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.
11. The All-Girl Football Team by Lewis Nordan. I’m very thankful for Gary Fisketjon and those Vintage paperbacks of the late 80’s which allowed me to discover some great books that had been published just prior to my becoming a much more voracious reader. To fall into Sugar Mecklin’s Arrow Catcher, Mississippi was a wonderful thing–truly one of the masters at combining humor and sorrow in the same sentence and getting away with it.
12. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Another that I’ve read many times and somehow find something new in it each time to love.
13. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. In an undergraduate writing class, the professor told me one of my stories reminded her of this author’s work. A) She was nuts, but B) incredible for letting me know this author’s work existed. The writing is spare and powerful and mesmerizing and it’s beyond unfortunate that this would be the only work of his that would ever be completed.
14. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. My dad gave me this when I was in high school I think and I believe on attempt number ten or eleven, sometime after college, I finally (think) understood how to read this incredibly put together novel.
15. Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond. One, I love chocolate myself, but two, this was one of the first non-fiction books that I read that took an author’s focus on one single thing that he/she was obviously fascinated by. It’s a genre that I have come to love, finding some great books on topics I’d never have considered interesting that were indeed stunningly so. This still is one of the best in my opinion.
16. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Settle down all of you whose blood just went up a degree or two. I’ve written a blog post on this in the past–this book got my then eleven year old daughter into reading in a huge way. First it was just this and the sequels, but then it was Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte,and Leo Tolstoy.
17. If I Don’t Six by Elwood Reid. A book by somebody I knew, and not a former teacher, but a former classmate. And finding this book and getting back in touch with Elwood led to him leading me to authors like Mike Magnuson,and Brady Udall, and Dean Bakopoulos, and Tom Franklin, and William Gay, and those led me to Lee K. Abbott, and Barry Hannah, and Beth Ann Fennelly, and Chad Simpson,and Jeremy Chamberlin and Natalie Bakopoulus and so on and on.
18 Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. In MQR, Madison Smartt Bell called this the best American novel about necrophilia ever written. This may say something about me, but I had to find a copy. This led to me reading those first five McCarthy novels well before All the Pretty Horses made McCarthy the much bigger name he is today. It’s still a tough call for me today on which of those first five is my favorite–I think it changes every time I pick one of the up.
19. A Plague of Dreamers by Steve Stern. Wow, you can do a lot with a novella and with a trio of them, even more. Stern’s mix of magic realism, southern/midwestern Jewish life, humor, yiddish, etc. is wild, entertaining, incredibly well written and packs an emotional punch as well. Damn.
20. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Another one that I think I honestly have to say I had damn near no clue what I was reading the first time or two with it–well worth the additional efforts though.
21. The Singing Fish by Peter Markus. I heard Peter read from this while at a reading I attended to see somebody else. It’s one of the only times I’ve rushed my way through a crowd after a reading to get to the table–I simply couldn’t wait to find out how to get a copy of what he had just read aloud. This also led to my asking him if he had anything new to publish, which also led to him suggesting both Robert Lopez and Pamela Ryder, two others writers Dzanc has had the pleasure of publishing.
22. The Seed Thieves by Robert Fanning. a) I really like Robert’s poetry, and b) I had gone to see Robert read when I “discovered” (can you discover somebody with three books out already?) Peter Markus.
23. Pafko at the Wall by Don Delillo. The original novella as published by Harper’s, later the prologue of Underworld, and then again put out as a hardcover novella. This is the single best piece of fiction I’ve read. To this date. And I expect it to hold that spot for some time. I finished it the day I bought the issue of Harper’s, probably thought about it for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Re-read it again when I read Underworld, and have read it a time or two since. Ridiculously powerful.
24. The Cider House Rules by John Irving. Not my favorite of his (probably A Prayer for Owen Meany), but maybe the novel that has most proven to me to stick through something I may not be fully enjoying but am not hating. I struggled through the early 50 to 70 pages of that novel but once I hit a certain point probably finished it in one very fast sitting.
25. Christine by Stephen King. I had avoided all things Stephen King up to the point this was out in paperback. I picked it up one afternoon in my parents’ house (they’d read everything by him at that point), opened it up to see just what it was that they loved, and a few hours later, sitting in a mostly dark, dusk-filled room, turned the last page. Still not exactly my cup of tea on a regular basis, but the guy can tell a story. He can hook you in.
