Pick up a copy at Sententia Books!
In this multifaceted collection of dreamscape stories and arabesque concrete poetry, Keith Nathan Brown invokes a wide range of literary and non-literary forms—from poetry to scientific report, from short story to mathematical proof—as a way to explore the gray area between mind and body where selfhood finds its origin. These thirty three fictions, poems and hybrid texts are arranged in thematically-related sets and subsets to simulate a travel guide to “cross-conscious interstates.” Whether induced by illness or intoxication, or inspired by music or meditation, each psychoactive text offers itself as a node in a larger conversation about time, identity, meaning and the human bond. Philosophical in scope, psychological in depth, at turns witty and cerebral, at turns brooding and surreal, Embodied twists language—literally and figuratively—to open up portals of heightened reality and, more importantly, to activate a sense of discovery and awe in the face of everyday existence.
By Shya Scanlon
New Dead Families, 2012
Jack Lightning and Jo: Angel calls her “Mrs. Lightning” like she never left, isn’t her walking up a desert path to the door for her son who isn’t there, for what should have been healed or the lies she conceals–Jo and her love for Jack unfolds, blossoms of bones and desert. Alex is not in Arizona, nowhere there, not tunneling, except some hospital room awaiting news that there is no such thing as Border Run no more, only ImPass-owned wall impenetrable. But in pages, love seeps: animals, one’s land, family, community and the ones we don’t even know we are a part of–work, words and desert, deceased or sick, the ones arriving in the parking lot or by bus and the child departed, or sacred tradition like the cry of the mountain before us.
These disparate pillars (fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry) might well support a funhouse, which is how I like it. I’ve deliberately left off books by anyone who was/is my teacher, mentor, colleague, or friend—even if only on Facebook.
1. Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales
2. Bullfinch’s Mythology
3. Ovid’s Metamorphoses
4. The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim
5. War & Peace (Here come the Russians. If I were allowed to possess only one book for the rest of my life, Tolstoy’s masterpiece would be it.)
6. Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
7. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy
8. Fathers and Sons, Turgenov
9. Dead Souls, Gogol
10. The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
4. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The great novel of ideas.
5. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. Of course the inventive typography is wonderful, but the pathos within the erudition makes this book sing.
6. Blindness by Jose Saramago. Taught me the power of a “what if” premise.
7. Snow by Orhan Pamuk.
8. The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg. Compression, compression, compression. She is the best at it.
9. The Collected Stores of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor. She knows the human heart, all that is wicked and all that is good.
10. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. Contains two of best short stories ever written. The rest are pretty good too.
It’s tempting to see the world of The Tree of Life as one where nobody shits.[i] Granted, for all the beautiful moments, there are ugly ones too – the young brothers in the film see a crippled man, thirsty prisoners, the drowning of a child – but these feel like examples, like the Buddha’s Four Sights (what politicians would call ‘teachable moments’). [ii]
But teaching us what? By the time we’ve got to the ending, where the characters are reunited in the afterlife on a beach, the film has answered a family’s grief over their dead brother and son, RL, by pointing to The Creation on the one hand, and the promised End on the other – a cosmic Putting Things In Perspective.
The afterlife with your loved ones; voiceovers that say, ‘Love everyone!’; shots of angelic figures and natural beauty: the threat of kitsch never leaves this film. True, there’s a wonky kind of radicalism to be admired in making these days an earnest piece of religious art. And not everything that is earnest is kitsch. [iii]
But an earnest answer to suffering, an ending that gives you a triumphant vision of paradise?… In an early scene, RL’s grandmother tries to comfort his mother by saying things like “the pain will pass” and “life goes on.” It’s a testament to the struggle in Terrence Malick between the Artist and the Preacher that the film goes quite a way to answering those platitudes with some of its own.
