I embarked on a list-led reading quest over a decade ago—not with Gass’s list, but with Borges’s (“A Personal Library”)—but I gave it up less than a year later. I think I lost the list (I had copied it out of a library book), and, besides, I had exhausted my enthusiasm (I was at least a decade younger, callow, infrequently Ritalinated, often inebriated). Looking at that list now, I find that I’ve read perhaps 80% of the books there, just in the course of following my own interests. More than I might reasonably have expected, I suppose. Gass’s pillars, too, have been accounted for in my list of books read, completely by accident given that I honestly didn’t know about his essay until your email, John. (Though I own A Temple of Texts, shamefully, I haven’t read it; I suppose the fact that I have presumably spent some of the time I might have devoted to reading it to reading some of the books recommended in it will somewhat make up for my failing.) I suppose the 20% of Borges’s list and the remainder of Gass’s are, in fact, what those lists are for—we don’t need them for what we’ve read or would have read anyway, but for what we haven’t and wouldn’t have.
And so, my list is a list of remainders rather than pillars, books that I would never have read except that I did. It’s not that I think that these are particularly obscure books—they mostly aren’t—and I wouldn’t call them “anti-pillars,” either, but, taken together, they wouldn’t hold up much. And yet they hold up everything. Perhaps it’s fair to think of them as the structural necessities of building one of these lists, what you add when you’ve got your 37 and just need another 13. Aren’t those pillars? A catalog of near-misses, a lucky unlucky thirteen, presented in no particular order:
1. The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton. Borges’s list has The Blue Cross (the first Father Brown), but not Thursday. I read Blue Cross, but I wasn’t bowled over. Next to it on the library’s shelves, though, Thursday, and—from its jacket copy—what promised to be an incredible book. And so it was and is.
2. The Chill, Ross Macdonald. All I really “needed” to read of Macdonald’s was his first Archer, The Moving Target. And I wasn’t hugely impressed by it (I promise not all of these will be prefaced that way). But I kept going, steadily reading through the Archer canon. And that’s when I found this beautifully flawed detective novel, perhaps my favorite book in the genre.
3. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler. Not that I doubted him for a second, but when Michael Martone recommended this to me, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It was context, mostly—I was supposed to be studying fiction at the time, so I couldn’t see the value in reading non-, but it was on my reading list, so I read it. It changed the way I thought about what I was doing, which is what Martone was after, I’m sure.
4. The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald. Vertigo had just come out the year I worked in a bookstore. I shelved it; it looked interesting (i.e., it had pictures). I bought it. I didn’t get far in it— perhaps twenty pages. I was reading Very Big Books then, Don Quixote, The Decameron, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Anna Karenina. Sebald’s little book got crushed. Which makes it all the more surprising that I then seem to have bought the two other Sebald books New Directions had put out, all of them still in hardcover. Rather than premonition of the importance Sebald would come to have on me, I suspect it was sheer boredom that drove my decision—there just wasn’t much to do at that bookstore that looked like work but wasn’t. Special ordering books for oneself satisfied the essential conditions. The me who picked up that untouched copy of The Emigrants eight or nine years later would be very indebted to the boredom of that 22-year-old me.
5. The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin. This book was $2 used, at Powell’s; I was interested in it, but I’m certain I would never have read it if it had been even a dollar more. I don’t know what to think of that penny-pincher I was. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t calculate its worth to me.
6. Jealousy, Alain Robbe-Grillet. Not my favorite Robbe-Grillet, but I think the one that has stuck with me the most. But I wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t come packaged with another Robbe-Grillet (the alluringly-titled In the Labyrinth, which I couldn’t pass up, and which I had originally sought out the book for) in an omnibus edition.
7. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport. I mistakenly thought I had no interest in this book, but a friend of mine kept after me to read it, until, finally, I did. Don’t be like I was, be as I am.
8. Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard. Particularly for the “Diary of a Seducer.” I read Kierkegaard without particular passion, simply because I had a few of his books (see above note on working in a bookstore), until I got to Either/Or. I’m glad I bothered to read so far.
9. Confidence Man: His Masquerade, Herman Melville. I did one of those Dalkey seasonal sale things where you get 10 books for $60, and they didn’t have one of the books I originally ordered. I was looking through their fiction offerings for something to replace it when I saw this. “Dalkey has a Melville?” I thought. I love Moby-Dick and the other, more famous stuff, but I wouldn’t have felt compelled to read this had it not been for its seemingly odd context.
10. Pedro Paramo, Juan Rulfo. This one is on Borges’s list, but I didn’t come to it that way. I think when I saw it there, I just didn’t see it, a couple of names I didn’t recognize. Borges didn’t annotate, so it might as well have been a biography of a man I’d never heard of by another man I’d never heard of. A decade later, I found myself reading it at a teacher’s insistence. I am incredibly grateful that she insisted.
11. The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. Cheap remainder. The sticker (still on the cover) says $3.95, down from $14. Found in a stack at the front of The Strand when I happened to be visiting NYC. I didn’t have any particular interest in reading Ballard at the time—I think the limit of what I knew about him was that he was the Crash guy—but I flipped through to the table of contents (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” there at the bottom), and I figured I could give him a shot.
12. The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien. See following note. I love this book with the kind of partisanship that, as a teenager, I reserved for obscure punk/garage bands.
13. Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki. When I graduated from college, I didn’t have a stack of books to read. I just didn’t know where to start—though I had studied comparative literature, I didn’t really know what was like what I liked, and the internet wasn’t yet so helpful in that regard. I didn’t even know where to look to find out where to look. So, I started with my budget, which was a wonderfully grounding constraint. I rode my bike or walked down Rampart to the New Orleans Public Library’s central branch on my days off, where I would grab anything that looked interesting on the new nonfiction rack and then, if I had room in my backpack, I would pick an aisle of the fiction section and pull down any spine that looked interesting. I thus found Manuscript and The Third Policeman through dumb luck and persistence and a lack of anything else to do. Those weekly trips—and the books I found while looking for other books—are what made me decide to try to write fiction.
As I look around at my bookshelves, I realize that a yet more incredible thing about many of these thirteen is not that they came into my possession at one time or another but that, once they did, I read them. Who can say why that happens with a book like The Songlines, a book I knew very little about and hadn’t really intended to read when I brought it home and not, say, A Temple of Texts, a book I sought out? There is so much to read now, more than there ever was before (and when you read this, there will be even more), that what we read in a lifetime can only ever be a tiny sliver of a fraction of what we might have read, perhaps of what we “ought to” have read. Frankly, I don’t trust this kind of list for that reason, and I don’t think you ought to, either—they’re accidents, more or less, based on completely incomplete information. I might have been frustrated just starting out, out of college and without a syllabus, but now I’m content to let accident dictate what I read for the most part. I don’t question what comes into my hand so much anymore; it leads to agonizing over my choices rather than reading, and reading’s much more fun. Because I have a feeling that there are always more accidents waiting, and, though I can’t look forward to them, I can celebrate their possibility by always looking.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.