My passion for reading came later in my formative years. As a pre-teen, I was more interested in the music of The Clash, Wire, Gary Numan, Run DMC, and The Dead Kennedys. The immediacy of music, particularly punk music, was intoxicating to me. Music, lyrics, and a message all wrapped up in less than 3 minutes. Books couldn't do that! But the further I got into music, the more I realized that I was missing out on the deeper meaning of some of these songs. These bands were making references to isolation, societal restraints, politics, literature, and art, which I knew nothing about.
At 17, I decided to start my own band - I was the drummer but really only wanted to be the singer. I had the voice but didn't have the lyrics. I was struggling to find the words to articulate how I felt. I asked my older brother, who was a gifted guitarist and creative in his own right, what I could do. He said, "Read. Read everything you can get your hands on, and don't ever stop."
I took his advice and jumped into reading - everything from the New York Times to a Volvo repair manual and everything in between. Most things I'd read and forgotten, but there is a handful of works that stick with me, and I enjoy rereading again like it was the first time. Here's a short list of those books.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
A novel that tells the story of Meursault, an emotionally detached and apathetic French Algerian who commits a senseless murder and is subsequently put on trial. Through Meursault's existential journey, the novel explores themes of absurdity and the human condition, ultimately questioning the meaning and value of life in an indifferent world.
Why I like it: The simplicity of the narrative and the writing. No fluff or pretense.
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
A semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the harsh and gritty coming-of-age experiences of its protagonist, Henry Chinaski, growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. The book explores alienation, abuse, and survival themes, portraying a bleak and unfiltered view of Chinaski's life as he navigates a world filled with poverty, alcoholism, and violence.
Why I like it: Bukowski's is so simple that it's laugh-out-loud vulgar.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
A psychological novel that delves into the mind of its unnamed protagonist, an aspiring writer in late 19th-century Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. The novel vividly portrays his struggles with poverty, hunger, and the disintegration of his mental state as he grapples with the conflicting desires for artistic success and basic sustenance, ultimately offering a profound exploration of the human psyche under duress.
Why I like it: Hamsun puts you inside the protagonist's head, and it's a very scary place.
Ask the Dust by John Fante
Another semi-autobiographical novel that follows the story of Arturo Bandini, a struggling young writer in 1930s Los Angeles, as he navigates his tumultuous journey in pursuit of literary success and love. The novel delves into themes of isolation, identity, and the harsh realities of the American Dream, painting a raw and introspective portrait of the protagonist's struggles and aspirations.
Why I like it: Fante's style is ornately beautiful in its simplicity. Bukowski said Fante was one of America's best writers. I don't disagree.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Amos Tutuola
A novel by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola that recounts the surreal and fantastical adventures of an unnamed boy who gets lost in the African bush and encounters a series of otherworldly beings and phenomena. Through this imaginative narrative, the book explores themes of cultural conflict, spirituality, and the fluid boundaries between reality and folklore in African storytelling traditions.
Why I like it: It's wild! Offered a child's tale on acid. Wildly surreal. I find something new here each time I read it.
Heart of Darkness by Joesph Conrad
Follows the journey of a man named Marlow as he ventures into the African Congo to find the enigmatic Kurtz, a European ivory trader who has descended into madness. Through Marlow's experiences, the novella explores themes of colonialism, the darkness within human nature, and the moral ambiguity of imperialism.
Why I like it: What can I say that hasn't already been said? It drips with amazing symbolism.
Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
Set in the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. It tells the harrowing story of a young woman, Yasuko, who is exposed to radioactive fallout and her family's struggles to cope with the physical and emotional consequences of the bombing."
Why I like it: A horrific event offered in such a Japanese matter-of-fact way. A difficult read but elegantly written.
While I've mostly given up making music, other than playing a few old blues tunes on my beat-up acoustic guitar, I still hold sacred what my brother said about reading. Now I spend most of my time reading books on Zen by Deshimaru or Alan Watts, attempting to absorb as much as I can.