Books for the Planet

Books for the Planet
J.S. Porter
J.S. Porter (Photo by Frances Ward)

for Kaizen, Marshall, and Blake

Every now and then something drops into your life and changes it, ever so slightly.

My subscription to The Atlantic came to my mailbox today, the July-August, 2018 issue.  The back page— THE BIG QUESTION— entitled “What book or article would you make required reading for everyone on Earth?” sent me for a loop.  What a novel idea! What a brilliant list!

And the Shakespeare of sound – Dr. Seuss—gets two mentions.

First item on the list is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.  “[W]hen a person can read and write, he gains the ability to create his own narrative, and to shape his life and the surrounding world.” Douglass’s 1845 autobiography makes the case for the voiceless to find their voice through the power of literacy as an act of self-construction and self-defence.   Sometimes words are the only weapon you have.

Homer’s The Iliad and Shakespeare’s collected plays are on the list.  Deservedly so.  They have so many timeless things to say about human nature.  As the blurb says, Shakespeare engages the popular imagination, depicts spirited women and appreciates “the contingencies of life in a chaotic world reeling from accelerated change and loss.”

As for biblical representation, The Atlantic suggests the Exodus story. I’d probably have Job, Genesis, passages from Ecclesiastes and some parables of Jesus – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son—imperishable stories about kindness and forgiveness.  For believer or non-believer, critic or defender, it’s hard to argue against the insight and influence of the Bible, particularly the King James Bible, a stylistic masterpiece.  I’d like to engrave “He without sin, cast the first stone” on every human heart.

I was a little surprised to see Huxley’s Brave New World, the bane of high school students, on the list.  If dystopia really does come to town, I think it will be in a Brave New World/1984 combo – everyone high on drugs under 24/7 surveillance, both a chemical and political police state.  A much better book in the Utopia/Dystopia vein is Voltaire’s Candide— still fun, funny and profound after all these years.

I was delighted to see children’s classics: the Frog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel, all about friendship and being understanding and forgiving.  Frog and Toad embrace and celebrate each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.  I read the stories to my son, then to my daughter, and now I’m reading them to my grandsons. The language is simple and compelling; Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle that “shows the consequences of abusing power.” The book also teaches “all of us that as we rise, we need to thank and uplift those who help us;” Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax because “unless each of us ‘cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not;’” and The World According to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers “because we all need to practice kindness, tolerance, and respect.”

The Atlantic magazine list includes one poem – Maya Angelou’s gentle and magnificent “Human Family” in which “We are more alike…/than unalike.” To listen to Maya Angelou read or recite this poem is to hear a hundred years of American blues in her voice.

I think of other poems that might have made the list—Mark Strand’s “The Coming of Light,” or Seamus Heaney’s “Had I not been awake,” for instance.

But why stop at a poem or two. How about a whole book? Why not SoCool—poems for the young and the young-at-heart— by Dennis Lee?  Poems in the book such as “Mystery” or “Deeper” take the reader from one state or stage of being to the threshold of another.  They’re light and deep at the same time. They make you think and sing at the same time.

I’d like everyone on the planet to learn this Dennis Lee poem by heart:

The Mystery

Can’t talk about it,

don’t know if anybody else even feels it,

animals live in it, maybe they don’t know it’s there,

little kids the same;

grown-ups act oblivious—situation normal.

Half the time I just mooch along, then I laugh too loud.

But it catches me late at night, or in winter when

branches glow with snow against the bark, or some dumb old

song cracks me up and I want to go

howl in the city, or smash windows, or make my

life sheer shine in this miracle ache of a world.

That’s our planet. It’s a “miracle ache of a world.” We either cherish and protect it, or lose it.

P.S.  Another book that makes us aware of the mystery, within and around us, is the Tao Te Ching, that ancient Chinese text credited to Lao Tzu.  If you want another Eastern source honouring the mystery of life, try Thomas Merton’s translation of The Way of Chuang Tzu.