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Any Other Completists Out There?

I received some astonished looks the other day when I mentioned that I was in the middle of reading Robert Lowell’s collected poetry, with the intention of reading all a thousand plus pages of it. And so I wonder if anyone else has this kind of tendency, that is, reading collections from start to finish, and, parallel to this, the tendency to read anything you can get your hands on from your favorite writers. These are some of the most satisfying things for me to do as a reader. This was once again confirmed for me as I prepared for my panel “On the Well-Tempered Sentence” by reading, and in most cases rereading, all the books by the panel members, that is, John Haskell, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, and Christine Schutt. And it set me to thinking about how often I’ve done this, that is, read all the books of a writer that I loved.  And so, here’s my list, not to show off, but to share, and to see if anyone else has this kind of tendency:

Mary Caponegro, Hart Crane (all of his poetry, not the letters; not yet, that is), Leon Forrest, William Gass, Anne Michaels, Wallace Stevens, Amy Hempel, James Joyce, and the abovementioned panel members: John Haskell, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, and Christine Schutt; and there are more than a few that I have only a few books to read and then will have read all their books, like Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. And I’ve read most, if not all of Rilke’s poetry, as well as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in multiple translations.

So what about you? Do you have these weird obsessive tendencies?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

52 thoughts on “Any Other Completists Out There?

  1. I try doing this a lot, but rarely make it through the collected works of anyone. If I even have. I’m having a hard time placing anyone. I’m shy a few Hemingway books and a few Dickens and a few Vonnegut and a few Faulkner and one Joyce and one O’Connor . . . I’ve not read the complete works of anyone. I feel lame now.

    Wait, no. I’ve read the complete works of Larry Fondation and Eric Miles Williamson.

    (only counting people with more than three books)

    1. Hey Brian,

      What makes you stop short of reading those remaining works by those writer? For me, with Rushdie and Murakami, that is, I think it might have to do with a perceived depth of quality, of diminishing returns, well, more so with the former than the latter, although I did enjoy Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

  2. I typically read all the books of a writer that I love. I started doing it in middle school, and I seriously thought everyone was like that until I went to college (my high school friends all did it too; with filmmakers and musicians as well as writers).

    I’m doing it with Mary Gaitskill right now. :)

    1. Hi Dawn,

      Hmm, you know, come to think of it, I do this with musicians and filmmakers, too. I recently repeatedly listened to the entire discography of Built to Spill before and after a show of theirs in New York City. And I’m in the midst of a Bresson fest, watching all the films I can borrow from the library.

  3. This is a little different, but I’m currently workin my way through Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems, which is a beast, and for which I’ve been looked at askance many a time.

    I think it’s satisfying to hunker down with one writer for an extended period of time. I do have trouble reading multiple books by one writer in a row though. Guilt sets in. There’s so much to read. That said, over time I’ve read everything I can find of: David Foster Wallace, Roald Dahl, George Saunders, Amy Hempel, Fernando Pessoa, Susan Sontag…

    There are surely more, though probably not that many if you’re only counting writers who’ve written more than a couple books.

    I wanna start reading some letters. if people have suggestions I’d love to hear them.

    1. As far as good letters, everyone says Keats and its true –they really are remarkable. I wound up using an excerpt from one of his letters for a new manuscript.

      1. Oh, and since John mentioned H. Crane’s letters…at random opening:

        “[Patterson, New York] New Year’s Eve ’26 [25]

        Dear Charlotte & Ricardo: Here I am at this date and sixty-six miles from a drink. Isn’t it tragic!”

    2. Oh, Jac, you’ve reminded me about Hempel. I need to add her to my list. And I think I’ve read most, if not all, of Dahl’s children’s fiction.

      Though I’ve read a number of selected poetry collections of Emily Dickinson, I’ve yet to read the Complete. I think I’ll fix that, next year.

      As for letters, Flaubert’s are incredible (I’ve read the first volume). Also, Woolf’s and Rilke’s are stellar as well, though I’ve yet to read full books of them–yet another thing that I intend to do next year. Oh wait, I have read Rilke’s excellent Letters to a Young Poet, which I’d guess you’ve already read.

      1. Dickinson’s letters. Not just The Master Letters, tho of course those are the greatest letters ever written.

        My dad’s “Big Four” Collected Letters (order is mine)

        1. Dickinson
        2. Kafka
        3. Woolf
        4. Keats

        Parts of Stevens and Crane, Joyce’s love letters. Flannery O’Connor.

        Christopher Middleton swears by Edward Fitzgerald’s.

        Middleton’s correspondence with Guy Davenport would be the one I would most want to read and would probably challenge my current favorite correspondence, Davenport-Jonathan Williams.

