5 books that have influenced my life

I’m back! And I have a list!


I saw this meme last night and it got me thinking. Now, I don’t know if Gaiman actually said this, as memes are known to be inaccurately quoted but the message is true. What self-professed bibliophile could come up with a short list of 5 of their most beloved books? I certainly can’t. But the message did get me thinking; could we come up with a short list of 5 books that have had the most influence on our lives? Let’s try. To make this challenge even more meaningful, don’t think too hard about this. Pick the 5 that pop immediately into your head. Those that rise in your thoughts first probably have had the greatest impact. Here are mine.

The Nancy Drew series. Now before you call me out as a cheater, hear me out. No one Nancy Drew mystery comes to mind. It is the series and how it influenced my behavior that stands out. The Nancy Drew series was not my introduction into literature (that would be Goldilocks and the Three Bears) but it was the gateway to my reading addiction. Between the ages of 10 and 14 I would rather read a ND then watch TV. To this day, I prefer books to any other hobby or habit.

Two of my friends and I decided to become the neighborhood detectives. We combed the streets looking for a good mystery to solve. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent peering into back yards and around the small industrial shops that surround our urban houses. We were the first to figure out that the old MacDonald” sisters” were not sisters at all. Surely no two sisters held hands and kissed as they sat sipping tea in their backyard. Mr. Cinnomini liked to sneak flowers to Miss Clarks porch; he was married she was not. While we never did find a mystery worth solving for money, we did exercise our minds and bodies while we looked for clues. The most important lesson I learned from ND was that even young girls could be independent and smart.

Macbeth. I think I have talked about my early introduction to Shakespeare before, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. In my senior year of high school our English instructor took a leave of absence. The school’s only other English teacher was generous enough to take on our class. He was teaching Shakespeare in his class, so it made sense to do the same in ours. This was at a time when I found myself at a cross-road. My peers were pulling me in two directions. I could let the less desirable of my friends influence my behavior or I could spend more time with my studious friends and get serious about college. The damage that Lady Macbeth inflicted on her mind woke me up. Her famous, “Out damn spot” speech hit a nerve. I credit Mr. Foster’s acting while reading the lines for my final decision. To this day, I strive to make damn sure I never do anything that I would regret to the point to permanently stain my mind and soul. Guess which of my peers won.

The Divine Comedy. My introduction to the humanities was Dante’s classic work. My humanities professor, Mr. Hobart was obsessed with the poem and spent an entire semester teaching its meaning to us wide-eyed college freshmen. I too learned to love the poem-I have 6 translations- and it influenced my attitude towards classic literature. Even after dropping out of college I felt the pull of Dante and his warning of “you reap what you sow”. It is Dante who turned me once again towards higher education. I wanted to redeem myself and prove that I could be graced with intellect. This is not as snobby as it sounds. I wanted to show myself I was smarter than I gave myself credit. I did not want to abandon the hope that if I worked hard enough, I, like Dante could find my way out of the woods of ignorance and fear.

A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night.  For a while I was lost in a dark wood. Even though I was married and had a wonderful child something was not right. Like a lot of people I turned to eastern philosophy in the hopes of correcting my troubles. The Dali Lama has had a huge impact on my life. So much so that it would take a separate blog post to explain. But it is this book of his that really changed my life. He talks a lot about victimhood in this book and how many of us continue to identify with and hold onto old wrongs. This was me and why I felt so damaged. His message was simple yet powerful. If you cannot forgive those that have hurt you, at least forgive yourself for allowing the hurt to continue. Let it go and move on! The only person who makes you feel victimized is you. Once that sunk in, I felt something I had never felt before, control of my life and attitude.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson is my hero! Upon returning to college one of my first classes was in natural science. I quickly realized I lacked any scientific knowledge (okay, that’s not true, I was a gardener but had not connected the two until this book). Bryson’s book not only brought me up to speed on science, but allowed me to explore a part of me I didn’t know existed. I learned I love science! After Bryson I read anything and everything from books on quantum mechanics to astrophysics. Had I been younger and not a mother, I would have switched majors and headed to New York to intern at the Natural History museum. As my bio says I have morphed from a spiritual hippie to a science geek. All because of Bill Bryson.

Okay, that’s my list. What’s on yours?

Dante’s Inferno: Fun Facts!

Dante looking towards what looks like purgatory
Dante looking towards what looks like purgatory

This is a re-blog from May. Only this time for those who dare read all the way through to the end there is a feast for the mind. 

Dan Brown’s Inferno was released this week. I picked it up not because I think of Brown as a wonderful writer (I don’t) but because I am a huge fan of Dante’s. I first read the Divine Comedy as a freshman in college. Even though I was only 18, his opening line spoke to me.

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

What college freshman doesn’t feel lost? Over the years I never got over my experience with the Italian poet’s haunting tale of sorrow and redemption. I have a small collection of translations; so far I’ve read seven. Gustave Dore’s etchings of Dante’s poem are some of my favorite pieces of artwork. So I thought this would be an opportune time to do another series of lists.