You’re God’s answer to Job
The Tree of Life starts with Bible verses, Job 38: 4,7: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This corresponds to and pre-empts what RL’s brother Jack says in voiceover: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”
In response, we get: the creation of the universe and the Earth, then the tree of life, starting with microbes and leading to dinosaurs.[iv] We get a close-knit if dysfunctional 50’s family unit: saintly mother, tough-loving father, three brothers and their childhood memories. Finally, we get the end of the universe and the dead assembled on a beach at dawn, waiting for the light.
More than context, the cosmic bookends of the film try to show the beauty of existence / the connection of everything / how Nature compares against Grace. This is more than Job got. In fact, God in the Bible pretty much ducks Job’s complaints, answering his question with a long series of questions (“Where wast thou…?”). So why is The Tree of Life being more definitive?
It depends on what level you take the reality of its various sequences. RL’s violent end (which is also exemplary) is the problem of evil that sums up the rest and, from a certain perspective, it remains a problem. Malick might have finally got round to filming his theodicy. Question is, does he really buy it?
If one tried to construct the Temple of Literature from only the fifty “pillars” below, it would collapse spectacularly. Nevertheless, here is a contingent group of titles that, to paraphrase Christopher Higgs, if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself. How much that is worth, I’m not sure.
1) Djuna Barnes—Nightwood
2) Charles H. Kahn—The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (an edition of the fragments with commentary)
3) William Shakespeare—Sonnets, Tragedies, most of the Comedies . . .
4) Eileen Myles—Inferno, The Importance of Being Iceland.
5) Charlotte Brontë—Jane Eyre, Villette
6) Jane Austen—Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion
7) Marquis de Sade, 120 Days of Sodom, Julliette
8) Shoshana Felman, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (from Writing and Madness)
9) Herman Melville—Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, The Confidence Man, and the shorter works
10) Sir Thomas Browne—Urn Burial, Religio Medici, correspondence
After examining three bookshelf walls in our home—one in the living room and two in the basement (one on the “finished” side of the basement and one of the side of the basement with the boiler and the washer/drier), here’s a list of fifty books that pillar my reading and writing life:
- Success by Martin Amis
- Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
- Leviathan by Paul Auster
- The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
- 60 Stories by Donald Barthelme
- The Watch by Rick Bass
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
- Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
- The Most Beautiful Woman in Town by Charles Bukowski
- The Stranger by Albert Camus Continue reading
The Top Five:
As widely as my tastes ebb and flow, these five remain, stalwarts, five friends I want with me on my desert island with little to unite them except each’s brash individuality.
1. Mating by Norman Rush. My Everest, slopes of anthropology, ethics, politics, psychology slowly traversed by the path of character
2. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. All the more significant since I was abysmal at chemistry.
3. Cosmicomics/TZero by Italo Calvino. The oyster of the universe.
4. Visible Worlds by Marilyn Bowering. A book I’ve had to read several times, since the plot is so intricate, but whose language glimmers like an ice field.
5. The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. A stunning array of styles and places for inveterate and would-be wanderers—travels in the possibilities of narrative.
These next couple were highly significant when I was a teenager and remain so:
6. Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter. Just quoted “The Fall River Ax Murders,” last week.
7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Every Saturday for a year or so I had detention for an accumulation of small offenses, and I’d slip off to Bombay for the duration.
I Inherit a Box:
A guy who shared an apartment with my dad, Mark Johnson, a great writer and reader, left behind a box with a bunch of amazing things—a timely package.
8. Island People by Coleman Dowell. In simple garb, boundless refractions of reality.
9. RE/Search #11: Pranks Introduced me to the notion that a prank can be a work of art.
10. The Houses of Children by Coleman Dowell. Each story redefining what the genre could do for me. I still don’t understand what Dowell is up to.
11. Ah Pook Is Here by William Burroughs. Not the most well known, but what was in the box was in the box.
12. Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautremont.
If this were truly an honest list, there’d be around 34 Dzanc titles and the other 16 titles would have a healthy sprinkling of Dzanc imprint titles. I’m going to hold those off the list though. Mostly.
1. One Penny Black by Edwin Palmer Hoyt – it’s a book on stamp collecting, which I was into back in the second grade. I believe the record will show in the P.D. Graham Elementary School Library that I might have checked this book out for a couple of consecutive school years, showing early signs of some of the literary obsessions I’d show later on.
