First, it was really hard to narrow this down to fifty “literary pillars,” for myself as a writer. I had to cut many good and influential books. Those I chose to cut I did so because when I thought about what I would say if someone asked me why that book was important to me as a writer, I thought my answer would be pretty nebulous. I don’t know why those books were important, really; they just were. So here I’ve gathered books that I feel I can provide an intelligent response to questions about why they were important. I’m probably missing a good number of important books, too—those that aren’t on my bookshelves at home because I borrowed them from friends, professors, or libraries, or they’re not coming to mind at the moment. Anyway, I feel safe enough, at least for this post, to explain why these fifty books were and are important to me as a writer. I’ve divided them up by genre:
- On the Road, Jack Kerouac: I read this as a freshman in college and it was the book that made me decide I was going to be a writer. I had some pretty romantic ideals about my own group of friends and when I saw that someone else had written about his friends, and it was a great read, I figured I could do the same thing, since Sal and his buddies reminded me of me and mine.
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner: This was one of those books I was told I was supposed to read in college and when I first tried to I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t even get past Benjy’s section. Later, though, I read it again and something clicked and it was all very clear, and all very brilliant. The direct relation of images, events, and ideas to the reader, without much narratorial intervention, was hugely influential.
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy: Another book everyone says you should read. I did and once I got in I didn’t want to get out. What’s amazing is how rich Tolstoy’s characters are and how your allegiances shift throughout the novel. One minute you’re thinking that Prince Andrei’s a total dick, and 200 pages later you’re in love with him.
- Moby-Dick, Herman Melville: I didn’t order these in any specific way and only wrote them down as they came to me and I could probably have a whole section of books that are about here’s what you can do with fiction that you never thought you could do until you read this. Moby-Dick is up there as one of my favorite novels. It’s formally crazy, incorporating multiple genres. It’s a prose poem, a really long one.
- Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor: Really, if you want to learn how to write a short story you ought to just read everything that Flannery O’Connor ever wrote.
- Ray, Barry Hannah: Another whoa you can do that? book. Ray is downright fun. The shifts from the somewhat realistic setting of the majority of the novella into the Civil War scenes are particularly magical.
- Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy: I really love westerns, although I haven’t read many of them. But this is a western I can read and re-read. As with all McCarthy, I’m overcome with love for his use of language. His sentences somersault around with lovely details and rich music, even when he’s describing Native American babies’ heads being smashed against boulders. This book was important to my own novels, which I would say are westerns, those that are set at The Lake.
- Suttree, Cormac McCarthy: Here’s a great novel about . . . nothing. It’s like a proto-Seinfeld, but at the same time funnier and more serious. The amazing thing McCarthy pulls off with this plotless novel is how as a reader you feel like things are going to happen continuously, like you’re moving from one place to another, but nothing does happen, and you never get anywhere. But at the novel’s end you feel oddly satisfied with what you’ve read. I don’t know how he did that.
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck: I could have a whole other sub-category of novels that are what I‘d call “road novels,” novels about characters traveling. The great thing that Steinbeck pulls off here is on the one hand telling a very personal story about a family’s survival in the face of terrible misfortune, and on the other hand showing us in pure poetry the conditions of millions of people all struggling through the Great Depression.
- To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf: Mostly what I love about this book is the lesson about what a novelist can do with time. She can stretch out the events of a morning to cover hundreds of pages, or she can compress ten years into thirty. Also, what writer doesn’t like a good novel about creating art?
- Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson: My first creative writing professor gave me her copy of this book not long after it came out and it was another of those, hey, people write about people like me and my friends books. If it’s not already super obvious, Jesus’ Son was a big influence on my first book.
- As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner: The shifting perspectives and story-like quality of each chapter here were important in my development. I wrote a novel in stories that has never been published, and each story is told from a different family member’s point of view, much like this book.
- The Tales of Tahoe, David J. Stollery: I LOVED this book as a kid. I read the tales over and over. No one will have heard of this book. It’s a collection of pieces written in the 1950s and 60s by Stollery for the Tahoe City World, a now-defunct newspaper. The tales tell Washoe Indian legends about the creation of the lake, how the skunk got his stripes, etcetera. This book is the backbone of my own novel, The Lake (a book that’s coming out from Aqueous Books in 2014).
- Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson: The structure of this book was important for me, as the titular character—who seems either to be the only person alive on earth or someone who’s gone insane—meanders back and forth from topic to topic: everything from art and philosophy to history and personal reflection. Her logic loops around these ideas and makes somehow a novel.
- One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Márquez: Magical realism. I guess you got to learn about it at some point, and it’s probably not bad to go through a phase of attempting to write it, like I did. After doing that you’ll say screw the rules and just do whatever you want.
- The Piazza Tales and Other Prose, Herman Melville: I could just say “Everything that Herman Melville ever wrote” on this list. In this book is of course the amazing “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” but also included is his “The Encantadas,” an amazing essay.
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov: Another road novel. But what I love about this book is how Nabokov takes a hideous narrator and makes him likeable. I actually feel sorry for Humbert when he tells us about the girl he loved when he was twelve or whatever and she died, even though I know that he’s probably working the prose in such a way to induce sympathy in me, and oh, yeah, there’s actually Nabokov who wrote the novel of Humbert writing the novel. It’s just brilliant.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: Probably my favorite novel. Another road narrative. Funny, I love those kinds of books and I’ve never really written a road narrative myself. This and Lolita are excellent novels for studying what an unreliable narrator can do for your book.
- In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust: Ironically, this book, among the longest novels ever written, was hugely influential on my Prose. Poems. a Novel. book. That book contains all these very short, compressed snippets that, when taken together, form a novel-like experience. It’s autobiographical, just like Proust. But where Proust can go on for thirty pages about thinking of his mother downstairs in the dining room while he’s upstairs in his bed for the night wishing he could be there with her, I did similar things in paragraphs.
- Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson: This is what I would call a mood novel. I associate the color blue with it. I feel the presence of mountains and wildflowers. I think it’s a ghost story. If I could ever write something that would make a reader feel this way I would consider myself successful.
- The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Lawrence Sterne: I guess here is the beginning of the English novelist saying I’m going to fuck with you and it works. My favorite part is when he’s talking about the direction his narrative has taken and there are a bunch of squiggly lines drawn onto the page. The book goes nowhere. It’s really funny.
- Walden, Henry David Thoreau: I love that each chapter takes us through different subjects and through different parts of the year. I would have preferred to have listed even more Thoreau here, like Faith in a Seed and Wild Fruits. What’s really astounding is Thoreau’s ability to find so much right in his backyard. That attitude is key to the nonfiction writer.
- Winter, Rick Bass: This book made an impression on me when I first read it in college. Similar to Walden this book chronicle’s Bass’s move into a remote valley in Montana, and his adjusting to the rural life there, in particular, the rigors of wintertime. I’m not much of a nature writer, but if I were I’d want to be like Rick Bass.
- Essays by Emerson: I don’t think I’ve ever taken so many notes while reading anything so much as I did when reading Emerson. I have notebooks filled with my questions and thoughts on reading essays like “The Over-soul” and “Self-Reliance” and “The Poet.” Emerson sits at the forefront of what would become “American” literature. He was, in many ways, the first truly American writer, and he called for that distinct American-ness to pervade our future letters.
- The Journals of Henry David Thoreau: Thoreau’s journal is like a loose version of his books. His books really came out of his journals through revision and re-writing. The glimpse of the man’s genius is a white light. I think if Thoreau had not died of tuberculosis when he did there would be two naturalists that we’d credit for the advent of modern science: Charles Darwin and Henry David Thoreau.
- Of Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston: Hurston plays investigative journalist in a way, getting down to the folk ways and traditions of the people in her native Eatonville, Florida. It’s an amazing collection of folk tales and you see Hurston as anthropologist/folklorist at work.
- About a Mountain, John D’Agata: I debated cutting this from the list because it’s so contemporary, but it really has been a big influence on me because of D’Agata’s insistence that nonfiction is art, too, just like fiction or poetry, and that the absolute truth is not as important as artistic truth.
- Rat Jelly, Michael Ondaatje: This was the first single author collection of poetry I ever bought and I did so for a poetry workshop where I had to read and review such a collection. I really loved the titular poem. Some of the poems are all about gross-out details, or kind of Halloweenish images. Spiders. I like.
- The Wellspring, Sharon Olds: I read this fairly early on as a poet and while I think there are better Sharon Olds books, this one has a special place for me because it was among the first collections of poetry I ever bought. Olds also—as is typical—writes about things like giving blowjobs, so that’s interesting, especially when I was like nineteen.
