Books, ezra pound, Fiction, Gay Talese, harold bloom, Literature, Looking for Alaska, manhattan apartments, master of fine arts degree, Memoir, Poetry, poetry collections, Reading, The Sopranos, The Tiger
I read stories about Dominican sci-fi nerds. I read stories about innocent men who are wrongfully imprisoned. I read stories about reclusive rock stars hiding out in Manhattan apartments. I read stories about deans and professors and hotel managers and commercial fishing captains and killers. And I read memoirs written by women who row boats down the Nile River. Memoirs about working in restaurants. Memoirs about the mentally ill. And I read poetry collections by Americans and Poles and Persians. I read graphic novels about the challenges of growing up. I read plays by Shakespeare and Moliere.
I read because I love words. I read to learn. I read for entertainment. I read to broaden my perspective. I read to understand other people and I read to understand myself.
How I choose to read what I read is now a rather organic affair. But for awhile, many years ago, I believed that if I was going to spend time reading I ought to be reading “classic” literature—those works that had stood the test of time and had been canonized in some way.
And I used to read, almost exclusively, white, male writers.
At Hamline University, where I earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Writing, I was exposed to a wider range of writers than I might otherwise have discovered on my own. I am ashamed to admit that I almost decided not to enroll at Hamline because, having seen a list of authors’ names featured in its curriculum, I felt I would be wasting my time by reading what I then perceived as not “serious” literature.
Thanks to Hamline, my reading prejudices have been eradicated. Now, I am open to any and all books, and their canonization by Ezra Pound or Harold Bloom is no longer the only criterion that I consider.
More often than not, nowadays, I read books recommended to me by colleagues and friends, and sometimes I read books I’ve heard about by reading the paper or by listening to the radio. And whereas I used to read fiction, mostly, I now find myself reading a broader range of expressions.
I began this year by reading Honor Thy Father, by Gay Talese. Ironically, my father found this book years ago and it somehow wound up in my book collection. It remained, unread, for years—ten, maybe fifteen—until I finally realized what I had in my hands and decided to give it a whirl. I was not disappointed. It is a behind-the-scenes look at one of the nation’s most powerful Mafia families, the Bonannos. I have a nearly obsessive fascination with the HBO hit series The Sopranos, so it is a mystery to me why I had not gotten to Talese’s fine exposé sooner. But that’s how I read. I have to find a book, or a book has to find me, at the right time.
The number of books that I recommend to students far exceeds the number of books that students recommend to me, but every once in a while, I read a book recommended by a student and enjoy it thoroughly. This spring, a student recommended a book titled, Looking for Alaska, by John Green. It is, I think, best classified as a “young adult novel,” although I would place it at the upper end of that age range. While my daughter falls into the YA readership category as a ten-year-old, I think the themes in Looking for Alaska are a bit too mature for her. That said, I enjoyed it, and its adolescent heartbreak resurrected pangs that I had not felt in some time.
I bought Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall, at a bookstore in the Fort Myers airport. I had not heard of the book before I spied its glossy, blue cover on the bookstand, but I was engrossed from the first word. It is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, and the copy that I purchased has passed through a colleague’s hands, and then his wife’s, before winding up in my wife’s hands, and she is reading it now.
I have read three poetry collections this year. One of them, Blue Lash by James Armstrong, I found all by myself. The two others, Invisible Strings, by Jim Moore and Radial Symmetry, by Katherine Larson, were recommendations by the same colleague to whom I loaned Born to Run. He is a fine poet in his own right, and I trust his poetic sensibilities and I trust that he understands mine. He seldom steers me wrong.
In the early days of facebook, I used the “Notes” section to keep a running tally of books that I was reading. I began this practice in 2007, shortly after I joined, and I’m glad I did, for now I have a fairly accurate compendium of what I’ve read over the last five and a half years (I have included the complete list, categorized by genre, at the end of this post). What it reveals is that while I still read fiction more than any single genre, I now read other genres nearly as often. For instance, I have read 48 works of fiction since 2007, but the other genres, in aggregate, total 46. In other words, nearly half of the books I read is comprised of memoir (14), “scholarly” works (14), poetry collections (14), graphic novels (2), and plays (2).