        Nabokov-Wilson, begrudgingly.

        Celan-Bachmann, tho these are not well-served by the recent translation.

        Then there are the great lost letters: Bruno Schulz-Dvora Fogel.

    3. Reading through Dahl now myself! I read them all when I was a kid (well, the children’s stuff, not the adult stories) but am doing them all again now. Plus the Collected Stories, which I picked up recently.

  4. P.S. But I don’t do it with every writer that I enjoy. I don’t have that much time, haha. They have to be a quick favorite. The first thing I read by the writer has to really fuck me up to make me that hungry for more.

  5. Nowhere near as impressive as your (and others) completist tendencies, which I don’t share in general.

    Part of what I like about my favorite authors/artists–Burroughs comes to mind, and Sun Ra–is that one cannot master their catalogs. They used the means of distribution, at various points, against itself–and so there is always a new discovery, a new text, a small-press magazine with some unexplored gem.

    (I agree with your feeling of diminishing returns for both Rushdie and Murakami, and there are many others I would put in this category.)

    I never want closure….That might actually cause the reader to complete the author function in a weird mental loop, for some, and so enclosed the experience of reading–or at least it would for me–and I want the exact opposite.

    Confound me, dammit, writers.

    I want the world to make less sense, and I don’t think I’d get that by reading every Vonnegut novel. My god, just read Timequake, and it’s enough to make you regurgitate all the others.

    1. Hey Davis,

      I can see how, for some people, devouring everything by an artist whose work they enjoy is their means of achieving closure, of harnessing the artist, of finally putting the artist into some kind of box that can be labeled and shelved. I think my impulse to absorb as much as I can by various artists, though, may be likened to romance, where the lover wants to discover every part of their beloved’s body, know everything that the beloved knows, wants to practically eat their lover; but what the lover ultimately finds out is that the beloved cannot be absorbed, that the beloved, the other is unfathomable; and for the mature lover this doesn’t bring dissatisfaction, but instead rekindles interest, inspires further exploration. Time and time again, that’s what I discover with the authors and artists I love: that no matter how much of their work I consume, study, memorize, reflect on, borrow, or whatever, they defy attempts to “master their catalogs.”

      Also, I know what you mean about Sun Ra. John Szwed’s excellent Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra (a book I read a long time ago) goes into great detail about Sun Ra’s various disruptions. And I once knew an audiophile who searched out and collected rarities by Sun Ra, perspicaciously studying every informational tidbit on albums, as though they were religious relics.

  6. I take a perverse delight in not reading everything by a writer, even my favorite ones. I always feel as though I read enough to get what I need and then—

    But I also reread a lot (a lot!). I was just talking with Jac about this. In general, I’d rather read my one or two favorite books by a favorite author many, many times, really digesting them, and just skim the rest.

    I do have an obsession, though, with “sampling” things as much as I can. I love going to bookstores and skimming through the shelves, reading a few pages of dozens of books by dozens of authors—”just to see what they’re like.” And I like to listen to albums and watch movies at least once, again “just to see.” But I only revisit the ones that really interest me.

  7. complete-ism is one of my many ocd tendencies. i think i may have mentioned before about my need to read a collection in order. including many collected works. my favorite being Langston Hughes’

    and i feel the same way with writers or musicians that i love. even when i know an album is crappy if its by an artist i love i feel an overwhelming sense to have everything. same goes for books. when i get into a writer for the first time and fall in love with their work i hunt down everything i can. not just their writing, either. but writing about them. interviews with them.

    1. Hey Ryan,

      Sounds like we’ve got some things in common. I really enjoy reading collected works, in order, and I feel like I want to do more of that.

      What other collected works have you read cover to cover?

      I’m the same way with musicians. I couldn’t even begin to list all of them that I’ve listened to every little thing they’ve recorded, many, many times. Well, maybe I can start with this list, as the artists and bands come to mind:
      John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Albert King, Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Mozart, Radiohead, Soundgarden, Eleven, The Who, Charlie Parker, Built to Spill, Parliament-Funkadelic (and innumerable George Clinton side-projects and spin-offs), James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and on and on.

      1. poetry-wise i have the Hughes, James Wright, Frost, Whitman, Marvin Bell’s Nightworks (which isn’t a complete but a early career retrospective i guess).

        story-wise Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, Kafka.

        i’d like to get my hands on more. i think the Wright is my most recent coup of collected works.

        i’ve recently had to take some of the beatles demos off my ipod ’cause there just wasn’t enough room for everything else anymore.

