I am only listing books I have read—so a lot of very important books are getting left out. I’m aware of this. Also, I’m also leaving out the Bible because I shouldn’t have to explain why. These are simply the 50 books that have shaped my understanding of the written word, my place in the world, and how I perceive everything around me. I am not saying anything more than that. I am no authority.
1. Beowulf by Anonymous (???)
This book is pure fucking heavy metal. I’ve found that it’s best to read Beowulf while listening to a band like Blind Guardian. For some reason, I was obsessed with this story when I was a kid. For a long time, I thought the Goya painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” was Grendel eating some dude. I was wrong, obviously.
2. The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century BC)
Again, more heavy metal. Why are so many older books so heavy metal? I think it’s because life was much harder back then and you had to be good at sailing and swinging a sword in order to survive and mate. I probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Also, this book gave us the phrase “the wine-dark sea” which is just pure awesome.
3. The Republic by Plato (380 BC)
This whole book is worth reading just for “The Allegory of the Cave.” This is a book that keeps on giving. Once you read it, your whole world perception is affected. It’s like when Neo starts seeing the Matrix. You will begin to recognize the signs that life is showing you.
4. Poetics by Aristotle (c. 335 BC)
I found this in the communal laundry room of my first apartment building after moving to Chicago. I was nineteen years old. I had no internet and no television that whole year. After I read it, I started thinking critically about the way writing was classified, or the terms we use to describe the tradition, which has since turned into a huge problem for me. Now I can’t have fun while reading ☹
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Early 14th Century)
Dante’s ambition is astounding and his language is as thick and taut as a rope, always pulling you forward along with him for the ride. I’ve found that reading a single canto each day is a good way to digest this without getting worn out.
6. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (Mid-14th Century)
Non-stop fucking, scheming, plotting and gossiping—this book is the precursor for modern television. It’s a slog to get through all one hundred stories, but the framework devised around their telling is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the descriptions of the Black Death in the beginning are seriously heavy metal. This book signifies the beginning of what would later come to be known as the structured novel.
7. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (Mid-to-Late 16th Century)
This book is way better than Hamlet, which always seemed overrated to me. I never felt like I had a handle on Gertrude or what her actual feelings for Claudius were. Oh, well. There’s no whiny prince in Titus Andronicus, just a ton of pretty disgusting violence and plans for revenge. I think of it as the 16th Century’s “I Spit on Your Grave.” It’s pretty great. More than almost any other play by Shakespeare, I feel that Titus has had a lasting influence—an influence we might not want to acknowledge. It was hated for centuries, but like a bad stain, it never went away—and there’s a reason for that. Bloodlust, as much as we might try to ignore it, has always fed creation.
8. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Not much to say about this book. It’s really funny and it gave us the term “yahoo.” For that reason alone, it makes the list. Holds up really well even to this day and marks the first book on this list that could be considered a book of “grotesques.”
9. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749)
Okay, full disclosure, I never made it through this book, but I really, really want to. For its time, the book had a wildly conceptual structure. Basically, the story is told in mirroring themes, so the beginning of the book has themes that relate to the end of the book, the middle sections of the book mirror one another, etc. There’s a scene pretty early on where a woman gets accosted in the graveyard outside of the local church. It turns into a huge brawl and someone winds up getting clubbed with a thigh bone. Fight scenes—or crowd scenes—don’t get much better than this one.
10. The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (1833-1849)
It’s difficult to recognize now, but Poe essentially re-defined the way we tell stories, ratcheting the tension up one notch at a time. It’s powerful stuff—gruesome too. He even wrote a story about a murderous gorilla named Erik who dresses up in people clothes. It’s adorable.
11. Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard (1843)
One of the few books of philosophy I can really wrap my head around. I agree with almost none of it. Articulating that disagreement helped me better understand myself.
12. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)
One of my favorites. I love everything about this book: the framing device, the characters, the cruelty, the location, and the use of weather. There’s a lot to be learned here. I’ve read this book more times than any other book.
13. Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
This is probably the greatest book ever, in my opinion. By the time you’re done with it, you understand about all the different types of harpoons, and the rigging on ships. God, it’s so fucking awesome.
14. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860-1861)
I love Dickens. His dialogue is hilarious, his characters are all different and memorable. Plus, there’s this. If you haven’t seen them, David Lean’s film adaptions from the 1940s are spot on.
15. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
I’ve read this book four times. At one point, I owned almost ten different versions of it. The Russians—namely Dostoyevsky—perfected the psychological novel. That’s fact. It will never get better than the Russians—and this book in particular.
16. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
It has a giant squid in it. What else do you need to know?
