Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Jared Lee Loughner

Jared Lee Loughner

Like much of America, I am still in a state of shock over Saturday’s shooting of a Congresswoman, a judge, and 16 others. Like many I wonder if this was an example of a disturbed mind encountering the inflamed political rhetoric that has come to characterize American political discourse. (Add Arizona’s permissive gun laws into that mixture and you have a toxic brew.) Because this is a website dedicated to looking at books and life, I have analyzed killer Jared Lee Lougher’s list of favorite books to see what they tell us about him. Here’s the list, taken from Loughner’s MySpace profile:

George Orwell, Animal Farm
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz
Aesop’s Fables
Homer, The Odyssey,
Lewis Carroll, Alice Adventures in Wonderland
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
James Barrie, Peter Pan
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird
Ayn Rand, We the Living
Norton Juster, Phantom Tollbooth
Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Charles Bukowski, Pulp
Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha,
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf
Plato, The Republic and The Meno

Before I analyze the list, a caution. There are so many different ways that one can read a work that there’s a high degree of speculation in using a reading list to draw a profile. It is even more difficult if one doesn’t know the person. Furthermore, we are drawn to different books at different times of our lives, and we have not engaged equally with all the books on our lists. There may be books we have included for show and books that have symbolic importance, even though we haven’t read them very deeply.

My philosophy colleague Alan Paskow suspects this to be the case with The Meno, which deals with the question of virtue. Alan says that it is doubtful that Loughner would have read either Meno or The Republic without them being assigned in a class.  Maybe Loughner was drawn to Socrates’ superiority over everyone else.

Having delivered my caveat, however, I can also report that there is stuff to be found. I have spent years assigning “reading histories” to students and have found that one can almost always find a personal “identity theme” running through one’s books, even through books that have been read years apart. (The term “identity theme” is that of psychologist-turned-literary scholar Norman Holland.) I’ve read enough about President Obama that when I encountered a list of his favorites (I blog about it here), I was able to get a pretty good sense of what they meant to him.

So on to Loughner. On an internet posting he wrote that “the government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar.” Not surprisingly, a number of his favorite works are concerned with governmental oppression: Animal Farm, Brave New World, Farenheit 451, We the Living, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, even Gulliver’s Travels (Gulliver must flee from both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms).

And the strange part about grammar? Maybe that comes from The Phantom Tollbooth, where Milo enters a world thrown into discord because the Princesses Rhyme and Reason have been banished. It is up to him to rescue them and restore order.

So what to do if the world if the government is oppressive? I have identified three other groupings that signal three possible responses, all related. One can retreat into the world of recollected childhood, see oneself as an enlightened misfit who must find his own center, or imagine oneself as a superior being who is above the laws of society and disdains being sullied by them.

Under children’s fantasies on Loughner’s we have Alice, who resorts to nonsense to counter a stifling educational environment; Peter Pan, who refuses to grow up; Wizard of Oz, which sets the imaginative and magical world of Oz against the grubby reality of Kansas; Phantom Tollbooth (see Alice), and Gulliver (who finds child-like worlds and keeps getting expelled). I know that many of my own students, negotiating the tough terrain of adolescence, hold on their children’s favorites as a protest against having to enter a frightening adult world—as did I when I was their age.

Another kind of protest against this world is imagining oneself as a free and misunderstood soul who must find his or her own source of meaning. Under this category we have Pulp (which I assume is like other Bukowski works), Siddhartha, The Old Man and the Sea, and Cuckoo’s Nest.

Finally there are those works which, seen from a certain vantage point, encourage an inflated sense of self. These include Mein Kampf (obviously), Ayn Rand’s novel, Plato’s philosopher kings, and the Houynhnms in Swift. And although the humane Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t at first seem to fit in this company, I could see Loughner seeing him as a superior white patriarch who rises above the small-minded white trash of his town.

Maybe this is how Odysseus fits into this list, now that I think about it: the epic hero who returns to slaughter the masses that are fouling his nest. Cuckoo’s Nest also has an Ayn Rand dimension to it.

As regards the one remaining work, Aesop’s Fables, I guess I’d have to know which ones Loughner has in mind. One aspect of those stories, however, is that they lay claim to truth. There’s no uncertainty about the lessons they preach.

I trust that you don’t think that I am either attacking these books or holding them at all responsible for what Loughner did. In fact, his list is not an unusual one for an adolescent to draw up. Adolescence is a time of life when people feel misunderstood and are drawn to Nietzschean notions of mastery and superiority—even while, in their insecurity, part of them wants to return to childhood.  Think Raskalnikov in Crime and Punishment.

Of course, Loughner is a deranged adolescent. What the book list shows, however, is that, even at 22, he is still in that stage of life.  If he hadn’t had access to guns, we wouldn’t be talking about him.

This entry was posted in Aesop, Baum (L. Frank), Bradbury (Ray), Bukowski (Charles), Carroll (Lewis), Hemingway (Ernest), Hesse (Hermann), Hitler (Adolph), Homer, Huxley (Aldous), Juster (Norton(, Kesey (Ken), Lee (Harper), Orwell (George), Plato, Rand (Ayn) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.
  • Amanda Graham

    When I first read that list I felt sad/upset that a couple of his favorites were also MY favorites. I realize that’s irrational, but for just a minute there I was dismayed.

    I read your previous article about the reading history. You mentioned you’d be willing to help someone explore that. I’m interested!

  • Robin Bates

    I’d love to see your list, Amanda. As I remember you vividly (you were one of my favorite students when you were here), I might have some thoughts. Certainly, I’d have some questions you could ask yourself.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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