The Doomed Souls crossing the Acheron
The Doomed Souls crossing the Acheron

Important Facts

The Father of Italian Language

Dante Alighieri was an Italian poet and philosopher best known for the epic poem The Divine Comedy. The poem is broken into three “books or sections,” each representing one of the three tiers of the Christian afterlife: purgatory, heaven, and hell. This poem is considered the greatest work of Italian literature. Dante is thought of as the father of modern Italian. The poem is labeled a ‘comedy” because he penned it in the “low” Italian language, not the “high” Latin language as was the norm of the day. Works penned in the language of the masses were considered “comedies”. Dante was the first to pen a serious poem in a native language.

The Divine Comedy is an allegory of human life presented as a visionary trip through the Christian afterlife, written as a warning to a corrupt society to steer itself to the path of righteousness: “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery, and lead them to the state of felicity.” The Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through hell and purgatory. Virgil, being condemned to purgatory cannot guide Dante in heaven so Dante’s life long love interest, Beatrice guides him through heaven.

Who the heck is Beatrice anyway?

We know of Beatrice Portinari because of Dante’s obsession with her. The two met when Beatrice was nine and Dante ten. Beatrice became an object of inspiration (obsession) for years afterward. Dante says they did not formally meet again until nine years later, (nine will be an important number in poem) although Dante saw Beatrice around Florence but never had the nerve to speak to her. During their second meeting Beatrice greeted Dante as she walked by. This apparently sent him over the moon as judged by the words he wrote later:

The hope of her admirable greeting abolished in me all enmity and I was

possessed by a flame of charity, and if anyone had asked me a question I would have

said only Love! with a countenance full of humility

Beatrice died in 1290 at the age of 25. Dante never did forget her. His first work “La Vita Nouva (The New Life) is a series of love poems to an unnamed “Blessed Lady”. In the Divine Comedy, Beatrice is the named blessed lady who takes pity on Dante and begs Virgil to help him. It is through Beatrice that God finally graces Dante.

Why did Dante write the poem?

The writing of The Comedy was greatly influenced by the politics of late-thirteenth-century Florence. The struggle for power in Florence was a reflection of a crisis that affected all of Italy, and, in fact, most of Europe, from the twelfth century to the fourteenth century—the struggle between church and state for temporal authority. The main representative of the church was the pope, while the main representative of the state was the Holy Roman Emperor. The last truly powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, died in 1250, and by Dante’s time, the Guelphs were in power in Florence. By 1290, however, the Guelphs had divided into two factions: the Whites (Dante’s party), who supported the independence of Florence from strict papal control, and the Blacks, who were willing to work with the pope in order to restore their power. Under the direction of Pope Boniface VIII, the Blacks gained control of Florence in 1301. Dante, as a visible and influential leader of the Whites, was exiled within a year. The pope, as well as a multitude of other characters from Florentine politics, has a place in the Hell that Dante depicts in Inferno—and not a pleasant one.* From Sparksnotes.

Dante speaks to Pope Nicholas III
Dante speaks to Pope Nicholas III

Quick Facts

Dante’s journey into the after life lasts from the night before Good Friday to the Wednesday after Easter in the spring of 1300

There are nine levels of hell: Limbo- virtuous Pagans.. Lascivious. Gluttons. Avaricious and Spendthrifts. Wrathful. Heretics. Violent. Fraudulent. Treacherous. Satan is found in the ninth circle, eating traitors.

Hell is not always hot. In the poem Hell has a river of boiling blood for people guilty of bloodshed, tombs of fire for heretics, and a desert of fire for the blasphemers, usurers and homosexuals. The lustful are blown about by strong winds, while the gluttons in are punished in sleet and muck. In the lowest circle Satan himself is waist high encased in ice.

Dante and Virgil crossing the ice of the 9th level
Dante and Virgil crossing the ice of the 9th level

Hell is full of real people Dante knew plus some famous Greeks, Romans and Biblical figures along with mythical creatures. Each shade that Dante meets and questions is named as someone he knows. The early readers of Dante would have been familiar with most, if not all of them. The difficulty for modern readers is that these people were contemporaries of Dante. It is the punishment not the person that we need to concern ourselves with.

The Tomb of the heretic
The Tomb of the heretic

Hell is gated. The most famous of all Dante’s quotes “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here”, is found above the gate.

There are three rivers and one lake in Hell: 1. Acheron on which all souls have to cross into Hell. 2. Styx in which the wrathful souls are submerged 3.Phlegethon the river of blood in which those violent against others are boiling. 4. Cocytus: the iced lake of the lower level where we find Satan frozen in the middle.

Crossing the Styx
Crossing the Styx

No one can agree on which translations are the best, yet it often said Longfellow’s offers the best prose. Personally I found his translation a little dry.  My favorite three are:

Robert Pinsky

Micheal Palma

Mary Jo Bang.

If you have never had the nerve to pick up the poem I would suggest you start with Bang’s as hers is written in modern English and she peppers the poem with pop culture references. It may not be “high brow” but at least you will have a good understanding of the poem’s meaning.

I have left a lot of information out, and for this I apologize. There is so much to talk about; the symbolism, the encounters and stories of the damned that I could go on and on! But instead this pause and listen while the good professor talks

<iframe width=”560″ height=”315″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/4LYC7Huhp7Q” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

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