100, A Tale of Two Cities, books, Charles Dickens, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, Hitch-22, I, Claudius, Jerry A. Coyne, Lugene Tucker, Mason Crumpacker, Mason Crumpacker and the Hitchens reading list, P.G. Wodehouse, Prometheus Bound, Reading, Reading Lists, reflection, Stephen King, The Daily Show, The Green Mile, Writers, Writing
-To Mom & Dad, Thanks for everything
I hate milestones, and I hate the feeling that I have been taught that reaching milestones actually means anything. I wrote this essay over a period of four days and broke down and cried on the last day not to mention snapped at my wife, and the day afterwards I was pissed at myself for taking the number 100 so fucking seriously.
The truth is there really isn’t anything special about me as a writer. My regular reader may roll their eyes and, like my wife, though without the clichéd rolling pin to the back of my head, remind me that I’m being self-depreciating again and to knock it off. My statement however is not my usual self-depreciation (okay it isn’t ONLY self-depreciation, old habits die hard) it’s really just honest reflection after looking over the last year and a half of work. I began this blog last July and in that time I’ve accumulated a small following, mostly photographers that like my drawings and photographs, and who are most likely annoyed by all these damn essays about books and movies, as well as a few bloggers who enjoy accumulating book lists. That, and everyday poor souls longing to look at dicks, especially those belonging to African American men, stumble upon an article that deals with the Mandingo myth. I provide a small service to the reading community (and apparently to the masturbating one as well), but realistically speaking, my work does not seem to possess much consequence.
Yet I must believe that this blog matters, and the essays that I write for it are important because I struggled over what to write on as I recognized that this would be the 100th essay I have written and published on this site. Originally I planned to publish my review of Ulysses in Chinese, given how frequently I discuss Joyce, but that seemed lacking. I’ve actually been meaning to review Fun Home again, a friend of mine has published two shorts stories on Review Americana and I promised her I’d review them here, there’s an essay I started dealing with the play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and in fact in the “Drafts” folder of my “White Tower Writings” folder (yes that’s what I call it, I am that much of an self-absorbed anal loser) I have at least ten essays started that need to be finished. Anyone of these could have received the honor of being my 100th essay, but upon reflection I wondered if 100 essays is really that much of an achievement.
My motivations for starting this blog was really my frustration with the publishing industry. My fiction style being what it is the rejection notes tend to come in bulk, and while I know rejection is just a part of the realities of writing, I’m not that thick skinned. Each note was only a further reminder that I either possessed no talent, which no ego here I know is not the truth, or that the creative community just wasn’t that interested. It was the frustration of being “stuck” in the limbo of anonymity and, in many ways, mediocrity, for how can you call yourself a writer if all you do is write manuscripts that nobody reads?
I’ve found a real purpose through these essays, so much so that every book I read, every essay I skim, every graphic novel I purchase, every poem I encounter in a class, is a possible essay topic. But that damned number 100 kept popping up in my head, because, unfortunately, I’m stuck in a culture that praises and enforces a paradigm of milestones. 100 essays is an accomplishment. 100 essays means something. 100 essays. 100 is supposed to mean something, but honestly it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a number, and while that is a platitude the reason for this statement is because I’m disturbed by the very fact that I feel this number should mean something.
The reason I began writing was because my high school sophomore English teacher Mrs. Lugene Tucker gave me her paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and while that book jumpstarted my desire and passion for writing, it wasn’t until I discovered Christopher Hitchens that I recognize that I had to become a writer because it was the only thing I could honestly picture myself doing. I discovered Hitch though right as he was on his way out, and while I began to write and read the man’s work (my parents were great at letting me buy whatever I wanted as long as it was improving to my character in some way) he fought till his last breath speaking against intolerance, ignorance, and bullying masquerading as benevolence. Every chance I get I write about Christopher Hitchens, not because I’m a pathetic internet fan-boy (I don’t consider myself internet anything) but because he really did change my life. When I got the chance to write about the man for school I took it, and when the chance to start up a blog came I recognized that my first essay had to be the one I had written.
Looking back then to the number 100 I knew, once again, that Hitch had to be involved in some capacity. I tried necromancy and demon worship but failed miserably in both instances (though this purple demon named Clarence who sits on my shoulder isn’t all that bad a guy actually, unless he’s drunk then he has some colorful opinions about the Jews) I figured I should just stick to what works and write yet another essay either about the man or his work. Given the fact that I own an entire shelf in my library dedicated to the man my options were limitless. The reader may be surprised to hear however (or not, you’re busy people and being surprised is so early nineties) that I actually went with a work written by a different author.
Jerry A. Coyne is a man I had no idea existed until only a few days ago, which is unfortunate given the fact that he wrote one of the most important essays in my history as a reader. In my freshman year of high school I was randomly searching for news or details concerning Christopher Hitchens when I found a story about Hitch and a young girl named Mason Crumpacker had written for his own blog. The essay is really a second-hand account of an event that took place at the Texas Free-Thought Convention where young Mason asked Hitchens the questions “What books should I read.” My narrative skills here are piss-poor so perhaps Mason’s mother would give it better:
“Mommy, I want to ask a question.”
