Wednesday 0-fer

You may not have realized it, dear reader, but I’ve actually been adhering to a somewhat regular schedule with some of this blog’s features. Monday is What It Is day, Tuesday’s are for Lost in the Supermarket, Wednesday is 0-fer day, and Friday brings us Unrequired Reading! (Since Friends went off the air, Thursdays have been a bleak time for me.) (Just kidding; I’ve never actually seen a full episode of Friends, but that doesn’t mean it qualifies as an 0-fer.)

Maybe I’ll put up a sidebar that breaks out the schedule and shows the most recent post in each series. Considering how long it took me to go through my blogroll and pare away sites I’m no longer interested in (while adding a bazillion sites I’ve lately discovered), I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.

Anyway, I went downstairs to my library yesterday to figure out who this week’s 0-fer should be. There are plenty of candidates, as I’ve bought far too many books over the course of my life by far too many authors whom I’ll never get around to even sampling. Still, there’s no fun in bringing up an 0-fer whom no one has ever heard of (“Why, you’ve never read J.A. Macgillivray?!”), so I combed the shelves until I came up with . . .

D.H. Lawrence!

Yup! I’ve never read a word of his stuff: not Sons & Lovers, nor Lady Chatterley’s Lover, nor Women in Love, nor any other of the Love-related titles. Possibly for that reason.

A pal of mine from grad school has offered to read some Lawrence with me in a remote book club, but I’ve hemmed and hawed about that, since I’d feel too much pressure to

  1. read the book
  2. have something smart to say about it

Even though that’s, like, what I do.


I have a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that I take down from the shelf every year or so. I like to look through its four appendices and check off the “canonical” books that I’ve read. There are 37 pages of these lists, broken down into four Vico-esque eras of history: Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic.

I recall reading a New York magazine interview around the time of The Western Canon‘s publication (c. 1994) in which Mr. Bloom complained about having to produce the mammoth end-of-book list. His editors prevailed upon him to do it, I guess because it would be easier to hook reviewers, since they could now look to see if their favorite authors and titles had made the cut. And because dilettantes like me could start checklists!

[UPDATE! Article found, courtesy of Google’s copyright-be-damned policy! Here’s the paragraph I was trying to recall:

The list, Bloom says, is intended to be suggestive rather than prescriptive — which is just as well, since there are more than 850 authors cited. Indeed, says Bloom, the list may turn out to be a liability, stealing all the attention from the body of the book. “I was encouraged to do it by my agent and my editor,” he says woefully. “They may have been right, they may have been wrong. I’m not so sure that it was a good idea.”

Go read it!]

I admit that I find it fun to measure myself against lists like this. And, yes, I’m enough of a geek that I get a little thrill putting a check-mark next to a title that I’ve finished after years of false starts. I’m not out to “finish” Mr. Bloom’s list, obviously; I could enjoyably spend the rest of my days just reading Shakespeare and ignoring the hundreds of other titles he suggested, and I think he’d find that a perfectly fine choice.

But it’s nice to make progress. Last night, I took out my copy of The Western Canon and was surprised to find that a few books I read last year were on Mr. Bloom’s list: Aegypt and Love & Sleep. Check and check! Only 37 more books to go! On that page!

After checking off those John Crowley books, I got down to business. I flipped back to the Aristocratic Age, looked for the “FRANCE” section, then the entry for Michel de Montaigne. I proceeded to put a dark check-mark next to “Essays, translated by Donald Frame,” because after more than 2 years of reading, I have finished all 1,045 pages of Montaigne’s Essays, beyotch! I am D-U-N done! Celebrate me!

* * *

Still, all of that reading added up to just one check-mark, and you readers know that I have plenty of 0-fers out there!

I coincidentally came across a link to a literary blog I’d never read, The Elegant Variation. Jason Kottke linked to this post about literary critic James Wood’s 1994 response to Mr. Bloom’s lists. Mr. Wood offered up his own list of the best British & American books from 1945 to 1985!

