Monday, July 25, 2011

My Personal Canon

I have been thinking I should post a list of books that really speak to my soul.  Here, in no particular order, are books that I find uniquely inspiring as I pursue moral excellence.

Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth).  This book is the only part of the Old Testament that I still take really seriously as an inspiring commentary on the human condition.  (Some of the Proverbs and Psalms are good, too, but others are not.  I can also appreciate aspects of some of the prophets, especially Isaiah, but they also contain a lot of old-school mythology that doesn't really speak to me any more.)

Epistle of James.  This is the only book in the New Testament that I really like any more.  It is all about real ethical problems and workable solutions.  (The Gospels contain a lot of myth disguised as history, as does Acts, and Paul is a bit too polemical for my taste.  Revelation is an interesting kookfest, but its ethical relevance is pretty much nil, at least for me.)

Doctrine and Covenants 121.  This section of the D&C is a favorite of mine.  I still like the image of leadership that it presents (one that strives to inspire emulation rather than demand obedience).  If Joseph Smith had done a better job of living up to this, he might not have died so early.

Seeds of Contemplation.  This gem from Thomas Merton (published in 1961) has been a real source of inspiration for me.  Every chapter is quotable (and useful in real moral dilemmas that I have).  The Christianity practiced by the author is an ethical system that I definitely believe in.

What Makes You Not a Buddhist.  This introduction to Buddhism by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (from Bhutan) has become another book that I look to repeatedly for insight into the human condition.  I have really enjoyed reading it over and over again, noting my reaction to the four truths: (1) all compounded things are impermanent; (2) all emotions are pain; (3) all things have no inherent existence; (4) nirvana is beyond concepts.  If I have an old-school credo (map of "ultimate reality"), this might be one of the most accessible statements of it that I have stumbled across.

War and Peace; Anna Karenina.  I have read both of these books multiple times over my life (especially the former, but the latter is also really, really good).  I am always impressed at the insight into humanity (rich and poor, working and lazy, intelligent and not, civilized and savage) that both contain.  Of the Russian writers, Tolstoy is the only one that has always spoken to me (though I really like Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, which should probably also be in this canon).  War and Peace is everything one could want in a book: comprehensive, entertaining (light-hearted at times, but deadly serious too), and very long (it is one of the few books over 1000 pages that I routinely wish were longer).  Anna Karenina shows us all aspects of sin, including the humanity (and human goodness) of the sinner.  Together, I think they provide more useful insight into your average human reality than any ancient mythology.

Dao De Jing.  This ancient Chinese text is a recent addition to my canon.  (I would not have understood it as a young[er] man, back when I approached everything in terms of Platonic forms, confounding the abstract with the concrete.)  I discovered it while working on the problem of organic wisdom (as opposed to absolute knowledge), and I have really fallen in love with it.  Life (and human ethics) is about process, not results, and everything we do is fluid.  Nothing is ever set in stone (unless it is meant to be broken).

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  As a young college student, I was drawn to the Greeks and Greek philosophy, and I could never figure out why.  I also wanted to achieve a kind of personal excellence in other fields of endeavor that were important to me, but was not really interested in competition or what most moderns categorize as "success" (money, power, prestige, technical brilliance, etc.).  Robert Pirsig's book (published in 1974) is one of the clearest expressions of my own longing for "quality" (my own authentic, integral experience with reality) that I have ever found.  As I read it, something inside me said, "Yes! Yes! That's just what I have been feeling.  That's precisely why I hate my relationship with machines and am obsessed with studies that yield no obvious external rewards!"  The book is excellent.

Never Let Go.  This quirky collection of strength-training tips and life advice created by Dan John (and published in 2009) is included here because it speaks to my conviction that human ethics involve the whole individual, with physical health laying the groundwork for moral excellence (and all other emergent properties of the human condition that we sometimes refer to with words like "spirituality").  Dan believes this too (as far as I can tell), and his book is refreshingly honest, simple, and packed with great strength-training advice (including knowing references to most of the other authors I have read in my search for top-notch health tips).  Rather than pad my list with a bunch of stuff about strength and health, I include Dan as a concession to that part of my life (which continues to be important).  Also, I find his brutal honesty and humility as refreshing as they are funny.  (Seriously, how many strength books do you know that give you real insight into being healthy and strong and make you laugh at the same time?  Not many, I'm guessing.) 

Fooled By Randomness; The Black Swan; The Bed of Procrustes.  I have read Taleb's books several times (including the last, a collection of modern proverbs).  I find them continually entertaining and insightful (despite what some critics think).  They never fail to put me in touch with the reality of my own ignorance (which is what every good book should do, in my opinion).  I really like them.

These are all the obvious titles that come to mind today.  Of course I may expand the list, as time goes by.  My canon is completely open.