In her Urban Beardsman profile, “A Woman’s Perspective on the Urban Beardsman,” Lindsey Reinders writes, “Our whole team is passionate about the traits that make up an Urban Beardsman. In fact, the beard is the least important part. It’s just a handy-dandy indicator of what’s behind it and that’s where the important stuff is.” The Urban Beardsman team knows that though your beard is a strong symbol of your character and independent spirit, it is only that: a symbol. It is your character itself (and its growth) that is paramount—what makes you uniquely “you.” The growth and sculpting of a strong and unique character requires experience, learning, emotional depth, and reflection. There may be–and are–alternative routes to these traits, but many of them can be developed through reading great books. So, with that in mind, and in the spirit of Lindsey’s sentiments, we offer you 5 classic books that every beardsman should read. Though the characters or the authors of these works are bearded, there is a complexity and value behind the exterior.
(Editor’s Note: Click the book covers to view on Amazon.)
1.Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
For a moment, forget whatever painful poetry explications and pedantic lectures you endured in high school English class and reflect on the hoary wonder of Walt Whitman’s beard.
“On a bank lounged the trapper, he was drest mostly in skins, / his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held / his bride by the hand.”
Whitman was a rebel and revolutionary, breaking the 19th century’s tired conventions and elitist laws of poetry with his free verse and controversial themes—such as gender and race equality, human sexuality, and the celebration of common men and women. Whitman’s body of work is robust, not limited to his volume Leaves of Grass, but this is his most significant—and most personal—work. Though Leaves of Grass was initially published in 1855, Whitman continued to return to the volume, tweaking, editing, and republishing, until his death in 1892. The old bearded bard viewed this body of poems as an extension and reflection of himself, and rather than letting the work remain static, he allowed the volume to grow and evolve with him (much like his beard). Though some might consider Walt Whitman and his work to be 19th century relics, Leaves of Grass is a celebration of the body, the self, and what it means to be human—and that never loses relevance.
2.Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Often lauded and rarely read, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is considered a literary staple. As illustrated by the lines above, Ahab, the famed captain and hunter of the white whale, had quite the gnarly beard—and so did everyone else, as the narrator Ishmael noted, describing the seamen as bearing “bosky beards” (bosky: “wooded; covered by trees or bushes”); I can’t think of a more accurate or alliterative image.
“He [Ahab] ate in the same open air; that is, his two only meals,—breakfast and dinner: supper he never touched; nor reaped his beard; which darkly grew all gnarled, as unearthed roots of trees blown over, which still grow idly on at naked base, though perished in the upper verdure.”
Moby Dick is one of classic literature’s most iconic stories, one that is, though laborious at times, often beautiful and engaging as Ishmael chronicles Ahab’s deepening obsession with the indomitable white whale. And let’s be honest with ourselves, beardsmen; we know a little something about obsession. And for the budding beardsman looking for inspiration, resolve to grow your beard until the book’s completion; after successfully conquering 135 chapters plus an epilogue, you should have an impressive bosky beard of your own. Much like growing a sizable beard, Moby Dick takes patience and determination, but the payoff is significant.
3.Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
We beardsmen know that one of the great pleasures of having a beard is, especially in moments of contemplation or nervousness, being able to pensively stroke it, as Candy, an old ranch hand in Steinbeck’s story, understands well; it’s one of his most noticeable habits. As you read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, you may find yourself stroking your own beard more than once.
“He [Candy] looked about helplessly, and he rubbed his beard. And then he jumped up and went quickly out of the barn.”
John Steinbeck, throughout his writing career, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction, and finally the Nobel Prize for Literature. The value of literature, especially specific works, is subjective and should be determined by individual readers; however, these awards, especially the Nobel, suggest that an author has made a significant contribution to the world’s betterment through his or her writing. There are other works I could recommend by Steinbeck, such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but Steinbeck’s shorter novel (almost a novella) Of Mice and Men is a great gateway book to the rest of his work.
Set in rural California during the American Great Depression, the story follows two friends, Lennie and George, as they take on a new job “buckin’ grain bags” alongside other hardworking men, such as Candy, struggling to survive the devastation of America’s most debilitating economic recession. Lennie is large and powerful yet simple minded—childlike. George cares for him and must frequently get Lennie and himself out of trouble due to Lennie’s unintentional, yet catastrophic, mistakes. This is a story about camaraderie, misfits, sacrifice, and making the hard decisions. Fair warning: many beards have been made wet with tears due to the reading of this book.
4.The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition
Again, just as with Whitman, take a moment to appreciate Ernest Hemingway’s beard.
“He [Hemingway] squinted slightly through round silver-framed glasses, and a tentative smile, the sort that could instantly turn into a sneer or snarl, showed through his clipped white beard.”
Though Hemingway was an excellent novelist and there are many of those books I could and would recommend (The Sun also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea), I believe he was at his best as a short story writer; his style lends itself to that form. Hemingway favored and developed a writing style that is simple and declarative, valuing clarity over verbosity, and many writers still try to imitate him. There are other excellent volumes of Hemingway’s stories, but the Finca Vigia Edition contains them all, and so I have to recommend it.
Because of both his lifestyle and the content of his literature (and, of course, the beard), Hemingway has become a symbol of masculinity: war, big-game hunting, boating, fishing. But beneath this varnish of excessive, stereotypical masculinity, Hemingway’s stories are deeply human—reflections on love and lost love, death, grief, coming-of-age, anger, aggression, indifference, loneliness. That might sound like a downer, but there is a catharsis and emotional maturity that can arise out of such reading.
5.The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit is probably one of the more predictable recommendations on this list, but I refuse to neglect it. The novel’s hero and protagonist, Bilbo Baggins, like the rest of hobbit kind, leads a homey and beardless existence, but his comfortable life is upended—and given meaning and adventure—when thirteen bearded dwarves and the beard-famous wizard Gandalf enlist him on a journey to reclaim dwarven gold from a dragon’s lair. Within fantasy literature, The Hobbit is a foundational text, revolutionizing and, on some levels, inventing the genre. The story’s influence has been tremendous in that modern fantasy often builds upon (or reacts against) Tolkien’s work.
The dwarves listened and shook their beards, for they knew that they must soon venture into that forest and that after the mountains it was the worst of the perils they had to pass before they came to the dragon’s stronghold.
The follow-up trilogy The Lord of the Rings is phenomenal as well and far more complex, but there is a simplicity to The Hobbit that is still refreshing and warm. As Bilbo steps outside the borders of his Shire and comfort to travel “there and back again,” his story becomes one of friendship, loyalty, and authentic bravery. In his simple but brave fashion, Bilbo teaches his dwarven friends, who frequently underestimate him, that, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” That is a philosophy I won’t argue with. Read it, read it again, read it to your kids (if you’ve got any), and in the words of Tolkien’s dwarves, “May your beard grow ever longer.”
If you don’t see something on this list that you think belongs, be sure to tell us about it in the comments. Until next time, beard on and read on.
Works Cited: Manning, Robert. “Hemingway in Cuba.” _Atlantic_ 1 Aug. 1965: 101-08. Print.
About the Author
Raised on a riverbank in the mountains of North Carolina, Benjamin Cutler is a teacher, reader, writer, hiker, whitewater raft guide, fly-fisherman, husband, and father. He also enjoys subjecting his children and students to his amateur harmonica riffs. You can read more of his work at ABookishBum.wordpress.com, and feel free to connect on Twitter: @Bookish_Bum.