Many students in my essay writing class, and my creative writing class, have asked me for a summer reading list that fits in with the stuff we have been reading in class. Below are several of my favorite books, along with some notes. I will likely add to this list over time, so this is the first draft composed as of April 17th 2016.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
This collection of essays from DFW includes “getting away from already pretty much being away from it all” which is standard in my 325 course pack. I think Wallace was at his very best in his non-fiction, where we get to see his sensitive and precise mind intersect with the concrete world. The title essay, about him taking a cruise, is harrowing and funny. But all the more potent because we know that after writing the essay, he grew more and more sad because of how cruel-ly he portrayed some of the other people on the trip.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
This is Wallace’s final novel, published after his death. He spent the last decade of his life working on it. He sought to write a book about boredom, and set his novel in an IRS processing facility in Illinois in the early 1980s, before returns were processed electronically. The book is largely composed of three long set-piece narratives that work sort of like novellas, each about a different employee of the IRS, but those are interwoven with a huge number of short sections, either about those same characters, about other IRS employees, or in some occasions intrusions from a fictionalized version of Wallace. I would classify this as a MUST READ.
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace
This is the last book-length work that DFW published while alive. It is a history of transfinite math, and the source for my views on the importance of Zeno’s Paradox to understanding DFW. I read this book in panic.
THE GLASS FAMILY NOVENA
Nine Stories by JD Salinger
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger
The thing to understand about these three books by Salinger is that they are actually his second novel, in disguise. He wrote The Catcher in the Rye to wide acclaim in the early 50s, but he had already started on this book when he came back from WWII. The first of the nine stories is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” that was published in 1948. In it, we meet a character named Seymour Glass. What we learn in “Zooey” (a novella that serves as the second half of FRANNY AND ZOOEY) is that Seymour’s younger brother Buddy Glass is the ostensible author of all these texts. With that fact we can see that all nine stories, and the four novellas are meant to be read as a unit whose conclusion, HAPWORTH 16, 1924 remains unavailable. The “novena” (my mentor Reg McKnight coined that term for a novel made of disconnected short stories and other material) follows the Glass Family, a family of New York entertainers. All of the children (Seymour, Buddy, Boo Boo, Waker, Walt, Zooey and Franny) were on a radio show in the 1920s and 30s called IT’S A WISE CHILD. When they grew up they were, of course, kind of messed up.
This collection of material famously inspired Wes Anderson to make The Royal Tenenbaums (The Criterion Collection), and The Darjeeling Limited. And of course CATCHER IN THE RYE was the basis for Rushmore.
I also have a very strong suspicion that Salinger was inspired by The Secret Rose and Rosa Alchemica, which is the only collection of short fiction William Butler Yeats ever wrote. (We get “The Swine of the Gods” for our course pack from his unclassifiable book The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore (Celtic, Irish).)
Gilead: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
Like Salinger, I think it is important to take these books by Robinson as a unit. In 1980, Robinson wrote HOUSEKEEPING and was basically declared a genius. It was a book entirely about women, daughters mothers aunts and sisters, who all come back to an old family house on the prairie and try to make sense of their lives. Specifically, two sisters are taken in by elderly aunts after they lose their mother, then a crazy homeless aunt steps in… it’s a book about landscape as much as it is about characters. What I found heartbreaking was the feeling, at the end, that the sisters were fading into the forests that surrounded the house, and it was as though they were becoming spirits. I felt at the time that it was the most intrinsically pagan book I had ever read. (In the pagan sense of Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America.)
But then, after the book tore up the world, Robinson vanished. Which is to say, she retired to a life of teaching, wrote occasional essays (like, about theology and nuclear energy, for example) and didn’t write another word of fiction as far as anyone knew. Until 2006, when she came out with GILEAD. Which is all about MEN, fathers sons grandfathers uncles brothers. Specifically, it is about a pastor, John Ames, who has had a son very late in life (when he was 70). The book is written as a letter to the seven year old son because the now 77 year old pastor is dying of a heart condition. It’s about John Ames’ life (and about the life of his father John Ames, and his grandfather John Ames) but it is also about God, the church and how to be truly good in this world. It is the single most Christian book I have ever read (beating CS Lewis, for example, by a country mile). In fact, I think it may be one of the only authentic expressions of American Christianity that I have ever read. There are some books after Gilead set on the same town that I have not read. I prefer to see these two books which sit on either side of this generational silence as a powerful pair, like the moon and the sun.
In the Midst of Life; Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. [London-1892] by Ambrose Bierce is probably my favorite 19th century collection of short stories. From this book we get the class “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. I read this and Yeats’ SECRET ROSE when I need inspiration and motivation to CREATE SOMETHING NEW.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
“You must grow into your ugliness!” Advice I have long lived by. DeLillo’s seminal portrait of American academic life and thought, as well as his portrait of the American family is another must read.
The Man in the High Castle by PK Dick
This is the ultimate, and perhaps ONLY good, “what if Hitler won the war” book. But most importantly, this book introduced a 12 year old Fritz to Eastern thought.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
A based on true events novel/memoir about a friendship Maxwell had with another boy when they were both around 10 or so. Harrowing and heartbreaking.
Maxwell’s amazing collection of tales! “The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing” is regularly in my 223 syllabus, and it makes me cry every time I teach it, and read it, and probably even when I think about it.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
These are narrative non-fiction essays based on Sack’s own clinical experience as a neurologist. The title essay for example is about a man with a brain injury that prevents him from making sense of people’s faces, and as a result he can’t distinguish heads from hats. It’s a heartbreaking piece of science writing.
The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Calvino was one of the avant garde in the 1970s. This collection of short stories is, in some sense incomparable. There are stories set in Italy, in the primordial ooze, and in the infinitely hot dot of energy that preceded the Big Bang. There are stories that teach you about Semiotics.
Sixty Stories (Penguin Classics) by Donald Barthelme
An amazing rocket of a story collection from the single greatest postmodernist working in the short form. “The Indian Uprising” is mind-melting.
The Dead Father (FSG Classics) by Donald Barthelme
A must-read novel for all English Majors who want to struggle physically with the inheritance of the Patriarchy.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) by Annie Dillard
It is from this book that we get the essay “Seeing” and the whole book is, of course, uniquely Dillard.
On Photography by Susan Sontag
Another seminal work of essay writing from the mid to late 20th century.