26. The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson. This one I’m almost positive Aaron Burch told me to read. And then we tried to talk about it and it would have made the WORST podcast ever. Two guys so blown away we had no words to truly speak beyond starting hackneyed sentences and having the other say “Right!?!” over and over. This opened my world to another one of those writers that I’ve tried to read everything they’ve published (and he makes it difficult).
27. Tenorman by David Huddle. Probably the first time I’d spent close to full book money for what I originally considered half a book–this novella was the first time I’d read a stand-alone novella that I didn’t care how much I’d paid for it. He’s a writer many more should be reading.
28. Unsaid IV. I do indeed realize this is not a book, per se, but this might be the single best issue of a literary journal ever published. It’s the one I’ve had the best time reading–the discovery of writers I’d not read before (Peter Christopher, though I realize had I been wise enough to more regularly have been reading The Quarterly 25 years ago I’d have made that discovery then, among others) and great work from those I already liked (Evenson, and Markus to name two). It’s a brick of an issue and damn near every work shines.
29. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall. The first time one of my book reviews was snagged by a newspaper. With a little bit of editing, The Capital Times took the review I had written of this incredibly well done debut novel. Definitely one of my favorite books since I’ve started the EWN.
30. Smonk by Tom Franklin. I don’t know that this will make many top anything lists besides top offensive characters lists but I loved this book. It’s funny as hell, dark, violent, energetic. Almost seemingly written in a rush, like Franklin felt the need to get Smonk the character out of his system as fast as possible so he could get back to ‘real’ writing, but this one is as real as it gets.
31. Family Men by Steve Yarbrough. A book I special ordered simply due to an ad in The Georgia Review. I didn’t have internet access or any great ideas on where to find new authors but really enjoyed that journal and so assumed they must only advertise books they’d be interested in, etc. (a little naive, no?). His debut was a great collection and has led me to reading over half a dozen great reads over the last decade or so.
32. Cerebus by Dave Sim. 300 monthly issues of his comic from 1977 to sometime in the 2000’s going from a Conan the Barbarian parody (with an aardvark protagonist) to a look at class, politics, religion, love, obsession, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, gender warfare, and one of the most unique (and sometimes maddening) blendings of Christianity, Judaism, and Muslimism put together. Before Scott Snyder almost single-handedly gave me reason to be buying more than a few comics a month again, for a few years this was the sole reason I’d hit my local store every few weeks. There are definitely chunks I simply do not get, but the artwork, the lettering, the dedication, and a huge swatch in the middle that is simply brilliantly done and funny and entertaining, etc. An achievement.
33. Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones. Read it because a) it was a LitBlog Co-Op selection and b) because MacAdam/Cage published it. Not my typical drink of water–a trilogy of horror movies written in something between fictional and screenplay form, with a TON of footnotes (mostly about horror movies,but many about hair metal bands of the 80’s. Maybe a third of the way through the first “film,” and I was hooked. Who the hell was this SGJ guy and had he written anything else? Bad question to ask unless you’ve got some time on your hands–novels, story collections, stories galore, and in every single style and topic you could imagine–nothing done more than once (though some sequels to his more horror/fantasy-ish novels are in the works now). A guy who knows how to plot a freaking story.
34. Garner by Kirstin Allio. The first time the LitBlog Co-Op has me nominate a title and it was selected by those peers to be the LBC Read This! for that quarter. More of a naturesque book than I’ve ever enjoyed. Something about Allio’s writing completely caught me off guard, pulled me in and entranced me until the mystery of the book was semi-solved–it was never the point though.
35. AM/PM by Amelia Gray. Somehow I had missed the fact that there was an Amelia Gray out there publishing simply wicked stories in the world. At least until this book was published. Sometimes liking a publisher and trying most of what they publish, even when you don’t know what you’re getting into, leads to great discoveries and this was one of those. Now Amelia Gray is one that I search for, hope to find and devour every word I can track down from.
36. Daddy’s by Lindsay Hunter. Same deal as number 35 and wow, same publisher (Featherproof Books). Lindsay’s a fearless writer and a pretty badass reader as well.
37. The Compression of Scars by Kellie Wells. Purchased most likely because it won the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award, one that I look forward to every year, and rarely am disappointed by, but possibly because I’d read a story of hers in the Kenyon Review and was amazed by it. A book that might have been more likely to see itself published by FC2 than by the University of Georgia Press. Chances taken and succeeded with.
