The Best Books about the Struggle of the Individual in the Crazy World

The good people at Shepherd.com invited me to contribute this list to their site. Please enjoy.

Who am I?

“Whosoever shall promote himself shall be abased.” – Matthew 23:12

(I’m not in the mood to blurb myself at the moment. If you want to know who I am, please send me an email.)

[This is the version I wanted to use. I ended up promoting myself in the finished product.]

I wrote…

Southern Rain

What is my book about?

My book is about a carpenter’s son who rescues an apprentice Buddhist nun from an arrogant official, as China’s Ming dynasty falls all around them. Its main theme is – you guessed it – the struggle of the individual in the crazy world, but I hope it says a few things about men and women and freedom and power too. It’s set in seventeenth-century China, but it’s not about China. The story, I think, is universal.

The Books I Picked and Why

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Young Milo, who doesn’t know what to do with himself, is teleported into a crazy world indeed: The Lands Beyond, where the Forrest of Sight contains an invisible city, where the Valley of Sound is silent, and where you have to take care to avoid getting lost in the Doldrums or jumping to (the island of) Conclusions. Milo’s quest is to find the princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore them to the realm. His sidekick is a watchdog named Tock (who ticks); the most loathsome demon in his way is a bureaucrat called the Senses Taker.

Works, by Thomas Malory

The “Knight Prisoner” Malory must have found the world a tough place to get along, and his collected work, which publisher William Caxton didn’t know what to make of, is a veritable bible of striving amidst chaos. From the early tale of “Balin or the Knight with Two Swords,” in which the hapless hero, involved in a fast-moving pursuit through a castle, unwittingly delivers the Dolorous Stroke, blighting the world, to the piteous tale of the “Morte d’Arthur,” in which the knights of the round table turn against each other, all is confusion. In between can be read “The Tale of Sir Gareth” and the story of La Cote Male Tayle, which seem identical – but are they? Why is everything so easy for Sir Gareth and so difficult for LCMT? The answer may very well provide the key to life itself. Be sure to read these stories in the original Middle English (edited by Eugène Vinaver), to enhance the sense of the arcane.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

For that matter, why is life a game for Tom Sawyer and a grimly serious struggle for Huck? Accompanied by the runaway slave Jim, the runaway Huck must live by his wits, sometimes by concocting frauds of the type that others employ for fun or profit. Huck’s quest is for freedom, as he and Jim float down the Mississippi River, into the heart of slavery. In addition to the smarts he needs, Huck possesses his own practical value system (“I couldn’t see no profit in it”) and a courageous morality (“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”), which explain better than anything else why he’s on the quest in the first place.

The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth

This is the funniest book I’ve ever read. The hero, Ebenezer Cooke, seeks to earn his estate in colonial Maryland, in spite of losing it by a misplaced act of justice (the Dolorous Stroke of the story). Nearly every important man he meets turns out to be his childhood tutor in disguise. Nearly all the women in the book are prostitutes. Pure mayhem.

The Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut

The memoirist, son of Kurt Vonnegut, sets out with his girlfriend and his dog in a VW Beetle to establish a commune in Canada in the early 70s. Two things go wrong: First, society proves to be mostly supportive; and second, Mark begins having schizophrenic episodes. Aside from being a groovy hippie yarn and a guide on how to set up a commune, this book shows that sometimes, in the struggle against the crazy world, the craziness turns out to be inside us.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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