The Quarterly Conversation’s Reading Resolutions 2009

Scott Esposito, Scott Bryan Wilson, John Lingan, Lauren Elkin, Sacha Arnold, Ryan Call, Levi Stahl, Robert Silva, Barrett Hathcock, Javier Moreno

Scott Esposito

(Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.)

My reading is fairly haphazard, and that’s the way I like it. But for the past couple of years I’ve enjoyed starting the year with some reading resolutions, if only as a way to assess where I’ve been headed and where I’d like to be going.

In the past these resolutions have been purposely modest. Somehow, despite their decidedly small stature, I’ve had plenty of trouble keeping to them, and I have always felt sort of lame for failing to meet the modest goals I set before myself every year.

So for this year I thought, why not try the opposite? Instead of jotting down a few small reading goals that I’ll feel inadequate over failing to meet, why not pitch my hopes extravagantly–and then greet my impending failure with the knowledge that I struggled against formidable odds?

In other words, why not purposely make reading resolutions for 2009 that, though not technically impossible, are nonetheless laughably unfulfillable?

So, in that spirit, here are my reading resolutions for 2009:

Since about 2005, my reading has gotten more and more caught up with works in translation, and as such I’ve begun to notice that as I’ve read more classic authors from Europe and South America, I’ve largely stopped reading classic American authors. So, in 2009 I’d like to start by focusing a little more on the Americans.

I’m most interested in taking on some of the great U.S. writers from the 19th century. That would include the two best-known American Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson, as well as three poets: Dickinson, Longfellow, Whitman. I should also acquaint myself with Poe, who has been a gap in my reading for far too long, and reacquaint myself with Melville’s Moby-Dick, as well as get in to his other books. Hawthorne and Twain seem to have stuck the best in my memory from the force-feeding of American writers that took place in high school, but it wouldn’t be bad to take another look at their work as well.

Going back to the beginning of the century, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper intrigue me, although to be painfully honest, I’m not sure a whole lot of American lit. pre-1800 is worth the time.

And then we get to the Americans from the 20th century, by far the century of which I have the most knowledge, so far as the three previous centuries of my nation’s literary history go. But still, plenty of gaps here: I’d like to take on some of our major poets (Wallace Stevens, e e cummings, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, Frank Bidart) as well as a number of authors I’ve afraid to admit I haven’t read: Gertrude Stein and Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner (I’ve only read The Sound and the Fury), John Steinbeck, John Barth (I’ve only read Lost in the Funhouse), Donald Barthelme (I’ve only read scattered stories), Philip Roth (I’ve only read Portnoy’s Complaint), and Stephen Dixon. I also want to read Raymond Carver, starting with Short Cuts, and I also wouldn’t mind re-reading Gravity’s Rainbow, as it feels like it’s about the right time for it.

There’s plenty of reading beyond the U.S. to do.

First, there are those writers whose complete fiction I’d like to finally finish off for 2009: those would  include Manuel Puig, Proust, Kafka, Sebald, and Cormac McCarthy (starting with his older works Child of God and The Orchard Keeper).

Then there the fat books I’d like to knock off in 2009. Those would include: Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes, The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford (and his A Call, and whatever else of Ford’s I can get my hands on), Ulysses, I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki (how can you not want to read a 600-page novel narrated by a feline and written by one of Japan’s most renowned authors?), The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessig, the two Manns (Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain), Life in Mexico by Frances Calderon de la Barca, and Rabelais.

And then the short books: the works of Thomas Bernhard, the works of Cesar Aira, more from the French New Novelists, more from Raymond Queneau.

And then we get to the authors I’ve become intrigued by while editing The Quarterly Conversation: Dumitru Tsepeneag, Camilo José Cela, Murray Bail, and Jose Maria Eça de Queirós, among others.

And then there are the authors I’ve first read while judging the 2008 Best Translated Book award that I’ll definitely want to hear more from: Victor Serge, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Imre Kertesz, Elias Khoury, and S. Yizhar.

In terms of theory and criticism, there are: Viktor Shklovsky’s Energy of Delusion, Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight, Derrida, Roland Barthes, The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling, Matthew Arnold, Pierre Bayard (whose How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read I thought was excellent), more Bakhtin, more Frye, more Booth.

And then second to last of all, there are the authors that I wish I could read in 2009, but cannot, because as far as I know they only have had one book translated into English, and I can’t read their original language. These would include: Attila Bartis and Amanda Michalopoulou.

And lastly, there are the books I’d like to read that are not strictly related to literature. But I think that’s enough as it is.