2. The Great Brain by John Fitzgerald – another book from that time period, one that I probably read a couple hundred times.
3. World’s End by T. C. Boyle – the first of his work that I read, shortly after a write-up in Rolling Stone. If this isn’t his best novel, it’s right up in the top 2 or 3, and remains my favorite to this day.
4 and 5. Best American Short Stories 1987 and Norton Critical Anthology of Short Fiction – I’m lumping these two together because they were the two “text” books for two classes I took in the Fall of 1988 and because of them (and my lack of memory at what authors were from which title) discovering authors like Ralph Lombreglia, Mark Costello, Elizabeth Tallent, Madison Smartt Bell, Robert Coover and many others.
6. Pricksongs & Descants by Robert Coover – Spinning from reading “The Babysitter” most logically from the aforementioned Norton anthology, I found the collection from which it was published and reading through was eye-opening as to what fiction could be, how it could stretch, etc.
7. Keeneland by Alyson Hagy. Honestly, it’s not my favorite of her works, though I like it a lot. It’s here because without that novel, there was no Emerging Writers Network, without the EWN, I never meet Steven Gillis and we have no Dzanc Books that I’m a part of.
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell. Undoubtedly the book that I’ve read more times as an adult than any other.
9. Dune by Frank Herbert. In 7th grade I was plowing through books in a Science Fiction & Fantasy class and the teacher sent me to the librarian with a note–please find something challenging for Mr. Wickett to read and Dune is what she gave me and it was a solid choice–so many storylines and layers that over the next five to ten years I probably read it, and the subsequent (Frank Herbert authors at-least) Dune titles and maybe, just maybe by the last time understood everything Herbert was trying to do.
10. Erasure by Percival Everett. Again, it might not be my favorite of Everett’s work, but Mike Magnuson damn near demanded I read it, and in doing so unleashed a fervor on my part to find and read everything Everett has written, which is now up around 20 titles when you include the poetry collections. Thank goodness Erasure was as good as it was as it allowed me into this wonderful world of writing.
1. Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You—Frank Stanford
2. My Life in the Bush of Ghosts—Amos Tutuola
3. Anti-Oedipus—Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari
4. The Sound and the Fury—William Faulkner (& As I Lay Dying)
5. Don Quixote—Miguel Cervantes
6. Hero With a Thousand Faces—Joseph Campbell
7. Man and His Symbols—Carl Jung
8. The World as Will and Representation—Arthur Schopenhauer
9. Wittgenstein’s Mistress—David Markson
10. Codex Seraphinianus—Luigi Serafini
Unlike the wonderful William Gass, I am not a scholar, nor am I particularly well-versed in the language of literary criticism—and these books are all by writers (many, critics themselves) with a genius far beyond what I’ll ever possess. Gass’s original literary pillars are so masterfully described, so beautifully rendered that in comparison I feel ill-qualified, in fact I feel it impossible, to comment on these books without sounding like an unholy idiot. I’ll just say that after thirty years as a voracious and passionate reader, it was very difficult to winnow a list to fifty. These, then, are not only the books that are my favorites, but also the books that have shaped me, molded me, changed the way I write or think about writing, started a revolution in my head, books that have made their lasting mark on me as a writer and a performer and a reader and, perhaps most importantly, for the best of these, as a human being.
I admit there is a certain partiality on the list to poets and playwrights. This is my background—poetry and the theatre—so I can’t help but have been shaped by these first and foremost, before I found my way to fiction. I do read a lot of non-fiction and especially history and philosophy, but they haven’t impacted my writing as directly or as immediately. Also missing are works of fiction that I’ve loved a good deal but that haven’t necessarily impacted or changed my writing. Books by John Barth and Lydia Davis, for example, would fall into that category.
These are not all classics; in fact some are decidedly failures, inferior to other works the masters who wrote them may have produced. But in those cases that is usually precisely why I love them. I will choose a messy, hugely ambitious failure over a safe and well-crafted novel any day. I’ll choose experimentation over perfect symmetry. I’ll choose the excessive, the sprawling, over the Spartan sense of order.
