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.
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
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.
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.