Scott Bryan Wilson

(Scott Bryan Wilson is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. He most recently reviewed Tranquility by Attila Bartis.)

According to my stats on Goodreads, by mid-December 2008, I read 132 books for the year. Granted, probably 30 of those were poetry chapbooks, but there were enough 2666s & Easy Chains & Omega Minors & Executioner’s Songs & Darkmans to balance that out. So I am setting out a pretty bold list of stuff to get to in 2009.

Aside from next year’s big books which I’m looking forward to—Vollmann’s Imperial, Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, etc—and all the new books by writers I follow or whose first books I’m excited about—Bolano, Jack Gilbert, Javier Marias, Guillermo Rosales—I’m planning out a hefty number of things I’d like to read. The great thing about these lists is that I make them every year, get to maybe 50% of the books on them, get sidetracked by all the other great books that come along or are recommended or which I discover or which I review, so I read a huge amount in the end anyway. It’s very exciting. Anyway:

Clarel, by Herman Melville—this is finally out in an affordable paperback, and I’m really excited to read this, which has to this point been one of the rarest (and the longest!) of Melville’s works. (As a side-note, if you’re interested in Melville or Moby-Dick at all, I cannot recommend highly enough poet Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary. It’s one of the most illuminating and poetic and powerful works about Moby-Dick, and one of the best books I read in 2008.)

Richard Powers—Given that I’ve read all pretty much everything by all the major postmodernists (or the writers who are routinely lumped together in that category)—Gaddis, Pynchon, Wallace, etc—I’m slightly shamed that I’ve never read Powers. (Well, maybe I’ve read Powers—there’s lots of online speculation that Mr. Powers is Evan Dara, and I love Dara’s two novels, so who knows. At any rate if Powers is half as good as Dara then I’m sure I’ll be quite happy with him.)

Re-read Gaddis’s J R: It’s my favorite novel, and I’ve read it twice, but I want to go back through it this year, since it’s been a while. The only book which has ever made me laugh out loud at least once a page; not a small feat given that it’s 726 pages long . . .

Ancient History: A Paraphase by Joseph McElroy—the only novel I’ve not read by McElroy (one of those big-book postmodernists) is one of the hardest to find (at least in an affordable edition), since it never came out in paperback. Luckily I scored mine at one of Skyline Books’ 30% off sales last year so I have no excuse at this point.

The Dead of the House by Hannah Green: Her only novel, and apparently it’s phenomenal. It’s been sitting by my reading chair for three months now. It’s not even that long. It’s being crushed by the other to-be-read-now! books on top of it.

War and Peace/Big Russian Novels: This one’s been on my last three lists. It’s been sitting on my shelf taunting me for longer than that. And as far as big Russian novels go, I’m woefully underread in them, so maybe I can rectify that this year as well, or at least get a little less underread.

Gathering Evidence: it’s the only Bernhard book available in English which I haven’t read, so if I don’t get to this one before the end of the year, I’ll read it in 2009, for sure.

There are plenty of writers from whom I’ve read one or two works and whose other books I would like to read as well (Lydia Millet, Nicola Barker), lots of last-man-standing novels in big oeuvres which I’d like to read to complete them all (Americana, Fathers and Crows, Frog), and I’m sure plenty of others will come along to keep me from getting bored.

ADDENDUM (2 January):
I finished The Dead of the House before this was posted; if it doesn’t squeeze its way into my end-of-2009 top-ten list, I’ll be surprised. Very beautiful and elegant and moving and perfect. Looks like Turtle Point Press has just re-issued it in paperback. Furthermore, the following books are now on my to-be-read-in-2009 list, having been ordered after receiving a flurry of xmas gift cards:

Pigeon PostDumitru Tsepeneag
The Discovery of Heaven – Harry Mulisch
The Sleepwalkers – Hermann Broch
The House of Breath – William Goyen
The Aesthetics of Resistance Volume 1: A Novel – Peter Weiss
Girl Factory – Jim Krusoe (see our review)
Smile as They Bow – Nu Nu Yi
The Interrogation – JMG Le Clezio
Log of the SS Mrs Unguentine – Stanley Crawford
Arbitrary Tales – Daniel Borzutzky
Darklight – Toby Olson

god’s livestock policy – Stan Apps
How to Laugh – Miles Champion
The Dance Most of All – Jack Gilbert (oh hell yes)
This Nest, Swift Passerine – Dan Beachy-Quick

Sarah Kane: Complete Plays

true crime (a nonguilty pleasure, though these are a bit more highbrow than the seedy ones I usually read):
True Crime: An American Anthology – ed. Harold Schechter
The Onion Field – Joseph Wambaugh
Fatal Vision – Joe McGinness

John Lingan

(John Lingan is a frequent contributor to The Quarterly Conversation. In the Winter issue, he reconsidered William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R through the lens of work.)