17. The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche (1872)
The way it was taught to me, The Birth of Tragedy illuminates why, as spectators, we’re drawn to the pain of suffering of others. I’ve been obsessed with horror films since I can remember and reading through this book has helped me better understand the roots of that obsession. When considered alongside Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” this book takes on much more complicated and rewarding dimensions, offering an explanation of how images and symbols to convey messages and meaning in the first place. Which leads me into the next book on this list…
18. Matter and Memory by Henri Bergson (1896)
I was taught this book in a class called “The Philosophy of Film” or something like that. We watched movies like “Battleship Potemkin,” “Intolerance,” and “The Sacrifice.” Since then, Bergson’s writing has had a permanent influence on the way I perceive images and understand my place in the universe. It’s heavy stuff. Sometimes when I get drunk I talk about it too much and then I am embarrassed then next day when I wake up. If this kind of stuff suits you, I recommend moving on to Cinema 1 and Cinema 2 by Gilles Deleuze.
19. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1914-1915)
To me, this book is the perfect balance of language-intensive interior monologue, stream of consciousness, and readability.
20. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1914)
Can you imagine hating your father so much that you cut open the arteries in your arms and stick them in holes you dug over his grave to give him back your bad blood? Can you imagine a better way to kill off a character? I can’t. This is another one of those books that’s echoed in popular culture over and over again. It’s written beautifully.
21. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919)
I am from the Midwest. All Midwesterners are exactly like the people in this book. It’s no joke. We love bottling everything up, breaking down, and staring at people through windows. Yet another book of “grotesques,” and one of the best at that, Winesburg’s influence over American literature can’t be overstated.
22. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
I love any book that’s later tarnished by its author. This is another book that I only understand on my own terms—I was never formally taught it—so I won’t go any further with an explanation of why it’s important. Plus, Gass already had it on his list and did a better job than I ever could. So I’ll just retype the final proposition offered by Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
23. Franz Kafka’s Diaries (1923)
Kafka at his most pure.
24. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
I struggled with this book because I really wanted to read it fast and get it over with but it kept forcing me to read it slowly. The book won. I had to respect that. I had to respect the book. It was an important lesson for me. Respect the book. Meet it on its own terms. Learn from it. There’s a lot happening with point of view here that’s way, way beyond any other book before it. This is about as good as books get.
25. At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (1936)
The finest example of what would later come to be known as “cosmic horror,” it’s impossible to conceive of speculative and dark fiction without Lovecraft’s influence. This is perhaps his most fully realized and accomplished story.
26. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (1942)
Really, any book by Faulkner could have been picked for this list, but Go Down, Moses is my favorite. Faulkner does an incredible job of balancing a truly massive cast of characters—seriously, check out this family tree—and recreating a time and place in American history with a perfect ear and eye for detail. “The Bear” is one of my all-time favorite short stories.
27. Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte (1944)
An account of the atrocities committed in World War II, written by one of Mussolini’s detractors. I’m going to let this one speak for itself. Here’s an excerpt of Malaparte describing a group of dead horses being freed from the ice by soldiers:
“Some fifty carcasses were heaped crossways on the sledges; they were no longer stiff, but limp, swollen; their long manes freed by the thaw were floating. The eyelids hung on their watery swelling eyes. The soldiers broke the ice crust with mattocks and axes and the horses floated upturned on the dirty whitish water filled with air bubbles and spongy snow. The soldiers roped the carcasses and dragged them to the shore. The heads dangled over the sides of the sledges. The artillery horses scattered through the forest and neighed, smelling that sweet and heavy odor, and the horses hitched to the shafts of the sledges answered with long lamenting neighs.”
28. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944)
Do you remember the end of “Hellraiser 2?” That huge maze was awesome.
29. Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947)
This book took me nearly a year to finish, so I’m putting it on this list just to show off. But seriously, the descriptions of writing music that Mann pulls off are astounding. It’s a seemingly impossible task to write about a musician possessed by brilliance, without being a brilliant musician yourself. Mann succeeds here, and this book should be required reading for anyone dumb enough to try to write a novel about an artist.
30. Molloy by Samuel Beckett (1951)
I am in my apartment. It’s I who live there. I don’t know how I got there. Perhaps in a subway car, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped. There’s this man whose books I read one time. They were good. I gave money for them and got the books. I read them. They affected my writing for several years in a negative way. I eventually grew out of it.
31. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor (1952)
This is the first of three books on this list that have the word “blood” in the title. Wise Blood is a slim book that hits hard. It looks at Christianity—or religion in general—in way that no other book I’ve ever read has ever managed: it’s awed by it, disgusted by it, enthralled by it, fascinated by it.