1. AA Bronson, File Magazine, Queer Zines (with Phillip Aarons).
2. Adam Parfrey, Apocalypse Culture, The Manson File.
3. Alfred Jarry, Adventures in ‘Pataphysics: Collected Works 1
4. Andy Warhol, The Andy Warhol Diaries.
5. Bob Flanagan, Slave Sonnets, Fuck Journal.
6. Brandon Stosuy, Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 (with Dennis Cooper & Eileen Myles).
7. Burgo Partridge, A History of Orgies.
8. Cookie Mueller, Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings of Cookie Mueller.
9. Dennis Cooper, Little Caesar series, the George Miles Cycle.
10. Diter Rot, 246 Little Clouds.
11. Dominique Laporte, History of Shit.
12. Eileen Myles, Cool For You, Not Me, The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art.
13. Garth Williams, Baby Farm Animals.
14. Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye, Blue of Noon, The Accursed Share, Vol.1, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939
15. Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century.
16. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle.
17. Harriet Ann Watts, Three Painter Poets: Arp, Schwitters, Klee.
18. Harry Matthews & Alastair Brotchie, Oulipo Compendium.
19. Jacques Derrida, Futures: Of Jacques Derrida.
20. Jaycee Dugard, A Stolen Life: A Memoir.
21. Jean Cocteau, My Contemporaries.
22. John Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance.
23. John Marr, Murder Can Be Fun #13 – Death at Disneyland
24. Kathy Acker, Great Expectations, Blood & Guts in High School, Don Quixote, Hannibal Lecter, My Father.
25. Kenneth Koch, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children.
The books listed come in order of memory and recent courses taught at high school and college levels; in both instances, pleasure. Every year: Shakespeare, Dickinson, Lowell, Bishop, Frost. I like many living writers, too, but I have decided to interpret the assignment as listing writers whose work I read again and again.
1. Shakespeare’s plays, particularly: Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Richard II. Lines come back that make me cry. Lear’s “Never, never, never, never, never.”
2. Emily Dickinson
One of the astonishments is how many great poems there are—too many. The titles may not be rightly capped but these tumble out:
I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
The Bustle in the House
Twas Just this Time last Year I Died
The Distance that the Dead have Gone .
I heard a Fly Buzz when I Died
Just Lost When I was Saved
Because I could not stop for death
Pain has an element of Blank
A Certain Slant of Light Winter Afternoons
My Life it Stood a loaded Gun
The Soul Selects her own Society
I could not Live with you it would be Life
3. Robert Frost, especially “Home Burial”
4. Elizabeth Bishop, especially the poem “Crusoe in England”
5. Robert Lowell, especially the last book, Day by Day
6. Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights and the essays
7. W. G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants
8. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
9. Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
10. Homer, Just the epithets are colossal. . .Hector, Breaker of Horse
In honor of William Gass’s birthday, here is a list of some of my own touchstones (at least of the moment).
- Proust. All of In Search of Lost Time. Any translation.
- Naked Lunch. Not Burroughs’ absolute best, but his best known…and the most important for historical reasons.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Feed your head.
- Empire of the Senseless, Kathy Acker.The ultimate post-colonial fantasy.
- The Castle. Kafka saved my life.
- Omensetter’s Luck. Not Gass’ best-known, but it’s one the best books I’ve every read twice. Period.
- VAS: An Opera in Flatland, Steve Tomasula. One of my partners at &NOW, but one of my idols for making this book.
- Geek Love, Katherine Dunn.We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities.
- Calendar of Regrets, Lance Olsen. Bosch and Dan Rather.
- Moby Dick. My children pretend to be Queequeg.
- A Novel of Thank You, Gertrude Stein. Thank you very much.
- The Silent Cry, Kenzaburo Oe. Two brothers return to their ancestral home…
- Incest, from a Journal of Love, Anais Nin.Better than Miller.