A number of my most rewarding reads of 2008 were total surprises, but I plan to follow their lead into ’09. First, my inaugural encounters with Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem (A Scanner Darkly and Solaris, respectively) led me to work backwards and revisit some of H.G. Wells’ early novels, which I loved as a kid. These were all exciting enough that I’ll be making a concerted effort to belatedly get into science fiction (I suppose I should be calling it "sf"?) this year. Looking at the bookshelf, it seems I’ll be starting with The Left Hand of Darkness, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and James Blish’s Cities in Flight tetralogy. Obvious choices, sure, but I’m a neophyte here and have some catching up to do. Recommendations welcome.

I also started both Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Loren Eiseley’s The Invisible Pyramid purely by pulling them off different shelves on a whim. The former is as canonized as the latter is obscure, but both are the kind of meditative, morally urgent writing that I find myself desiring more and more these days. Leopold was a naturalist and outdoorsman and Eiseley was a scientist, but they both used the natural world and man’s destruction of it as a jumping-off point for nearly Montaigne-like (in both scope and aesthetic achievement) pronouncements on greater themes. With those two (and bits of William Vollmann’s The Atlas) as my inspiration, I’ll be searching out more nature/travel nonfiction writing, starting with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Apsley Cherry Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, and, if I’m up for the attention-span challenge Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West.

Happy reading to everyone in the new year.

Lauren Elkin

(Lauren Elkin most recently wrote for The Quarterly Conversation on the French artist and writer Claude Cahun.)

First up is Samuel Pepys’ diary; later in the year I hope to get to George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, and Flush, Virginia Woolf’s book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog.

And on the French front– I have a growing stack of George Sand that I want to read–Elle et lui, Indiana, her correspondence with Alfred de Musset.
Colette: Sido and Le Blé en herbe.

I’ve been working my way through Balzac’s Comédie humaine, and next up are Le Peau de chagrin and Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes.
Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize and L’année terrible

Annie Leclerc, more or less everything she wrote

André Gide’s diaries

Some books I bought in 2008 but still haven’t gotten to were Will Self’s Psychogeography, Olivier Rolin’s Un chasseur de lions, & Nancy Huston’s book on the imagination, L’Espèce Fabulatrice.

I think Orhan Pamuk has a new novel out this year, is that true? If so I’ll look forward to that.

Otherwise– I look forward to being surprised! I always have the best reading intentions at the beginning of the year, but I generally find the book fates guide me to whatever I’m meant to read at the appropriate moment. And then the list goes out the window . . .

Sacha Arnold

(Sacha Arnold is a senior editor of The Quarterly Conversation. His most recent piece was on the novelist Carter Scholz.)

I don’t formally plan my reading very much, preferring to get pulled
serendipitously in directions suggested by whatever I’m reading
currently. Right now I’m just trying to keep current with what we’re
covering in The Quarterly Conversation, and am in the middle of 2666 (which I’m finding both more tightly constructed and more humorous than most of the reviews led me to expect).  Next up is Tranquility, a book whose exquisite misery sounds like exactly my kind of thing.

Beyond the hot new (or at least newly translated) stuff, I’ve been meaning to read The Idiot
for a long time-–it’s the only one of Dostoevsky’s major works I
haven’t read, and I’m curious to experience the "richly complex
pattern," "revelations about memory vs. loss," and "erotic beauty" that
make it one of William T. Vollmann’s favorites.

I wish I’d had happier reasons to think about David Foster Wallace’s place in the canon in 2008, but looking back at his life and work has strengthened my resolve to finally read his first two books, The Broom of the System and Girl with Curious Hair. I also want to have a look at his undergraduate thesis in philosophy if it ever becomes publicly available–I think I remember enough modal logic from my college days to understand that thing.

Speaking of philosophy, one of the greats I never got to study properly in school is Arthur Schopenhauer,
a strong influence on Nietzsche, Borges, and many others. If I’m
lucky, I’ll be able to reserve a month or two in 2009 to work through The World as Will and Representation, the major expression of his thought. Assuming some new discovery doesn’t derail my plan, of course . . .

Ryan Call

(Ryan Call is af requent contributor to The Quarterly Conversation. He most recently reviewed boring boring boring boring boring boring boring by Zach Plague.)

