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 and full list below) 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.
Here is the complete list:
- Flann O’Brien, At Swim Two-Birds
- Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman
- Isaac Babel, Collected Short Stories
- Borges, Labyrinths
- Borges, Other Inquisitions
- Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Thomas Bernhard, Correction
- Rudy Wurlitzer, Nog
- Isaac B Singer, Gimpel the Fool
- Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
- Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano
- Samuel Beckett entire
- Knut Hamsun, Hunger
- Max Frisch, I’m Not Stiller
- Max Frisch, Man in the Holocene
- Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales
- Tommaso Landolfi, Gogol’s Wife
- Thomas Pynchon, V
- John Hawkes, The Lime Twig
- John Hawkes, Blood Oranges
- Paley, Little Disturbances
- Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
- Susan Sontag, I, Etc.
- Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
- Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
- Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
- John Updike, The Coup
- John Updike, Rabbit, Run
- The Paris Review interviews
- Rust Hills (ed.), How We Live
- Joe David Bellamy (ed.), Superfiction
- Puschart Prize Anthologies
- Sternburg (ed.), The Writer on Her Work
- André Breton, Manifestos of Surrealism
- Motherwell (ed.), Documents of Modern Art
- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
- Hugh Kenner, A Homemade World
- Flaubert, Letters
- Mamet, Sexual Perversity in Chicago
- Joy Williams, The Changeling
- Joe David Bellamy (ed.), The New Fiction
- Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
- Amos Tutola, The Palm-Wine Drunkard
- Ann Tyler, Searching for Caleb
- Kenneth Koch, Thank You
- Frank O’Hara, Collected Poems
- John Ashbery, Rivers and Mountains
- Wesley Brown, Tragic Magic
- Roland Barthes, Mythologies
- Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
- Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel
- Ann Beattie, Falling in Place
- William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country
- Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life
- Gass, The World Within the Word
- Mailer, Advertisements for Myself
- Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
- Celine, Journey to the End of the Night
- Kobo Abe, The Box Man
- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
- Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
- Peter Handke, Kaspar and Other Plays
- André Breton, Nadja
- John Barth, Chimera
- Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
- Jayne Anne Phillips, Black Tickets
- Peter Taylor, Collected Stories
- Colette, The Pure and the Impure
- Carver, Will You Please be Quiet, Please
- John Cheever, Collected Stories
- Leonard Michaels, I Would Have Saved Them if I Could
- Eudora Welty, Collected Stories
- Max Apple, The Oranging of America
- Flannery O’Connor, Collected Stories
- Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
- Carlos Fuentes, The Death of Artemio Cruz
- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
- Wayne C Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
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Josh Jones is a writer, editor, and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness
I guess Barthelme would classify me as illiterate. I am reading Susan Sontag’s diary. And I have read most of Flannery O’Connor’s writings.
What happened to Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Trevor, Falkner, Conrad, and the magnificent English and Irish poets apart from Shakespeare?
Glad to see Carver (Raymond) mentioned in there. In addition to the absence of Conrad, the Russians, and Faulkner, I don’t see Kafka. Kundera is a good mention, though The Unbearable Lightness of Being is missing. I guess one cannot read every book or writer worthy of mention on this list. There is a whole slew of missing contemporary writers that the modern writer should also have a look at.
The missings russians stand out but one must consider the source. Anyone seen Henry Miller yet?
Nice to see a few African authors included despite the shortage of Europeans. But as with so many lists like it, not one Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, or Australian/Oceanic author cracks a mention. Something myopic about lists that have such a narrow perspective on world literature.
This is one, Kirsty: Kobo Abe is Japanese. But point taken.
@Bob Jensen – There are hundreds of lists featuring Dostoyevsky, Camus, Conrad and other authors most people read in the tenth grade. You’re welcome to read one of those instead.
@Ty Moore – Barthelme died in 1989.
I assume this list is 20th Century novels to read.. although no Joyce?
Alas, a coffee stain obfuscates Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Whenever I read a list like this, I remember part of a Raymond Carver story wherein the protagonist is told about a man who once read his way through the entire encyclopedia.
‘Wow,’ he says, ‘I’d love to know what happened to a guy who’d do something like that….’
Only see one crossed off. Shocked, sad, and angry. Invisible Man indeed.
this makes me want to pick up some Barthelme again!
I wonder if, by becoming a sort of academic heirloom, this list is being accorded a significance far beyond its real merit.