Some time ago, my friends and I decided to form a Great Books Reading Group to get in touch with what little intellectual activity there was in the world before The Door began publishing. The idea was roughly to get together one Friday a month, pop open a few brewskis, pool our ignorance and hash out this whole Western Civilization thing. Kind of a “Bill Moyers hosts Sylvester Stallone and the Inklings” concept.
Since then, people have been amazed to see my nasty, brutish, and short existence transformed into an elegant, cerebral, tall one. Babes go mad over me, squealing with delight as I wittily paraphrase Thomas Hobbes. Life has become nothing but in endless stream of laughter, caviar, and Hungarian films with deep spiritual meaning. In the words of Enrico Fermi, it’s rad.
So if you too are a highbrow wannabe, allow me to give you a brief beginner’s reading list for the erudite neophyte (culled from my group’s own forays into the profound). Start with the following books over the next six months and see if your cranial capacity and social life doesn’t increase fourfold.
Start with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (not to be confused with Man’s Search for Meanies by Francisco Franco — a chronicle of the Generalissimo’s struggle to find large, burly hominids to fight for him in the Spanish Civil War, which is not to be confused with Man’s Search for Meany by Jimmy Hoffa [his account of the AFL-CIO’s struggle to locate the ideal union boss]; or Mann’s Search for Meanies [Hunter S. Thompson’s famous study of German novelist Thomas Mann’s obsession with the film Yellow Submarine, which is not to be confused either with Walter Martin’s little-known account of Mann’s brief flirtation with the Unification Church (Mann’s Search for Moonies) nor Rex Reed’s scorching novel of a Broadway agent’s battle to get the rights for a musical version of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s life (Manny’s Search for Moon) nor Annette Funicello’s absorbing story of the attempt by Moon to acquire the rights to one of Disney’s most beloved female cartoon characters (Moon’s Search for Minnie), nor even Gary Chapman’s harrowing tale of the rescue and de-programming of former wife Amy Grant from a Unification Church-sponsored Amway group (Moon Over My Amy)]). A must for the clear thinker!
Try Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis’ unforgettable expose of the glitter and hype of the fashion industry. Lewis, of course, was his familiar as Jackie Collins with the empty show, the meaningless cant, and cruel competition of the fashion world in its relentless search for “the face” that will sell the most lip gloss. In this searing roman a clef (written after his own glamorous career collapsed in scandal), Lewis lays bare the ugly underside of the so-called “Beautiful People,” scoring direct hits on the British mascara industry and candidly discussing his five failed marriages (to Betty Grable, Simone Weil, Dorothy L. Sayers, Julie Andrews, and Edith Schaeffer), which were the basis for his later work, The Great Divorce.
A Prayer for Owen Meany is John Irving’s chronicle of the famous Apostle to the Fictitious. Born of fictitious parents and alienated from the “real” children he grew up with, Meany spent his youth searching for meaning through a succession of novels. He tried everything: fighting the Spanish bully boys (“el menios”) as a minor character in For Whom the Bell Tolls; standing shoulder to shoulder with the Joads of The Grapes of Wrath in the struggle for worker’s rights (and inspiring a noted American labor leader to change his name); and acting (under other names) as the hero of Thomas Mann’s most searching and meaningful novels. Eventually, in a dramatic conversion, he heard the gospel call to Evangelical poverty, gave away what remained in his possessions, and left all to serve Christ.
Now a begging friar, “Owin’ Meany” (his real name was Biff) used his connections and the world of fiction to evangelize many of the most famous non- and semi-existent characters of the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps his most famous work was with the cartoon Beatles (to whom he was introduced by Mann during the filming of Yellow Submarine). Initially impressed with Meany’s command of various folk and jazz idioms on the guitar (they nicknamed him “Blue” Meany), the cartoon Beatles were soon enthralled by his commitment to Christ as well. In stark contrast to the nihilism of Jeremy (the “Nowhere Man”), they saw in Meany’s gospel the fulfillment of their desires. Soon after completion of filming, the “Fab Fictitious Four” were baptized and entered full-time ministry of session musicians for Psalty the Psalter and Charley Cherub, as well as playing on the soundtracks of the McGee and Me and Adventures in Odyssey videos.
Hamlet is the obvious pick. A recent production (which you can watch in lieu of reading) features Mel Gibson in Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy about the runt of a letter of pigs and his struggle for survival in a hostile world. Glenn Close plays the spider who saves his wife by weaving in entire soliloquy in iambic pentameter into her web in one night. Don’t miss Michael Macdonald’s score either — especially his hit tune, “Doobie or Not Doobie.”
Explore J.R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, his master work of philology. It is a towering compendium of every internally rhyming word and phrase known to the human tongue. Included are such favorites as “folderol,” “fat cat,” “Burt Bacharach,” “willy-nilly,” “Post Toasties,” “bananafannabobana,” “Roseanne Rosannadanna,” and “higgledy-piggledy.” Additionally, Tolkien discusses the painful issue of terms which are not, in his phrase, “honest to goodness” internal rhymes (e.g. “loop-the-loop,” and “Aye, aye”).
Philosophical Fragments by Dr. Francis Crick recounts recent attempt to clone DNA derived from snippets of Soren Kierkegaard’s hair. Foreword by Steve Taylor.
A wealth of stuff here. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is about $7.95 cents in paperback, but you can get it cheaper used. The Summa Theologiae is a bit weightier, chronicling the history of the Vacation Summa Bible school from the 13th century until today. However, I would urge the newcomer to focus on something lighter, like the Little Flowers (St. Francis of Assisi’s discourse on the importance of bathtub traction appliques) or The Everlasting Man (G. K. Chesterton’s famous biography of George Burns) before plunging into a heavy stuff like a Mike Yaconelli “Back Door” piece. Crawl before you run!
A final note: this is, as I say, a “starter kit” for the beginner. However if you are serious about your intellectual self-improvement, you’ll not stop here. If I were you, I would invest as soon as possible in the Allan Bloom inspected and approved “Youth Specialties Quiz Begging Brain-Builder Nautilus Set” — a survey of Western culture based on marginalia from all the issues of The Door since its inception. Happy reading!