I jumped down to the bottom of the list and started working my way up. At first, I thought, “I have not read a single one of these books! This will be the greatest 0-fer of all time!”

Eventually, I started coming across titles that I had read, so I decided to break the list down into four categories:

  1. Books I’ve Read (18)
  2. Books I’ve Started but Never Finished (5)
  3. Books I’ve Never Started (78!)
  4. Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of (25!)

I could probably break #3 down into Books I Plan To Read Someday and Books I Know I’ll Never Get Around To, but hey.

It’s important to blaze one’s own trail through the library and not to take any single source as too much of an authority. After all, Mr. Bloom includes four books by Don DeLillo on his list, so it’s not like we should regard his modern section too seriously. It’s called “Chaotic” for a reason, right? (Mr. Wood puts one of Mr. DeLillo’s books on his list, too. Sigh.)

In the spirit of celebrating my lacunae, here’s this week’s modified 0-fer list! (Go to that TEV post to get the original sequence of Mr. Wood’s list! And go check out that blog! It seems pretty neat!)

Books I’ve Read
William Burroughs – The Naked Lunch
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5
Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
Frederick Exley – A Fan’s Notes
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day
Philip Roth – Goodbye, Columbus; The Counterlife
JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
Robert Penn Warren – All The King’s Men
Don DeLillo – White Noise
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
George Orwell – 1984; Collected Essays and Journalism (4 vols)
JG Ballard – Concrete Island
Saul Bellow – Herzog
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49; V

Books I’ve Started But Never Finished
Harold Brodkey – Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
AS Byatt – Still Life
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Joseph Heller – Catch-22

Books I’ve Never Started
Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead; Armies of the Night
Walter Abish – How German Is It
Elizabeth Bishop – The Complete Poems
John Cheever – Collected Stories; Falconer
Toni Morrison – Sula
Bernard Malamud – The Assistant; The Stories of Bernard Malamud
William Trevor – Collected Stories
James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time; Giovanni’s Room
Howard Nemerov – Collected Poems
VS Naipaul – A House for Mr. Biswas; In a Free State; The Enigma of Arrival
Philip Roth – Reading Myself and Others
Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Frank O’Hara – Selected Poems
Sylvia Plath – Collected Poems
Ezra Pound – Pisan Cantos
John Barth – The Sotweed Factor
Saul Bellow –  The Adventures of Augie March; Seize the Day; Humboldt’s Gift
John Berryman – The Dream Songs; The Freedom of the Poet and Other Essays
Donald Barthelme – Sixty Stories
Wallace Stevens – Collected Poems
Eudora Welty – Collected Stories
William Carlos Williams – Paterson
Edmund White – A Boy’s Own Story
Amy Clampitt – The Kingfisher
WH Auden – The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays; Collected Poems
Angela Carter – The Magic Toyshop; Nights at the Circus
Bruce Chatwin – On The Black Hill
William Golding – Lord of the Flies; The Spire
WS Graham – Collected Poems
Raymond Carver – The Stories of Raymond Carver
Martin Amis – Money; The Moronic Inferno
Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Jonh Ashbery – Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Selected Poems
Geoffrey Hill – Collected Poems
Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Heritage and its History
Muriel Spark – Memento Mori; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Phillip Larkin – Collected Poems
Ian McEwan – First Love Last Rites; The Cement Garden
Andrew Motion – Secret Narratives
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net; The Bell; The Nice and the Good
Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Anthony Powell – A Dance of the Music of Time
John Updike – Of the Farm; The Centaur; The Rabbit Quartet; Hugging the Shore
Ted Hughes – Selected Poems 1957-81
VS Pritchett – Complete Stories; Complete Essays
Marianne Moore – Complete Poems
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children; The Satanic Verses
Anthony Burgess – Earthly Powers
Alan Sillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Graham Swift – Waterland
Iain Sinclair – Downriver
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited; The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of
JG Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur
Jane Bowles – Collected Works
Tim O’Brien – If I Die In A Combat Zone
LP Hartley – The Go-Between
Cynthia Ozick – The Messiah of Stockholm; Art and Ardour
Angus Wilson – The Wrong Set; Hemlock and After; Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Randall Jarrell – Poetry and the Age
Robert Lowell – Life Studies; For the Union Dead; Near the Ocean
Henry Green – Loving; Concluding; Nothing
Susan Sontag – Styles of Radical Will
Paul Bailey – Gabriel’s Lament
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Craig Raine – A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
Tom Paulin – Fivemiletown
James Fenton – The Memory of War
Denton Welch – A Voice Through a Cloud
Christine Brook-Rose – The Christine Brook-Rose Reader
Elizabeth Taylor – The Wedding Group