The incidence of the number 14, above, is, purely, co-incidence. I had no idea that this was the number of books that I had read in the aforementioned respective genres. Moreover, I had no idea that the number of non-fiction titles would nearly equal the number of fiction titles when I conceived of this subject.
In all, I have read 94 books over the last five and a half years. I realize that some readers consume that many books, or more, in any given year. For hypothetical reasons, assuming that I can read at least another half dozen books by the end of the year, for a total of 100 books over six years, that averages around sixteen and a half books per year. I am not particularly proud of this rate of consumption, but neither am I ashamed of it. I read more than some, less than others, and, considering that many folks don’t read even one book per year, I feel fairly satisfied with the amount I read—especially when I consider the myriad demands I have on my time: teaching classes, grading papers, caring for my daughter and my parents.
I am just about to finish reading, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Valiant—a book recommended to me by the same colleague to whom I recommended Born to Run. Next on the list? River Town: Two Years on the Yangzte, by Peter Hessler. Another memoir and, that is to say, another non-fiction book. That nearly evens the number of non-fiction works to works of fiction, 47-48. After that? Perhaps a poetry collection. Maybe a scholarly work. Then again, it’s been a while since I’ve read a graphic novel. But, of course, if anyone has a great novel to recommend, maybe one that has been canonized by Ezra Pound or Harold Bloom, I might be willing to give it a try.
Here, then, is the list:
- Looking for Alaska, by John Green
- Neuromancer, by William Gibson
- Rookery Blues, by John Hassler
- Point Omega, by Don DeLillo
- Company, by Samuel Beckett
- Hotel Honolulu, by Paul Theroux
- Sparrow Road, by Sheila O’Connor
- The Human Stain, by Phillip Roth
- A Personal Matter, by Kenzaburo Oe
- Girls, by Frederick Busch
- Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
- The Shining, by Stephen King
- Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk
- Havana Blue, by Leonardo Padura
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
- The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen
- Rich Man, Poor Man, by Irwin Shaw
- The Sot Weed Factor, by John Barth
- Gap Creek, by Robert Morgan
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
- A Place To Come To, by Robert Penn Warren
- Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
- Great Jones Street, by Don Dellilo
- On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
- A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy
- The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
- Blood Meridian, by Cormac MacCarthy
- The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
- Las Traviesas de la Nina Mala, por Mario Vargas Llosa
- You Remind Me of Me, by Dan Chaon
- Little, by David Treuer
- A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham
- The Floor of the Sky, by Pam Joern
- When Charlotte Comes Home, by Maureen Millea Smith
- Autobiography of a Family Photo, by Jacqueline Woodson
- A Lesson Before Dying, by Ernest Gaines
- The Immoralist, by Andre Gide
- Factotum, by Charles Bukowski
- Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon
- Channeling Mark Twain, by Carol Muske Dukes
- The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
- Blue Lash, James Armstrong
- Invisible Strings, Jim Moore
- Radial Symmetry, Katherine Larson
- Find the Girl, Lightsey Darst
- Undoing, James Cihlar
- Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland
- Collected Poems, by Czeslaw Milosc
- Collected Poems, by Jalalodin Rumi
- All-American Poem, by Matthew Dickman
- If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, by Anne Carson
- Here Bullet, Brian Turner
- Bamboo Cottage, Doug Westendorp
- The Age of the Demon Tools, by Mark Spitzer
- Mosquito, by Alex Lemon
- The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer
- A Million Little Pieces, James Frey
- Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn
- Just Like a Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, Mark Vonnegut, M.D.
- Living to Tell the Tale, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls
- Happy, by Alex Lemon
- Candy Girl, by Diablo Cody
- Papillon, Henri Charriere
- Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney
- Fried: Serving Two Centuries in Restaurants, by Steve Lerach
- Slouching Toward Fargo, by Neal Karlen
- Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo, by Murat Kurnaz
- The Same River Twice, by Chris Offut
- Honor Thy Father, Gay Talese
- Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Sunryu Suzuki
- Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall
- Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
- The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, John Vaillant
- Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, by Michael Specter
- The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin
- Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson
- all is change, by Lawrence Sutin
- Everyday Drinking, by Kingsley Amis
- Kerouac: A Biography, by Ann Charters
- Money Ball, by Michael Lewis
- The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
- God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens
- Blankets, by Craig Thompson
- Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware
- Macbeth, Shakespeare
- Tartuffe, Moliere