The 321 Books in David Foster Wallace’s Personal Library: From Blood Meridian to Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder


Not long after David Fos­ter Wal­lace died, his fans found them­selves with a new place of pil­grim­age: not his tomb­stone, in the man­ner of a Jim Mor­ri­son or a Kurt Cobain, but his lit­er­ary archives. You’ll find them at the Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin. From their col­lec­tion, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Wal­lace’s fall 1994 Eng­lish 102 syl­labus from when he taught at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty, his Eng­lish 183A hand­out break­ing down (in the way that only he could) five com­mon usage mis­takes, and the lan­guage books con­tained in his per­son­al library.

Any read­er even casu­al­ly acquaint­ed with Wal­lace’s nov­els and essays will imme­di­ate­ly sense his deep inter­est in lan­guage. But if you browse through the Ran­som Cen­ter’s col­lec­tion of 321 books from the author of Infi­nite Jest and A Sup­pos­ed­ly Fun Thing I’ll Nev­er Do Again’s own shelves (most of them seem­ing­ly well-anno­tat­ed), you’ll find a good deal of evi­dence about what else inter­est­ed him. The Awl’s Maria Bustil­los did a post on the sur­pris­ing vari­ety of self-help books found there­in. Oth­er rep­re­sent­ed types of books include:

  • Mass-mar­ket thrillers like Thomas Har­ris’ The Silence of the LambsHan­ni­bal and Han­ni­bal Ris­ing, and Stephen King’s Car­rie
  • The nov­els of his peers like Rick Moody’s The Divin­ers, Richard Pow­ers’ GainGalatea 2.2, and Oper­a­tion Wan­der­ing Soul, Mark Leyn­er’s Et Tu, Babe and My Cousin, My Gas­troen­terol­o­gist, Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion, Cor­mac McCarthy’s Blood Merid­i­an and Nichol­son Bak­er’s Room Tem­per­a­ture
  • Books he wrote about like Bryan Gar­ner’s A Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Usage, Edwin Williamson’s Borges: A Life, John Updike’s Toward the End of Time
  • Books on his own work like William C. Dowl­ing’s A Read­er’s Com­pan­ion to Infi­nite Jest
  • Books on the mid­west from which he came like A Place of Sense: Essays in Search of the Mid­west
  • Books clear­ly used as research mate­ri­als for his final, incom­plete, IRS-cen­tric nov­el The Pale King like Michael J. Graet­z’s The U.S. Income Tax: What It Is, How It Got That Way, and Where We Go from Here, William L. Raby’s The Reluc­tant Tax­pay­er, and Mar­ty Kaplan’s What the IRS Does­n’t Want You to Know: A CPA Reveals the Tricks of the Trade
  • My own favorite nov­els like Joseph Heller’s Some­thing Hap­pened, Richard Yates’ Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Road, and Alexan­der Ther­oux’s Dar­conville’s Cat

Have a look, and maybe you too can find a few of your own cur­rent or future favorite books. We could all do worse, after all, than to read like David Fos­ter Wal­lace did, even if it leads us to the occa­sion­al vol­ume like Mus­cle: Con­fes­sions of an Unlike­ly Body­builder; Barbed Wire: A Polit­i­cal His­to­ry; or Jack B. Nim­ble’s The Con­struc­tion and Oper­a­tion of Clan­des­tine Drug Lab­o­ra­to­ries. And for a week­end activ­i­ty, we could do worse than com­par­ing Wal­lace’s per­son­al library to that of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, which we fea­tured last year.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Breaks Down Five Com­mon Word Usage Mis­takes in Eng­lish

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Ben says:

    Of course I knew of Mr. Wal­lace, but have yet to read any of his work. So what did I do? I went out and bought a paper­back copy of the 20th anniver­sary edi­tion of infi­nite Jest. I have yet to read, it is some­thing I’m work­ing my way up to. I think Jan­u­ary would be the per­fect time to start it, giv­en I’ll prob­a­bly be home­bound due to the weath­er here in NYC.

    It tru­ly is ashame that we lost him at such a young age. Who knows what won­der­ful works he would have giv­en the world. Alas, it is not meant to be. Let’s enjoy what he left us and keep his mem­o­ry alive by read­ing, com­ment­ing and pass­ing on his work.

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