At dinner last night, Amy asked me what my next giganto-reading project will be, now that I’ve finished reading Montaigne. The first three things to flash through my mind were Plutarch, Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, and Shakespeare. I told her, “I’m gonna take a break for a while.”

David 0-fer Wallace?

It’s time for this week’s literary 0-fer! After laughing hysterically at the trailer for his biopic a week or so back, I realized that I’ve never read anything by . . . Truman Capote!

(Why did I find the trailer so funny? Because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head is larger than Truman Capote’s entire body! I’m sure he nailed Capote’s voice perfectly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not funny to see him try to play Capote. It just seemed like a comedy skit, sort of like the first time you heard Mike Tyson’s voice come out of Mike Tyson’s mouth.)

I just downloaded a sample of In Cold Blood to my Kindle, so maybe I’ll give him a try sometime.

But the literary figure I thought I’d ramble about this week is author and recent suicide David Foster Wallace, who’s the subject of a long-ass profile (that I haven’t read: 0-ferriffic!) in the new New Yorker.

I read Infinite Jest when it came out around 1995/6, back when I was still interested in the “encyclopedic novel,” as I misunderstood it from my college years. This thousand-page novel centers around an eponymous movie so entertaining that anyone who views it has no interest in doing anything but viewing it over and over. The irony is that I found the book so unentertaining that I had no interest in reading any of Wallace’s fiction again.

That said, I did enjoy some of his non-fiction, but his footnoting and other attempts at hypertextual digressions wearied me. It felt as if he really needed an editor, but was stuck with enablers who believed they were publishing genius. They must’ve felt like “the footnoting thing” was Wallace’s brand or something.

Then the roof caved in when the smartest person I know told me, “I don’t think Wallace is as smart as he thinks he is.”

I’m sure there are people who got a lot out of his books, and some, like Will Leitch in this Deadspin post, seem to hold Wallace’s literary torments in adoration:

I have never been happier to reside in the Blissful Mediocre. DFW was so good that it wasn’t enough to say something no one had said before; he forced himself to try to invent an entirely new way of saying it. That’s the type of thing that will drive a man mad. It’s hard enough to even make sense, let alone try to change the fashion in which humans communicate, avoid saying something any other person has ever said and the way they said it. Christ. It makes my brain bleed just thinking about it. David Foster Wallace was the guy from Pi, only with words instead of numbers. (Though he was into numbers too.)

On the other side, we get this post by Michael Blowhard that places Wallace within the milieu of contemporary academia, and posits that he may’ve been better off if he got out into the world. And maybe trying to invent a new way of conveying human experience isn’t the best use of one’s time; write something with real characters and a plot!

Interesting to learn that DFW was also a proponent of the supposed virtues of hyper self-awareness. Hey, I was once a grad student, and I remember toying with that idea too. (Why are so many bright people with a certain kind of lib-arts education so convinced that hyper-critical mirror-gazing is a worthwhile thing to spend time doing?) Although I’m generally a cheery soul, during my time in grad school even I started having anxiety attacks. I took them as a sign that maybe the time had come to ditch the showing-off-and-hiding-away-in-grad-school thing and move along into real life.