- Funeral Rites, Jean Genet. Eating a cat.
- Double or Nothing, Raymond Federman. The voice in the closet.
- The Lost Ones, Samuel Beckett. The only humorless Beckett work? Federman’s favorite, from when derives the phrase “The twofold vibration.”
- Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino. Marco. Polo.
- Liberty’s Excess, Lidia Yuknavitch. Now I know how Joan of Arc felt.
- The Process, Brion Gysin. The most perfect novel you’ve never read.
- The Sheltering Sky/Let it Come Down/The Spider’s House: 3-way tie. Tea in the Sahara.
- Pinocchio in Venice, Robert Coover. He is the fox and the cat.
- Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter S. Thompson. Nixon = funny.
- NOX, Anne Carson. You unfold this book; it enfolds you.
- Reality Hunger, David Shields. Not the first to say these things, and that’s the point.
- The Melancholy of Anatomy, Shelley Jackson. You put your inside out…
- Keyhole Factory, William Gillespie. Limited edition from Spineless; forthcoming from Soft Skull. Unbelievably fantastic.
- The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano. Tales of the disappearing duo.
- The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard. The expanded edition includes the interior of a human chest.
- Peter Doyle, John Vernon.An out-of-print gem about Walt Whitman’s lover and Napoleon’s penis.
- The Jiri Chronicles and Other Fictions, Debra Di Blasi. With adfictions and products galore!
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami.Toru Okada’s cat runs away.
- Is it Sexual Harassment Yet?, Cris Mazza. Well, is it?
- Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann. Not The Magic Mountain. Which is why I like it so much.
- Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison. Not her most innovative novel, linguistically, but the one I teach again and again for the way it immediately resonates with undergraduates.
- The Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon. Not Gravity’s Rainbow. Which is why I like it so much.
As one would imagine, the assignment for this birthday tribute sent me to my shelves. But once there, after quickly dipping into the writer at hand, I had a hard time leaving. So what if I focused not on all books, but just Gass’? And what if I focused not on titles but on sentences, a subject with which this writer has long been deeply in love? Herein, my top 50, split evenly between his real and made-up worlds. — Stephen Schenkenberg
“Rilke’s strategy for the defeat of time was to turn it into space.” — Reading Rilke
“The sentence, seeking its form, must pass through the belly and bowel without irritation, as though it belonged in that dim hallway, as though it was — as though it were — on skis, on rails, on call, on a mission.” — “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”
“Emerson’s essays build the mind that thinks them.” — “The Literary Miracle”
“And so at the end I was sick, and though hanging over the mouth of the john, I knew I had found the woman my work would marry.” — About Gertrude Stein, in “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars”
“The country of the blue is clear.” — On Being Blue
“My work may be ugly but it’s not cheap.” — 11/16/58 letter to Charles Shattuck, coeditor of the journal Accent.
“The surfaces of spaces which have been abandoned, and which know only the touch of the tramp, the spray can of the vandal, the trash of the vagrant; where a cheap Tokay’s sweetness lies shattered like the bottle, and the tin-can stove threatens to scorch the mattress that’s been flung like a self into a corner; or where the calm insouciance of forgotten furniture can be encountered, or the eloquence, though hardly heard, of one shoe or a left-over word: they combine to create a Dorian Gray-like image of the city’s soul or country-cousin’s character: a landscape of spiritual self-loathing and suicidal hate.” — Abstractions Arrive: Having Been There All the Time
“He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it.” — “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books”
“A tone of jubilant acrimony is perhaps its most consistent quality.” — “A Forest of Bamboo: The Trouble with Nietzsche”
Animal Farm, George Orwell
The Purple Crayon, Crockett Johnson
Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
Ulysses, James Joyce
Stephen Hero (The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), James Joyce
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, René Descartes
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
The Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore
Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Hardy Boys, Franklin W. Dixon
Little Peewee or, Now Open The Box
Babar, Jean de Brunhoff
Curious George, H. A. Rey
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Bach
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
Paul Revere’s Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Christiane F, Christiane F and Susanne Flatauer
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
Clifford the Big Red Dog, Norman Bridwell
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
All Things Great and Small, James Harriet
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
Henry V, William Shakespeare
The Ugly Duckling
The Little Engine that Could, Watty Piper
Old MacDonald Had a Farm
Baby Farm Animals
Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
Nightmare of Reason, Ernst Pawel
The Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll
Junkie, William Burroughs
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
The Story of George Washington Carver (70s scholastic biography)
Helen Keller (70s scholastic biography)
The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
- All Fall Down – Mary Caponegro
- A Prank of Georges – Thalia Field & Abigail Lang
- As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
- Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli
- At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
- Autumn of the Patriarch – Garbriel García Márquez
- Berg – Ann Quin
- Big Questions – Anders Nilsen
- Bone – Jeff Smith
- Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
- Dies: a Sentence – Vanessa Place
- Epileptic – David B.