- Slouching in the Path of a Comet, Mike Dockins: Dockins is my buddy, so I guess I’m rubbing his back pretty good here, but still I often return to this book to read the poems and see what poems can do. It contains multitudes.
- Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens: I was reading this when I met my wife. Some people don’t like Wallace Stevens. I think maybe he’s too Modernist for them. He’s very much an idea poet. I like that. At the same time I also like Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” So there.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare: You really can’t get through a list like this without including Shakespeare. I don’t think I have to say much more beyond that.
- Alcools, Apollinaire: When I think about poetry that veers off the realist path I start with Apollinaire . This book is so strangely engrossing you cannot put it down. Absurdism at its best.
- Paris Spleen, Baudelaire: Prose poems. This book is hardly important to me at all.
- Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg: Since I started on the Beats with Kerouac it was inevitable that I’d read Ginsberg as well, and Howl certainly had its impact on my poetry. Take this and On the Road together and you get what was my first attempt at a book of poetry, a book I title “Line Feeds Fender,” which was some cheap kind of metaphorical way of looking at the lines painted on the side of the road while you’re driving and it looks like the fender is constantly eating it. I guess. Long rambling lines.
- Complete Poems of John Keats: Kind of the same thing as Shakespeare.
- The Bedbug and Selected Poetry, Vladimir Mayakovsky: Like Appolinaire, to know how American poets arrived at the New York school you have to read Mayakovsky. For anyone who’s been stuck in a strictly realist interpretation of the world Mayakovsky’s poems make poetry fun again.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: I guess this should be here under poetry? I suppose what’s most important to me is that while growing up as a Catholic I of course thought that the world’s oldest stories were those in the Old Testament, so it was pretty earth-shattering for me when I encountered The Epic of Gilgamesh and learned that it was at least 2,500 years older. Plus, Enkidu and Gilgamesh kicking monsters’ asses for no logical reason? It’s great.
- Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman: Not sure how any American poet could get through a “pillars” list without including this. It’s the first poetry I ever read that told me that I didn’t have to employ traditional rhythm and rhyme.
- Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein: I read this as a kid, along with Dr. Seuss, and I’ll still pick up this book and read poems from it to remind me of the pure joy that poetry ought to be.
- The Norton Anthology of Poetry: I read this (yes, the whole goddamn thing) while studying for my PhD. exams in poetry. The introductory materials alone make owning the book worthwhile, as they explain in very clear detail the foundations of verse. Then there’s the 1,000 years + of poems.
- The Rooster’s Wife, Russell Edson: I could really say everything that Russell Edson’s ever written, but I’m narrowing it down to this book, which I picked up from the library. Edson’s America’s prose poem Apollinaire, or perhaps Kharms.
- Today I Wrote Nothing, Daniil Kharms: These are books that don’t have a specific genre, or they cross genres. Kharms is one of the great absurdist I-don’t-know-what-you-call-him-other-than-awesome. He has short little stories that aren’t stories; they’re almost more like jokes that both are and are not funny.
- Imaginations, William Carlos Williams: This book incorporates five of Williams’s experimental books: Spring and All, Kora in Hell, The Descent of Winter, The Great American Novel, and A Novelette and Other Prose. It’s full of weirdness, and fun, though at times depressing, like New Jersey.
- The Old and New Testaments: I think if more people read the Bible as a literary text they would see it as one of the craziest and most interesting novels ever written. Plus, I reference it directly and indirectly all the time.
Craft of Writing
- Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard: Great chapters on time and point of view in this one.
- The Writing Life, Annie Dillard: I like the sections where she’s talking about chopping wood and thinking of whatever it is she’s not writing, but realizes that she is writing because she’s chopping wood.
- On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner: Perhaps my favorite part of this is when Gardner compares Melville’s prose from, I think, Typee to that of Moby-Dick, and he scans the “metrics” and shows what a careful and lyrical prose stylist Melville had grown into. This really shows what kind of attention a serious literary novelist pays to his work.
- The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux: This is a great book, whether you’re starting out or just dabbling at writing poetry, or you’ve been writing it for years. It’s easy to read, and it’s full of great writing ideas. You could easily mine this for exercises and write multiple books from them alone.
- The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo: This is a craft book but it’s so much more than that, too. It’s nonfiction about the state of mind of the writer. It’s invaluable and beautiful and strangely scary as hell.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.