Having run out of shelf space, I’ve been placing newly acquired books in a stack beneath my hall table. It’s my intent to read those titles before getting to work on any of the others that are already shelved in my apartment. The books in this “to read” pile are:
Gould’s Book of Fish â€“ Richard Flanagan (in progress)
Rembrandt’s Eyes â€“ Simon Schama (in progress)
Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archeology of the Minoan Myth â€“ Joseph Alexander McGillivray (in progress)
Pattern Recognition â€“ William Gibson
The Spooky Art â€“ Norman Mailer
The Art of Happiness â€“ The Dalai Lama
Master Class â€“ Paul West
Ella Minnow Pea â€“ Mark Dunn
The Coast of Utopia â€“ Tom Stoppard
The Rush for Second Place â€“ William Gaddis
Mendelssohn is on the Roof â€“ Jiri Weil
Abe: Wrong for All the Right Reasons â€“ Glenn Dakin
The Rainbow â€“ DH Lawrence
Sons & Lovers â€“ DH Lawrence
Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun â€“ Paul West
Graham Greene Omnibus
The Heart of the Matter
The Burnt-Out Case
The Third Man
The Quiet American
Loser Takes All
The Power and the Glory
Possession â€“ A.S. Byatt
All Stories Are True â€“ John Edgar Wideman
Nightwood â€“ Djuna Barnes
Nova â€“ Samuel R. Delany
The Encyclopedia of the Dead â€“ Danilo Kis
Philip Roth & the Jews â€“ Alan Cooper
Gothic â€“ Richard Davenport-Hines
Little, Big â€“ John Crowley
Underworld â€“ Don DeLillo
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius â€“ Dave Eggers
One thing to know about me is that I’m a man who qualifies virtually everything. So, to clarify one impression that I’m afraid this list of unread books might give, I’d like to make some points about the final two selections.
I don’t like Don DeLillo’s work in general. I think he’s overrated and tends to obfuscate as a replacement for having something to say. My opinion is somewhat mirrored by B.R. Myers in his Reader’s Manifesto, which was first published in the Atlantic Monthly.
I first tried reading Underworld shortly after it was released, a season that saw strong new works from a number of older writers (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and Normal Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son). I dropped the book after 30 pages, when it became evident to me that DeLillo’s writing was nowhere near the level of those other three authors. During an early passage, a man in the 1950s discourses about the Importance of baseball. I was stunned that a writer with such affection for the game, beginning what many felt to be his magnum opus, felt the need to try to tell the reader everything of importance about the sport, rather than finding a way to show it to us. I decided I had better things to do than subject myself to the rest of the book.
Taking that into account, I’m willing to give it another chance. I saw the book recently in the “to sell” box in my attic space. I thought about something Harold Bloom once wrote in The Western Canon, about several contemporary writers whom he most definitely did not think would reach canonical status. He wrote:
Robert Lowell and Philip Larkin are here [on this list of canonical writers] because I seem to be the only critic alive who regards them as over-esteemed, and so I am probably wrong and must assume that I am blinded by extra-aesthetic considerations, which I abhor and try to avoid.
In that spirit, I’m willing to give Underworld another chance.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is in the same boat. I picked up a paperback copy of the book in Heathrow during a business trip to Milan in the fall of 2000 (a journey that warrants another rambling entry in this blog). I read half the book during the trip, and was astonished at how boring it all was. Outside of a few genuinely touching or funny passages about the difficulties of a 20-something man raising his kid brother, the book was almost completely lifeless. The facile PoMo stance of the author also served to help me develop one of my more severe aesthetic critiques: my dislike of works that make middle-brow people feel smarter than they are. This is a refinement of a principle I used to refer to as the “lowest college denominator,” which I’ll expound on at length some other time.
Suffice to say, inclusion of smarty-pants postmodernist tricks and pre-emptive, but logically specious arguments to counter any critique of his work has placed Eggers firmly in my “lowest college denominator” segment.
But, again, I’m willing to give it a second shot, and I’ll see if I’m wrong.
If there’s any public clamor for such a thing, I’ll provide a link to a bibliography of everydarnbook I’ve read since 1989. I only recently (in the last two years) started writing annotations on those titles in the list, which makes for even more fun & excitement (if you lead a sad & boring life).