- Europeana – Patrik Ourdenik
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut
- Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
- Hey, Wait… – Jason
- Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
- Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
- Jimmy Corrigan – Chris Ware
- Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges
- Memories of My Father Watching T.V. – Curtis White
- Minor Angels – Antoine Volodine
- Molloy – Samuel Beckett
- Motorman – David Ohle
- Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo
- 60 Stories – Donald Barthelme
- Sleepers Awake – Kenneth Patchen
- Souls of the Labadie Tract – Susan Howe
- Stories in the Worst Way – Gary Lutz
- Take Five – D. Keith Mano
- Tender Buttons – Gertrude Stein
- The Age of Wire and String – Ben Marcus
- The Art Lover – Carole Maso
- The BFG – Roald Dahl
- The Dead Father – Donald Barthelme
- The Epileptic Bicycle – Edward Gorey
- The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
- The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman – Lawrence Stern
- The Log of the SS Mrs Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
- The Magic Kingdom – Stanley Elkin
- The People of Paper – Salvador Plascencia
- The Regular Man – Dina Kelberman
- The Stranger – Albert Camus
- The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien
- The Tin Drum – Günter Grass
- The Wavering Knife – Brian Evenson
- Ulysses – James Joyce
- Underworld – Don DeLillo
- Wittgenstein’s Mistress – David Markson
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
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.
1. Petronius, Satyricon (1st century A.D.)
2. Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605, 1616).
3. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (1759-67)
4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)
5. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884)
6. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Gods (1889)
7. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (1915)
8. James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
10. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930)
11. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones (1944)
12. Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style (1947)
13. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (1953)
14. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
15. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jealousy (1957)
16. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)
17. Samuel Beckett, How It Is (1961)
18. Carlos Fuentes, Aura (1962)
19. Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch (1963)
20. Thomas Pynchon, Crying of Lot 49 (1966)
21. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
22. John Barth, Lost in the Funhouse (1968)
23. Robert Coover, Pricksongs & Descants (1969)
24. J. G. Ballard, Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
25. Peter Handke, The Goalie’s Anxiety Before the Penalty Kick (1970)
26. Raymond Federman, Double or Nothing (1971)
27. Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (1975)
28. Guy Davenport, Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979)
29. Gilbert Sorrentino, Mulligan Stew (1979)
30. Donald Barthelme, Sixty Stories (1981)
31. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
32. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984)
33. Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985)
34. Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons, Watchmen (1986-7)
35. Carole Maso, Ava (1993)
36. William Gass, The Tunnel (1995)
37. Ben Marcus, Age of Wire and String (1995)
38. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
39. Young-Hae Chang, Traveling to Utopia (ca. 2000)
40. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (2000)
41. Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s (2000)
42. Laird Hunt, The Impossibly (2001)
43. Patrik Ourednik, Europeana (2001)
44. Gary Lutz, Stories in the Worst Way (2002)
45. Steve Tomasula, Vas (2003)
46. David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)
47. David Markson, The Last Novel (2007)
48. David Clark, 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein (2009)
49. J. M. Coetzee, Summertime (2009)
50. Anne Carson, Nox (2010)
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.