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Matt Bell’s “Literary Pillars”

I started this list a month ago, and over the course of an afternoon I got to forty-nine without too much trouble—but then that last slot felt impossible to fill: How was I supposed to pick just one more book out of the many others that might have made this list? And then I spent the next month reading DeLillo’s Underworld, and immediately I knew it was going to have the same staying power as the rest of these books, that it was going to affect me as they did, not just during the reading but for months and years after. That recognition is a too-rare occurrence while reading, but there’s nothing else like it, and I’m so glad to have felt it again.
I haven’t annotated my list, but here’s the question I used to select them: If I was trying to get from a version of me before I was a writer to the version of me that’s the writer and reader I am today, what would be the fifty shortest steps? I think these texts would be one way to get here again, to who I think I am, at this exact moment.

  1. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
  2. Angels by Denis Johnson
  3. Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte
  4. The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson
  5. Last Days by Brian Evenson
  6. In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
  7. The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus
  8. The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, ed. by Ben Marcus
  9. Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
  10. Telling It Again and Again by Bruce Kawin
  11. Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass
  12. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  13. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  14. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
  15. Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
  16. Nightwork by Christine Schutt
  17. On Eloquence by Denis Donoghue
  18. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson
  19. The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret
  20. 1984 by George Orwell
  21. Michael Martone by Michael Martone
  22. Guide by Dennis Cooper
  23. God, Jr. by Dennis Cooper
  24. Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby
  25. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  26. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  27. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  28. U.S.! by Chris Bachelder
  29. Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
  30. Motorman by David Ohle
  31. Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford
  32. Girl With the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
  33. Endgame by Samuel Beckett
  34. Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate
  35. Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez
  36. Waste by Eugene Marten
  37. Grim Tales by Norman Lock
  38. Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
  39. Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
  40. John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
  41. Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers by Stanley Elkin
  42. Beowulf
  43. Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito
  44. The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
  45. The Paris Review interviews
  46. The five AWP 2009 presentations on “Truth and Consequences in Non-Realist Fiction” by Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Joyelle McSweeney, Kate Bernheimer, and Eric Lorberer, later collected in Fence 21
  47. Europeana by Patrick Ourednik
  48. Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
  49. Unsaid, especially Issue 4
  50. Underworld by Don DeLillo

Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods will be published by Soho Press in June 2013. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, and teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.

5 thoughts on “Matt Bell’s “Literary Pillars”

  1. Hey, Matt, just to let you know, people wrote books before 1993. As a matter of fact, there have been a lot of books written before 1993. You should check them out since you seem to like reading. Maybe start with something that was written in 1985 and work backwards.

    1. Hi, Dale.

      The composition of Beowulf is dated between the 8th century and the early 11th century.

      George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949.

      Stanley Elkin’s Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers was published in 1966.

      William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life was published in 1970.

      1. Don’t forget Blood Meridian (1985), Motorman (1972), Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine (1972), Endgame (I’m guessing late 1950’s), as well as a good portion of the Carver stories which came out late 70’s through 1982.

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