I work in a bookstore in San Francisco. I’ve worked at a bookstore in SoCal, and in Philadelphia and in Charlotte. It appears I have a singular talent for which I am only fit for one profession. That talent is an ability to pretend like I care when customers talk to me. The question is, Will I use my abilities for good or evil…
Part of my job is making suggestions for what people should read. If they are holding a copy of Twilight in their hands, I suggest they go the fuck away (in my head). Otherwise, I have my reliable legion of choices, the ones I try to sell to people even when they clearly have no interest. To be honest, I’m pretty good at ferreting out which customers will be receptive to my tastes and to which ones I should just recommend The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or Olive Kitteridge (both perfectly fine books, I’m sure, that I will never read, I’m even more sure).
I was watching the latest episode of Weeds and I noticed that one of the sons, Silas, was given David Foster Wallace’s heady tome Infinite Jest to read, and that struck me as kind of funny. In the first few seasons, Weeds was a show for indie tastes (both in the literal, independent sense, and the more pejorative Indie sense), with it’s counter-Bush politics and frequent use of music by the more folky side of the Pitchfork-approved Indie universe. Whether it’s because Obama’s in office, or because one can’t remain an underdog forever (unless you’re Rocky Balboa), the show seems to have lost that outsider feel (and sense of humor… except for Andy, still killing it weekly). But my point is not to review the show, but to return to the choice of Infinite Jest.
Since Wallace killed himself (a truly ironic or fitting death, depending on if you’ve read his commencement speech entitled “This Is Water”), he’s gone from being “The Great Writer of this Generation” for people in the know with off-kilter tastes to being “The Great Writer of this Generation” as acknowledged by Entertainment Weekly. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s a big difference. And lucky for him, as a dead artist, he will be mostly immune to any backlash (people who hate on Kurt Cobain are mostly ignored as sounding bitter and moronic… and that’s because people who hate on Kurt are morons).
Here’s the thing, I’ve never read Infinite Jest and I very well never will. It’s not Olive Kitteridge where I have little to no interest. I actually have great interest in reading it, but I know there is so much out there to read and I know that my experience of reading it will be largely tainted by the culture that exists around the book (ever thicker when you work in bookstores). It certainly isn’t the size that holds me back. I’ve read War and Peace (liked it) and a great deal of Dostoevsky, including his opus, The Brothers Karamazov (loved it). What’s more daunting than the physical size of the book is the size of the hype surrounding it.
You see, there are plenty of those hipster/Indie douchebags out there who want to listen to obscure music and read obscure books and watch obscure movies because they want to horde over other people how much more worldly and original they are then you are. But, there are other of us who like obscure art because it makes the appreciation of them easier, less bogged down in the baggage of other people’s opinions and interpretations. There is something special about finding a book that you’ve heard nothing of, read no reviews about and learned nothing about the author before you just fall into it and, if lucky, fall in love with it. (I’m not saying we in the latter category aren’t douchebags, it’s just for reasons unrelated to our tastes in art. Learn to tell the difference. It could save your life someday.)
So, while I may truly be missing out on a great literary experience by passing on Infinite Jest, I know that there are plenty of other great works to read that are quite worth my time, and very well could offer me just as amazing a literary experience.
And those are the types I suggest to customers, sometimes, if I think they’ll be receptive. There are plenty of times when a customer says, “Oh, yeah, that sounds interesting”, and then 10 minutes later I find the book I suggested left on a random shelf. And I cry a little bit.
So, here, for your reading pleasure, I’m going to tell you about some of my favorite books, fiction and non-fiction (funny thing, 5 years ago, I never read non-fiction; now, easily more than half of what I read is non-fiction). I’m not telling you to read these books. In fact, don’t read them. If you see them on a bookshelf, set it down and run, run for your goddamn life. Or not.
All I’m saying is, I may list some books you’ve never heard of, or some you have, and they may be to your tastes, and they may not. If you need a new book to read, feel free to read them, or feel free to read the countless other books sitting on the bookshelf of your local store that need the love just as much as these do.
This won’t be a top 10 list, unless it becomes one. I don’t, from the onset, know how many titles I’m going to list. I’ll just write about the ones I like and see where we end up. Most of these are books I stumbled across without a recommendation or knowing much information beforehand. Maybe the title grabbed me, or the cover, or just the subject. I hope you enjoy. Or don’t. If you don’t though, you should pick up the second book in the Twilight series, I hear that’s where it gets really good.
