31 July 2012

Two Lists

At other places around the internet, there is listing going on. I can't resist a good list. Though neither of these two listing events is one I was invited to join, both made me think, "What would I put on such a list?" (Lists are fiercely contagious.)

1. Sight & Sound
Every ten years, starting in 1952, Sight & Sound has polled a bunch of movie reviewers and directors to come up with a list of "10 best films of all time". It's an impossible thing to do, of course, but the results are fascinating (particularly the individual ones — see, for instance, Catherine Breillat, Michael Haneke, Bruce LaBruce, and Laura Mulvey). Rumor has it the poll for 2012 will be announced very soon.

A few critics I follow have released their lists: Roger Ebert, Richard Brody, Steven Shaviro. Perhaps the most interesting approach among the released lists so far is that of Ignatiy Vishnavetsky, who decided to deal with the impossibility of such a list by randomizing it. He wrote over 90 titles on slips of paper, put them in a bowl, and pulled out 10, ranking them in the order he drew them out. "This method," he asserts, "is as good as anyone else's."

This approach appeals to me, and so I followed the procedure Kevin B. Lee suggests in his post about Vishnavetsky's method. I couldn't stop with 90 movies, though, so I made a (still incomplete, as lists always are) list of 150, alphabetized the titles, and numbered them. I then got 10 random numbers from Random.org and matched up the movies to them.

The numbers were 75, 113, 96, 56, 70, 33, 132, 105, 91, 4.

Here's the resulting list, with directors' names in parentheses.
Manhunter (Mann)
Rules of the Game (Renoir)
Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks)
Happy Together (Wong)
Lodger, The (Hitchcock)
Children of Men (Cuarón)
Third Generation, The (Fassbender)
Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki)
Night of the Living Dead (Romero)
After Life (Kore-eda)
Great films, all. I didn't run into a strange random event, such as Vishnavetsky's ending up with three movies from 1981 on his list or Kevin B. Lee's having three Chinese-language movies on his. I'm more surprised by the balance of it: half of the movies on my list are in a language other than English, they cover a range of decades, and they have both the absolute classics (e.g. Rules of the Game) and others more idiosyncratic or personal to my tastes.

There are some narrownesses: the movies are all directed by men and there's only one silent movie. The dominance of male directors on the list replicates the dominance of men on my big list and in the history of filmmaking, alas. The lack of silent movies is not from lack of trying on my part — on the big list, there are three by Fritz Lang alone (M, Metropolis, and Spies; I should probably also have included Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Die Nibelungen). But the statistical weight of the talkies won out over chance. So it goes. Nonetheless, I find it exciting as such lists go, and the randomness produced at least as interesting a list as a more deliberate approach would have.

2. William Gass and the Literary Pillars
In honor of William Gass's 88th birthday, the Big Other blog asked a bunch of folks to create their own lists of what Gass called his 50 "literary pillars". The idea is explained in Gass's essay collection A Temple of Texts, where in the essay "Influence", he writes about
...a list of fifty works that I was prepared to say had influenced my own work. … I dashed my mini-catalog off in a few days as books called out their authors’ names to me, and I could have gone on I don’t know how much further. To my dismay, this list was immediately taken to be a roll call of “best books,” an activity I have no sympathy for, and certainly did not apply in this case, because not all great achievements are influential, or at least not on everybody. So Proust was not there, or Dante or Goethe or Sophocles, either. Awe often effaces every other effect.
The essay is then followed by his fifty titles, with commentary about each (the link there goes to the Google Books version of A Temple of Texts, which won't let you see it all; the complete list, sans Gass's commentary, is available at Goodreads).

I failed at creating this list. I could not get it below 77 titles. Even that was difficult. But after I got down to these 77, taking any one title away felt like a distortion, a disfigurement, a lie. If I took any one title off, I might as well take any other. I wouldn't say this list is even remotely complete, but it's as short as I can make it. I am not a writer so much as an anthology of influences.

I didn't allow myself multiple books by one writer, with two exceptions: Chekhov and Delany. I cut out most books by friends of mine, because that could be a list of 50 all by itself, and I feared offending someone by inadvertently (or advertently) leaving them off. Better to leave them all off, with one exception: China Miéville's Perdido Street Station hit me at just the right time to rearrange my reading and writing life, and so there's no way I could leave it off a list of influences, even though I do know China a bit. (Delany is a friend, but his influence long precedes my meeting him. His own list is at Big Other.)

I was going to try to comment on each title, as Gass had, but time is too short, and anyway, I've got 77. Instead, some general commentary after the list.

Here are the books, alphabetized by author:

