Five Favorites is a special feature at the LA Books Examiner in which our favorite authors share and discuss their five favorite books within a category. In this edition, Michael Di Lauro, author of The Net Present Value of Life, discusses his five favorite worth reading again...and again.
Five Favorite Books I'll Read Over and Over by Michael Di Lauro
1) Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1854)
What's the rush? Why the materialism, the consumerism? What's so important about status, about standing, about possessions? And why all this needless travelling—here to there—at breakneck speeds?
It sounds familiar. A 21st century lament, a modern testimony to our frantic existence, our frenetic western pace.
It sounds like that. Except it's not.
Thoreau's wonderful book was first published more than 150 years ago, and it's all the more wondrous for exposing something much too relevant, much too important; that people—then—weren't any different from people today.
But Walden is more than that. Spliced in amongst the anecdotes—it cost $28.12 to build Thoreau's house; his net farming income was $8.71, and his food budget, no more than $8.74—is an endless stream of philosophical contemplation and rich, insightful observation. To wit:
"However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names."
"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to leave alone."
And, perhaps, his most famous of calls, "Simplify, simplify."
Just citing those few words, here now, fills me with inspiration and admiration. Thoreau was a man ahead of his time. A man, if he lived today—I'd venture—would be viewed as a sage, an authority. Yes, Thoreau, in Walden, speaks with uncommon wisdom, with intuitive vision. But his words resound, too, with unhurried, and unruffled, plainness.
And therein lies the appeal of this book. It's a simple retelling of a certain period of a man's life. A life lived unfussily, a life lived at odds—a life against the grain. And yet, so brilliant the telling, it makes us revisit our own lives, to reflect, with empathy and longing, the purpose and meaning of it all.
2) Tishomingo Blues, Elmore Leonard (2002)
Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, high diving acts, a Civil War reenactment, and raw, unrepentant characters with equally gritty names like Chikasaw Charlie, Tonto Rey and Hector Diaz.
Oh, you know, just another Elmore Leonard book. Quirky characters, tricky plot twists, prickly dialog—the E.L. ingredients all there, up-front and center.
You probably read Elmore Leonard. Maybe lots of Elmore Leonard. I know I do. But this one, this 387-page masterwork called Tishomingo Blues is his best yet. It's compelling and addictive—a boomerang for my mind—the way it keeps coming back, over and over.
And I'm helpless against its spell.
Tishomingo Blues is turf war, seedy under-culture, failing commerce and deadpan comedy. In it, Leonard writes of Dennis Lenahan—an aging high diver—who hopes to reclaim, literally and figuratively, his place in the limelight. Capturing lost glory, not having to sleep in his truck, getting the chicks, that's Lenahan's quest. Hooking up with a sophisticated, self-assured malefactor named Robert Taylor isn't part of the plan. But Lenahan lets himself get snared. He tags along, hanging, oh so precariously, on the fringes of Taylor's Machiavellian, but undisclosed, ploy. Leaving Lenahan, hopelessly and helplessly, seduced by the actions that unfold.
And, taking all of us—the readers—along for the ride.
3) Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse (1987)
Life is a game, played in one of two ways—with a finite or infinite strategy. In a finite game there is but one winner—everyone else jockeying to rank somewhere below. A finite game has boundaries, it has limits, with rules that cannot change. A finite game is serious, it consumes time, and its players compete for power and title. There is but one object in a finite game; to win.
An infinite game is playful and it generates time. Players don't play within boundaries and limits, they play with them. Not only are the rules in an infinite game allowed to change, they must change. The object of an infinite game is to keep the game in play.
Sounding more like an escapist video game for Echo Boomers than a commentary on life, Carse manages to pull it off. And convincingly too. But, not only does he posit on modern existence, he disassembles it, reducing it to sub-types, and he then sets off to filter those segments through his definitive, finely-tuned Finite/Infinite lens. His depictions of society (finite) and culture (infinite), power (finite) and strength (infinite), contradiction (finite) and paradox (infinite), aren't just food for thought, they're the complete food-chain of thought.
This book, as the tired cliché goes, is a game changer. It really is that good. And it's a book I can read over and over—always discovering even more insight, inventiveness and inspiration.
Read the rest of Micahel's picks at Frank Mundo's LA Books Examiner.
Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales