All Great Works of Literature Either Dissolve a Genre or Invent One: A Reading List

May 17, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 13 4 min read

Three books, each of which asks what is for me the only serious question: given that we die, and given that there is no god, how do we find purpose in existence?

coverGeoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage. This may sound unpromising: Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography, and more importantly, it asks the question: how and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways, it’s a thinking person’s how-to book. How to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional, is drained of meaning. Dyer can’t commit to place, to relationship, to art, because he can always see the opposite position. Dyer’s conclusion: “The best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.” By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence. I reread this book at least once a year.

coverJ.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello My favorite book of Coetzee’s, by far, because chapter by chapter it takes a commitment that Coetzee, in previous books, affirmed and now undermines: politics, sex, love, art, animal rights. This book is a series of lectures Coetzee actually gave, but it’s now a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. The book hovers between fiction and nonfiction, as for me, so many of the most exciting books do. By the end of the book, the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of frogs emerging from mud. The animal life of sheer survival. I love how joyous and despairing that is: it’s affirmation, but along a very narrow margin. My favorite books are candid beyond candid, and they proceed form this assumption: We’ll all be dead in 100 years. Here, now, in this book, I’m going to cut to the absolute bone.

coverDavid Markson, This Is Not a Novel. A book built almost entirely out of other writers’ lines, some attributed, many not. One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile’s wet dream, but it’s no mere collection of quotes. It’s a sustained meditation on this single question: against death, what consolation if any is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that we still read Sophocles? For Sophocles, Markson implies, not a lot, but for us, maybe a little. Markson constantly toggles back and forth between affirming the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity. Even for readers who don’t recognize the quotations, the book will prove provocative, because it forces you to ask yourself: what do you push back with?

I seem to like books that help you get out of bed, but just barely. These books do that, with ferocious and, for me, life-affirming honesty.

A reading list:

coverHenry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams
Renata Adler, Speedboat
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Hilton Als, The Women
W.H. Auden, A Certain World
Augustine, Confessions
Nicholson Baker, U and I, A Box of Matches
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, Nothing to be Frightened Of
coverRoland Barthes, S/Z
Jo Ann Beard, The Boys of My Youth
Samuel Beckett, Proust
Alan Bennett, Writing Home
Sandra Bernhard, Without You I’m Nothing
Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew
John Berryman, The Dream Songs
Grégoire Bouillier, The Mystery Guest, Report on Myself
Jorge Luis Borges, Other Inquisitions
Joe Brainard, I Remember
coverRichard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America
Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain
Albert Camus, The Fall
Mary Cappello, Awkward
Anne Carson, Plainwater
Terry Castle, “My Heroin Christmas
John Cheever, Journals
Frank Conroy, Stop-Time
E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist
Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning
coverBernard Cooper, Maps to Anywhere
Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Douglas Coupland, Generation X
John D’Agata, About a Mountain
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species
Alphonse Daudet, In the Land of Pain
Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm
Thomas DeQuincey, Confessions of an Opium-Eater
Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journeys
Annie Dillard, For the Time Being
coverMarguerite Duras, The Lover
Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Brian Fawcett, Cambodia
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up
E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book
Joe Frank, In the Dark
Amy Fusselman, The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8
Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love
Simon Gray, The Smoking Diaries
coverSpalding Gray, Morning, Noon, and Night
Barry Hannah, Boomerang
Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss
John Haskell, I Am Not Jackson Pollock
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House
William James, Varieties of Religious Experience
Frank Kafka, Letter to My Father
David Kirby, The House on Boulevard Street
Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat
coverCharles Lamb, The Essays of Elia
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings
D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classical American Literature
Denis Leary, No Cure for Cancer
Michel Leiris, Manhood
Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip
Jonathan Lethem, The Disappointment Artist
Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing
Ross McElwee, Sherman’s March
Rosemary Mahoney, Down the Nile
coverRian Malan, My Traitor’s Heart
Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
David Markson, Reader’s Block, Vanishing Point, The Last Novel
Carole Maso, The Art Lover
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Daniel Mendelsohn, The Elusive Embrace
Leonard Michaels, Shuffle
Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
Vladimir Nabokov, Gogol
coverV.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World
Maggie Nelson, Bluets
Friederich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Don Patterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Jonathan Raban, For Love & Money
James Richardson, Vectors
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror
coverFrançois Le Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Rick Reynolds, Only the Truth Is Funny
Chris Rock, Bring the Pain
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions
W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants
Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André
Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic
Lauren Slater, Lying
Gilbert Sorrentino, The Moon in its Flight
Art Spiegelman, Maus
Jean Stafford, A Mother in History
coverStendahl, On Love
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Jean Stein, Edie
Melanie Thernstrom, The Dead Girl
Jean Toomer, Cane
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War
George W.S. Trow, My Pilgrim’s Progress, Within the Context of No Context
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (prologue)
D.J. Waldie, Holy Land
Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s
Geoffrey Wolff, The Duke of Deception