32. The Soft Machine by William Burroughs (1961)
Of all of Burroughs’ cut-up novels, this is the one I read over and over again. It just works on a higher level. Something about it just clicks. Plus, “the Soft Machine” was the name of a band that Robert Wyatt was in and Robert Wyatt is pretty great. It’s rare that something so self-consciously “experimental” can be so effective.
33. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
The fake poem at the beginning of Pale Fire, titled “Pale Fire” is probably better than any real poem written by any real person. That’s what I would call a “literary feat.” The rest of the book is pretty good, too.
34. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. (1964)
I read this whole book in a single sitting. I’ve only done that with a handful of books. It’s a special thing. Has a voice you’d be scared to get drunk with.
35. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)
This is thesecond of three books on this list that have the word “blood” in the title. In Cold Blood gave name to the “non-fiction novel,” which spawned a million poor imitations and the lurid, yet ever-fascinating true-crime genre. Again, this brings me back to humankind’s fascination with awful things that happen to other people. This book should be required reading.
36. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966-1967)
There is a giant, talking cat named “Behemoth” in it. Funniest book ever, no contest.
37. It Happened in Boston? by Russel H. Greenan (1968)
One of the few books I’ve read twice, back to back. The story is about a failed master painter who begins serial killing in hopes of gaining counsel with God—so he can kill him. This book has it all: pigeons who are actually spies, Satan, cross-eyed cats, art forgery, strychnine poisonings, and a sock puppet named Sebastian. It gets pretty deep into the need for artistic expression, the painterly techniques employed by masters such as Leonardo, and how a person might be driven insane by the futility of mastering something as seemingly simple as a brushstroke.
38. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
So “Blade Runner” is probably the greatest movie of all time and it’s largely based around this novel. It’s going on the list.
39. The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard (1970)
A book of obsession filtered through cold, clinical, detached language and hyper-structured texts. I wish very, very badly that I’d written this book. Another book whose influence cannot be overstated.
40. Imaginary Magnitude by Stanislaw Lem (1973)
Introductions and forewords for books that don’t exist. The best part is a series of lectures delivered by a military AI supercomputer named Golem XIV who has gained consciousness. This story is sort of like having two TVs next to each other so you can watch “Solaris” and “Terminator 2” at the same time.
41. A School for Fools by Sasha Sokolov (1976)
It seems like not a lot of people have read/heard of this book. It’s a real shame. Essentially, it’s a stream of consciousness exploration through a nameless, schizophrenic kid’s mind. Works best when read aloud.
42. Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)
This book had descriptions of the internet before most people could even conceive of the internet. It’s the sci-fi book to end all sci-fi books—pure prophecy. It’s an intense read.
43. White Noise by Don Delillo (1985)
Sometimes, when I’m about to fall asleep, I hear myself say “Toyota Celica.”
44. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
This is the third of three books on this list that have the word “blood” in the title. Of the three, it’s also likely to contain the most blood. This is a violent book, an unforgiving book—and an essential depiction of the westward expansion of the United States.
45. The Rainbow Stories by William T. Vollmann (1989)
A collection stories spanning both the color spectrum and the history of human knowledge as we know it, The Rainbow Stories makes so many other, lesser books seem unambitious and flat-out boring. This is a book that concerns itself with the aspects of life we’d probably rather ignore. So goes the “motto” of the collection, given to readers at the end of the preface: “The prettiest thing is the darkest darkness.”
46. The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus (1995)
I didn’t read this until a few years ago. When I first started it, I thought I was reading it wrong or that something was wrong with me. When I was done, I remember actually being upset that so much of my life had passed before I’d found it. This is a perfect book.
47. The Tunnel by William Gass (1995)
It took me nine months to read this book and I loved every single second of it. A master-work.
48. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996)
Reading Infinite Jest is the most fun I’ve ever had reading a novel. A few years ago I participated in Infinite Summer, reading 15 pages a day, five days a week, for three months. It was a really special way to read a great, great book. I love this book the same way I love cities and spaces that I’ve filled for years of my life. There’s a weird familiarity and comfort in these pages that’s nothing short of magic.
49. Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz (1996)
Everyone’s read this, right? Good. Then I don’t have to say anything. I’m getting really tired and I’ve been listening to the same album over and over again since I started putting this list together and it’s making me feel kind of crazy.
50. Cronenberg on Cronenberg ed. Chris Rodley (1997)
One of the greatest minds of our time discussing his work. You’d have to be a dick to not want to read this. I take back what I said earlier about “Blade Runner” being the best movie ever. “Videodrome” is the best movie ever. Or, depending on my mood, “eXistenZ” is the greatest movie ever. Cronenberg’s musings on technology’s dominance of our consciousness, body horror, and scientific reasoning are disturbing reflections of the world we occupy today.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.