Usually my reading list is determined by what projects I’m currently working on: fiction, reviews, course planning, and so on. In the past, I’ve tried to have several kinds of books going at once: a classic, a contemporary, and a book of nonfiction. Now, for example, I’m slowly reading Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino, Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler (forthcoming Featherproof Books), and The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather. Weather has worked its way into my writing recently, so those sorts of books have been helpful to look at, to get a sense for how others write about weather, how weather feels on the page, the nature of it.

But this coming year, I’m going to add a fourth category, as there’s a possibility that I’ll be going on a family vacation to Russia this summer. I haven’t read much Russian literature at all, aside from Anna Karenina, Notes from Underground, and the stories of Chekhov and Gogol, so I think now more than ever is a good time to introduce myself to some of the Russian greats.

Below is my perhaps too ambitious list; whether or not I follow it depends on how well my next semester moves along. And I realize that these selections are in no way new or surprising to a well-read audience of TQC readers, so I welcome any suggestions you might have.

Eugene Onegin by Aleksander Pushkin
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
St. Petersburg by Andrei Biely
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Levi Stahl

(Levi Stahl most recently reviewed The Romantic Dogs by Roberto Bolano for The Quarterly Conversation.)

My reading pattern tends to resemble a drunken stagger: I veer, I backtrack, I wander aimlessly. Or maybe I’m a crow, my eye constantly caught by shiny baubles. As such, though I read a lot, I’m not good at holding to plans or patterns, and my bookshelves are the opposite of food-service’s "first in, first out" system. One author mentions another in an interview, which leads me to another one that is mentioned in the jacket copy, another in the bibliography, and on and on. But maybe this exercise of making some proper resolutions will help that; I’m willing to try.

My first resolution, and the one I’m most likely to hold, is to read more translated fiction this year. I’m going to try to make my way through a lot of the titles on the Open Letter Best Translation Award shortlist, of which I’ve only read three or four so far, and I’m also planning to continue my excursions of the past couple of years into literature translated from Spanish. I’ve yet to be disappointed on that journey, which has introduced me to Javier Marias, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Roberto Bolano, among others.

I also think this may be my year to finally settle down to reading Chekhov. Aside from his wonderful letters, I’ve read nearly nothing by him: some stories in college, which at the time did nothing for me–too understated for the reader I was then, I think. But even leaving aside his position in world literature, I have had enough friends and trusted readers personally plead his case that it’s past time I give him a proper chance.

My third resolution is simply to expand the range of the crime novels I read. Though I’ve been a fan for a long time, my knowledge, even of established classics, has many gaps–I’ve never read Jim Thompson, for example–and my reading of new books is extremely patchy, though I know there’s a lot of good work being done.

Finally, the resolution that’s going to take the most work: reading more poetry. A lot of my reading takes place on my daily L and bus rides, and while I can easily sink into a novel on the train, I’ve always found poetry to be too elusive and difficult to read amid the bustle of the commute. So I read less poetry than I’d like to; this year I’ll figure out a way to change that, improving my schoolboy’s knowledge of past verse and becoming better acquainted with contemporary poets as well.

Robert Silva

(Robert Silva most recently reviewed The Implacable Order of Things by José Luis Peixoto in The Quarterly Conversation.)

Aristocrats in immaculate parlors, privileged ladies in romantic dilemmas, and peasants among heaths, moors, and overcast skies. This is more or less my conception of British literature.  It’s been colored by Masterpiece Theatre, Merchant and Ivory films, and Yankee parochialism. And it’s unfortunately influenced my reading habits.

While diligently working my way through the great writers of South America, Japan, and Eastern Europe, I’ve barely dipped at toe into Britain’s frigid waters. D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Wolfe, E.M. Forster, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot—strangers one and all.

It’s a formidable gap and one for which I plan to make amends. But it’s hard to know where to start.

Fortunately, I have some book recommendations from my favorite source: writers I admire. W.G. Sebald acknowledges Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as helping inspire his layered prose style. Charles Bukowski writes movingly about discovering D.H. Lawrence as a young man in Ham on Rye. “The lines on the page were pulled tight, like a man screaming, but not ‘Joe where are you?’ More like Joe, where was anything?” Meanwhile, the black comedy of Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust steadied Jonathan Raban on his Brechtian sea voyage in Passage to Juneau.

For 2009, I hope to acquaint myself with some of these writers, form lasting friendships with others, and possibly begin a blood feud with Jane Austen that will last until my dying days.

Barrett Hathcock

(Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation. He most recently a href=””>discussed his creative writing vis a vis his work writing as part of Issue 14’s special Writing and Work section.)