  8. I haven’t read Lutz’s grammar book, but I have read the fiction.

    I’m close on Beckett, I guess I’m proud of that, but I haven’t read new Beckett in 13 years. I think I just need to read How it is, The Lost Ones and A Dream to Fair…

    Sebald and the poems, there are poems.

    Lydia Davis, prepping for the interview.

    Alice Munro.

    James Salter.

    I need one book by McCarthy and Coetzee to complete.

    Edward P. Jones, I think Carver’s stories

    1. One thing I’m trying to do is to see everything by Kubrick, Lynch, and Tarkovsky projected (italics = so seen):

      Kubrick
      1953 Fear and Desire
      1955 Killer’s Kiss
      1956 The Killing
      1957 Paths of Glory
      1960 Spartacus
      1962 Lolita
      1964 Dr. Strangelove
      1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (70mm, many times)
      1971 A Clockwork Orange
      1975 Barry Lyndon (many times)
      1980 The Shining (many times, but never an ideal print)
      1987 Full Metal Jacket
      1999 Eyes Wide Shut (many times, but not yet at the correct aspect ratio)

      Lynch
      1977 Eraserhead
      1980 The Elephant Man
      1984 Dune
      1986 Blue Velvet (many times)
      1990 Wild at Heart
      1992 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
      1997 Lost Highway
      1999 The Straight Story
      2001 Mulholland Drive
      2006 Inland Empire

      Tarkovsky
      1962 Ivan’s Childhood (so much better projected than on video!)
      1966 Andrei Rublev
      1972 Solaris (surprisingly)
      1975 The Mirror (a few times now)
      1979 Stalker
      1983 Nostalghia
      1986 The Sacrifice

      1. This reminded me! I’ve been trying to watch all of Hitchcock for about 9 months now. I haven’t been watching only those, but I’ve watched 24 of 50-some. And I carry on.

      2. What about Bresson? Rosenbaum wrote an article on him about seeing them projected.

        I just saw The Sacrifice again. I don’t know. It kind of felt unrealized. The first 30 minutes held, but it just fell apart for me. Particularly the episode with the hysterical woman – that was too much of a hollywood directed performance. Every one else was okay with the world ending, why not her? A lot of rehashing of his other films, including the spinning woman or people in the air. Interesting that Kubrick and his miscalculations came in about the same year.

          1. Those (Tarkovsky’s student films) don’t ever get projected. I’ve seen the videos, of course, but. I’m trying to stick to the commercial features, because I’m trying to be practical here—I actually want to accomplish this in my lifetime. Indeed, I picked those three directors because I think it’s possible to see all their films projected, and to do so without driving all over the place. Those features all come around to midnight screenings and matinees and other series, in addition to retrospectives.

            I’d sure love to see everything by Bresson projected, but outside a retrospective, that’s never going to happen.

            1. The Steamroller and the Violin isn’t really worth seeing…but definitely it’s worth ordering a bootleg of Nostalghia on ebay…and Solaris, well, that will be a treat for you.

        1. For the record, though (again, italics = seen projected):

          Bresson
          1943 Angels of the Streets
          1945 The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne
          1951 Diary of a Country Priest
          1956 A Man Escaped
          1959 Pickpocket
          1962 The Trial of Joan of Arc
          1966 Au hasard Balthazar
          1967 Mouchette
          1969 A Gentle Woman
          1971 Four Nights of a Dreamer
          1974 Lancelot of the Lake
          1977 The Devil Probably
          1983 L’argent

          …Much harder than with Kubrick, Lynch, Tarkovsky. Some of those films will no doubt come around sooner or later (e.g., Balthazar, which I’ve missed at least one screening of in the past five years)…but I’m not holding my breath.

          Incidentally, in the five years I’ve lived in Chicago, I don’t think a single Fassbinder film has screened within the city limits…? At best, no more than one or two. But I hear there were a few retrospectives right before I moved here; Bad Timing.

          Speaking of which: Nicolas Roeg films never screen, hélas pour moi

            1. Ah, yes, but remember Lynch has also been making paintings and books and music and TV shows and comics and all of his short films! And that he no longer seems all that interested in making features any longer, not since The Straight Story, his last “proper” feature.

                1. Sorry to disappoint you, Michael: he’s still making them, but not in the conventional (“proper”) sense. Mulholland Dr. was of course supposed to be a TV series pilot, and got edited into a feature. INLAND EMPIRE and its (mostly unseen) sequel, More Things That Happened (2007) were very low-budget collage films that he worked on at his leisure, and that didn’t get normal theatrical distribution (Lynch himself distributed INLAND).

                  And he says he’s never going to make a conventional feature again—meaning something he has to push through a studio, and shoot on a set schedule with a conventional crew, then have distributed by anyone other than himself.

                  1. Not disappointed in the least — I think he’s moving in the right direction. I liked Inland Empire better than Mulholland Dr. — I liked its expansiveness… and I liked Mulholland Dr. very much.

                    1. Oh, good. Because otherwise I would have had to hit you. ^_^

                      I, too, prefer INLAND to Mulholland, which I thought cute but wasn’t too crazy about (sorry—you can hit me!).

                      Lynch is one of those artists who I feel absolutely no desire to completely “collect.” I think he’s brilliant, and the stuff by him that I love, I love. (TWIN PEAKS, FIRE WALK WITH ME!!!) But I can leave a great deal of the rest. He just makes so much stuff, I don’t really care if I ever get to all of it…

        2. I liked the end of The Sacrifice… I thought the first 30 minutes eased you into it… and then the film’s intensity got stronger and stronger…

            1. You mean the shot of the boy with the tree, or the ten minute shot of the house burning? Tree shot is the last shot.

              I’d like to discuss The Sacrifice. There are some haunting images.

            2. I’m a fan of Marker as well.

              Greg — I’m going see The Sacrifice again. Maybe we can have a Tarkovsky week…

  9. John, fine question, & thanks. Let me add my impressed nods at your library, too — impressed, not to say intimidated.

    No Sentence Left Behind, hmm. I’m w/ Adam on that, I’d say. I more of a restless reader, preferring horizontality to verticality.
    Still, there’s a few I’ve done entire, yeah.

    I once taught a semester of Kafka, & I dare say that, between the prep & the infatuation, I read everything. I think I’ve got all of Borges too, the same way; I’d argue his poems deserve more attention. John Berryman, oh yes, gobbled him down like nuggety candy. Also Barthelme, Donald, but part of the reason was I studied w/ him, & he was later supportive of my work.

    Dante, or sort of: the whole COMMEDIA, in two languages, the VITA NUOVA mostly in English, much of DE MONARCHIA in English. Also, nobody’s mentioned Shakespeare, & come on, guys. 40 plays & a book of sonnets, what’s so hard about that?

    Toni Morrison & John Barth too, come to think. Joseph Conrad, maybe; I’d have to look back at his bibliography. Also, here’s a shout-out to the neglected Jay Cantor. Just two thick novels, one thin one, & a likewise slender book of essays, ON GIVING BIRTH TO ONE’S OWN MOTHER, but always thoughtful.

    1. Oh, I’d like to read all of Barth and Barthelme. Borges, Kafka, and Conrad, as well.

      As for Shakespeare, looking at my copy of his complete works, I can say I’ve read about a fourth of the plays. The sonnets, though, I’ve read a few times, even once writing it by hand as a present for someone I loved.

      1. OK, I’ve read everything by Shakespeare (including stuff that probably wasn’t by him). I had a real obsession with him in high school. (Probably still do.)

        That said, I sure as hell don’t remember most of it. But at one point I had Hamlet nearly memorized. The Tempest, too. And probably a dozen of the sonnets…

  10. My husband and I are both sort of obsessives that way, although we’ve had to tone it down to stop our apartment from turning into a disaster zone. You should see how much Dylan and Prince we still have. Or our DVD collection…yeesh. We only do it now with the artists and writers we really really really love. And thank god for digital music. If I really love a book, I want it in physical form, but I care not at all when it’s DVDs or CDs.

    For me, it’s Beckett (who I’m still reading through all of his stuff), Nabokov, Stevens (and really, any poet I love), Dickens, Shakespeare (I mean, obviously), Barthelme, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kafka, George Saunders, Lydia Davis, Brian Evanson, Diana Wynne Jones (still)–oh, shit, let’s face it, I do this with almost any writer I love. How can I not? If I love their stuff, how can I skip something I might love even more?

    I have to admit this tendency can really bite me in the ass sometimes–see: Hemingway, Fitzgerald.

  11. This is too dangerous a question to answer fully or honestly. There are too many. It’s easier when you become fixated on a current writer. I mean, I get withdrawal symptoms if I don’t immediately get the new book by Steve Erickson or William Boyd or Graham Swift or Ian McEwan of Christopher Priest or M. John Harrison or Karen Joy Fowler or Gwyneth Jones. But these only come along every few years, so it’s quite easy to control really.

    But the older writers who already had an impressive back catalogue, or who had even stopped writing, before I first discovered them. Now that is hard, and at times expensive.

    There are too many names – far, far too many names – and nowhere near enough miles of bookshelf space.

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