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Tim Horvath’s “Literary Pillars”

The Top Five:

As widely as my tastes ebb and flow, these five remain, stalwarts, five friends I want with me on my desert island with little to unite them except each’s brash individuality.

1. Mating by Norman Rush. My Everest, slopes of anthropology, ethics, politics, psychology slowly traversed by the path of character

2. The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. All the more significant since I was abysmal at chemistry.

3. Cosmicomics/t zero by Italo Calvino. The oyster of the universe.

4. Visible Worlds by Marilyn Bowering. A book I’ve had to read several times, since the plot is so intricate, but whose language glimmers like an ice field.

5. The Atlas by William T. Vollmann. A stunning array of styles and places for inveterate and would-be wanderers—travels in the possibilities of narrative.

These next couple were highly significant when I was a teenager and remain so:

6. Saints and Strangers by Angela Carter. Just quoted “The Fall River Ax Murders,” last week.

7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Every Saturday for a year or so I had detention for an accumulation of small offenses, and I’d slip off to Bombay for the duration.

I Inherit a Box:

A guy who shared an apartment with my dad, Mark Johnson, a great writer and reader, left behind a box with a bunch of amazing things—a timely package.

8. Island People by Coleman Dowell. In simple garb, boundless refractions of reality.

9. RE/Search #11: Pranks Introduced me to the notion that a prank can be a work of art.

10. The Houses of Children by Coleman Dowell. Each story redefining what the genre could do for me. I still don’t understand what Dowell is up to.

11. Ah Pook Is Here by William Burroughs. Not the most well known, but what was in the box was in the box.

12. Les Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautremont.

From Paul West’s Sheer Fiction—gateway book par excellence, which sent me to seek out many other books:

13. Sheer Fiction by Paul West

14. The Case Worker by George Konrad

15. The City Builder by George Konrad

16. A Certain Lucas by Julio Cortázar (and from there on to Blow-Up and Beyond)

17. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat by Carole Maso

18. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

College discoveries, some from classes and some from the parallel education of avoiding work:

19. The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche. I swear that for one night I became Nietzsche for a project, even if no tangible trace remains.

20. The Collected Dialogues of Plato.

21. The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests by Paul West. Language tethered to voice and amplified to carry across the desert.

22. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler. Found for a dollar at the Strand, it became the subject of my thesis. I loved in particular its borrowings, which I in turn borrowed for an aesthetic: “The world is everything that is the case. And in the second place because.” The first is from Wittgenstein, the second Nabokov. For a while this conjunction felt like enough.

23. Speedboat by Renata Adler. Discovered and read this one later, and it turns out to have been her greatest book.

24. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I’m glad I didn’t think of myself as a writer at that time, so I could surrender to this work fully as a reader.

25. Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn.

Short Story Collections:

All of these I read in David Huddle’s class “The American Short Story,” and the collections, together, became a sort of color palate from which I could draw, forming, loosely, a template in my mind for the possibilities of the short story, one which is, of course, under continual renovation.

26. How It Was for Me by Andrew Sean Greer

27. Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett

28. Drown by Junot Díaz

29. Close Range by Annie Proulx

30. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

31. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

32. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Single Stories that I Taught that Have Had an Inordinate Impact on Me Far Given their Slight Lengths:

33. “Driving the Heart” by Jason Brown

34. “The Drowning” by Edward Delaney

35. “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff

36. “Marry the One Who Gets There First” by Heidi Julavits

37. “Demonology” by Rick Moody

Recent Pillars. Things I’ve Discovered in this Millennium:

38. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. His greatest, I think, and at the time it influenced me overwhelmingly.

39. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

40. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

41. The Collected Stories by Vladimir Nabokov

42. Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis

43. The Great Man by Kate Christensen

44. Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler

45. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

46. Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen

47. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

48. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

49. The Human Stain by Philip Roth

50. The Tesseract by Alex Garland

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

  • Tim Horvath is the author of Understories, which won the New Hampshire Literary Award, and Circulation (sunnyoutside press), and is working on a novel entitled The Spinal Descent.

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