We’ve had a lot of fun—and some debate—lately with reading lists from people like Carl Sagan, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and even Marilyn Monroe (via her library). And we’ve featured undergraduate syllabi from the teaching days of David Foster Wallace and W.H. Auden. Now for something more-or-less formal than those. This one comes via a 2003 piece by Kevin Moffett in McSweeney’s spin-off The Believer (10 years old this month—I know, right?). The list (first page above) has a somewhat illustrious heritage. Compiled by postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme for his students at the University of Houston, it then made its way to Barthelme’s student, Southern writer Padgett Powell. The list then came to Moffett when he was a student of Powell’s at the University of Florida.
Consisting of 81 books, mostly novels and short story collections (and the work of Samuel Beckett—“entire”), and mostly twentieth-century modernist fiction, the list came to Powell with Barthelme’s instruction to attack the books, “in no particular order, just read them.”
This Moffett did, and his story of how he sought the books—in the used bookshops, warehouse sales, and libraries of north Florida—lends to his experience the air of a suburban knight’s quest tale, with Moffett as underdog hero. The list spans a range of difficulty, from the academic obscurantism of Roland Barthes to the general accessibility of Updike (Barthelme modestly exempts himself). But the text that turns Moffett from diffident to avid reader, Flannery O’Connor’s “A Late Encounter With the Enemy,” also turns his “resolution into a vow.” It’s almost as though his engagement with Barthelme’s list initiates him into a mystical order of language.
The list itself, as you can see from the scans, shows the wear of several pairs of hands—hands holding late-night coffees in college-town cafes and felt-tip pens with which to make tiny checkmarks of accomplishment. We do not know from Moffett’s piece whose hands did the coffee-spilling, checkmarking, and annotating, whether Powell’s, Moffett’s, or some student or private reader unmentioned. Some of the books left unchecked are those with which I have had readerly epiphanies: Borges’ Other Inquisitions, Barthes’ Mythologies, Beckett (“entire”), Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. And what strikes me, as with all such lists, are the number of books I haven’t read but have wished to, meant to, promised that I would. Perhaps it’s not too late to turn a resolution to a vow and hit the stacks.
Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness