1. What Shall I Put in the Hole That I Dig? Eleanor Thompson
The first book I read. Can’t write without reading. What I dug so much, I think, were the meter and the metaphor, because other than that, the book is rather sophomoric.
2. Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Charlotte’s line, all her lines, but especially “Some Pig.” What kind of mind thought of those mots justes? Writing is a matter of life and death. It’s in and in between the lines.
3. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
It’s not funny. Writing is a matter of life and death.
4. The Frogs, Aristophanes
Brekekekex koax koax. From the makers of onomatopoeia.
5. The Poetics, Aristotle
Couldn’t ask for a better strawman.
6. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
Political, angry, in total control of every word.
7. Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
Le. mot. juste.
8. Beloved, Toni Morrison
9. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
Writing into the gaps.
10. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Palindromic Pip. “Mudbank, mist, swamp, and work; work, swamp, mist, and mudbank.” Chiasmus makes the world go round.
11. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Structure inside structure inside structure.
12. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
Novel of IDEAS!
13. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
14. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
The mind of my dreams.
15. Betrayal, Harold Pinter
If I knew how he did that….
16. Stuff by:
Jorge Luis Borges
When you really want to talk about sentences.
17. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Because it fails.
18. Double or Nothing, Raymond Federman
Blew the lid off. For which, undying gratitude.
19. The America Play, Suzan-Lori Parks
History, Imagination, Language. Genius.
20. Traffic, Kenneth Goldsmith
Appropriation, a gold mine. Conceptual writing: redundancy, oxymoron, both or neither? Think about it.
21. Push, Sapphire
22. A Humument, Tom Phillips
23. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
“Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even onto a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, plantings of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only know what-all besides, all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or too involved for your non-legal mind to know about even though you are co-executor, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond just a practical joke. Or you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull.”
24. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
“Maybe that’s why my mother cut my tongue.”
25. Notes From Underground, Dostoyevsky
Someday my journal may come in handy.
26. Riverfinger Women, Elana Dykewoman
She could write about queer stuff and live to tell the story.
27. Becoming a Man, Paul Monette
So honest it’s embarrassing
28. Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin. “Afterword: The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle”
“…Ive attacked the fundaments of culture. thats ok. Ive attacked male dominance. thats ok. Ive attacked every heterosexual notion of relation. thats ok. Ive in effect advocated the use of drugs. thats ok. Ive in effect advocated fucking animals. thats ok. here and now, new york city, spring 1974, among a handful of people, publisher and editor included, thats ok. lower case letters are not. it does make one wonder.
so Ive wondered and this is what I think right now. there are well-developed, effective mechanisms for dealing with ideas, no matter how powerful the ideas are. very few ideas are more powerful than the mechanisms for defusing them, standard form —punctuation, typography, then on to academic organization, the rigid ritualistic formulation of ideas, etc. —is the actual distance between the individual (certainly the intellectual individual) and the ideas in a book.
standard form is the distance
to permit writers to use forms which violate conventions just might permit writers to develop forms which would teach people to think differently: not to think about different things, but to think in different ways. that work is not permitted.”
Move over, big brother.
29. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde
30. The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin
31. His notebooks, Charles Darwin
You’ve really got to open your mind to think new thoughts
32. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, among other things
Can’t write without thinking. Can’t think without Foucault.
33. Glas, Jacques Derrida
White space prose. Theory is creative writing. It is anti-intellectual and self-limiting to imagine that philosophy and cultural and literary theory are inimical to “creative writing.”
34. Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa
35. Dictée, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
36. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow
37. Angels in America, Tony Kushner
38. The Book of Salt, Monique Truong
39. Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed
40. Burger’s Daughter, Nadine Gordimer
41. Dutch, Edmund Morris
42. Michael Martone, Michael Martone
43. A Midwife’s Tale, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
44. The Unredeemed Captive, John Demos
45. Holy Land, D.J. Waldie
46. The People Who Led to My Plays, Adrienne Kennedy
Goes deep and wide. Best use of fragments. Better even than David Markson’s work, also v. impactful.
47. Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth
The formal range in the collection as a whole. The most fully realized symbiosis of form and content (and poignancy to boot) in the title story in particular. Jonathan Safran Foer’s story, “A Primer for Punctuation of Heart Disease” also ranks in this respect.
Last but not least:
48. The Random House Dictionary
The reference book to which I refer more than any other. Sits, literally, at my left hand, as I write.
49. Words Into Type, ed. Marjorie Skillins
Next to the dictionary, it offers the standards of manuscript preparation from grammar to typography. I adhere more often than I depart. Third edition.
But not last.
50. Everything by Johanna Drucker
What texts can look like and why and why not.
51. Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson
52. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
53. The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
for Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
Alexandra Chasin is the author of Brief, Kissed By, Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, and Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs. Associate Professor of Literary Studies at Lang College, The New School, Chasin lives and teaches and writes in New York City.