Back in — oh, I don’t know — 2018? — in other words a decade ago as it seems, I was at a local pub when one of the regulars — Tony, a likable sort who worked behind the bar for a time — asked me. One book to rule them all — that was the question.
“So, hey, if you had to recommend ONE BOOK FOR ME TO READ, what would it be?”
Yes, that question. Lord of the Rings said it best:
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, one ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them
Positive view, you’re an Aragorn, bold, princely, brave, with depth. Or, flip side, the negative, I think of Tolkien’s “Gollum” with a book — or a jeweled ring — yes in the darkness, my precious… so very preciousss …
So what was the problem? Maybe it was that I thought of Tony as a decent type, someone I could go fishing with. He could not have guessed his question was hard because, hey, the easy answer is so simple. Just name a book you like. Except I did think about it.
So… what book did I think was the one for him? The one book to rule them all.
Ok, the path from the trivial to the unknown is short. The entropy — a profound disorganization in our minds, the lack of the very structure that is the world. Daily consciousness is instrumental, detailed, purposeful. Entropy, a sort of athermal chaos. A good kid gone bad, who can no longer be brought back.
The butterfly effect of the one book to rule them all
Chaos itself also exists in the form of the deterministic mathematical sort. It imagines butterflies that trigger typhoons, from unimaginably small stimuli, on the other side of the planet — so goes the meme of “the butterfly effect.”
A useful view of chaos is as a disordered (or highly complex) but receptive state that is highly sensitive to the least input. Minute inputs leading to massive output states, hence there is no randomness. But let’s get to the point.
Chaos is the zone we ignore, deny, and think of in unflattering terms — if we think of it at all. Partially because non-structured states seem useless — though they aren’t, and science and theories of success have recently discovered something new about their utility. Dreams touch on chaos, or bring messages from it; the creative process draws on it. But we suppress chaos. Which, it turns out, is a mistake — disorganized consciousness might bear deep benefits for us.
But I wanted to provide something structured, thought out — something he could exploit. One book. A master key.
What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba?
There’s of course also the thing I had encountered “countless times” — ok, let’s say at least five. It’s where somebody annoys others by being knowledgeable, seeming to access little-known facts. So it’s easy to conclude that this individual has just read more books. That’s why he or she knows some stuff.
But with Tony, it wasn’t that. Nothing so silly. He was simply asking “hey man, is there something you think I should read?”
Well, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s stage direction in Hamlet — to “cut to Hecuba” — I chose the polite route. Delay — the gentleman’s escape. Hamlet might have persisted in that, and things might have worked out better. But noooo…
“Let me think about it,” I said.
High Mountains, pumas, and French landscapes
That could have been it — should have been — but the question plagued me for four years. The pub went out of business … I saw Tony less. He got married, moved out of state — to one of those western high mountain places where the air is clean, you re-sort your values, think about bears and pumas.
One book for the mountain … sure, a holy text. Or just inspiring. Chaucer? Cervantes, Don Quixote? Silence in the Snowy Fields by Robert Bly? Being and Nothingness by Sartre? How about Einstein’s The World As I See it — we mentioned that earlier this year.
Naturally I didn’t get back to Tony. Instead I thought about it — I used strategies, which is where this gets even more absurd. Metaphors, lateral thinking. Gestalts. Egyptian binary mathematics. A strategy I call “Rebekah at the well” — more on that later… I thought of running an ad in the local paper: “Save me. Seeking a literary hoist, a jack capable of lifting the weighty jalope of my ignorance off the ground.”
Meanwhile, guilt persisted. The pandemic had eliminated pub chats. And coup de grace, the pub where this conversation took place, closed…
The list of wells
Now, after these years, I have come up with a list of candidates for one book to rule them all, reflecting my own limitations. A whole damn list! Ironically — comically — the first book on The List is 1,000 pages. However, the book consists of essays or articles that can be read a la carte.
This volume is My Seditious Heart, by Booker Prize-winning novelist and political writer Arundhati Roy. She of great talent, she of The God of Small Things.
Many of the 40-or-so essays, spanning 20 years or more, are chiefly about — at least starting from — her analysis of political events in India. Perhaps it’s my own fault, but I have not been able to read much of anything with a political subject for a while. Impatience. The recycling of the same theories about the current craziness.
Indeed, it’s sedition
But I read one or two essays in My Seditious Heart and was startled. The detail, clarity, insight into how things work, the dynamics of history, power, inheritance, despotism. She’s brave. “She’s been saying this stuff and survived?” was one of my first thoughts.
Many of the articles concern Asia, but not merely Asia — there is not one among these stories that does not cast direct and often devastating light on Europe and the U.S. It’s the point — the global system, power structure, the institutional veil, disembodied feudal rule disguised as democracy. We Occidentals may think of India as “different” — culture, people, language, myths, ideals, commerce and more — but, it ain’t so.
Insights… yes indeed. But honestly — who should believe any of it? — no book can rule them all.
Until next time …
P.S. if you haven’t read The God of Small Things, we also recommend that.