough great films, and usually (here's a cliche) the book's far better. Still, I have a passion for story, and no matter where it comes from, when it's good that's what counts, whether it's a book or a film or Lost.

This year my favorites were The Road by Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion the greatest writer alive, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (of course!) by J.K. Rowling, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the Half-Blood Prince (I was late to the game).

Now that the year's come to a close, I must ask myself: What to do? Do I scrap my reading list from this year and start over with a new one? Nah. I'm going to keep the books I didn't read on my to-read list but I'm not going to burden myself with a list, not a strict one. I got so many books as gifts this year that I'm excited about reading that I just can't put them at the end of the pile, because I want to read them NOW!!! So I'll continue to add to my to-read list that I carry with me, but gone is the must-read-before-year-end list that became more of a burden than an inspiration. I free myself from my own shackles and say, read what you want, when you want! Deviate from your boundaries, pick up new things, try new books, and come back to the old ones.

This year, I'm looking forward to reading The Wild Trees (I'd like it to be a non-fiction-themed year), The Kite Runner, Ham On Rye, Bowl of Cherries, The Bible According to Mark Twain, The Fourth Bear, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Know It All, The Alchemyst, and whatever else pops up in addition to the books I've been looking forward to reading for quite some time. I feel lucky and excited because I'm already engrossed in No Country For Old Men, dazzled by Journeys to Unforgettable Places (Pico Iyers account of Ethiopia, especially Abyssinia, is wondrous), and laughing my butt off at I Am America and So Can You. So 2008 should be good, if the first three are any indication, and I have a feeling they are.

Happy New Year! And Happy Reading!

It's Kinda Like the Eight Ball
"Understanding The I-Ching"
by Hellmut and Richard Wilhelm

In keeping with my curiosity about Eastern philosophy, the I Ching, or Book of Changes, seemed a logical read. I read another book on the I Ching that I'll not blog, because this one give more of an encompassing view of the I Ching.

The I Ching, or "Book of Changes", is an ancient text that is consulted by tossing yarrow stalks (now coins, using heads or tails to count) that gives advice on life and situations that arise. The responses can be as varied and ambiguous as "Lends grace to the beard on his chin" to "Graceful and moist, constant perseverance brings good fortune." Sounds like fortune cookies, and the responses could even mimic that of the general horoscope, but the I Ching is supposed to go deeper than that.

So deep that some people, like Richard Wilhelm, spend their entire life studying the I Ching and it's responses. Luckily some of his lectures were collected and edited by his son so that people like me, who are just curious, can check it out without the commitment of reading the source text.

While I'm not that into tossing coins in a random fashion and following the advice that corresponds to their numbers, the philosophy and the background of the I Ching is much more my style. I like the messages, I like that there are 64 hexagrams, and that combined they encompass any and every change in the chaotic world. Essentially, the I Ching takes the chaos of the universe and orders it into 64 interrelated categories. It's a fascinating thing to see, and just another extension of the worldview that everything is connected, to which I would very much like to believe.

I've heard Taoism is a major precursor to the I Ching, and I think I'll be looking into that much more in the coming months. It's a fun journey, I highly recommend it. Write me when you get there.

Some Peace and Quiet
"Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"
by Shunryu Suzuki

I've been trying to expand my horizons, philosophically speaking. This year I took a short class on meditation that I really enjoyed, and I've been reading into existentialism and other philosophies and religions. It should come as no surprise to those who know me that Zen would enter at some point.

George Lucas used Zen as the basis for much of the Force in the Star Wars films, so I knew it would agree with me.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a series of talks transcribed by students of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki on Zen practice, meditation, and mindfulness. It's a fascinating book that offers insights and advice on leading a zen life. No matter what your belief system, if you subscribe to a religion, even the tenets of Zen stand to add a little more to your spirituality. Zen is an outlook more than it is a religion. It is a practice and, more than anything, a philosophy of the world.

Everything is connected, everything affects everything else, and the point of all this is to rise above the everyday tasks and get your head above the clouds, so to speak, so that you can have a clear view of life. Even if Zen isn't for you, it's hard not to find the words here insightful and provocative:
You know how to rest physically. You do not know how to rest mentally. Even though you lie in your bed your mind is still busy; even if you sleep you mind is busy dreaming. Your mind is always in intense activity. This is not so good. We should know how to give up our thinking mind, our busy mind.
It's easy to find those words comforting, because it's the truth. I've heard many great things about meditation, about leading a Zen life, and the class I took on meditation was in the middle of this book, and while the teacher was not teaching Zen, many of the points he made coincided with what I was reading. The benefits are worth it, I think, and this book is a true classic. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to enhance their personal and/or spiritual growth.