I looked up from my cheesecake, “Yes?”
“No, I want to ask a question on the microphone. Can I?”
“I suppose.” Sip of coffee. “Is it a good question?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Is it respectful?”
“Well, how do I do it?”
I’m back to the cheesecake, “You’ll need to find the man with the microphone.”
And then, in one of my more embarrassing parenting moments, my eight-year-old daughter trotted off into the darkened ballroom of approximately one thousand hardcore atheists in pursuit of an answer. Meanwhile, I was smugly back to dessert, confident that there was no way in hell that she could work her way to “the man with the microphone.” Now I could listen to the question and answers in peace. Until a little voice said,
“What books should I read?”
Now, anyone who thinks that a loving mother from Texas would plant her child to ask a question at an atheist convention would either have to be half-crazy or have never been to Texas.
Rick Perry at the Response (this is where we live).
That is why Christopher Hitchens, asked, “Where’s your mother?’ Because, unlike the blog that broke the story, I was on the other side of that darkened ballroom choking on cheesecake.
But, that is what it is like to be Mason’s mom.
The question for many bibliophiles like myself is seemingly simple yet in fact is really a Kafkaesque request. There are well over a hundred books in my possession and asking me to decide which need to be read more than others borders on the obscene. Recently a friend asked me to compile twelve books to get started on a reading list, the limit being no history books, and it took well over eight hours of patient concerned thought before I compiled the list.
It’s not that I couldn’t come up with eight books off the top of my head, this blog certainly proves that such an action is possible, but recommending books assumes such a glaring presumption on the part of the recommender and perhaps that’s why I find myself so dissatisfied by many of the “blogs” I discover. The brief reviews that are offered tend to be vapid “blurbs” that prove only that the reader read the book, or, which is far more likely, that the writer read someone else’s review and wrote his/her little 500 word post because they needed hits to validate their existence. Only the last part is marginally excusable because I recognize the pain of seeing no-one has found my site in the last ten seconds.
Still reviews and commentary and lists should be held with more weight because of the influence they hold. Any idiot can come up with a list of books to read, it’s the intentions of the list that matter.
Hitchens asked Mason and her mother Anne to meet him outside the event, and it was there the list was made:
The conversation took place on an exhibit table just outside the ballroom as the banquet was coming to a close. Mr. Hitchens and Mason were eye-to-eye. I didn’t have a camera, since I was so surprised by the spontaneity of the whole thing that I had left in my purse under the table in the ballroom, but I grabbed a program and took notes. There is a perception that Christopher Hitchens gave Mason a list, but it wasn’t like that. It was far more special and interesting.
I’ll paraphrase as best as I can from memory. I’ll mess up the details, but I’ll capture the spirit….
“Well, so you like to read?’
“What are you reading now?”
“Good. Which one are you on? Which number?”
“Oh, well, really the Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I like it a lot.”
“Good. So, is this your first meeting like this?”
“Why did you come? Curiosity? Wait, I won’t answer my own question.”
Pause…. “I wanted to hear other great freethinkers because that is what I want to be when I grow up.”
(I jumped in and explained that we are trying to convince Mason that she is a child and can make up her mind later. We just want her to be a critical thinker for now.)
“Well then, you should better start with some science books. I hear Richard has written quite a good one. What is it called?’ Laughter from the small crowd forming…“The Magic of Reality,” someone offered. “and then some Greek and Roman myths. A man named Robert Graves has a nice collection . I like them for the beauty of the language.”
“I’ve already read those.”
“Yes.” (Well, no, not really. She has read many Greek and Roman myths, but not Robert Graves. She recognized his name because she adores Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius. Number one fan in the eight-year-old set. Would love a photo.)
“Do you know your history? Are you learning it in school?”
“I go to a French school, so it is mostly French history. Last year we did le Prehistoire. This year we are doing le Moyen Age.”
“Impressive. Well, I think you have that covered then. French? Any Montesquieu? No, that probably comes later.” A glance at me, “Satirical works are good. Any Shakespeare?“
“Yes, he’s good…. hmm. Well, let’s add Chaucer then. So, tell me, do you know how other little girls are treated in the world?”
“Sometimes they are hurt… abused.”
“That’s right. You may enjoy reading a book by a young lady I know where she talks about that. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, maybe just the first part where she talks about growing up.”
“Oh, yes. I know. My mom is half-way through the Qur’an,” (I am indeed. Hopelessly stuck. Unable to go on.)
“What else… You’re doing better than I did at your age (ah, flattery!). How old was I when I first read A Tale of Two Cities? Yes, that’s good. Any Dickens really. Dickens teaches children to love to read.”
“Ok, how about something for a bit of fun. Any PG. Wodehouse? No?”
A crowd member offers, “Sunset at Blandings.”
A smile of recognition from Hitchens, “Yes, excellent.”
