A Summer Reading List

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

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction 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.

The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales: Selected and Introduced by Aimee Bender by William Maxwell

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.

 

 

“Death of a Pressman”

in-memory-of-blank-who-died

Letterpress printing has been dying for more than a century. This year, we are celebrating (approximately) the 120th birthday of the nostalgia for traditional printing. It was in 1891 that William Morris founded his famous Kelmscott Press, where he set out to reinvigorate the traditional printing methods of Gutenberg, Jenson, and Caxton. And it was in 1892 that worsening conditions in the handset-type business forced 23 of the largest remaining type foundries in America to consolidate into the American Type Founders Company, where Henry Lewis Bullen began collecting one of the country’s largest type-founding and printing libraries, now housed at Columbia University, in New York.1 By the late 19th century, anxieties over the loss of the old ways of printing were already crystalizing.

 

(Keep reading my 2012 PRINT Magazine Article)

 

The Swine of the Gods

by William Butler Yeats

A few years ago a friend of mine told me of something that happened to him when he was a young man and out drilling with some Connaught Fenians. They were but a car-full, and drove along a hillside until they came to a quiet place. They left the car and went further up the hill with their rifles, and drilled for a while. As they were coming down again they saw a very thin, long-legged pig of the old Irish sort, and the pig began to follow them. One of them cried out as a joke that it was a fairy pig, and they all began to run to keep up the joke. The pig ran too, and presently, how nobody knew, this mock terror became real terror, and they ran as for their lives. When they got to the car they made the horse gallop as fast as possible, but the pig still followed. Then one of them put up his rifle to fire, but when he looked along the barrel he could see nothing. Presently they turned a corner and came to a village. They told the people of the village what had happened, and the people of the village took pitchforks and spades and the like, and went along the road with them to drive the pig away. When they turned the comer they could not find anything.

from THE NATURE OF THE GOTHIC by John Ruskin

“[W]e want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. It would be well if all of us were good handicraftsmen in some kind, and the dishonour of manual labour done away with altogether…”

The Curse of the Fires and of the Shadows

by William Butler Yeats

One summer night, when there was peace, a score of Puritan troopers under the pious Sir Frederick Hamilton, broke through the door of the Abbey of the White Friars which stood over the Gara Lough at Sligo. As the door fell with a crash they saw a little knot of friars, gathered about the altar, their white habits glimmering in the steady light of the holy candles. All the monks were kneeling except the abbot, who stood upon the altar steps with a great brazen crucifix in his hand. ‘Shoot them!’ cried Sir Frederick Hamilton, but none stirred, for all were new converts, and feared the crucifix and the holy candles. The white lights from the altar threw the shadows of the troopers up on to roof and wall. As the troopers moved about, the shadows began a fantastic dance among the corbels and the memorial tablets. For a little while all was silent, and then five troopers who were the body-guard of Sir Frederick Hamilton lifted their muskets, and shot down five of the friars. The noise and the smoke drove away the mystery of the pale altar lights, and the other troopers took courage and began to strike. In a moment the friars lay about the altar steps, their white habits stained with blood. ‘Set fire to the house!’ cried Sir Frederick Hamilton, and at his word one went out, and came in again carrying a heap of dry straw, and piled it against the western wall, and, having done this, fell back, for the fear of the crucifix and of the holy candles was still in his heart. Seeing this, the five troopers who were Sir Frederick Hamilton’s body-guard darted forward, and taking each a holy candle set the straw in a blaze. The red tongues of fire rushed up and flickered from corbel to corbel and from tablet to tablet, and crept along the floor, setting in a blaze the seats and benches. The dance of the shadows passed away, and the dance of the fires began. The troopers fell back towards the door in the southern wall, and watched those yellow dancers springing hither and thither.

For a time the altar stood safe and apart in the midst of its white light; the eyes of the troopers turned upon it. The abbot whom they had thought dead had risen to his feet and now stood before it with the crucifix lifted in both hands high above his head. Suddenly he cried with a loud voice, ‘Woe unto all who smite those who dwell within the Light of the Lord, for they shall wander among the ungovernable shadows, and follow the ungovernable fires!’ And having so cried he fell on his face dead, and the brazen crucifix rolled down the steps of the altar. The smoke had now grown very thick, so that it drove the troopers out into the open air. Before them were burning houses. Behind them shone the painted windows of the Abbey filled with saints and martyrs, awakened, as from a sacred trance, into an angry and animated life. The eyes of the troopers were dazzled, and for a while could see nothing but the flaming faces of saints and martyrs. Presently, however, they saw a man covered with dust who came running towards them. ‘Two messengers,’ he cried, ‘have been sent by the defeated Irish to raise against you the whole country about Manor Hamilton, and if you do not stop them you will be overpowered in the woods before you reach home again! They ride north-east between Ben Bulben and Cashel-na-Gael.’

Sir Frederick Hamilton called to him the five troopers who had first fired upon the monks and said, ‘Mount quickly, and ride through the woods towards the mountain, and get before these men, and kill them.’

