Phil Gyford


Tuesday 13 April 2004

PreviousIndexNext Donald Barthelme's reading list

I’ve been catching up on back issues of The Believer and October 2003 contained an article by Kevin Moffett, in which he described tackling a reading list of 81 books passed down through a couple of hands from Donald Barthelme. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Barthelme, but I love reading lists in exactly the kind of way I don’t love lists of essential CDs.

I can think of only a handful of people in the world whose lists of albums I’d consider remotely worthy of consideration (Peel, Marcus, Eno…), with the rest being instantly dismissable. For reasons I’m unable to put my finger on, album lists always contain titles that one knows to be perhaps overblown, tacky or irrelevant whereas a well-considered reading list is much less likely to be dismissable in its entirety. Maybe it’s something to do with accompanying rhetoric; “50 Essential Albums You Must Own” is asking to be ridiculed, whereas something like “50 Landmark Novels” seems far more intriguing. Album lists often feel like they’re laying a (futile) claim to ultimate completeness, in a way that reading lists rarely do.

But anyway, Barthelme’s list. I’ve only read six of the works here, and haven’t even heard of many of the authors, which makes it all the more intriguing. In the absence of the Believer’s archives, the list is below (minus the scribbles and notes in the original article’s reproduction). Barthelme’s only instruction was apparently “in no particular order, just read them.”

  • 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

To mark the year 2000, Music365 listed and wrote up 2000 "essential" albums - an amazing resource, but sadly long gone now. But if not lists of albums, then perhaps booklists from a songwriter? Art Garfunkel's book lists, 1968-2002:

Posted by rodcorp on 15 April 2004, 12:42 am | Link

WE'VE READ SOME OF THESE:Song of Solomon, Morrison; A Clockwork Orange,Burgess; Rabbit Run, Updike; Hero with a thousand Faces, Campbell; Invisible Man; Ellison;

Posted by GRACE "URROWS on 4 May 2008, 9:53 pm | Link

Um... go read Barthelme. You won't regret it. Ever.

Posted by b.k. on 11 November 2009, 2:36 pm | Link

Since posting this I've read '40 Stories' and was generally underwhelmed unfortunately. Although I can see where many McSweeney's authors get their inspiration from now.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 11 November 2009, 2:46 pm | Link

"For reasons I’m unable to put my finger on"

You've heard the music, so you know you disagree. But you haven't read the novels.

Posted by anon on 11 November 2009, 3:43 pm | Link

Now you say it, it sounds obvious.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 11 November 2009, 3:52 pm | Link

Commenting is disabled on posts once they’re 30 days old.

Some sites linking to this entry (Trackbacks)

Why At Swim-Two-Birds?
My last few Macs have had their hard drives named after Irish or Celtic literary takes on mythology. The last one was Tir-na n'Og and the current one is At Swim-to-Birds. Phil Gyford republishes Donald Barthelme's reading list and while DB claims it is...
At 'wake up!' on Sunday 21 August 2005, 11:22 PM

• Are you in need of an assertion of value? Or perhaps a reading list? (I know, you think, a reading list! But who has the time? Do they come as audio files? can I upload them to my ipod?)...
At 'in situ' on Wednesday 13 April 2005, 10:50 AM

Why At Swim-Two-Bird?
My last few Macs have had their hard drives named after Irish or Celtic literary takes on mythology. The last one was Tir-na n'Og and the current one is At Swim-to-Birds. Phil Gyford republishes Donald Barthelme's reading list and while DB claims it is...
At 'wake up!' on Wednesday 14 April 2004, 6:40 PM