Friday, September 21, 2012

Fifty Books

A week or so ago I went to a book release party at Micawber's Books in St. Paul. I don't get over there often enough, but the place is one of my favorite bookstores in the world, and Hans Weyandt is one of the co-owners and also one of the best bookslingers in the land. Coffee House Press has just published a book Hans compiled and edited: Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America's Indie Bookstores. It's a terrific and entertaining book, but it's also a tribute to all those people who are in the trenches of independent bookstores every day, all over the country, spreading the word about books and authors you may not have heard of.

I don't really have anything new to add to the endless hand wringing about the purportedly imperiled state of bookstores like Micawber's, presses like Coffee House, and passionate, informed readers like the people who submitted lists to Hans. I can only say that browsing through Read This! --as I've been doing since I bought the book-- is a perfect antidote to all that poisonous yammering. I've been an obsessive reader since early childhood; I have worked in bookstores, and even, for a time, owned one. My house is full of more books than I will ever find the time to read. Even so, my copy of Read This! is already jammed with index cards on which I have scribbled the names of titles recommended by some of the twenty-five booksellers (there are actually more, I think, since some of the stores submitted tag-team efforts). These titles are all books I haven't read, and, in many cases, books I'd never heard of. And that's still the sort of thing that can both shame me and drive me to distraction.

Each store was allowed to submit a list of fifty books. Personal favorites, I suppose, or things they felt had been overlooked or underrated. Either way, it's clear that a lot of thought and care went into the process. The titles on these lists are all books that somebody loves enough that they desperately want to share them with other readers.

I don't spend much time in that world (booksellers, publishers, serious readers) anymore, but virtually every time I read a book that knocks my socks off, or reread a book that has stuck with me for years or decades, I want to push it on somebody. I almost never do, though. My reading habits are strange, and my tastes are probably peculiar. And, oddly enough, even though I am a compulsive list maker, I'd never sat down and tried to put together a list of my favorite books, or the books that played such huge roles in shaping who I am, how I see the world, and what I want from life.

Making an initial list turned out to be surprisingly easy. It didn't take me more than an hour to come up with something like seventy-five books, almost none of which --after setting the list aside for five days-- seemed expendable or engendered any second guessing. The real challenge, of course, was to narrow it down to fifty titles, and to stand pat. I could probably keep tacking new titles on every day for the rest of my life, but I feel pretty confident that the fifty books I ended up with are all essential to me, and have been rewarding enough that I have returned to them (or they have returned to me) again and again over many years and, in some instances, decades. I'm aware that there are very few books on this list from recent years, but that isn't because I'm not constantly reading new stuff or I'm not frequently impressed. Maybe in ten years the list will be radically different, but for some reason I don't believe that will be the case. A lot of these are the early books that made me want to be a writer, and there are also a bunch of later titles that have pushed me to keep trying.

But every single thing on the list is a book that I will love to the end of my days, and it's going to be very hard to displace any of them.

One final hedge: This could easily be a list made up entirely of children's books and photobooks; I've included some of the former and none of the latter, despite the fact that these days more than half of the time I spend with books is spent with books of photos, and I'm convinced that, increasingly, these books offer some of the purest and most passionate storytelling and magic being published today.

Okay, here's my list (in no particular order):
  1. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Kingdoms of Elfin.
  2. James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket.
  3. George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London.
  4. Peter Guralnick, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom.
  5. Lawrence Weschler, A Wanderer in a Perfect City.
  6. Kenneth Grahame, A Wind in the Willows.
  7. Anton Chekhov, Complete Stories.
  8. Charles Dickens, Bleak House.
  9. Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show.
  10. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths.
  11. Francis Parkman, France and England in North America.
  12. Czeslaw Milosz, Unattainable Earth.
  13. Gianni Rodari, Telephone Tales
  14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night.
  15. James Wright, Shall We Gather at the River.
  16. William Maxwell, All the Days and Nights.
  17. E.L. Konigsburg. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
  18. Robert Frank, The Americans.
  19. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire.
  20. Eudora Welty, Collected Stories.
  21. Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones.
  22. David Gates, Jernigan.
  23. Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey.
  24. Barry Hannah, Airships.
  25. Samuel Beckett, Three Novels.
  26. Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel.
  27. Cervantes, Don Quixote.
  28. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
  29. Alberto Manguel, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places.
  30. Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands.
  31. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.
  32. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
  33. Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems.
  34. Richard Flanagan, Gould's Book of Fish.
  35. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.
  36. Flann O'Brien, At Swim Two-Birds.
  37. Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language.
  38. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.
  39. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood.
  40. Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies.
  41. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.
  42. George Orwell, Essays.
  43. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried.
  44. M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1.
  45. David Markson, Reader's Block.
  46. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian.
  47. M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating.
  48. Denis Johnson, The Throne of the Third Heavens of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
  49. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz.
  50. Russell Edson, The Tunnel.
This is cheating, I know, but that turned out to be a lot tougher than I thought down the stretch, so here are some I had a very tough time leaving off:

At least one of Charles Portis's novels.
Alberto Manguel (editor), Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature.
Robert Plunket's My Search for Warren Harding.
Frederick's Exley's A Fan's Notes.
The stories of Richard Yates.
The essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark.
William Gass's In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.
Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision.
The Hardy Boy's Detective Handbook.
Norah Labiner's Miniatures.
Go, Dog, Go!
Roberto Bolano's 2666.
Gogol's Dead Souls.
Adam Haslett's You Are Not a Stranger Here.
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead.
Hawthorne Abendsen's The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
The stories of William Trevor.
Rupert Thomson's The Insult.
James Joyce's Dubliners.
David Long's The Inhabited World.
Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.
Karl Kraus's Dicta and Contradicta.
Art Pepper's Straight Life.

Thanks to Hans and all the booksellers who contributed to Read This!


  1. You should do a list of children's books. And photobooks.
    Um, at your leisure.

  2. That was a interesting panel at the Walker talking about what books are and are becoming. How much of a line do you think there still is between comic books, children's books, photo books, how-to books, and 'real' books? What is the difference between a comic book store and a book store? It seems to me new scanning and printing have made it all just words and pictures on paper, but human thoughts and habits are astonishingly powerful forces. Interesting times!