Somewhere in the middle, we get Ron Rosenbaum, who mentioned Wallace in his new Slate piece about three new novels that he adores. You’ve heard me ramble about how little interest I have in contemporary fiction, so I was glad to get some recommendations (the new Bernie Gunther novel was already on my wish list), although I’m still thinking of applying Zeke’s 3- to 5-year delay on novels, to let any hype subside.

About Infinite Jest, Ron writes:

It’s a book whose repertoire of derivative, post-Pynchon, oh-so-tiring tricks made me furious. They diminished DFW. They made it seem that the less talented among the literati had convinced him that fiction was a higher form than the transcendent reinvention of nonfiction he was engaged in, convinced him that he should channel his far-superior talents into an exhausting performance in an exhausted form (the postmodern novel) that was an all-too-sterile strain at profundity that — despite its title — contained not one laugh. This, in contrast to the effortless inimitable joyful comedy of his nonfiction, which surpassed in pleasure (and profundity) many of his contemporaries’ novels.

I should note that Ron’s 3 book recommendations — The Silver Swan, A Quiet Flame, and Year of the Dog — are all detective novels, which circles back to Michael Blowhard’s point that you can do an awful lot of good writing in the ghetto of “genre fiction.” As long as they’re not bullshit “deconstructions” of detective novels, a la that awful Paul Auster book, City of Glass.

Anyway, Wallace wasn’t an 0-fer, but he’s a writer I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have started reading if his career began now.

0-fer of the Week

What better day of the week than Wednesday to show off my lack of erudition? In an act of Godelian irrelevance, I’ll try to post a significant 0-fer (as in, “I’ve never read a book, play, story or essay by [x]”) every week.

This week’s 0-fer is  . . .

George Bernard Shaw!

You’d think, in my late-teen pretentious superhero-fixated years, I’d have mistakenly read Man and Superman, but you’d be wrong.

Now why don’t you leave a comment about one author you really should have read by now but never have?

You can find past 0-fers 0-ver here!


When I was a small press book publisher, I was put on the Comp list at Bookforum. Despite not having published a book since 2003 and closing down the company in 2004, I’ve remained on the freebie list. The new issue arrived last week, on the heels of my 0-fer festival (here, here and here).

So, of the 60+ books that got reviewed in this ish, how many of them was I interested in reading about, and possibly buying?

Two: The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern and Herbie Archives. (Curiously, Dan Nadel’s review of Herbie — a comic book about a fat guy who gets superpowers from enchanted lollipops — was placed in the nonfiction section of the table of contents.)

I still need to check out William Vollmann’s essay on why Nazi photography is creepy. Or maybe I don’t. And Tom Vanderbilt’s review of books on how the suburbs and the internet are alienating or fragmenting or something seems pretty blatherous. I did have high hopes for this Richard Price interview, but then I discovered that it was a Richard Prince interview.

I’ve been going on lately about my inability to read contemporary books, but I realized that I should check to make sure I’m not full of crap. To that end, I checked through the last 3 years of my list of All The Books I’ve Read, sorted by date of publication, and realized that I am full of crap! Here’s a PDF of 2006-2008, each year sorted by book-date.

I decided to include all books from that year and the previous one as “brand spankin’ new,” arbitrary as that seems.

  • 2006: 5 new books (2 novels), 11 overall published this decade, 35 overall
  • 2007: 7 new (4 novels & 1 play), 14 from this decade, 31 overall
  • 2008: 8 new (6 novels), 13 from this decade, 29 overall

So I guess I have been more susceptible to book-hype lately! Or there were a bunch of good books out last year. Still, maybe I should follow the suggestion of one of my newer readers (hey, Zeke!) and put a ban on any books that are fewer than 3 years old.