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“My Fifty Literary Pillars,” by Amber Sparks

Unlike the wonderful William Gass, I am not a scholar, nor am I particularly well-versed in the language of literary criticism—and these books are all by writers (many, critics themselves) with a genius far beyond what I’ll ever possess. Gass’s original literary pillars are so masterfully described, so beautifully rendered that in comparison I feel ill-qualified, in fact I feel it impossible, to comment on these books without sounding like an unholy idiot. I’ll just say that after thirty years as a voracious and passionate reader, it was very difficult to winnow a list to fifty. These, then, are not only the books that are my favorites, but also the books that have shaped me, molded me, changed the way I write or think about writing, started a revolution in my head, books that have made their lasting mark on me as a writer and a performer and a reader and, perhaps most importantly, for the best of these, as a human being.

I admit there is a certain partiality on the list to poets and playwrights. This is my background—poetry and the theatre—so I can’t help but have been shaped by these first and foremost, before I found my way to fiction. I do read a lot of non-fiction and especially history and philosophy, but they haven’t impacted my writing as directly or as immediately. Also missing are works of fiction that I’ve loved a good deal but that haven’t necessarily impacted or changed my writing. Books by John Barth and Lydia Davis, for example, would fall into that category.

These are not all classics; in fact some are decidedly failures, inferior to other works the masters who wrote them may have produced. But in those cases that is usually precisely why I love them. I will choose a messy, hugely ambitious failure over a safe and well-crafted novel any day. I’ll choose experimentation over perfect symmetry. I’ll choose the excessive, the sprawling, over the Spartan sense of order.

(I also cheated, a little. There are a few more than fifty here in total.)

In no particular order, then:

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

The Auroras of Autumn and Harmonium by Wallace Stevens

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner

Hamlet and King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Ada or Ardor and Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China by Lu Xun

War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Endgame, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable by Samuel Beckett

A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

The World of Ten Thousand Things by Charles Wright

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery

Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

The Maids by Jean Genet


In Parenthesis by David Jones

John Donne’s poems

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

The Garlic Ballads by Mo Yan

The Theban plays by Sophocles

The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

A Season in Hell by Arthur Rimbaud

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

The Tower by W.B. Yeats

The poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Cantos by Ezra Pound

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Little, Big by John Crowley

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov

Invisible Cities and Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Pastoralia by George Saunders

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard

Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey

Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.

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