In a moment the troopers were gone, and before many moments they had splashed across the river at what is now called Buckley’s Ford, and plunged into the woods. They followed a beaten track that wound along the northern bank of the river. The boughs of the birch and quicken trees mingled above, and hid the cloudy moonlight, leaving the pathway in almost complete darkness. They rode at a rapid trot, now chatting together, now watching some stray weasel or rabbit scuttling away in the darkness. Gradually, as the gloom and silence of the woods oppressed them, they drew closer together, and began to talk rapidly; they were old comrades and knew each other’s lives. One was married, and told how glad his wife would be to see him return safe from this harebrained expedition against the White Friars, and to hear how fortune had made amends for rashness. The oldest of the five, whose wife was dead, spoke of a flagon of wine which awaited him upon an upper shelf; while a third, who was the youngest, had a sweetheart watching for his return, and he rode a little way before the others, not talking at all. Suddenly the young man stopped, and they saw that his horse was trembling. ‘I saw something,’ he said, ‘and yet I do not know but it may have been one of the shadows. It looked like a great worm with a silver crown upon his head.’ One of the five put his hand up to his forehead as if about to cross himself, but remembering that he had changed his religion he put it down, and said: ‘I am certain it was but a shadow, for there are a great many about us, and of very strange kinds.’ Then they rode on in silence. It had been raining in the earlier part of the day, and the drops fell from the branches, wetting their hair and their shoulders. In a little they began to talk again. They had been in many battles against many a rebel together, and now told each other over again the story of their wounds, and so awakened in their hearts the strongest of all fellowships, the fellowship of the sword, and half forgot the terrible solitude of the woods.

Suddenly the first two horses neighed, and then stood still, and would go no further. Before them was a glint of water, and they knew by the rushing sound that it was a river. They dismounted, and after much tugging and coaxing brought the horses to the river-side. In the midst of the water stood a tall old woman with grey hair flowing over a grey dress. She stood up to her knees in the water, and stooped from time to time as though washing. Presently they could see that she was washing something that half floated. The moon cast a flickering light upon it, and they saw that it was the dead body of a man, and, while they were looking at it, an eddy of the river turned the face towards them, and each of the five troopers recognised at the same moment his own face. While they stood dumb and motionless with horror, the woman began to speak, saying slowly and loudly: ‘Did you see my son? He has a crown of silver on his head, and there are rubies in the crown.’ Then the oldest of the troopers, he who had been most often wounded, drew his sword and cried: ‘I have fought for the truth of my God, and need not fear the shadows of Satan,’ and with that rushed into the water. In a moment he returned. The woman had vanished, and though he had thrust his sword into air and water he had found nothing.

The five troopers remounted, and set their horses at the ford, but all to no purpose. They tried again and again, and went plunging hither and thither, the horses foaming and rearing. ‘Let us,’ said the old trooper, ‘ride back a little into the wood, and strike the river higher up.’ They rode in under the boughs, the ground-ivy crackling under the hoofs, and the branches striking against their steel caps. After about twenty minutes’ riding they came out again upon the river, and after another ten minutes found a place where it was possible to cross without sinking below the stirrups. The wood upon the other side was very thin, and broke the moonlight into long streams. The wind had arisen, and had begun to drive the clouds rapidly across the face of the moon, so that thin streams of light seemed to be dancing a grotesque dance among the scattered bushes and small fir-trees. The tops of the trees began also to moan, and the sound of it was like the voice of the dead in the wind; and the troopers remembered the belief that tells how the dead in purgatory are spitted upon the points of the trees and upon the points of the rocks. They turned a little to the south, in the hope that they might strike the beaten path again, but they could find no trace of it.

Meanwhile, the moaning grew louder and louder, and the dance of the white moon-fires more and more rapid. Gradually they began to be aware of a sound of distant music. It was the sound of a bagpipe, and they rode towards it with great joy. It came from the bottom of a deep, cup-like hollow. In the midst of the hollow was an old man with a red cap and withered face. He sat beside a fire of sticks, and had a burning torch thrust into the earth at his feet, and played an old bagpipe furiously. His red hair dripped over his face like the iron rust upon a rock. ‘Did you see my wife?’ he cried, looking up a moment; ‘she was washing! she was washing!’ ‘I am afraid of him,’ said the young trooper, ‘I fear he is one of the Sidhe.’ ‘No,’ said the old trooper, ‘he is a man, for I can see the sun-freckles upon his face. We will compel him to be our guide’; and at that he drew his sword, and the others did the same. They stood in a ring round the piper, and pointed their swords at him, and the old trooper then told him that they must kill two rebels, who had taken the road between Ben Bulben and the great mountain spur that is called Cashel-na-Gael, and that he must get up before one of them and be their guide, for they had lost their way. The piper turned, and pointed to a neighbouring tree, and they saw an old white horse ready bitted, bridled, and saddled. He slung the pipe across his back, and, taking the torch in his hand, got upon the horse, and started off before them, as hard as he could go.

The wood grew thinner and thinner, and the ground began to slope up toward the mountain. The moon had already set, and the little white flames of the stars had come out everywhere. The ground sloped more and more until at last they rode far above the woods upon the wide top of the mountain. The woods lay spread out mile after mile below, and away to the south shot up the red glare of the burning town. But before and above them were the little white flames. The guide drew rein suddenly, and pointing upwards with the hand that did not hold the torch, shrieked out, ‘Look; look at the holy candles!’ and then plunged forward at a gallop, waving the torch hither and thither. ‘Do you hear the hoofs of the messengers?’ cried the guide. ‘Quick, quick! or they will be gone out of your hands!’ and he laughed as with delight of the chase. The troopers thought they could hear far off, and as if below them, rattle of hoofs; but now the ground began to slope more and more, and the speed grew more headlong moment by moment. They tried to pull up, but in vain, for the horses seemed to have gone mad. The guide had thrown the reins on to the neck of the old white horse, and was waving his arms and singing a wild Gaelic song. Suddenly they saw the thin gleam of a river, at an immense distance below, and knew that they were upon the brink of the abyss that is now called Lug-na-Gael, or in English the Stranger’s Leap. The six horses sprang forward, and five screams went up into the air, a moment later five men and horses fell with a dull crash upon the green slopes at the foot of the rocks.