This is one in a series of essays about enthralling books. I asked my friends and colleagues to recommend a book that took over their life. I told them the book didn't have to be a literary masterpiece. The only thing that mattered was that the book captivated them and carried them into the world within its pages, making them ignore the world around them. I asked: "Did you shirk responsibilities so you could read it? Did you call in sick? Did you read it until dawn? That's the book I want you to tell us about!" See all the essays in the Enthralling Book series here. — Mark
Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo
I hadn't read my first complete book of fiction until I was twenty-one: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I read it all in one night, identifying so strongly with the adolescent alienation of Holden Caulfield that I wrote a letter to Salinger, asking permission to use his character in a novel I planned to write. He gave the most appropriate response he possibly could — he completely ignored my request. His Zen silence was so eloquent that for years I would continue to cringe with embarrassment at how incredibly naïve I had been.
In 1953, publisher friend and mentor Lyle Stuart lent me the second novel I read, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, who had been an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. “I shall answer in my own words,” he testified. “Very many questions can be answered ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ only by a moron or a slave.”
As a result, he became a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and won an Academy Award for best screenplay under an assumed name. He finally used his own name in the screen credits for Spartacus.
Johnny Got His Gun, originally published in 1939, was about a soldier so severely wounded that, with the aid of modern medical technology, he remained alive but without the senses of sight, hearing, smell and taste. He had nothing left except the sense of touch and his consciousness. The first half was how he came to realize his situation, and the second half was what he could do about it.
That book had such a tremendous impact on me, it served as my literary Bible. The gospel wasn’t about the antiwar stance so much as the urge to communicate. I was afraid that every book I read after that would be anti-climactic.
“There's a whole generation who never even heard of it,” I said to Lyle Stuart. “Why don't you publish a new edition?” Which he did.
He also lent me Kingsblood Royal by Sinclair Lewis. It was about a white man who discovered that he had “Negro blood.” Lyle felt so strongly about the race issue that when he had been courting a lovely redhead, smart and witty, he told her that he was “part Negro.” She passed the test and they got married.
This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark
Middle Men (2009), by Paul Krassner
[Video Link] Speaking of his recent movie about the early years of the Internet porn industry, Middle Men, producer Christopher Mallick admits, "I think that it's based on a true story, but that doesn't mean it's all true." He should know. The main character — Jack Harris, portrayed by the ever grimacing Luke Wilson — is based on him.
Mallick in real life and Harris on screen both founded Paycom Billing Services, an Internet company that processes payments for porn sites. Money used to grow on trees, then it popped out of banks' brick walls, and now it's busy floating around in cyberspace. Until 1995, you weren't able to purchase anything online. But, thanks to a software code enabling secure transactions, Harris brags, "We could take a credit card from anywhere in the world and deliver a product to anywhere in the world. We can make a profit on every transaction. We're just the middle men." And now it's been estimated that porn is featured on nearly 40 percent of all Web sites.
In his cameo role as a powerful politician, Kelsey Grammer confronts Harris: "You peddle porn over the Internet."
"Well, Senator," he replies, holding up a sheet of paper, "this is your billing record: Naughty Secretary…"
The senator smirks and Harris continue to read other titles, then says, "You realize you've just attempted to blackmail a publicly elected state official — and it worked. Can I count on your vote next year?"
Most likely your daily newspaper didn't acknowledge the death of Robert Anton Wilson on January 11, 2007. He was 74. The prolific author and countercultural icon had been suffering from post-polio syndrome. Caregivers read all of his late wife Arlen's poetry to him at his bedside and e-mailed me that "He was quite cheered up by the time we left. He definitely needed to die. His body was turning on him in ways that would not allow him to rest."
In his final blog entry on January 6, Wilson wrote: "I don't see how to take death seriously. I look forward without dogmatic optimism, but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying." Actually, it was expected that he would die seven months earlier. On June 19, 2006, he sent this haiku (with one syllable missing) to his electronic cabal:
Well what do you know? Another day has passed and I'm still not not.
We originally became friends in 1959, when his first published article graced the cover of The Realist. It was titled "The Semantics of God," and he suggested that "The Believer had better face himself and ask squarely: Do I literally believe that 'God' has a penis? If the answer is no, then it seems only logical to drop the ridiculous practice of referring to 'God' as 'he.'" Wilson then began writing a regular column, "Negative Thinking."
In 1964, I ran another front-cover story by him, "Timothy Leary and His Psychological H-Bomb," which began: "The future may decide that the two greatest thinkers of the 20th Century were Albert Einstein, who showed how to create atomic fission in the physical world, and Timothy Leary, who showed how to create atomic fission in the psychological world. The latter discovery may be more important than the former; there are some reasons for thinking that it was made necessary by the former. Leary may have shown how our habits of thought can be changed."