  • Sylvan Barnet, et al. Types of Drama (5th edition)
  • Donald Barthelme, 60 Stories
  • Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes
  • Samuel Becket, Endgame
  • Roberto Bolaño, Last Evenings on Earth
  • Paul Bowles, A Distant Episode: The Selected Stories
  • Georg Büchner, Woyzeck
  • William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine; Nova Express; The Wild Boys: Three Novels
  • Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
  • Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From
  • Paul Celan, Poems (trans. Michael Hamburger)
  • Anton Chekhov, A Doctor’s Visit: Stories (ed. Tobias Wolff)
  • Anton Chekhov, Four Plays (trans. Carol Rocamora)
  • J.M. Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K
  • E.E. Cummings, 100 Selected Poems
  • Michael Cunningham, The Hours
  • Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • Samuel Delany, Dhalgren
  • Samuel Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw
  • Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment
  • Gardner Dozois, ed. The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 3rd Annual Collection
  • Bruce Duffy, The World as I Found It
  • Christopher Durang, The Marriage of Bette & Boo
  • T.S. Elliot, Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950
  • Harlan Ellison, ed. Dangerous Visions
  • Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  • Carol Emshwiller, The Start of the End of It All
  • Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against America’s Women
  • William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
  • Michael Feingold, ed. Grove New American Theater
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories
  • Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977
  • William Gass, Finding a Form
  • M. John Harrison, Things That Never Happen
  • David Hartwell, ed. The Dark Descent
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Selected Stories (ed. Alfred Kazin)
  • Ernest Hemingway, The First Forty-Nine Stories
  • James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories
  • Stephen King, Skeleton Crew
  • Tony Kushner, Angels in America
  • Charles Larson, Under African Skies: Modern African Stories
  • John Leonard, The Last Innocent White Man in America
  • Barry Lopez, Light Action in the Caribbean
  • Dambudzo Marechera, Black Sunlight
  • David Markson, Reader’s Block
  • Carole Maso, Ada
  • China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
  • Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales (Signet Classics edition)
  • Paul Monette, Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story
  • Frank O'Hara, Collected Poems
  • Ben Okri, Stars of the New Curfew
  • Joe Orton, The Complete Plays
  • Grace Paley, Collected Stories
  • Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play and Other Works
  • Laurence Perrine, ed. Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense (3rd edition)
  • Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Portable Poe (ed. Philip Van Doren Stern)
  • Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
  • Adrienne Rich, What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics
  • Norman Rush, Mating
  • George Saunders, Pastoralia
  • Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • Wallace Shawn, The Fever
  • Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind
  • Gertrude Stein, Selected Writings (ed. Carl van Vechten)
  • Peter Straub, ed. Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Other Writings (ed. Joseph Wood Crutch)
  • Voltaire, Candide
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus
  • David Foster Wallace, Girl with Curious Hair
  • Mac Wellman, The Bad Infinity: Eight Plays
  • Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s Films Revisited
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  • Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence 

Youth matters a lot for influence. Many of these books are ones I first read before I was 25 years old. Many, in fact, are ones I read in the last couple years of high school and first couple years of college — those seem to have been the prime years for making me into the sort of writer I have, for better or worse, become.

This is a list dominated by white men who write in English. As a white man who writes in English, myself, perhaps that's not surprising or inappropriate. It doesn't really represent my reading life these days, at least not all the time, but it does represent the dominance of white guys writing in English during my high school and college years. One of the reasons I am passionate about adding non-white/non-English-language/non-guys into curricula is that I know the effect of a basically white-Englang-guy curriculum had on me, someone who actually tried, after reading Adrienne Rich's What is Found There, to seek out other sorts of writers. I had a hard time, especially in those pre-internet days, of figuring out where and how to look.

There are a lot of plays, and there could have been more. (Choosing one Shakespeare was especially hard. I've acted in at least 10 of them, and I've taught probably the same number, if not more. It's not that Hamlet is my favorite of his plays — that would be King Lear — but rather that it's the one I've been stumbling around in the longest, and so its phrases and music have so infiltrated me that I end up quoting it sometimes without even realizing it. My high school paperback edition of the play fell apart years ago from use.) A friend once told me I write fiction like a playwright, which is probably true; less so these days than earlier, though, simply because I've been away from the theatre for a while.

Almost everything on the list was published during the last 200 years. That's true to my general reading life. Even more specifically, it's the 20th century that most interests me: its cultures, its histories. Lots of reasons for that, many of them going back to early influences.

These are not necessarily my favorite books by each writer, though many are. For instance, I prefer David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress to Reader's Block, but I remember the exact moment I discovered Reader's Block — it was my senior year of college, fifteen years ago, standing in the University of New Hampshire's library, which at that time was a small collection of books in a cramped little building, because the regular library building was being renovated and expanded. I remember the shelf, I remember the book's placement on the shelf, I remember the quality of the light, I remember what the room smelled like. It was a moment of revelation.

There's a lot more nonfiction that I could have included — this list is of the books that shaped my writing/thinking; a list of books that shaped primarily my ways of thinking would be different. It's a strange distinction, perhaps, and maybe one that only makes sense in my head (Descartes' Error has not particularly affected my sentences, for instance, but I can't imagine this list without it, because it completely changed my way of thinking about thinking, and thus deeply affected some of the slips and turns of perception in, especially, my fiction.)  This current list feels more autobiographical than just a list of books that influenced my way of analyzing and responding to the world would, because this list feels like some sort of core, the stuff of guts and bone marrow and DNA. Almost all of these are books I return to with some frequency. They are, in so many ways, the books that give me words.

2 comments:

  1. A few months ago when I considered compiling a personal canon I quickly realized I was going for the hundreds. I could have forced myself to shrink my list, but it would have been very painful; so I did the opposite, and started a tumblr with the aim of showcasing all the authors or books which I find interesting.
    This way I can find room for one hit wonders or minor works I really like.
    Only one entry for author, but in the case of authors whose oeuvre I've read extensively I don't aim for representativity and so I don't necessarily choose the best work, or even my favorite, but I let the mood or the occasion decide.
    I post biweekly excerpts (mostly first lines) and I'm approaching the halfway point. I had not considered including nonfiction, but I'll probably make space for Erving Goffman's Asylums at the least.

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  2. Dear Matthew Cheney,

    Thanks for posting about the tribute to Maestro Gass, and for engaging further in the dialogue by furnishing a list of your own.

    Take care,

    John

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