At last, I’m in the midst of reading Canetti’s CROWDS AND POWER.

Two of my resolutions are to “read better” and “follow my inclinations in reading.” And at long last, I’m in the midst of reading Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power.

I have a strange history with this book. I read about it somewhere about three years ago, and was immediately intrigued. In my ignorance, I imagined it as an obscure work, so was astonished to find it on the shelves of the Crawford-Doyle bookstore two blocks from my house. Turns out that Elias Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981—guess I missed that somehow.

I bought it, brought it home, read the Table of Contents, and was so overwhelmed that I had to put the book down for three years.

Here are a few chapter titles:
The Attributes of the Crowd
Baiting Crowds
Crowd Symbols: Fire. The Sea. Rain. Rivers. Forest. Corn. Wind. Sand. The Heap. Stone Heaps. Treasure.
The Increase Pack
The Resentment of the Dead
The Power of Pardon. Mercy.

And so on.

I knew that reading this book would take so much out of me, I couldn’t begin. Instead, in a sort of run-up effort, I began to read everything else by Elias Canetti. From his memoir: “In the best times of my life I always think I am making room, even more room in me. Here I shovel away snow, there I raise aloft a piece of fallen sky; there are superfluous lakes, I let them run out (I save the fish), overgrown forests, I drive crowds of apes into them, everything is astir, but there’s never enough room, I never ask why, I never feel why, I just have to keep making room, on and on, and as long as I can do so, I merit my life.”

There are certain books that I appreciate more than any others, even though I find them so interesting and elusive as to be almost unbearable. I love them, but I can hardly stand to read them. I can’t even articulate a category that they fit into, except to say that they seem to operate on a level of symbolism and meaning that is beyond the conventional structures – beyond The Hero with a Thousand Faces, say.

I can feel the meaning but can’t get it to work out. It operates in some extraordinarily deep and important way.

I worry that I should spend several years thinking and learning about this and trying to write about it…maybe that’s the reason that my appreciation for these books feels oppressive to me. I’m sure that there’s a lot of academic writing on this…a whole class on it at Brown…if I took the time to investigate.

Here are some books in this category.

Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power
Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe
Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share: Consumption
Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
J. M. Barrie,
Peter Pan
Robert Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
Various Greek plays, I can never keep them straight
Virginia Woolf, The Waves
Alexander et al., A Pattern Language
Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family
I’ve seen one movie that has this quality: The Piano

Some fantastic writers are trying to push through to this level, but don’t quite make it. Robertson Davies. Marilynne Robinson. James Frazer. Muriel Spark, perhaps; perhaps Hans Christian Andersen. Maybe Chuck Palahniuk…Winston Churchill, of all people, got very close to this level in a few of his speeches.

I tried hard myself to do this, in my odd little book with artist Dana Hoey, Profane Waste. To try to explain why people would destroy their own possessions—to capture the ecstasy of seeing your belongings going up in flames, or of tossing a precious object into the sea—well, I didn’t succeed, but it was a relief to try.

I’m not even quite halfway through, but already Crowds and Power has made so many things clearer for me: the Iraq war, the impact of Vatican II, the strength of the Mormon Church, college football, why it’s so hard to leave a bad play at intermission, the appeal of a particular aerobics class I took from 1990-91 in Washington, D.C.

I realize, of course, that there are probably dozens of books and articles that analyze Crowds and Power, and that I’m reading it in a very naïve and unsophisticated way. That’s another reason I put off tackling it. I felt that I had to come to grips with it fully, and I didn’t want to assume that responsibility. But now I’ve decided that I can just read it – and take it in as best as I can, in my own way.

Dear Readers,
My resolution for this month is “Go the extra step.” As part of that, I’m trying to take extra steps to promote my blog – even when that means doing things that make me uncomfortable. (Like attaching this note to a few of my posts.)

One of the challenges of a blog is just letting people know that it’s there. And so I’m asking you for a big favor.

If you have the time and the inclination, it would be a huge help if you would email anyone you know who might enjoy this blog, to give them the link and tell them a bit about it. Word of mouth is very powerful.

My happiness research predicts that if you do this good deed, you’ll feel great! That’s the Samaritan effect: “do good, feel good.”

I really appreciate your help. Be happy, Gretchen

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Helen

    The book “Flow” has this quality for me.

  • About promoting the blog – the best way to promote your blog is to comment on other blogs. Read, interact, say something meaningful or witty – both the blogger and their readers will click through more often then you think. I personally visit all my commenters and I’ve found many fabulous blogs by clicking on other people’s comments.
    That said, with good enough content, even a blogger who never emails in response to comments and never visits a commenter’s blog will keep readers. I have sent your link to a friend or two – over the past couple months – mainly because I think your work is interesting and helpful. Do keep up the good work.

  • annmarie

    Since the source of a huge chunk of happiness in my universe is books, I am saving your list as a treasure to be savored and dipped into when I dare. (I definitely can relate to the sense of delicious dread.) You have already given me the indescribable Pattern Language, and The Piano has long been near the top of my list of most-affecting films. So I know the rest of these are at least worth a good look. Thanks for a wonderful (and courageous!) post.

  • Evan Warfel

    I believe the quality you are referring to is the difficulty of processing the work as a monad, as a single whole, before you have read the whole thing. Crowds and Power makes the least amount of sense after you finish the first chapter. Upon realizing the (drastic) conclusion, however, I found I could see the point of the work. While I haven’t yet read the other books on your list, Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah also has this property to a great degree.

    I believe it has to do with works being of a certain depth. It might also characterize Godel, Escher, Bach?

    Thanks for the list, I’m continually looking for more works like this.