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• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

June 30, 2005

The Book Disease

Several weeks ago Anna of Annalysis infected me with the feared online book disease. Since then I've been busy undergoing an extensive pedicure, but now I've finally gotten around to it.

Total number of books owned

Somewhere in the low hundreds.

I will contrast this with my mother, who owns so many books my father made her move them into the basement of their house, because he was concerned the upstairs floor might collapse.

Last book bought

Spanking the Donkey by Matt Taibbi.

Last book read

The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin by Adam Hoshschild. This is a good book if you want to be terrified by human depravity.

Five books that mean a lot to you

• Without Feathers by Woody Allen

I first read Without Feathers when I was twelve. It made me laugh so hard I cried. I remember thinking, I had no idea life included things THIS FUNNY. I read that copy so many times it fell apart.

In my 8th grade English class everyone had to choose a book and read excepts of it out loud. I did Without Feathers. Afterwards my teacher criticized me for laughing during my presentation. It hurt my feelings at the time, but he was right: jokes don't work very well if you yourself chortle while telling them. I'm still working on this.

Without Feathers has really been the gift that keeps on giving. When I was in high school it was one of the initial topics of conversation between myself and Rob Weisberg, who to this day is one of my closest friends. Without Feathers was also where I first heard of the New Yorker, because the front of the book listed where the pieces had first appeared. Almost two decades later after I first read it, a piece by Mike Gerber and me appeared with several by Woody Allen in the New Yorker humor anthology Fierce Pajamas. This was one of the greatest thrills of my writing life.

These days I find Without Feathers hard to take. Woody Allen is so driven by fear in everything he does. But man, it really did it for me in junior high.

• The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera is like T.S. Eliot in that you have to read him as a teenager in order to get the most out of it. If you read him later, he may strike you as unbearably adolescent. Fortunately, I DID read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as a teenager, in the best possible circumstances—as part of a program with a bunch of other teenagers who had to read it too.

Oh, the earnest conversations we teens had about Life after reading it. If you heard us now you'd want to vomit. But if you know a weird 16 year-old, you should give them this book.

Key quote: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Incredibly enough, this turns out to be true.

• Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West by John Ralston Saul

I've bought and given away at least 20 copies of Voltaire's Bastards. Yes, I am the reason John Ralston Saul was able to purchase the San Diego Padres. I could go on, but I've already said more than enough on this subject already.

• Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy by William Greider

Published in 1992, this is probably the best book even written about the current tattered state of US democracy. But it's not just depressing; it always gives you reason to think it might be worth trying to do something about it. It's similar in many respects to Voltaire's Bastards. In fact, John Ralston Saul apparently liked it so much he sent Greider a copy of Voltaire's Bastards.

Here's part of the final chapter:

[Lincoln] stood for an idea of democracy that I think is now widely dismissed as mystical—the belief that only from the many can this nation fulfill its larger qualities. My impression is that many Americans, perhaps most of them, no longer really believe this. Or they are sullenly resigned to the assumption that, given modern complexities, a genuine, full-throated democracy is no longer practical in America. Given the realities of power, it no longer seems plausible to them. Possibly, they are correct...

I choose to believe otherwise... The first step toward renewal is to free ourselves of the cynical expectations of these times and to reassert that faith without hesitation or apology—to declare stubbornly that what we were all taught in childhood is still true, or can be true, if we decide to make it so...

My encounters as a reporter with ordinary citizens have led to optimism about the potential for democratic renewal... Even in the most benighted corners of this country, in burned-out slums or on desolate Indian reservations, I have always met some whose forceful intelligence shone through the barriers of language and education and class. I frequently came away thinking to myself: Those people would be running things if they had been born with a bit more luck...

This is difficult, I know, for the well born and well educated to believe about the ordinary run of Americans (and perhaps threatening to some) for it suggests there is a vast pool of unrealized ability dwelling in the American population—people with important things to say who are not heard...

If there is a mystical chord in democracy, it probably revolves around that notion—that unexpected music can resonate from politics when people are pursuing questions larger than self. As a reporter, I have seen that ennobling effect in people many, many times—expressed by those who found themselves engaged in genuine acts of democratic expression, who claimed their right to help the larger destiny of their community, their nation. Power can accumulate in mysterious ways, if citizens believe they possess this right. Their power atrophies when they no longer believe in it. This book is for the believers.

• Life and How to Survive It by Robin Skynner and John Cleese

This is the only book I've ever read about human psychology that has made immediate sense to me. If you're confused by human behavior, I really can't recommend it highly enough. Read it and All Will Become Clear.

(Several previous mentions of it by me can be found here.)

• • •

If they haven't caught this affliction already, I now cough on Dennis Perrin, Bob Harris, Zeynep Toufe, Josh Berthume and the bookish King of Zembla.

I was planning to also afflict Harry of Scratchings, but I was too slow.

UPDATE: It turns out Simbaud, le roi de Zembla, was already diseased. So I hereby infect Jake of Lying Media Bastards

Posted at June 30, 2005 11:16 AM | TrackBack

It's just as well that the Continetal Op got me before you had a chance. I would have been forced to admit that half the books I've ordered on your recommendation are gathering dust in online shopping carts. It's nothing personal, however, I do that to everyone.

Posted by: Harry at June 30, 2005 02:27 PM

Sad to say, we were infected some weeks ago by Rorschach and Scorpio.

Shortly thereafter, they sent us the book meme.

Posted by: Simbaud at June 30, 2005 11:11 PM

Huh? So I guess I'm supposed to answer these questions? You really oughtta email a fella if you want to afflict him good and proper.

Posted by: Jake at July 3, 2005 02:01 AM

I am glad you ended up doing it, though I admit, amazing as this may seem, that the DSM issue is in fact about 20 million times more important than the book meme. Still, I wanted to know bookish facts about you, and you did not disappoint.

Posted by: Anna in Cairo at July 4, 2005 04:53 AM