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severalog

Lists of other peoples' words

J. Harry Caufield

I mentioned the book list meme a few posts back, so here's mine. I posted it to Facebook already but it offers more posterity here, plus a chance for context.

1. Herb Seasoning by Julian F. Thompson

This is a Scholastic young adult novel. It sticks with me because it's about the impact of major life choices but it's also notable in a "how did this get published" kind of way. Its storyline is decidedly PG-13 and much more explicit than one might expect from an admittedly surreal coming-of-age story. I think I found it in a library sale during my earliest teen years. The last YA novel I read was the final Harry Potter text so perhaps more modern youth fiction trends towards the surreal as well. 

2. Wildlife by James Patrick Kelly

This one is essentially a collection of cyberpunk musings. I read a fair amount of Asimov's Science Fiction as a youth so I was used to the novella format; it works well for cyberpunk. A short story can introduce just enough new ideas to dismantle them all in short order. The whole cyberpunk aesthetic and ethos was so good at deconstruction that the genre rapidly dismantled itself. Wildlife is a great example of the poignancy of such a phenomenon as I see echoes of its ideas in every other headline. A gaggle of apathetically-wealthy teens hold parties themed around destroying priceless museum pieces. Children almost literally become their own parents, if they ever grow up at all. Others grow out instead of growing up.

3. Equus by Peter Shaffer

I don't like to deal in superlatives so I won't call this "the best play ever written". If anything, it's an exercise in balancing restraint and exuberance. I can't remember if I read Equus in high school or college but it was in a setting where most readings are rich in meaning but low in significance. This one startled me. It was significant to me, at least, as a recent adolescent. I couldn't understand the factors necessary to transform a horse into a god (even now, I haven't been on a horse in decades). It truly seems like madness.


4. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

A classic. It sticks with me as a feeling rather than a discrete set of details.


5. The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E. T. A. Hoffmann

OK, I'll confess. I haven't read more than a hundred pages or so this one yet. It still manages to stick with me by virtue of sheer, inexplicable weirdness. It's ostensibly a cat's biography but is simultaneously a biography of at least two other people, both real and fictional.


6. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

Potentially just as critical to the genre of end-times spiritualism in science fiction as Cat's Cradle, Three Stigmata is one of Dick's more obviously paranoid works of fiction, though that may depend upon your opinion of VALIS. It sticks with me for many of the same reasons as Cat's Cradle does. The entire idea of drug-mediated collective hallucination is, in itself, philosophically challenging.


7. The Bridge Trilogy by William Gibson

I could also include his Sprawl and Blue Ant trilogies here, though the latter novels lack the breathless futurism of classics like Neuromancer or All Tomorrow's Parties. Gibson defined concepts like cyberspace and that prescience remains present in my mind. It pops up frequently: one of Idoru's core plots involves a convenience store chain installing 3D printers (minor spoiler - a rouge AI takes control of them). Self-aware computers aside, 7-11 could roll out such a service in the next few years and it wouldn't be unexpected. Beyond specific bits of futurism, Gibson was responsible for the whole cyberpunk aesthetic. It's about as dead now as a genre can be but it reappears everywhere from glitch music to failed TV series.


8. 3500 Good Jokes for Speakers by Gerald F. Lieberman

It's an ancient joke book! That is, it's a book of jokes published in the 70's but more appropriate to the 50's or 60's. When I read it in the early 2000's, it was an alien, nearly indecipherable thing full of obscure cultural references lost to the ages. It's also chock-full of racism, sexism, homophobia, and just about any other -phobia you can imagine. Because of all that, it's a great example of the plasticity of humor over time. It's an authentic time capsule.


9. The Incredible Machine by Robert M. Poole (1994 ed.)

I read this one for the pictures and the pictures are what stick with me, along with an appreciation for biological complexity.


10. CLOSURE by _why

Here's a modern story: a young programmer anonymously contributes code for years. He's knowledgable about the language and frequently implements ways to make it more useful, not only to experienced programmers but to beginners. He produces instruction manuals unlike any other, soaked with surreal cartoons and stories. His personal details escape into the Internet and he leaves every online community he's been part of. The only certain detail is that he needs anonymity. 

He may have been suffering from burnout. That's what CLOSURE seems to be about, at least. It's not entirely clear where everything in the collection came from or even who made it. The title was assigned after its initial release. Much like any complex code, it's a dense stew with many cooks.

Burnout isn't exclusive to coding. It can happen in any field, especially when it's not clear what your contributions mean to society. Do they have to mean anything? If so, how long should they remain relevant? Who decides what stays relevant? I wrestle with these questions on a near-daily basis but they haven't won yet.

There's a transition here with regards to why books stick around in my mind. The first three books in this list involve fairly nontraditional coming-of-age stories. Life offers multitudinous possibilities and these options appear inconceivably extensive during youth. The possibilities only narrow as we grow older and begin to comprehend where our limitations lie. That being said, we also grow slightly more able to predict future events. We begin to see long-term patterns, even in chaotic situations. Items four through seven on this list fit that latter category: they're all either science fiction or magical realism and they concern massive disasters. In the case of Hoffmann's Tomcat Murr, the disaster is literary. The other stories concern societal collapse and its metaphysical ramifications.


The metaphysical aspect is one which I was surprised to find in this list. Equus, Cat's Cradle, and Palmer Eldritch specifically include folk religions and emergent spiritualism. I'm not entirely sure why this concept is so interesting to me. It appears in some of my other interests; I have been collecting religious literature for several years simply because it's varied and interesting. The idea of the "emerging church" is an interesting one in itself. I'm an outsider to that movement, though, so I'm still trying to understand why I find it so alluring.