An interviewer once asked me to write “a list of your favorite books that have had an influence on your beliefs.”
Oh, good, I thought: I’ll list my favorite books from over the years.
But no, wait a minute, he’s asking for favorite books that had an influence on my beliefs. That narrowed the list considerably. No Tolstoy or Dostoyevski or Stendhal or Mark Twain. Wonderful writers but if they had measurable effects on my present beliefs (or lack thereof), I can’t seem to detect them. Tolstoy certainly may have influenced my “beliefs” when I read his works in my twenties, but since then I have been altered away from whatever influence he may have had.
And there was another problem: no favorite book had ever given me a single belief; each one had only facilitated my shedding what I found to be false beliefs. In essence I would be listing favorite books that have had an influence on my shedding beliefs.
In essence, all I can do today is list the books or writers who have been influential in helping me shed beliefs and thus creating the person (or non-person) I am today.
What would be on the list?
Nietzsche. This author made me realize that our beliefs should rarely be judged on whether they are “true” or “false” but whether they are “healthy” or unhealthy. Beliefs can lead to greater happiness and creativity or less, and should be judged accordingly. Moralities also should be judged in this way.
Whitman, Leaves of Grass. I could never understand why I liked Whitman–he was so mystical when I was not; he loved to write extravagantly while I liked to write tersely; he had no sense of humor. But he embraced life, all of life, in a way that was very influential on someone who usually picked and chose what aspects of life were good and what bad. Whitman celebrated all of life. And finally, many decades later, so do I.
Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex. This 1956 book taught me how women’s lives are diminished by the limited roles they are permitted to play in a male-dominated society. And in teaching me this, she at the same time taught me that all humans, female and male, are limited by the roles societies encourage, nay, force us to play.
Henry Miller. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Henry Miller in 1964. He also taught me how certain beliefs, expectations, false ideals can limit us and force us to be other than what we actually want to be. Miller himself saw that for decades he had wanted to write “literature,” and it had prevented him from writing what he was capable of writing and his soul wanted to be writing. He liked to quote a surrealist who always said “When I hear the words art and literature I reach for my revolver.”
Franz Kafka. I wrote a Master’s thesis on Kafka’s work and I think I probably missed at that time what Kafka had to offer me: that the world is insane; reason is helpless in a universe of chaos; civilization is a madhouse that frustrates all human endeavor. Wow.
Gurdjieff. This mischief-making guru taught me that forcing people to do arbitrary things against their habitual ways was a method of leading them to liberation from their habits, and towards a life of greater freedom and creativity.
Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. This difficult book argues persuasively that human thinking, in always looking for causality, is continually being fooled and positing false causal connections that everyone agrees with but which are entirely bogus. From 2002 through 2007 everyone on Wall Street and in the banking world were making money hands over fist and were convinced that they were making so much money because they were smart. Then the crash of 2008 came and most all of the money made in those six years was lost in an instant, but none of these smart Wall Streeters and Bankers concluded that they were stupid. They all thought they’d been smart for six years and unlucky for one. Taleb shows conclusively that success in certain fields–like art, literature, and investing–is usually more a result of chance than talent–that with two equally talented and hard-working artists, writers or investors, one may be immensely successful and the other earn very little–chance being the factor that determines which is which.
And finally, there are a cluster of books by and about Eastern thought that made me more aware of the constrictions and unhappiness caused by having a sense of self, and also of the wonder of embracing one’s confluence with all that exists. Zen masters, Suzuki, Alan Watts, Osso’s I Am the Gate, Carlos Castaneda’s A Separate Reality, haiku, the poetry of Rumi, Chogyam Trompa’s Cutting through Spiritual Materialism, and at least half a dozen more if I thought about it long enough. Each in some way knocked off a few illusions that were limiting my life. And since I am continually finding myself with new limiting illusions I need new writers every year to blast these new ones to smithereens.
To let the next illusions grow.