A great many grand and beloved books are missing from this list; I thought I’d try to draw up something like a “blueprint after the building.”
ARCHITECTURE OF THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE:
Emerson is no longer fashionable in some English departments? Greatness in American letters begins with him. It was wounded in the Civil War, and died when Melville was forgotten by the last reader to remember him. Faulkner raised the dead and animated the tombs, but dead is dead. Still, as Stevens put it, the houses will crumble and the books will burn, but they are at ease in a shelter of the mind.
ARCHITECTURE OF THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE:
Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear
Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist
Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller
John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets”
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
Everything I am drawn to in the English language I can trace back to Elizabethan anarchism.
LONG-STANDING PILLARS OF PLEASURE:
Lowry’s Under the Volcano
White’s Riders in the Chariot and Voss
Laxness’s Independent People and Iceland’s Bell
THE PILLARS OF CHILDHOOD:
Novelizations of The Man from U.N.C.L.E
James Michener’s The Source
Cloak and Dagger: the Secret Story of OSS
THE PILLARS OF ADOLESCENCE:
Conan the Barbarian
Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment
THE GREAT ARCHITECT
Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
THE COOL ROOM IN LONG HOT SUMMER (1978)
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
Melville’s Moby-Dick, or The Whale
Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy and The Sot-Weed Factor
McGuane’s 92 in the Shade
Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga
Barthelme’s Sadness and Snow White
Coover’s The Public Burning
Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges
One book led to another. Fireworks. Mind on fire. (I was 22.)
AMONG THE RUINS OF 1987-88
Welch’s Winter in the Blood
Eastlake’s The Bronc People
The only good (along with some rolling memories drunk in a dinghy in the middle of Cayuga) to come out of a ridiculously abortive attempt to get an MFA at Cornell.
THE WARM ROOM IN LONG COLD WINTER (2003)
Proust’s Search for Lost Time
Great works that saved my life in a bad time. I wanted to go deep deep deep into what I knew was good good good because I had been bad bad bad.
TWO WELL-BUILT CLASSROOMS OUT OF TWELVE YEARS OF TRYING
Oedipus the King
A Streetcar Named Desire
Waiting for Godot
The Curse of the Starving Class
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Between Man and Man
The Portable Nietzsche
Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death
The Persian Letters
Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo
I was in and out of college for twelve years. I was a terrible student. The first four books were the required readings in Arthur Ballet’s “Introduction to Theater” at the University of Minnesota. Ballet was legendary as a teacher, influential in the off-off-Broadway movement, and in the development of regional theater. Without him I doubt I would have had the desire to write plays, and probably would not have had the opportunity I had in Minneapolis and Saint Paul in the 80s to see them living on stages. The last two plays in that set were the first plays I saw with a life in the theater in mind. The second set of books were taught by a very old man whose name I cannot remember, in the long lost “Humanities Department.” I’m pretty sure it was his class that convinced me that difficulty could be pleasurable.
PERSONAL PILLAR OF AFFECTION AND ADMIRATION
Admiration and affection abounding for this man and his work.
PILLARS I CLING TO IN TIMES OF DESPAIR
Krapp’s Last Tape (but effectively every word Beckett ever wrote)
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
This means these writers and their works are never out of my mind.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.