David Long: You Are What You Read

David Long’s guest essay pretty much encapsulates what Beatrice is all about: introducing readers to writers. When I first saw his lists of what to read, I knew I wanted to find out more about where those lists came from…and he more than came through. I hope it’ll inspire you not only to read some of the writers he talks about, but his own recently published novel, The Inhabited World.

david-long.jpgI started keeping track of the books I read in 1979—not a reading journal, just a list, month by month (I’m a big believer in externalizing memory). I also keep other lists: a big list of novels and story collections (with a few memoirs, etc.) that I recommend when anyone asks (and when they don’t); a list of books from outside the U.S. (most in translation); a list of my hundred all-time favorites, in order… and this year I broke down and cobbled together my “life list,” organized by year of publication (lovely way to spend a rainy weekend). The big list and the hundred faves are posted at my website, along with a new invention called “fives”: Five Czech novels; five short, odd novels; five good novels you may not have heard of; five skewed-reality novels, etc.

A few points:

  • Except on the life list, it’s one book per writer. I have to keep thinking: What’s the one work I want someone else to read (not so tough when it’s Harper Lee, but what about Joyce Carol Oates?).
  • I can change my mind. Fascinations fade; then again, some books surprise you by how deeply they root themselves in your reading life.

  • These are not lists of Best Books. There’s a multitude of great novels and story collections I’ve never read (or read and don’t much like). No, this is my list; it’s biased, personal. These are works that still get under my skin. These are the ones that have marked me, that have sprung me from the here and now, or taught me what art is capable of—that have, in fact, become indispensable to my life as an artist.

To expand on that last idea: I absolutely believe reading and writing are two parts of one process. As Saul Bellow put it: A writer is a reader moved to emulation.

Or as I put it in an essay called “Making the Stony Stony” (Poets & Writers, 1998):

If you’re a younger writer, or otherwise caught up in the idea that you ought to be going it alone, you may believe that immersing yourself in the writings of others will make your own more conforming, less original, that your native outlook might be tainted. I’ve found the opposite to be true. The less you read, the likelier you are to fall back on commonplace truths—or, really, partial-truths—and the ordinary schmaltzy ways of expressing them. To say it another way: Be careful what you don’t read because the lack of it goes into your writing, too.

Do the books on the list have anything in common? Good question. The real subject of that essay I just mentioned was strangeness. Of course I don’t mean weirdness, twistedness. You’ll get a sense of what I do mean from the quote that gives the essay its curious title (in David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction):

In a famous essay first published in 1917, Victor Shklovsky argued that the essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in unfamiliar ways: Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war… And art exists to make one feel things, to make the stony stony.

Strangeness is an antidote to the awful sameness of received ideas. Seeking it becomes, I think, a moral imperative.

So I like books that are a category of one. Darkly funny books. Moody oddball books. Audaciously constructed books. Books with voice. Books that just nail their subject. Excellent books.

Here are the first dozen on my list of a hundred. You have a different dozen? Great, let’s talk.

  1. Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
  2. José Saramago, Blindness
  3. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  5. William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  6. Alice Munro, Selected Stories
  7. Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
  8. Mark Helprin, Ellis Island and Other Stories
  9. William Gaddis, J R
  10. Joyce Carol Oates, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
  11. Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
  12. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

20 August 2006 | guest authors |