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For Big Other on William H. Gass’s Birthday

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, Juliette

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

11. Walter Pater—The Renaissance, Imaginary Portraits, “A Child in the House,” Marius the Epicurean

12. Richard Hughes—A High Wind in Jamaica, In Hazard 

13. George Eliot—Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda

14. Michel Foucault—The History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things

15. Joanna Russ—The Female Man, We Who Are About to . . ., On Strike Against God, “Souls,” The Two of Them

16. Guy Davenport—Tatlin!, The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, Da Vinci’s Bicycle, The Death of Picasso, Twelve Stories, A Table of Green Fields, Eclogues, The Geography of the Imagination, The Hunter Gracchus, Every Force Evolves a Form, A Balance of Quinces, A Balthus Notebook

17. Jacques Derrida—Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Dissemination, Glas

18. Roger Zelazny—His short fiction in four volumes.

19. F. Scott Fitzgerald—The Great Gatsby, Tender Is the Night, the short stories

20. Nathanael West—Miss Lonelyhearts, A Cool Million, The Day of the Locust, The Dream Life of Balso Snell

21. Henry Roth—Call it Sleep

22. Virginia Woolf—To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Flush, The Years, A Room of One’s Own

23. Vladimir Nabokov—Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire

24. Mark Twain—Huckleberry Finn, The Diaries of Adam and Eve

25. Christina Stead—The Man Who Loved Children

26. Baruch de Spinoza—Ethics, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

27. William Faulkner—The Yoknapatawpha County sequence of stories and novels

28. W. H. Auden—The Sea and the Mirror, The Age of Anxiety, The Selected Poems

29. Ron Silliman—The Alphabet

30. Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell—From Hell

31. Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill—The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (series one & two)

32. Marilyn Hacker—First Cities, Selected Poems 1965—1990, Squares and Courtyards, Winter Numbers, Desesperanto, Names

33. Junot Diaz—Drown, The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her

34. Willa Cather—My Ántonia, Song of the Lark, A Lost Lady, My Mortal Enemy, Not Under Forty, Collected Stories (Library of America)

35. Jean Genet—Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, A Thief’s Journal, Funeral Rites, Querelle de Brest, The Maids, Deathwatch, The Balcony, The Blacks, The Screens

36. James Joyce—A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses

37. Gertrude Stein—Lectures in America, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, How to Write, Three Lives, Wars I Have Seen, Ida, Lucy Church Amiably, The Making of Americans, Tender Buttons

38. John Livingston Lowe—The Road to Xanadu: A Study In The Ways of the Imagination

39. Erich Auerbach—Mimesis

40. John Keene—Annotations

41. Honoré de Balzac—Lost Illusions

42. Gustave Flaubert—Sentimental Education

43. William Gaddis—The Recognitions, Carpenter’s Gothic

44. Brian Evenson—The Wavering Knife (contains “Barcode Jesus,” one of the finest American short stories of the last sixty years)

45. Theodore Sturgeon—collected short stories in 13 volumes (1938—1987, indispensable reading)

46. Thomas M. Disch—Camp Concentration, On Wings of Song, Getting into Death (stories), The Man Who Had No Idea (stories), Fundamental Disch (stories, librettos, and essays)

47. Samuel BeckettMolloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, More Pricks Than Kicks, all the plays

48. Malcolm LowryUnder the Volcano

49. Walter Benjamin—The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, Brecht, The Arcades Project

50. William H. Gass—Omensetter’s Luck, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, On Being Blue, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, The Tunnel, all the nonfiction.

Some Corinthian Capitals for the 50 Columns Above:

1.  Susan Sontag—I, etcetera

The flatness of Sontag fictive prose is seriously off-putting to many readers—and many serious readers at that. She wanted to make her points through architecture, rather than music or ekphrasis. And in this collection of short works, she did. Along with “The Way We Live Now,” they are exemplary. I read and reread them and I always learn from them.

2. Glenway Wescott—The Pilgrim Hawk

This is another miracle of narrative architecture. One corner is left un-built—the one that would have fixated around the homosexual fascination the young chauffeur exerts over the entire party. (The fact that there is so clearly room for it is what suggests that it is there, under the rest of the text.) Right now, you have to fill it in for yourself, but the rest is right there, as pristine as you’d expect to find it in Jane Austen.

3. Michael CunninghamThe Hours

This is one of the most important novels in the development of the American novel because it answers a challenge first articulated by Leslie Fiedler in his 1960 work, Love and Death in the American Novel. Claimed Fiedler, the novel as a genre must strive to encompass a rich set of deep and resonant relations between a man and a woman. And until the historical situation much improves in terms of equality, the cross-gender friendship at the center of this book is about the best we can hope for that is not just lies and/or simple fantasies.

4. LongusDaphnis and Chloe

One of the oldest novels and one of the most effective. This is romance stripped to its bones; it’s quite wonderful and filled with narrative magic.

5. Hugo Von HofmannsthalThe Lord Chandos Letter

Whenever I feel myself straying near writers’ block, I read this witty farewell to literature by a young medieval much too full of his own accomplishments, and I go dancing away and back to the writing desk and get happily to work again.

6. Leonid TsypkinSummer in Baden-Baden

This astonishing chronicle of pathological gambling addiction is breathless and frightening, and is made more so when we realize that it is the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky who was so afflicted. With our return to the present, the ending is heartbreaking as we meet the scholars who are, themselves, addicted to their pursuit of the minutiae of Dostoevsky’s life, and what they have put at stake to pursue their obsessions and make this story recountable. This great short novel is by a Russian doctor and scholar who wrote only one.

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.





  • Samuel R. Delany’s science fiction and fantasy tales are available in Aye and Gomorrah and Other Stories. His collection Atlantis: Three Tales and Phallos are experimental fiction. His novels include science fiction such as the Nebula-Award winning Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, as well as Nova and Dhalgren. His four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon is sword-and-sorcery. Most recently, he has written the SF novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. His 2007 novel Dark Reflections won the Stonewall Book Award. Other novels include Equinox, Hogg, and The Mad Man. Delany was the subject of a 2007 documentary, The Polymath, by Fred Barney Taylor, and he has written a popular creative writing textbook, About Writing. He is the author of the widely taught Times Square Red / Times Square Blue, and his book-length autobiographical essay, The Motion of Light in Water, won a Hugo Award in 1989. All are available as both e-books and in paperback. Delany is the author of several collections of critical essays. His interview in the Paris Review’s 'Art of Fiction' series appeared in spring 2012. In 2015 he was the recipient of the Nicolas Guillén Award for philosophical fiction. His novella The Atheist in the Attic appeared in February 2018. Professor Delany retired from teaching at the end of 2015. He lives in Philadelphia with his partner, Dennis Rickett.

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