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March 23, 2013

I overheard you discussing your favorite books

By Justin Vernold
The Daily Star

---- — “How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself.”

― Gore Vidal, “Julian”

I still like books. And no, I don’t mean e-books, although I’ve considered buying one of those tablet readers. It’s a lot easier to find rare and obscure texts with those newfangled things, but to me, old-fashioned ink-and-paper books are plenty fangled enough.

So naturally, I was intrigued by the Lifestyles feature in our March 2 weekend edition, which asked area residents: “What is the most influential book you’ve ever read?” My initial reactions were twofold: first, Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller apparently has good taste in literature (picking Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”), and second, this is a fun and interesting topic to read and write about.

Bur choosing one favorite book isn’t easy. For me, choosing a top five isn’t much easier; Julian was my first runner-up, so the late Gore Vidal will have to settle for the lovely quote that began this column.

• “Slaughterhouse Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut. This strange tale of a time-traveling World War II veteran is my favorite of Vonnegut’s many great stories. After a brutal experience at the Battle of the Bulge that left him in a POW camp, Vonnegut wanted to write a novel that made sense of it. Years later, Vonnegut admitted he never really found a way to make sense of something so tragic and horrifying as the war, which explains a lot about the book. One little gem is the chat between a friend and protagonist Billy Pilgrim, who asks why something bad happened to him in particular. The friend responds by asking if Pilgrim has ever seen a piece of amber with insects trapped inside. Pilgrim says yes, and his friend says: “Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”

• “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu. This book’s wisdom is so general and broad that it could easily have been titled The Art of Conflict, or even The Art of Planning. Written in the form of a dialogue among officer cadets, The Art of War is a surprisingly quick and lively read. The text’s gentle and humane nature also comes as a surprise; to Sun Tzu, warfare should always be a purely defensive measure. “Regard your soldiers as your own children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys,” one passage states. “Look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

• “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius. Regarded by many historians as Rome’s finest emperor, Aurelius was an unusually enlightened ruler whose views on free speech and equal rights under the law were centuries ahead of their time. As a Stoic philosopher, Aurelius’ teachings are ideal for those who find life difficult. During a period in my life when I was hit by a sequence of random and senseless tragedies, Meditations offered invaluable solace, and helped me muster the will to persevere.

• “Res Gestae,” Ammianus Marcellinus. Born in the late 4th century A.D., Ammianus was alive to see the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. His Res Gestae (“things done” in Latin) is widely considered the last great historical account of ancient Rome. As a writer, I identify in some ways with Ammianus. His “coarse and undistinguishing pencil,” as described by Edward Gibbon, produced the kind of terse, efficient prose that I prefer to write. Also like me, Ammianus looked around and saw that an institution widely believed to be “too big to fail” was actually in a state of profound crisis. And like me, Ammianus wanted his compatriots to take heed before the situation became unsalvageable.

• “All Men are Mortal,” by Simone de Beauvoir. Sure, maybe Beauvoir’s on-again, off-again lover Jean-Paul Sartre gets most of the fame. But Beauvoir was clearly the more talented novelist. In All Men are Mortal, young 20th-century French actress Regina meets drifter Raymond Fosca, who turns out to be an Italian prince born in 1279 who ingested a potion granting him eternal life. As it turns out, immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Fosca eventually learns that if it isn’t a meaningful existence, it’s hardly an existence at all.

Justin Vernold is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at jvernold@thedailystar.com.