The William H. Gass Reader

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The Millions Top Ten: February 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

2 months

2.
1.

Washington Black

6 months

3.
3.

The Friend

3 months

4.
5.

Severance

4 months

5.


Educated: A Memoir

1 month

6.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

7.
6.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

4 months

8.
8.

Milkman

2 months

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

5 months

10.


The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
1 month

Spring approaches but has not yet come. It brings a fresh start, and all around buds await the best moment to bloom. Naturally, some jump the gun, and so it’s fitting that we welcome two new titles to our final Top Ten of the winter season: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, which was edited by Kim Adrian. Even on a list with William H. Gass, snowfall’s poet laureate, there’s no stopping the season’s change.

This timing has its logic. Westover’s memoir was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. Detailing the author’s journey from backcountry Idaho to Cambridge University, Educated underscores both the propulsive, transformative power of schooling and also the complexity of leaving family behind.

The Shell Game deals as well with transmutation, or in this case so-called “hermit crab essays.” These pieces, as Vivian Wagner explained for our site last summer, “like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit.” These are essays as quizzes, grocery lists, and more. “Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it,” Wagner writes. “For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium.” (If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend Cheyenne Nimes’s “SECTION 404,” originally published in DIAGRAM, and included in Adrian’s anthology.)

Elsewhere on our list, things thrummed and lightly fiddled. Dreyer’s English rose from fourth to first. The Incendiaries is off to our Hall of Fame. Outside on bare tree branches, some leaves begin to grow.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingTranscription, Circe, and The Practicing Stoic. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Washington Black

5 months

2.
3.

The Incendiaries

6 months

3.
5.

The Friend

2 months

4.


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

1 month

5.
4.

Severance

3 months

6.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

2 months

7.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

8.


Milkman

1 month

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

4 months

10.


The Golden State
2 months

Three spaces opened on our list this month, and filling them are two newcomers and one reappearance.

First, congratulations to Tommy Orange and Aja Gabel, whose novels There There and The Ensemble were so beloved by Millions readers that they’ve been immortalized forever in the site’s Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription dropped out of the running after four months of strong showings on our list.

Keep faith, Atkinson fans. It’s quite common for books to leave our list one month only to reappear the next. How common? Well, the exact scenario just occurred with The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. After debuting on our list in November, the book dropped off in December and has since reappeared to kick off 2019 in 10th position. At this rate, Kiesling will be joining Orange and Gabel in our Hall of Fame next September.

Two newcomers on our list this month are Milkman by Anna Burns and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. Burns’s novel won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction and was briefly previewed by our own Carolyn Quimby last month, and is said to be “a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions.” Dreyer’s English, meanwhile, was described by Kiesling in our Great 2019 Book Preview as “a guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic.” (I’ll echo Lydia’s request: please don’t copyedit this write-up.)

Next month’s list should open up for at least one new addition to our list, but as we’ve seen time and again: sometimes those new additions are blasts from the past.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingThe Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed FormsThe Practicing Stoic, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

There There

6 months

2.
2.

Washington Black

4 months

3.
4.

The Incendiaries

5 months

4.
9.

Severance

2 months

5.


The Friend

1 month

6.
5.

The Ensemble

6 months

7.
6.

The William H. Gass Reader

2 months

8.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation

1 month

9.
8.

Killing Commendatore

3 months

10.
7.

Transcription
4 months

The Overstory‘s reign is over, and once again Millions readers have sent a book to our Hall of Fame. It’s the 155th title to reach the Hall since we began counting in 2009, and those books represent a combined 930 months of our readers’ interest. Laid out consecutively instead of concurrently, that’s more than 77 years of reading!

In its place, There There by Tommy Orange assumes supremacy this month, leapfrogging Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black which remains in second. Both books were highly regarded by contributors in our Year in Reading series, in which Tommy Orange himself participated. I’m not saying Millions readers reward authors for publishing in the series but I’m not not saying the same.

Meanwhile two newcomers join this month’s list: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

Mere weeks ago, Lucia Senesi interviewed Moshfegh for The Millions, and in their wide-ranging discussion about craft and creative output, they also explored the notion of whether “writers or artists really have a gender.” Moshfegh believed so:
I think the female and male minds work very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
Like There There, The Friend, which won this year’s National Book Award, was a darling of our Year in Reading series, drawing praise from seven contributors: Bryan Washington, Ada Limón, Adrienne Celt, Lucy Tan, Anisse Gross, Kamil Ahsan, and our own Anne K. Yoder. For her part, Nunez contributed to the series back in 2010, when the series was only six years old.

This month’s near misses included: Becoming, MilkmanThe Practicing Stoic, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Overstory

6 months

2.
7.

Washington Black

3 months

3.
5.

There There

5 months

4.
4.

The Incendiaries

4 months

5.
6.

The Ensemble

5 months

6.


The William H. Gass Reader

1 month

7.
8.

Transcription

3 months

8.
10.

Killing Commendatore

2 months

9.


Severance

1 month

10.


The Golden State
1 month

 

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has reached our site’s Hall of Fame each year that the site has operated, and this month the trend continues with the ascension of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Joining it on that voyage is Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, marking the second time De La Pava’s earned the honor since Garth Risk Hallberg profiled him back in 2012. We ran another long interview with the author earlier this year.

Meanwhile Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight has once again dropped out of our Top Ten. In the past four months it’s been on, off, on and off, flickering like a candle that can’t quite stay lit.

With three fresh spots, we welcome three newcomers to the list.

All 928 pages of The William H. Gass Reader hold sixth position, and the book enters our ranks at an appropriate time. When better than the winter, asked our own Nick Ripatrazone, to appreciate the author of “a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead”? Nick went on to enumerate his thoughts on Gass’s work, and its transformative effects.

In the ninth spot, we find Severance, Ling Ma’s “funny, frightening, and touching debut,” which our own Adam O’Fallon Price called “a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book” in his teaser for our Great 2018 Book Preview. Ma has since contributed to our ongoing Year in Reading series, recommending a newly reprinted novella first published in 1982. To find out which, you’ll have to read the entry for yourself.

Finally, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State makes its first appearance on our Top Ten. As of this writing, four Year in Reading participants have included the book in their lists: Angela Garbes, Edan Lepucki, Lauren Wilkinson, and Crystal Hana Kim. (They won’t be the last.) “It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood,” Garbes wrote. “The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation,” Lepucki added.

Next month’s list should be shaken up quite a bit by the rest of the Year in Reading series, which reliably bloats everyone’s “to read” piles just in time for the New Year.

This month’s near misses included: The Practicing StoicLake Success, The Friend, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

To Make a World of Words: ‘The William H. Gass Reader’

William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
He left us with this book.

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