The 10, er, Works Which Most Influenced Me

23Mar10

This 10 books thing is all the rage on the blogosphere these days. I don’t feel entirely comfortable doing books exclusively. I think it’d be redundant, and moreover, I’d fail to find unique explanations for why it’s so important to me. For a long time, I’ve had this strange inability and frustration when trying to discuss books outside the context of a classroom. It’s a problem I’m working on, to be sure. Anyway, in no particular order

1. “The Underground” – Seamus Heaney

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, moonlighting, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

I basically spent my Senior year of high school trying to write poetry like this. It’s grounded, yet beautiful. It has almost a syncopated rhythm; it’s uneven but drives forward and always makes sense. Moreover, there’s the subject matter. Being drunk in the London subway with someone you’re in love with. This poem captures a sort of controlled wrecklessness. In truth, I think this thing ended up basically sending me to Emerson to be a poet. It didn’t quite work out obviously. Additionally, it also happens to be one of the author’s two favorite poems.

2. “Porch” – Pearl Jam (1992 Unplugged)

This basically launched my interest in music. Well not really, but it took it to the next level. I remember I downloaded this off Kazaa, after reading about it online. If you’re not going to watch the video, Vedder, during the middle of the song, writes “pro-choice” on his arm. Porch is arguably a song about abortion. I say “arguably” because it’s ambiguous; there’s a theme of abandonment, and quick decision-making, so it’s more than likely. Certainly Vedder’s improv in the performance is explicitly pro-choice. Pearl Jam no doubt helped shape my politics, but in time I of course grew more pragmatic. But more than anything, Pearl Jam gave me the idea that music had to be important. This idea has always guided me, but at times it’s held my back from having fun with music. I hope I’m over that, but the spirit is no doubt a part of who I am.

3. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

Hmm. I’ve been known to overly relate to material before, but I didn’t quite have that problem with this one. Pip as a person, is different from me, or was different from me. Still, the circumstances ring true. As a working class person in an elite private school, there’s a lot in here about class I can relate to. But more than that, there’s this problem of being raised for excellence, especially when you don’t come from high society. It’s a problem I’m struggling with now; indeed, I’m not even technically in mid-20s (a little more than a month from now, shit!) and there’s a part of me that’s disappointed I’m not already in law school or something.

4. “The Aria of Chris Matthews” – Mark Leibovich

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more entertaining profile than Leibovich’s piece on Matthews that came out during the Democratic primary. For the most part, Leibovich simply stands to the side and lets Matthews be Matthews, but there’s also a deeper subtext of what it’s like to spend time with a complete lunatic. And why is it that Kerry Washington turns men into idiots anyway?

“I know why he wants you on,” Matthews said to Washington while looking at Griffin. At which point Matthews did something he rarely does. He paused. He seemed actually to be considering what he was about to say. He might even have been editing himself, which is anything but a natural act for him. He was grimacing. I imagined a little superego hamster racing against a speeding treadmill inside Matthews’s skull, until the superego hamster was overrun and the pause ended.

“He wants you on because you’re beautiful,” Matthews said. “And because you’re black.” He handed Washington a business card and told her to call anytime “if you ever want to hang out with Chris Matthews.”

Brilliant. Honestly, I hope at some point I get to write on someone so full of material. And I hope I do half the job Leibovich does.

5. Southland Tales – Richard Kelly

I get why this was panned, and I don’t mean to sound bitter or all-knowing, but if you put some thought into this movie, I think it’s the best of the decade. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Texas, Southland Tales is a movie about how the world could have easily ended as a result of neo-conservatism and environmentalism gone horribly wrong. Neo-conservatism gets most of the blame, though. It’s hard to distill Southland Tales; its dialogue is rooted in the idiocy of the culture of celebrity worship. It mocks punditry, elevating porn stars to the role with ease. It’s also part alt-rock musical. Again, it’s hard to go too far into details. Best to just watch Justin Timberlake do his Killers karaoke act.

6. Arrested Development

There’s not a lot I can really say on this as it relates to me. Literally. And we all know our favorite lines, so it’s no use quoting them on a blog. I will say that I find it amazing the community this show has built; it’s almost like a secret society. You can make one reference at a party, and someone will interject with the next line. If you’re at a party with smart people, naturally.

7.  Free All Angels – Ash (Ok, 1977 too)

What Pearl Jam did to get me into “serious” music, Ash did to get me out of it. I caught these guys one night on MTV2 at some festival being interviewed, where naturally Charlotte Hatherley caught my eye. It may have simply been my exasperation with seriousness, but Ash hit me at a time when I needed to lighten up. Their music embodied adolescence–not the angst, which was what I was used to hearing, nor the immaturity. Rather, Ash managed to capture the narratives. I can’t really decide between Free All Angels and 1977.  If I were to put numbers on it, I’d say 1977 capture ages 16 and 17 and Free All Angels captures 18 and 19. I actually feel bad more people my age aren’t exposed to them. “Oh Yeah” has to be included as well

8. Never Scared – Chris Rock

You have to wonder if Chris Rock could do an even better job with the Daily Show than Jon Stewart does. This special is Rock at his best, hitting culture, love, and politics. It’s funny; so many political commentators (myself included) bemoan liberal/Democratic communication tactics; we just can’t keep our message simple enough, it doesn’t appeal to middle America, etc. Yet Rock is actually a master communicator, especially when it comes to politics. It’s really hard to argue with his points because the logic is kept tight, and it’s delivered, of course with comedy. If I were the head of the DNC, I’d make all my candidates watch Rock.

9. Candide – Voltaire

Voltaire’s takedown of aristocracy, monarchy, optimism, and yes, some aspects of the Enlightenment heavily influenced my political views. Strange as this may seem, Voltaire makes me proud to be an American. Many of his ideals make it into the birth of America, although unfortunately we fell all too short; even today, I wonder if those attempting to co-op the message of the Founding Fathers realize how much disdain Voltaire would likely have for them. It’s not hard to draw a line from Voltaire to the Daily Show, and along those lines, Voltaire was the first “school” book that I immediately fell in love with. His words, despite being hundreds of years old, still seemed fresh, and are delivered with a sense of humor that I hadn’t really read yet in school.

10. Almost Famous

At separate times in my life, Almost Famous has convinced me that I need to be a journalist, a musician, and whatever is the exact opposite of either. The movie came along at a time when I took it for what I think most people take it for–a tribute to 1970s rock and roll. But in reality, the movie is a take down. While Almost Famous does embrace the sentimental power of music, it’s quite hard on musicians and fans themselves. In a way similar to Voltaire, Crowe exposes optimism and naivete, picking at his wonderfully drawn characters’ vulnerabilities. Indeed, every major character is humiliated by the end of the movie.

I still always relate to William Miller’s “otherness” as a 15-year-old on the road with a rock band during an era of excess. More than that, William comes to grips with something I learned long after watching the movie for the first time: music is one of the most powerful forces in the world, but musicians are assholes.

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