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The Coffee Table of Essential Reading, Part One


We live in troubled times.

But as Sean Connery once opined, “The empire ish alwaysh in shome kind of peril,” a statement some folks may see as a warning against all sorts of Foreign Intrigue Hatefully Directed Against “Our Freedoms.” I take it to mean “We just don't know how to leave well enough alone. And now look at where we are.”

Our species, through the centuries, in order to escape the frightening realities of our failed political policies, has created dream worlds. We have imagined societies that function prosperously, peacefully, and embrace all of its (to be fair, usually carefully selected) citizens with fairness and equality. Despite the attractive brochures, many actual places around the globe come much closer than the United States in achieving such Utopian realities. One might reason that it would be an easy thing to steal the best of those ideas and incorporate them into our own society, but in the current dominant paradigm our wide-eyed jingocentrism teaches that “ours” is the only “true” dream.

I say again: We live in troubled times. Actually, they never seem to end. The Empire is always in some kind of peril.

To wit: the words “only” and “true” have arguably done more to separate us from each other than all other words combined. “Only”: the solitary viable option, all others choices being incorrect, negligible, insufficient. And “True”: that which exists completely without falsity. That which is to be wholly believed, heart and soul, mind and body--without question.

Because to question something is to cast doubt on it, to take it from its proclaimed unassailable pedestal of ultimate perfection, to pull the curtain aside, to reveal the impurities and untruths, and ultimately destroy cherished dreams. When you destroy dreams, you destroy hope. And hope, bless its cancerous little heart, is what keeps the dream machine well-oiled.

Which brings me (finally) to the crux of this screed's biscuit: Since the dawn of writing, people have been inscribing their ideas and viewpoints for consumption by others. Books by the thoughtful and prescient past and present of this rapidly dying planet that explicate, comment on, praise, decry, and render in cold harsh words their views of the effects of our presence here on this criminally abused mother-organism. I've read a bunch that have refused to leave my brain over the years, and it occurred to me to consider what books I would recommend and believed were the best at telling future generations a necessary and essential truth about ourselves as humans on planet Earth. What critical lessons should we pass on? What shared experiences are the most important to be kept alive as lessons or celebrations?

So of course I made a list. It starts immediately below and will follow with subsequent posts. The books are in no certain order, no ranking of importance. I consider each to be critically valuable in shedding a ray of illumination upon ourselves as we have so far evolved (or not). I would say they all have one thing in common: they represent a danger to some part of someone's dominant paradigm merely by fostering that most heretical of crimes, critical examination.

I begin with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that has been said over and over to encompass all that can be said about the average soldier's experience of war. Wars are inaugurated and set in motion not by average people, but by politicians and global money brokers. Let me clarify: wars are not inaugurated by the ones who will actually fight them.

What All Quiet on the Western Front tells us about the hell experienced by the average soldier is painful and terrifying: The minute by minute fear of injury and death; the heightened, fevered desire to grasp what may be left of the joys of life; the fights with nature and fellow soldiers for morsels of food. What pressures can come to bear to turn a caring young man into someone who visits his hospitalized comrade mainly to see if he can be there at the unfortunate's moment of death in order to take the man's boots, which are in so much better condition than his own?

But the most frightening part of the book for me now that I have seen the run-ups to several wars instigated by my own country is the level of manipulation involved, the ceaseless lies and senseless exhortations that convince healthy, dream-filled young men and women to sign up.

In All Quiet there is a character, Kantorek, a schoolmaster, a respected figure of authority, who exhorts the young men of the village to sign up and fulfill their patriotic duties. While he, of course, does not. (He is later forced to enlist, which he does reluctantly. But not before sending dozens of glory-eyed students ahead of him.)

This Kantorek represents those three of the worst citizens imaginable. First he exemplifies the propogandists, who, throughout history, have passionately preached the righteous glory of war while rabidly extolling nationalistic fervor. They are the hysterical doomsayers who paint the Foreign as direct threats to our “freedoms,” who distort and disregard geopolitical realities and conjure up devils in kaffias or sombreros in order to pursue various economic and political agendas.

Secondly they are the cowards who, while sitting pretty in their own protected nests of luxury, have claimed exception to military service by reason of “bone spurs” or having “other priorities.”

Thirdly, the sideline flag-wavers, such as political mouthpieces masquerading as “news” services who turn the indescribable horrors of war into colorful video game-like displays of technoglitz, showing the fearsome tools of mass destruction as ultracool toys to play with. All you need is a joystick and you can graduate from the Call of Duty killing of virtual enemies on your laptop to virtual murder on the battlefield.

The major lesson to take away from All Quiet on the Western Front, aside from the description of the horrors of war, is this: from whom do you take your information, and why? Who do you trust to tell you the truth? And most importantly, why do you trust others to feed you the information you need? Why do you not seek your own truths, carry your own set of scales and blindfold, and weigh what factors you can find at your disposal?

Last thing: All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first books banned and burned in 1933 by the rising National Socialist Party in Germany. Clearly, it was a danger to someone.

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