Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson
Agents of Influence
But in no way were we hermetically sealed off from the "culture" at large, whose "influences" we absorbed in countless ways, for good and ill, not least via books and magazines and television and music. I don't say this because I think it was extraordinary in any way—on the contrary, I suspect it was quite common. In being "influenced" by comic books, National Geographic (especially the stacks of back issues from the '30s and '40s), the noirish movies my brother and I watched on TV, the Kingston Trio, Chopin, Segovia, Muddy Waters, The Saturday Evening Post, The Mickey Mouse Club, those many volumes of condensed books published by Reader's Digest (where for instance I first encountered the man in the gray flannel suit), the cheap volumes of classic American lit on my mom's bookshelves cheek-by-jowl with Charlie Chan and Perry Mason and Agatha Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart (where I first read Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe), the Dodgers on the radio, and much much more, I think we had a lot of company among fellow evangelicals.
I can imagine certain tone-deaf readers citing this as yet another example of evangelicals' pitiful lusting after acceptance. ("We watched The Mickey Mouse Club, just like all the neighbor kids. We were normal!") No, the point is to suggest that most of us, evangelical or something entirely different, have emerged from a hodgepodge of circumstances, that reality is typically much messier than standard narratives about "influence" imply.
Which reminds me that I have only managed to come up with two entries for the required list of ten: The IPCRESS File and the Bible. Following Tyler Cowen's example (I'll go with the "gut list," rather than the "I've thought about this for a long time" list), here are eight more entries, roughly in the order in which I encountered them: 3. Ross Macdonald, the Lew Archer series. 4. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (and many other books and essays and reviews and columns by Kenner, and countless books his books sent me to). 5. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (now In the First Circle); Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned (and the poetry and prose of Osip Mandelstam); and Andre Sinyavsky, A Voice from the Chorus. 6. Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle. 7. Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets, Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, and Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robert Bly (my introduction to Tranströmer); and Czeslaw Milosz (whom I discovered around the same time): everything he wrote. 8. Muriel Spark, Memento Mori. 9. Philip K. Dick: everything except the awful books at the end (Valis, etc.). 10. Raymond J. Nogar, OP: The Lord of the Absurd. With the exception of the Bible and the final entry, I first met all of these between my mid-teens and my early thirties. I have returned to them all over the years since. Send me your own lists.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.