We get notice that the banquet is about to break up and Hitchens is being helped to his feet. He looked tired, but was smiling. I can’t remember what he said to Mason or me in parting, but not wishing the meeting to end I quickly asked, “Any philosophers?”
“Hume. David Hume, yes, but you’ll have to help her with the language. Good-bye. Good luck.”
“Could you email me the list? I have a little girl and we would really love the list.”
“Of course,” and I started collecting emails. People were taking about my horrible little notes and someone from the Houston Chronicle interviewed me quickly using a cellphone camera.
The next morning Mason and I were “outed” as non-believers. Me really—Mason is too young to decide.
This exchange is what is absent from so many “great lists of books,” and is ultimately what demonstrates the real failure of a list. The purpose of books is the generation of thought and the nurturing of the ego so that people can determine what they believe before they are challenged by another’s opinion so that they can re-determine what they believe. Reading the exchange again there’s a beautiful simplicity in the way Hitchens offered up only his experience and initial opinions. Had he been given time he would have most likely come up with a more detailed list, but Mason’s mother ultimately comes up with a better assessment than I can offer:
I’m not a professional writer, just a mom, but if I get to make only one comment it would be this: There isn’t a magic reading list. Never was. Never will be. The reason what transpired that night was memorable was the wondrous Socratic feel of the exchange. Here was a man, a great thinker of our time who has spent his life developing and honing his intellect, challenging the next generation to pick up the mantle. What all these books have in common is they demand us to question, search and engage. They don’t preach, patronize or indoctrinate. They are joyful expression of the whole of the human experience. The very best examples of a life fully lived.
There is some lingering fantasy in my mind that one day I may actually published somewhere other than this blog. The dream of course would be The New Yorker, Esquire, NPR, or, despite my bitter criticism of the periodical, Playboy, but looking back over 100 essays I’ve come to a realization that I’m a fucking weird writer and few, if anyone, will really observe my work in the greater scheme of things. This is not morbid self-doubt but just a calm recognition of my situation after an honest reflection.
The reader may wonder, to some annoyance, what point the Mason Crumpacker article has to do with my self-loathing and creative self-doubt?
Well in fact everything dear reader.
I know of the name Thomas Aquinas because of my Grandfather Jim Ragan, one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met. I know the name and history of Winston Churchill because of my father, who enjoys telling me stories about the history of the marines and World War II. I know the name Bill Waterson, because my mother read me her collections of Calvin and Hobbes books when I was a little kid. I know the name Stephen King because of Lugene Tucker, I know the name Christopher Hitchens because of John Stewart, I know the name Stephen Hawking because of Christopher Hitchens, I know the name…all right you get it. Books are more than the stories or lessons they contain, they carry with them the people who recommended them to you in the first place. I recently received a copy of The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin from my little sister as a birthday present, but along with her is carried my friend Tiffany who originally introduced it to me. It now sits fat on my desk reminding me that I don’t have time to read it because of Grad School…yet I have time to read The Sandman Vol.4, Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman that my friend TJ announced as the latest book for my Graphic novel book club.
These associations and relationships are part of the value of books, and looking back to Mason I’m incredibly envious. It’s one thing to read a list of books posted/printed by TIME or The Atlantic for its bicentennial edition on literature or some other malarkey, it’s quite another to have someone take the time to offer you suggestions the way a friend, a teacher, or parent might and should.
There is something missing though from this recording however, and if you watch the video below, his a parting words to her are: “I really wish you well this. I wish there were more like you. Actually what would we do if there were? Lots of love. Take it easy. Remember the love bit.”
I’m a rather selfish man and that’s the bitch of that number 100. Being a writer and a thinker in many ways is selfish because you require time and energy and isolation in order to develop the tricks and abilities you need to succeed. I kept time for myself rather than with my wife and family. 100 essays were written because I wanted to show off in some way. Beneath my cynicism however there was love like Hitch said. Those essays came with a lot of lonely hours, wanting and crying for the right combination of words and always, fucking always, being disappointed but still satisfied that I had something. I write because I want to share with people, and I suspect on some level that is the motivation for any and all creation, conversation, and lesson. Human beings want to share their experience, their knowledge, and their understanding to themselves.
Looking at Mason, and envying her terribly, I do miss Hitch if only because I would have loved to his reaction to my review and hopefully be the victim of a perfectly timed Hitch-slap. Or, in the very least, be recommended a book.
Here is the video that documents the exchange, hope you enjoy:
**Writer’s Second Note**
Here’s my list, paltry thing that it is, but I hope it brings you joy, if only for the thrill or recognizing a title that you’ve read:
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
2. The Shining by Stephen King
3. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
4. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
5. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
6. Sandman: A Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
7. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
8. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
9. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
10. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
11. King Lear by Shakespeare
12. Symposium by Plato
***Writer’s THIRD and hopefully final, but we all know that it won’t be, Note***
Here is the original blog post that I cited from:
****Writer’s REAL FINAL Note****
Write 3000 words every day and then you can call yourself a writer, or at the very least 1000 words, or even 8, but those 8 had better be some fucking sublime words ya dig?