This is maybe one of the best sections of my bookshelves. The colors are lovely, peaceful, Springish, and some of my favorite books and authors pretty much by happenstance find themselves grouped here.
I’m a horrible phonetographer, so that top book, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, is partially cut off, but it was one of my favorite books I read in 2016, and she’s an author I’ll most definitely go back to. Lauren Groff too I was first exposed to in 2016, in a random purchase of another of her books that we’ll see later if this series makes it to shelf section #19. I liked Arcadia a lot too, and Groff is another author I’ll likely follow until one or the other of us is dead. I had never read much Oates, and I picked Wild Nights up at a library sale and loved it. These stories about historical figures really captured my attention, as did, apparently, a story of hers a few years ago in Harper’s. Late last year, I picked up her We Were the Mulvaneys from the library, and it was pretty close to flawless. Finally, in the consistently solid list of yellow/green books I read in 2016 by women, we have Mary Doria Russell’s Epitaph. This was another random shelf browsing purchase, and one I didn’t anticipate liking all that much since it’s historical fiction about the wild west, neither of which especially interests me (my project was to expand my horizons and read things by not-white-dudes and get out of my usual reading habits, so this one seemed to fit). But the book was really good. She put me right there with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, and I liked it enough that just last week I burned through her Doc, which I also enjoyed thoroughly.
I’ve read two or three by Nicholson Baker now and really liked The Anthologist, though I may have liked The Traveling Sprinkler more, if only because it taught me about this really cool lawn watering tool I hadn’t known about and that’s such a beautiful metaphor for any number of things. Woe is I is one I’ve owned for twentyish years and never go back to, but it’s just the kind of nerdy, sort of subversive, book I like, and I’ve never wanted to get rid of it.
Above, I spoke of Ward as an author I would read more by and Groff as somebody I’d track for as long as she or I one draw breath. Upon reading all of David Mitchell’s early work, I held the same opinion of him. Cloud Atlas dazzled me on the whole even when some of its parts disappointed me (which disappointment I believe, to be clear, was by design), and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet was beautiful. I liked his other earlier work well enough. He has pretty much lost me starting with The Bone Clocks, though, which you won’t find on these shelves. Ever. If you sneak it onto my shelf, I will hunt you down and destroy you and those you love.
Tucked in beside Cloud Atlas is The Crucible, which I remember reading and liking in high school, though this is probably another one I’ve inadvertently stolen from my high school teacher wife, since I don’t know that I liked it enough that I figured I’d read it again 20 or 25 years later. Maybe it’s time, though.
This brings us to good old Thomas Hardy. Gosh I loved this guy when I was in college. I was a sucker for a ruined maid in a pastoral setting, I suppose. When I was 20 or maybe 21, I remember saying poetically to my mom something like (perhaps here slightly exaggerated, but honestly not by much) “I should think that I had been born in the wrong epoch and locale, dear mother, for I find these American brutes to be so dreadfully boorish and the modern times, with the telly and these so-called ‘compact discs,’ so woefully lacking in the culture upon which we few literates deign to survive.” So of fucking course I liked Hardy. I also read loads of his poetry and can still recite some of it by heart. I used to own a volume of his selected poems and a number of his novels, but I hadn’t read many of them in a long time. When I found this book of his collected poems at a library sale a few years ago for like a dollar, I couldn’t resist. A few years ago, I found myself leafing through the poems of this old curmudgeon of a poet well known for having a gloomy outlook on life and decided to start up a little humor/literature site offering the occasional poem text with a brief and sometimes silly or sarcastic and sometimes ever so slightly serious explication of or appreciation of the poem. I tired of it pretty quickly, though. If anybody wants to tag-team a resurrection of the site, let me know!
I forget how I learned about Lydia Millet, but I harbor a suspicion that it was via the lovely little lit magazine one story. I read a longish novel of hers about Oppenheimer and his cohort time traveling to more or less the present that I sort of hated, but this one I vaguely recall being kind of lovely and haunting. I don’t know that I’ll ever read it again, though upon a quick inspection, I see that I dog-eared a few pages, so it may be worth a closer look some other time. Sometimes I keep a book to remind me later that I’d like to check in on the author in a few years, and this is probably such a book.
This shelf started with a bunch of really great women writers, and it’s ending with a bunch of old white dudes, mostly dead. Gaddis is one of the smartest, funniest, and simultaneously most serious writers I’ve ever read, and J R is one of those books that kind of tears down everything you know about how to read and makes you learn how to read in a new way. It goes from slapstick to existential frustration within a single line or two populated by three or four voices sometimes, and if you don’t love this book, you will almost certainly hate it. I reread it every five years or so. Gaddis claims not ever to have read Ulysses, but this is sort of the Ulysses of the mid-20th century, and I think he’s lying. I’ll skip a couple of books ahead in this shelf to Gaddis’s The Recognitions. It’s a book in part about forgery and in larger part about art (in various media) and I suppose about authenticity. There are parts of it I like a lot and parts I kind of want to do the “get on with it” gesture with my hand while reading, and it’s the book people tout as Gaddis’s big important book, but for me, J R is the one to read. I wrote a bit about it upon a reread a few years ago here.
Now we take two steps back to Gass (a great defender of and friend to Gaddis), a philosopher and historian and essayist and novelist who is mostly just too smart for me. I find him a bit tedious and didn’t love Omensetter’s Luck, though I intend to read it with a different set of life and literary experiences in a decade or so to see how it strikes me then. If I’m not mistaken, the voice in this book informed the voice David Foster Wallace used in a really fantastic story titled “John Billy.” Of the I believe three novels and one collection of essays I’ve read of Gass’s (with one essay collection in nightstand purgatory if I’m not mistaken), my favorite thing is a long beautiful sort of plains pastoral section in The Tunnel, which I’ll confess was otherwise for me a real kick in the nuts of a book (more on that, perhaps, if we get to shelf #10).
Next up is another Saunders book. I love his stories (though they can feel a little overworked) and keep all of his books and will one day do a big close reading of his whole body of fiction.
Finally, we have Moby-Dick, of which I have a number of incarnations scattered throughout the shelves. This is the recognized annotated scholarly text with hundreds of pages of historical and literary context and criticism, textual variants, etc., and it’s all really great stuff (the three Moby-Dicks, you say?). I organized an online group read and wrote (with others — these posts are not all mine) a lot about the book a few years ago here. I try every once in a while to make my family let me read the book aloud to them (they resist, the philistines), and there’s a kid book version (I don’t love it, honestly) that I used to make at least my kids let me read to them on my kids’ shelves, and I have a Moby-Dick tattoo and a lot of Moby-Dick art. It’s an important book to me, and I guess I’ll keep it.
Actually finally, tucked in the very edge there, is a yellow envelope containing a brief postcard David Foster Wallace kindly wrote back to me many years ago in response to a short letter I had sent him. There’s nothing of any substance in the message, but it’s something of a relic to me, given the influence his work has had on my way of thinking about and existing in the world, as discussed briefly in the notes for shelf #3 and elsewhere at sometimes significant length on the internet.
This shelf was a humdinger, representing in one form or another some of the most influential books and authors in my adult reading life, and pointing to some folks I hope to be influenced by and to continue appreciating new work by for years to come. Next up we’ve got more green and a fifth consecutive section of shelf featuring work by, about, or significantly influencing or influenced by Wallace.