38. By the Light of the Jukebox by Dean Paschal. A short story collection that I routinely list as one of five I’d take to that mythical (we hope) desert island. Similar to the Wells listed above in that Paschal’s starting points are often wild: a story from the pov of a deranged, wild dog stumbling through a neighborhood; another from the mind of the run of a litter, from his position in the owner’s freezer; an emergency room surgeon heavily considering letting a repeat alcohol abuser die on the ER table (if not actually giving him a nudge); and more. And I’m happy to say that Dzanc has brought this one back to life in our rEprint series.
39. The Baby Tree by Erin McGraw. I went to see Nancy Zafris read at the Thurber House in Columbus, OH and Erin read with her. I picked up her novel after the reading and was just blown away–it’s another on the mythical desert island list (I think all five are now on this list)–it’s a fantastic book, short but full, and maybe one of the best examples I can think of on how to approach tricky religious issues from a fictional standpoint.
40. The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. Mills has created almost a sub-genre within literary fiction that he’s still the only person writing in. This is the first of his amazing string of novels in which protagonists are seemingly normal, working-class, blokes that get caught up in something of a circular nature, be it work, or relationship, or their homes, etc. Each is incredibly readable, funny, and difficult to put down once picked up, and this is the one that launched me fully into his output.
41. Other Electricities by Ander Monson. What in the hell is this? Short stories? A novel? All jammed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Radio frequencies. Stories set up by temperatures. Same events occurring in more than one story. Sometimes maybe with subtle differences. The first Monson I read, and basically the first of everything he’s written as he’s got a unique mind when it comes to telling his “stories,” and one that I want to watch continue to develop over the years.
42. Loose Balls edited by Terry Pluto. I believe it’s the first book I read written in the Oral History method–interviews with many people. It’s about the American Basketball Association and has given me hours of entertainment over the years. The chapter on the Spirit of Memphis would alone be worth the price you’ll have to pay to read this on your kindle if you have one.
43. The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon by Charles Jensen. If I remember right, this was not quite eligible for the New Michigan Press chapbook contest due to being too short by a page or two, but it intrigued their editors there enough to get it published. Thank goodness. What a strange, enticing, interestingly done work from Jensen. One that truly sticks with you while you’re reading the next three or four books you’ll read, often questioning, I wonder how Jensen would have brought this aspect into the story.
44. The Law of Strings by Steven Gillis. It’s just coming out now as this list is hitting the world thanks to Atticus Books, but I’ve had the pleasure of reading these stories as they were written, then again when they hit individual journals and now am re-reading them all with book covers around them and it helps me realize how lucky I am to get to work with this guy on a daily (hourly?) basis.
45. Cataclym Baby by Matt Bell. MudLuscious Press is putting out some of the best books around today–certainly some of the most inventive. Another one that I remember reading many of the individual pieces as they were seeing the light of day, but all at once, together in one wonderful novel(la)-y read? Another that I’m happy to say was penned/typed by a very good friend.
46. All Things, All at Once by Lee K. Abbott. A New & Selected brick of a story collection from one that I consider one of the masters of the short story? Has to be here. funny, sad, masculine and not. Sentences I’d never ever ever try to diagram but would love to see the result of such work. Abbott is a wonder and it was about time somebody large (Norton) put out such a collection.
47. The Journal of Antonio Montoya by Rick Collignon. The first of a quarter (so far) of titles set in Collignon’s fictional, Guadalupe, New Mexico. A mix of realism and magic realism. The creation of a city and families and ghosts and myths, Collignon puts you into a dreamlike trance as you read through and his debut truly set the stage well.
48. Orphans by Charles D’Ambrisio. The book that let me know it was okay to read essay collections. Didn’t matter if I was interested in the topic or not. Not if the author wrote about his topics this well.
49. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I use this book in every author interview I do. And I truly enjoyed it the few times I’ve read it.
50. All Over by Roy Kesey. I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to fill this up with Dzanc Books titles. This though, it was our first. It’s one I read in manuscript form probably six times. I read it in galley form, again in final form. I’ve picked it up dozens of times since we published it in late 2007 and read a story or two. I’m amazed every single time I pick it up just how incredible it is. How varied.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.
Dan Wickett. Co-founder of Dzanc Books and founder of the Emerging Writers Network.