In The Meaning of Culture, John Cowper Powys makes the point that the difference between education and culture is that culture is the incorporation of music, art, literature, and philosophy not just into your library or your CV but into who you are. He talks too about the interplay of culture and life, the way that what we read can enrich what we experience, and what we experience can enrich what we read.
To make his point, I always like to cite an experience I had when I was fourteen and had just read The Golden Warrior, Hope Muntz’s classic novel of Harold, last of the Saxon kings. Harold’s story fired my imagination, particularly the idea of the compact between a leader and his people, the compact that led Harold to march south to face William the Conqueror at Hastings, despite having just repelled an invasion by his half brother Tostig and his Viking allies up in Yorkshire. Advisors urged him to wait, but William was raping and pillaging, and Harold made a forced march to glorious defeat, keeping faith with his subjects. While reading this stirring book, I was vacationing in the Lake District of England. We swam every day at the swimming hole. But it wasn’t just any swimming hole. This was the headwaters of the River Derwent, the river that ran red with blood when Harold defeated the Viking invasion. Book and place were together seared into my memory and sense of values, each giving meaning and resonance to the other.
So there, I’ve told you about two books that made a huge impression on me. Sometimes, as with The Meaning of Culture, the book is a part of my regular mental toolbox. And with others, as with The Golden Warrior, there may only be a half-remembered concept from decades ago. Here are a few of the books that have played a large role in my life:
The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching), translated by Witter Bynner. My personal religious philosophy, stressing the rightness of what is, if only we can accept it. Most people who know me have heard me quote from this book. “Seeing as how nothing is outside the vast, wide-meshed net of heaven, who is there to say just how it is cast?”
The Palm at the End of the Mind, by Wallace Stevens. Stevens is my favorite poet, and this is the most commonly available collection of his poems. His meditations on the relationship of language and reality have entranced me for more than thirty years. I keep reading the same poems, and finding
more and more in them. Also someone I quote often. Special favorites are “Sunday Morning,” “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” and “Esthetique du Mal.” From the last of these:
One might have thought of sight, but who could think of what it sees, for all the ill it sees? Speech found the ear, for all the evil sound, But the dark italics it could not propound. And out of what one sees and hears and out of what one feels, who could have thought to make so many selves, so many sensuous worlds, as if the air, the mid-day air, were swarming with the metaphysical changes that occur, merely in living as and where we live.
Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. Johnson, author of the first major dictionary of the English language, is one of my heroes. His work can be considered an extended meditation on Milton’s phrase from Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
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Books that have shaped how i think