Henry Miller's "The Books In My Life"
September 23, 2012 2:13 PM   Subscribe

They were alive and they spoke to me! That is the simplest and most eloquent way in which I can refer to those authors who have remained with me over the years. - Henry Miller, The Books In My Life

There were times when reading [Blaise] Cendrars - and this is something which happens to me rarely - that I put the book down in order to wring my hands with joy or despair, with anguish or with desperation. Cendrars has stopped me in my tracks again and again, just as implacably as a gunman pressing a rod against one's spine. Oh, yes, I am often carried away by exaltation in reading a man's work. But I am alluding now to something other than exaltation. I am talking of a sensation in which all one's emotions are blended and confused. I am talking of knockout blows. Cendrars has knocked me cold. Not once, but a number of times.


Rider Haggard is one of those imaginative writers who undoubtedly fed from many streams. We think of him now as a writer of boys' books, content to let his name fade into oblivion. Perhaps only when our scientific explorers and investigators stumble upon the truths revealed through imagination will we recognize the true stature of such a writer.


[Jean Giono's] poetry is of the imagination and reveals itself just as forcibly in his prose. It is through this function that Giono reveals his power to captivate men and women everywhere, regardless of rank, class, status or pursuit. ... Like our own Faulkner, Giono has created his own private terrestrial domain, a mythical domain far closer to reality than books of history or geography. It is a region over which the stars and planets course with throbbing pulsations. It is a land in which things "happen" to men as aeons ago they happened to the gods. Pan still walks the earth. The soil is saturated with cosmic juices. Events "transpire". Miracles occur. And never does the author betray the figures, the characters, whom he has conjured out of the womb of his rich imagination.
posted by Egg Shen (7 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
“Life moves on, whether we act as cowards or heroes. Life has no other discipline to impose, if we would but realize it, than to accept life unquestioningly. Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end. What seems nasty, painful, evil, can become a source of beauty, joy, and strength, if faced with an open mind. Every moment is a golden one for him who has the vision to recognize it as such”
― Henry Miller
posted by molisk at 2:20 PM on September 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

Worth pointing out this book also contains Miller's great "Reading In The Toilet" essay.
posted by mediareport at 3:30 PM on September 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've got an old battered copy of this, that I've re-read probably more times than any other book. "They were alive and they spoke to me" - such enthusiasm about other writers, from a voracious reader like Miller.

I've followed up by reading a number of his recommendations, but to be honest Cendrars & Giono left me flat....possibly better in the original French? (I believe Jean Giono wrote in French?) but otherwise he covers a lot of authors I do love, like Lautreamont, Ionesco, Hamsun, Celine & Baudelaire.

(having said that, I think the great essay titled something like "Let us give thanks for three newborn elephants" covering Lautreamont, Baudelaire and, um, Hamsun? appeared in Stand Still Like the Hummingbird)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:53 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I loved Miller's work when I was of an age to do so -- back in my early 20s, mostly -- and though I haven't revisited too much of it in the past decade or two, The Books In My Life and The Collosus of Maroussi are two towering works, little known thanks to the fame of his more controversial (at the time) books (and also overlooked, I think, because of his arguably-accurate misogynist reputation from those more famous books) that deserve to be read again and again.

For someone (if there are many of those kinds of people these days) who wants to explore literature on their own as a kind of intellectual quest, The Books In My Life is a great resource.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:35 PM on September 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to idolize Miller. In California, I met a guy who had worked for the Miller property in Big Sur, I think after Miller died and Emil(?) was living there. This guy loathed Miller, and had nothing but contempt for him. Wouldn't even discuss his books. I never figured out what was going on there, but it was a perspective I hadn't considered; I thought everyone believed him to be a delightful old sage, like I did.
posted by thelonius at 7:34 PM on September 23, 2012

I had the luck to spend some days in Big Sur, at the house of a friend, about a decade ago. And this friend (she was in her late 80s, passed on now), a respected sculpture of some reknown would become annoyed at the mention of Miller, as well.

I guess he made quite the pest of himself. He was continually inviting himself to dinner and being over-bearing and too much. I imagine he was probably constantly sauced up. It seems weird he'd wind up living there. The place seemed more attuned to self-sufficient people wanting space and quiet reflection with nature. It was so beautiful there. Almost fairy tale so with the mountains, and the sea and all that.

Neither here nor there, but even at the time about a decade ago many of the first people who moved out there were already at pretty advanced ages, but it was a very tight and tight-knit group. I guess they had to be, because frequently the place gets cut off from the world in the winter due to rocks falling and parts of the Highway 1 getting washed or snowed away....
posted by Skygazer at 11:51 PM on September 23, 2012

It's an incredibly beautiful place. I visited with the guy from my story, and, through him, met some of the townspeople. They did seem very tight and a bit insular. Some of that is perhaps typical for people who live in an area that gets lots of tourists, and these folks have spiritual seeker tourists.
posted by thelonius at 3:10 PM on September 24, 2012

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