The Twenty-One Books on Jared Loughner’s Bookshelf
I had something of a slow day yesterday, so was in good viewing position for the story coming out of Tucson. The great melodrama of this sort of thing tends to lie in those weird open hours after the event and before people start to learn the identity (and extrapolate the motive) of the killer. Everyone rushes to confirm their suspicions. I remember after the Virginia Tech shooting, when news came out that the shooter may have been an overstressed Engineering student, I saw a Facebook update from a perpetually frazzles B. Eng. college roommate saying: “Finally! Was just a matter of time!”. Then when news came down that the guy in question was a poetry dude, I got a paternalistic hand on my shoulder from my boss (I was teaching creative writing to teenagers at the time), suggesting that we keep a close watch for warning signs in class assignments.
Anyway, the great evidence trove when it comes to these kind of public beheadings is in the suspect’s reading history. Reading is a solitary, intellectual, thing. It’s conspiratorial and intimate. This is why the C.I.A. wants to talk to your librarian. When the following list of favourite books was unearthed from Jared Loughner’s social networking presence (let’s not call him “Jared Lee Loughner”, people, as much as Lee may have been his middle name, not all assassins are necessarily tria nomina), everyone pounced.
Here’s the list, grouped by author:
Brave New World
The Wizard Of Oz
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Through The Looking Glass
To Kill A Mockingbird
We The Living
The Phantom Toll Booth
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
The Communist Manifesto
The Old Man And The Sea
Of course, the take-away from this list probably depends on what network newscast you were viewing (MSNBC: Mein Kampf!, Fox: Communists!), but the general tenor, most have said, is of a list of escape tales set amid otherworldly horrors. There’s a lot of outsider stories here, people caught in a world of malevolent likemindness (Gulliver and his Lilliputians, the protagonists of Fahrenheit and Brave New World, most anything Louis Carroll ever wrote) and there’s a lot of standard you vs. we individualism at stake too (the Plato for sure, but also the tension between the armies and their charismatic leaders in both The Odyssey and Peter Pan).
There’s some good analysis out there already. This work amounts to a kind of “forensic bibliography”. It’s in constant deal of danger from its own bullshit limitations. Basically, you can go to any bookshelf in any living room or waiting lounge in the world and draw out a narrative that paints the owner as a sociopath. I’d recommend this thing from Light & Sound though, to get you started. You can pretty much opinion-surf from there.
I’d like to offer another theory first though. Look at the list again. Look at the list, and now (if you were born after, say, 1970) make a mental checkmark next to all the books you were exposed to by the demands of your K-12 education, everything from read-along time in kindergarten to high school and college entrance summer reading lists. Okay. How many checks did you end up with? I counted sixteen. That’s 80%. And I don’t feel that my prescribed reading lists were different than most. I read “The Communist Manifesto” for an extra-credit assignment from a lefty pinko history teacher. That’s about the only outlier I can think of. Siddhartha, Gulliver, The Old Man, and The Odyssey were even all on THE SAME summer reading list the year I turned sixteen.
I think the kid made it up. This is a list culled from half-remembered titles he was forced to thumb through to pass an exam, plus one or two obvious “Look at me! Look at how much on a fucked up intellectual I am!” lightning bolts. Ask any high school teacher, the kid who tells you his favourite book is “Meno” is A. Probably lying and B. Definitely trying to get your attention. As the deliciously named Yahoo Answers commenter, “Death Blimp” put it: “He probably hasn’t read any of those books. That’s just almost a random list of famous literature.” Bingo, Death Blimp. Bingo.
As the analysts continue to earn their pay cheques this month, let’s keep this possibility in mind: This list of toxic influences could very easily be just a made up list of literary buzzwords, remembered childhood favourites, and required-reading hurdles, cobbled together to impress the internet. Read the grammar and vocabulary of the kid’s online postings. Sound like someone who loves “The Republic” to you? I don’t think we’re looking in the right place for our answers.