Like Scott mentioned in his Reading Resolutions for 2009, my reading tends to be haphazard, a sort of blind, intuitive groping. I’m a schoolboy at heart, so I’m always drafting lists of authors to read, periods and places still unexplored. But then after the list is complete, I often skip homework and flee the classroom of myself for whatever’s most indulgently attractive on the shelves at that precise moment.

All that considered, I’d like to Caulk the Gaps this year—re-visit a selection of authors I read semi-blindly or incompletely on my first go around. I have a friend who rigorously reads the entire catalog of certain authors, proceeding chronologically and uncompromisingly like some sort of literary marine. I tend to drive through an author’s oeuvre really fast, coasting through stoplights and missing almost everything except the big land marks. And so . . .

John Cheever: I’m cheating a bit here with this one, since I’m teaching The Stories of John Cheever in a class this spring. But I’m hoping to use the occasion to re-educate myself—not only to revisit stories skipped years ago but also to visit the novels I missed: The Wapshot Scandal, Bullet Park, and Falconer being the main locations of interest. Plus, I’ve just finished Capote’s In Cold Blood and I’ve been watching that show Mad Men and therefore feel primed for some mid-century realism—a mixture of commuter trains, slowly degrading traditional gender roles, and lots and lots of gin.

Speaking of gin, I’d also like to read Richard Yates this year. I read an excerpt of Blake Bailey’s biography of Cheever in The Believer recently and after being amazed at how much the guy drank—it made me feel wonderfully healthy—I remembered that Bailey’s also written a biography of Yates, another famed drinker and realist. Hopefully, my winter-spring jaunt in to the Land of Cheever can be an occasion to read Bailey’s new biography, which comes out in March, and then use it as an associative vehicle into Yates, in many ways Cheever’s descendant. My main goal here is that newly movie-fied novel Revolutionary Road, which has been so enthusiastically praised by so many friends that to continue not reading it amounts to a kind of insult. And this novel might hopefully lead to reading his story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, surely one of the best titles for a collection I’ve ever heard. And maybe that will then lead to reading Bailey’s biography of Yates, though by then I might just need to dry out.

And to aid me in that drying out, I then plan to move onto Faulkner. Salud!

Javier Moreno

(Javier Moreno last wrote on the work of Rodrigo Fresan for The Quarterly Conversation.)

I think it is time for me to systematically read William T. Vollman. I’ve been postponing this for way too long. I loved his "Three Meditations on Death" but I’ve never gone beyond that lovely essay (besides some short pieces found here and there). My self-Christmas present last December, thus, included The Rainbow Stories and Rising Up and Rising Down (the abridged version, of course). Yesterday, I read the introduction of the later and it made me recall the pleasure and excitement of reading the "Three Meditations" the first time. After these two I will probably read The Royal Family and Europe Central, and The Atlas, perhaps, if time permits.

Since September I’m living in Lyon, and although my knowledge of French is still quite rudimentary, I’m trying to improve it by reading stuff. French contemporary literature, unfortunately, doesn’t interest me much (One of my last year’s big deceptions was Littel’s Les Bienveillantes. The Spanish translation ("Las Benévolas") was dull and disrespectfully long and dull again) but I’ve noticed that France’s range of graphic novels is amazingly rich. After visiting a few bookstores and libraries I’ve concluded that if anything interesting is happening (excluding Nothomb and Houllebecq) in French lit culture it is happening in a neighborhood of those beautifully edited sixty-something page volumes with double and triple authors, and as far away as possible from the Goncourt prize and the traditional and absurd "rentrée litteraire" (which more or less forces any release to be done in August. In 2008 around 700 novels were released (puked) during that month in France; most, naturally, got lost.) This is the reason I plan to read the more or less classic steampunk series Les Cités Obscures, by Schuiten and Peeters; the surreal (I already started) Le Roi des Mouches, by Mezzo and Pirus, and the vague series of books by Tardi on the First World War.

I’ll also give a chance to Texaco, by Patrick Chamoiseau; this only because I read Junot Díaz somewhere saying that it was an awesome novel.

In Spanish I plan to read some of the novels by the Mexican Alvaro Enrigue. A friend told me this guy is pretty smart. I’m particularly interested in his Vidas Perpendiculares and La Muerte de un Instalador.

After reading some reviews from people I trust, I expect great things of Alberto Olmos’s El Talento de los Demás.

I should also read more stuff by Sergio Pitol. El Mago de Viena and Juegos Florales look interesting, for instance.

Finally, I’ll try to get through Era el Cielo (a guy watches his wife being raped and does nothing to stop it) and La Realidad (an Islamic terrorist cell takes control of a reality TV series) by the Argentinean Sergio Bizzio. I heard they will be published in Spain by Caballo de Troya early this year.