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.
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 . . .
8. Shoshana Felman—“Turning the Screw of Interpretation” (from Writing and Madness)
10. Sir Thomas Browne—Urn Burial, Religio Medici, correspondence
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
18. Roger Zelazny—His short fiction in four volumes.
21. Henry Roth—Call it Sleep
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
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)
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)
48. Malcolm Lowry—Under the Volcano
49. Walter Benjamin—The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, Brecht, The Arcades Project
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 Cunningham—The 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. Longus—Daphnis 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 Hofmannsthal—The 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 Tsypkin—Summer 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.