Here we go (in no order, whatsoever):
Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott is a fucked up book. In a good way. The characters are really fucked up. And not in a Chuck Palahnuik, Alternate-universe of totally fucked up people sort of fucked up. Genuinely, honestly, true-to-life fucked up. Told in reverse, the story tells of two former foster kids who were sexually abused as children and explores their relationships (together and with others) and their masochistic tendencies. Each new chapter brings you closer to the abuse of the past, and you cringe all the way through, but never once does the story feel like it’s meant to shock. You love these people and hate every moment of their lives. Or, at least, I did. You might not give a lick.
So Many Ways to Begin and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. I read So Many Ways first, even though it’s the author’s second book. If you choose to read Mcgregor, feel free to read in whatever order you want (though So Many Ways has still not been published in paperback stateside, so you might have to go to the local library for it). I’m not going to describe the plots. There is some mystery at the heart of them, due in large part to the semi-stream of consciousness style, but that’s all secondary to the fact that nobody writing today crafts sentences and imagery with such skill and power. I should hate McGregor for writing exactly the type of literary fiction I want to write, but I can’t because he does it so perfectly I can only be in awe. My version of perfection.
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. A non-fiction book. Johnson is one of my favorite writers, reliably fascinating because he injects his writing with the sort of exuberance that tells you this is a subject he is honestly interested in, and you should be, too. I love his books, but Ghost Map is my favorite and stands out as a perfect amalgamation of his frequent themes: Information emergence, city formation, the transformative power of science and the power that individuals have to change history. Great book.
Lockpick Pornography by Joey Comeau. This book is not right. This book is fucked up. It takes the Palahnuik version of fucked up and does dirty, dirty, dirty things to it. Comeau writes one of my favorite online comics (A Softer World), but he also has two books, this one and another called Overqualified. I love them both, though neither are going to be found in your bookstore, so buy them from his site. I’m actually breaking my rule to say flat out, buy this book. And I say that just to support him. I don’t even care if you actually read it. I’m not even going to tell you what it’s about. But that is an Ernie mask on the cover. There’s vandalism involved.
Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow is that rare book that makes philosophy (and philosophers) interesting. Look, I appreciate that philosophy has been important to the growth of humanity, both in terms of evolution and as a society. Every school of thought can be called a ‘philosophy’ and that includes pure science (which I would deem, the Final Philosophy, the ultimate result of millennia of growth). But, philosophy is so often the masturbatory effort of intellectuals, bearing little relevance to reality or what’s going on in nature. I think Wittgenstein is a prime example of such a philosopher. That said, it’s important to know your history and the schools of philosophy that guide the present, and this book gives you both. A great way to understand some of the most important philosophical minds of the past 100 years without having to submerge into the dirty wet sock of the philosophical pastime.
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan is one of many great books that explore why people have beliefs in God, Aliens, Tom Cruise, etc (another one I recommend is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert; and how are you doing Amy K?). But, it’s Carl Sagan. That’s right, Carl Motherfucking Sagan. How can you not love him? I’d suggest anybody with a brain read at least one of his books, but I’m not certain people with brains still exist. It’s not always clear. (I’d also recommend The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, because it’s great, but talk about a book with a lot of cultural baggage.)
The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie. This one is just fun. It’s Gregory House for chrissake! The story bustles along, and while it’s not ‘great’ literature, anyone who enjoys wry British humo(u)r will enjoy themselves thoroughly. Laurie is a brilliant actor, a hilarious sketch comedy king, a singer/songwriter and also the author of this frikkin’-funny, entertaining bit of spy literature. And he’s pretty damn good looking, too (there’s just something about blue eyes, am I right?). Life isn’t fair to you or anyone else, only to Hugh. But at least he gives back to us. He’s kindhearted like that.
Hemingway Vs. Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson is a profile of the two big names of 20th century American literature. What more needs to be said. Personal taste aside (I much prefer Fitzgerald), it’s a fascinating and engrossing biography of their friendship/rivalry. I’d say it’s probably even more interesting for all you writers out there who have some sort of relationship with a fellow writer. Our egos are powerful things, aren’t they? Sadly, I think this book is out of print, but you should be able to find it somewhere. If you choose to go that route. And I’m not telling you to.
So, how many is that? I don’t know, but I guess that’s enough for now. There are millions of titles out there, and at least a few of them aren’t on Oprah’s Book Club list. You should try to read one of them, and maybe someday one of them will be mine.