See Also: Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps


  1. A potentially good day is when I can get out of bed. A bad day is when I spend most of the day in bed. I’m maintaining a steady 5 out, 2 in. I do not pray…pray to what/who? Belief is wishes. I’m 90% sure it was Harold Bloom who said something along the lines of: we worship, pray, believe in a literary character. No one has anything interesting to add to the belief cacophony.

    I want to live to 90–all the books, experiences, music, the precious fleeting moments of joy and elation, of connection with animals and a person or two. Mainly the books and the critters. I jog and that kicks in endorphins so out-of-bed days I have exhilaration which is not the same as joy. I don’t believe in anything. I do, however, love many things: literature, cinema that is art or intense authentic emotional experience, animals generally and mine especially, helping people without a boss looking over my shoulder and in a way that releases my creativity (language acquisition for immigrants, teaching adults to read). My gorgeous alive vegetable plot. Solitary versus social, I am 75/25 or 80/20. Life is very hard. In my 25% out in the world I am gregarious and friendly. In my 75% I prefer silence and bird song.

    I have read a fat handful of the books mentioned. Except for Elizabeth Costello, none has given me what it has given you, the essayist. But I have my own list of books that console, to use Iris Murdoch’s word. Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, particularly the essay on Virginia Woolf, rocked me. Soul is consciousness and reduces to self. Joyous and despairing—yes, yes, I know that pairing well.

    I’m a Jewish atheist–there are lots of us around under the radar.

    I truly thank you for the list. I will invest my time and attention.

    Is this a weird comment?

  2. The proximity of Sandra Bernhard to Thomas Bernhard is causing me to imagine a mash-up of their styles (and personae). I also like the thought of Silverman finding this list and deciding to read Cioran. Best list ever.

  3. I really dislike “Elizabeth Costello” by Coetzee. He has much better books, and in my opinion he absolutely fails whatever he intended to achieve. Miss Costello feels as cold and stiff and distant and abstract as a Lego doll. That book seems to me an opportunist publication, putting together a series of lectures with a minimal (and failed) fictional glue.
    As for the long list ending the article, I cannot by agree with Paul.

  4. Very impressed to see … and feel less alone to see D.J. Waldie’s “Holy Land” here. I ordered that pocket book of numbered entries (much like the latest text from the writer here) after a History of the American Frontier professor talked about reading Waldie’s columns in the LA Times about riding the bus and walking everywhere.

    Holy Land ended up being as confronting and spiritual as some of the other confessions listed here. Only one more I’d like to add that shot me with enthusiasm about my time left was Henry Miller’s “Books of My Life.” I like this love letter to reading and the things that happen around it better than anything else Miller wrote. I thank Larry McMurtry’s “Walter Benjamin and the Dairy Queen” for recommending it w/ savvy. It seems McMurtry’s style isn’t immediate and fast enough for us today … but I stick with him always.

    James Agee’s depression era prayer seems to me one of the crown jewels of American writing, with Melville, Hawthorne, etc…. It is obvious, unsure but sure. Deeply risking something. Even the spirituals he witnesses in the words conjure the blues. To see what the author did put into it I recommend looking up an old New Yorker article called simply Agee. That article helped me feel less despairing about the legacy of this novel when I found out how it circulated among Alabama marchers from the east coast.

    Helpful list, overall. One of the tricks in life is to find some real readers to consult periodically.

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