Since I’ve retired from compiling a best-of-the-year music list, I only have one area of cultural ephemera left to quantify, and that’s books. And I’m doing a pretty lousy job at that, to be honest. I was so embarrassed by the garbage I read in 2012 (both of Michael Caine’s autobiographies? Really?), I didn’t bother to post a list.
2013 was a little better. I finally warmed up to the concept of the Kindle, after eyeing it suspiciously from across the room for several months. I’m no Luddite technophobe, but not turning paper pages felt like I was somehow betraying the bibliophile oath. The feeling died as I realized my shoulder bag did not have to make me list to the side like a tugboat taking on seawater due to the weight of several books anymore if I just used the Kindle. (My vaguely tugboat-ish shape is another issue entirely). Speeding that feeling to its grave was the acquisition of an iPad this past fall, which makes Kindle reading feel a little more book-like due to its larger size. Now I’m riding the narcotic rush of clicking one button on Amazon and having a new book materialize instantly. It doesn’t even feel like I’m spending money…
My cripplingly expensive clicking has at least resulted in a Books of the Year list that consists entirely of books published this year, without being padded out by books that came out earlier (often years earlier) and only recently stumbled upon.
Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn
What struck me most forcefully about the new Cash biography is that it exposed the terrific Walk The Line film as almost complete fiction. Of course, it is naive to believe that biopics are a straight re-telling of facts, but Cash’s story related on film has only a nodding acquaintance with the reality as detailed by Hilburn. The circumstances surrounding Cash’s discovery by Sam Phillips, his meeting June Carter, their courtship, and his much-ballyhooed 1968 “clean-up” were not only fictionalized, but just a biscuit away from pure fantasy.
Almost no great artist can stand the biographer’s scrutiny with their halo intact. People who create at high levels tend to be addiction-prone, incredibly selfish, lacking impulse-control skills, and make life difficult if not downright hellish for those around them. The Cash myth is that he went through his pill-popping “wild years,” then cleaned up and became the avuncular St. Johnny, pals with Billy Graham, and ingester of nothing stronger than black coffee. The reality is that he remained incorrigible and unpredictable, and his continued substance abuse led to the health problems that plagued his final decade and hastened his demise at the not-too-old age of 71.
Johnny Cash: The Life is no hatchet job or expose. It is a scholarly examination of a very complex individual. The negative aspects of a personality are magnified when there is no self-awareness (in other words, assholes who don’t know they’re assholes are the worst kind). Cash was painfully aware of his shortcomings, and I feel that his positive inclinations won out by the end of his story, as we hope they do for all of us. This victory was made possible, in his view, by his religion and treating his life as a spiritual journey. As cloying and hokey as that sounds (I cringed writing it), there’s no other way to put it, and there’s no separating the man from his faith. To his eternal credit, he practiced religion the way it should be practiced — without judging others (he knew better than that), with a sense of humor, humility, and a fierce intelligence. Most importantly, he subjected his faith to constant, rigorous questioning and probing. (He even wrote a work of religious scholarship — a fictionalized biography of the apostle Paul titled Man In White.)
Oh, and he did some pretty good songs, too.
Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn
This book has a few lessons I took note of. First of all, parenting is tough. You don’t want to be helicopter parents, mother-henning your precious snowflakes to the point that they cannot function in the real world. Conversely, you should give them enough attention so that one hit of acid won’t cause them to invest their self-esteem in a greasy, babbling little hippie gremlin and do his nonsensical bidding.
Manson, I must say, does not come off very well, but he’s smarter than his carp-eyed “family” by a country mile. A small-time (and very incompetent) thief and conman, he came to L.A. after a long prison sentence to make it as a singer-songwriter. He was just good enough to generate a tiny amount of interest, and author Jeff Guinn credibly makes a case that this never stopped being his only true ambition. All the “Helter Skelter” race-war-kill-the-pigs stuff? A sideshow concocted as a bungling attempt to cover up the earlier robbery-motivated murder of Gary Hinman. Manson never gave any of it much thought until he was arrested for the killings at the end of 1969. He was less a psychotic doomsday prophet and more a manipulative street busker with some groovy patter that appealed to drug-addled runaways.
The other lesson I took away from this book (and from any book set in this era) is that I wish I hadn’t been born into such a cautious and superficial era. People got laid left and right in the late 60s and 70s! It was a goddamn cornucopia for the bearded and charismatic.
Jeff Guinn is also the author of The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral and How It Changed the American West, and Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde, both highly recommended by the Holy Bee. The Holy Bee also recommends to Jeff Guinn that he consider the possibility of shorter titles.
Speaking of bearded and charismatic…
We can talk about either Jesus or Jim Henson next.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
We’ll start with the Big Guy.
The religion we call “Christianity” should in reality be called “Paulism,” since its tenets, practices, and goals were so thoroughly shaped by Paul the Apostle, the man from whose pen comes at most of the theological tenets of the Christian church and whose missionary work in the 1st century spread the new religion beyond Judea and to the educated gentiles of the Mediterranean world where it took root and became the pillar of western civilization.
The person the religion is actually named after remains a shadowy figure, historically. He wrote nothing. Everything we think he said comes to us filtered through the Gospels, which aren’t totally useless as a historical source, but unbiased veracity wasn’t their purpose. Jesus as the founding figure of a religion (and as an observant Jew, he would probably be very surprised to know he had founded a new religion) was and remains an empty vessel into which can be poured any number of variations and interpretations. Jesus as a historical figure is almost non-existent. Non-religious primary sources that mention him can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Books on the “historical Jesus” are innumerable and I have read a few (and started to read many others before giving up in frustration), but all seem to equivocate and obfuscate because actual historical evidence is just so scant.
In Zealot, Aslan confronts the problem of a lack of material head-on, admitting there isn’t much to work with, and keeping the book short and on point. He theorizes, with logical supporting evidence, that Jesus was a political radical, heavily involved in the protests and upheavals that were rampant in Judea at that time. Judea was an unstable, occupied territory — a powder keg — and the Roman Empire had its hands full keeping a lid on the unrest that was constantly threatening to boil over. The historical Jesus (or Yeshua, as he would have known himself in his own language — “Jesus” is Greek) was most likely a bit of a scrapper. If he were really the doe-eyed, mellow “Prince of Peace” that Paul concocted to sweeten the religion for the European gentiles, he probably wouldn’t have been arrested and executed as an enemy of the state with such summary haste.
By the way, the powder keg of Judea finally blew around A.D. 70, four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. A full-blown Jewish rebellion led to Rome burning the Temple of Jerusalem to the ground (only the “Wailing Wall” remains), and the diaspora — the scattering of the Jewish population throughout the eastern European and Mediterranean regions, where they were greeted with tolerance and open arms…
Some other religious scholars have questioned Aslan’s conclusions, based on his choice and interpretation of source texts, but you’ll never publish anything that all religious scholars agree on. That’s the nature of the beast, and why there’ll never be a “definitive” life of the historical Jesus. Aslan’s interpretation is one of many, but it’s thought-provoking and can be read in just a few sittings.
Part 2, featuring Jim Henson, coming soon…