Just recently I made a list of my favorite films of all time. If there is anything I love more than a good film, it’s books! Because it would be way too difficult to do a top 5 list of ALL books, I am first going to do a list of my top 5 fiction books, then do a top list of nonfiction. Because of its broad spectrum of genres even fiction can be difficult to pin down, so I’m going to exclude comic books from this list (that will come later).
5 - Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed
What is there to not like about this book? A Jazz virus called “Jes Grew” is sweeping the city, overwhelming people with the desire to dance and get down with the Spirits. Papa Le Bas, a Vodou priest, and his companion Black Herman battle the Wallflower Order who seek to implement social control over the population through monotheism and segregation. There is magic, there is Jazz, there is conspiracy . . . what more does one need?
Written in 1972 by Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo takes place during the heights of the jazz era in the 1920s. Much like the Beat Poets, Reed’s style is lyrical and akin more to having the experience of a story, rather than just reading a plotline. In a market where African-American perspectives are lacking, Mumbo Jumbo breaks not only the barriers of social constructs but also the boundaries of language and reality as well. The true essence of jazz was about tapping into a tribal quality of consciousness absent from the Modern world. Reed delivers a revival of that archaic sensibility by creating a spiritual artifact for readers, instead of just some other novel.
4 - The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
For this entry I am cheating and including an entire series, because I can’t quite figure out which book is my favorite. Written by the esteemed Michael Moorcock, Elric is an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a multiversal archetype which exists across time and space to hold back fight for the balance of not just the universe, but all possible universes. The Eternal Champion is a recurrent theme in the majority of Moorcock’s works, more often than not his main protagonist being an incarnation thereof. Moorcock’s multiverse paradigm fascinated me from my first reading of Elric of Melnibone, especially from the point of view of Elric himself. True, in retrospect Elric is kind of a whiner, but in a time where sword and sorcery was overloaded with buff, Conan-like, Type-A personalities, Moorcock’s protagonist was a frail albino who was dependent on drugs and worshipped the very Gods of Chaos his archetypal identity was meant to fend off. On top of that, the dude doesn’t just wield a sword (that eats souls, mind you) but is quite the sorcerer himself. Essentially, Elric was my first exposure to the anti hero, and I am not sure the books will ever get old for me.
3 - The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
For such a small book, The Crying of Lot 49 is a psychedelic romp that can be itself a life-changing experience if you surrender to the ride. This is one of the those arenas (like entry number 1) where the lines between the author and their content become blurred . . . Thomas Pynchon is a literary mystery; he is reknown recluse, managing to steer away from the public eye since the sixties, all while producing decades’ worth of works that belong in almost any graduate-level classroom. Likewise, his books, and especially The Crying of Lot 49, are enigmas in and of themselves.
The story follows Oedipa Maas becoming executor of dead ex-boyfriend's estate. Soon, Oedipa becomes part of a mystery of which she becomes convinced is part of a worldwide conspiracy which has, partly, to do with the U.S. Postal Service and the symbol of the Tristero. What’s important is not whether Oedipa solves the mystery or not, as part of the beauty of this novel is chaos and confusion which surrounded the turbulent era of the 1960s. Oedipa is lost in a fragmented world, and the goal of the story to an attempt, however futile, to weave together the disparate parts of a culture that is breaking apart at the seams. Ultimately the book is about communication, and the failed attempts thereof, in the modern world.
2 - The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is a sci-fi genius. Her body of work is impressive, but the one that rises to the top is this gem. The Dispossessed stars Shevek, a scientist who is working on a General Temporal Theory and achieves this by travelling to the neighboring planet Urras in order to further develop his research. Shevek comes from Anarres, an anarchistic world based on community and cooperation. Urras, on the other hand, is a society based on capitalism and individualism. The meat of this book is Shevek’s experience of both societies, learning to adapt to both worlds, and how this all ties in to him developing a theory of time which could end up changing the face of physics and space travel altogether. To me, this book is Le Guin treatise on anarcho-syndicalism: what would it be like if a world was allowed to flourish under such a system uninterrupted. For a book primarily filled with philosophical and political discussions between characters (and an almost 400 page count) it is actually quite captivating. There is so much more to discuss about the spiritual vivacity of the material Le Guin presents, but I am reserving my thoughts for later as I have an entire chapter dedicated to it in my new book, Shamanic Qabalah, coming out next year from Llewellyn Worldwide.
1 - VALIS by Philip K. Dick
Buckle your seat belts . . . this book is a psychotic break on the printed page, a shamanic initiation for the modern man. VALIS could be considered a memoir, actually, as the odyssey of the protagonist Horselover Fat mimics Philip K. Dick’s own personal experiences with (get this) being zapped in the head with a laser by God, which is actually an artificial satellite orbiting Earth called VALIS. This novel breaks down the boundaries of time and space, life and death, culminating in a Gnostic treatise regarding the conspiracy of religion, empire, and prophecy. PDK has claimed that this real-life experience assisted him in predicting his own son’s life-threatening hernia.
Despite the real-life correlations, the goal of VALIS seems to be exposing a government conspiracy to implement social control over the populace, which PDK calls the Black Iron Prison. This supposition is compounded by the fact the FBI actually at one time raided PDK’s home office while he was out, coming home to furniture overturned and files missing. VALIS is a mind fuck, plain and simple. It’s not a light read meant to entertain you. It is a book meant to provide an altered state of consciousness and it does so successfully if you dive in and make it your world. Word of warning though . . . there is an extreme risk of once you stare into the abyss, there is no looking back. Having passed away in ‘82, I like to imagine PDK’s orbiting us right now, zapping us in our heads with strange and unusual ideas that will help free us from our current bonds; he deserves a cosmic shout-out for this one!