Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Reading Lists

Encino Man writes in about reading lists...

As a part of the application, some schools want a list of books that have influenced me. I do not know how to respond. Does this mean books I like? I must confess that I read for pleasure, and any influence on my work that may occur is on a subconscious level. Am I doing myself a disservice by only reading for pleasure? Do I need to start reading books with a thief's eye, trying to steal methods and styles from other writers?

When listing a reading list, is it best to try and impress admissions people with a certain genre of books? Should my reading list seem cohesive?

Lots of questions here. My overall answer is, yes, you should be reading books with a thief's eye, taking note of styles, methods, tricks of the trade etc. A good place to start, fiction-wise, is Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction, which will give you an idea of what to look for.

As far as the MFA list goes, don't out guess yourself, seeking particular genres or cohesiveness. You should be honest about what you read. On the other hand, if your current list isn't too impressive, well, you've got the summer to get a lot of reading done. And by the way, the best reading is both: reading to learn and reading for pleasure. It's summertime. Read works that flip both tricks for you.

My last two reads are Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient and Tobias Wolff's In Pharoah's Army. Both were awesome.

Okay, the real question. Where to find good books:

1. The Gotham Writers Workshop has a terrific list in a variety of genres.
2. At the restaurant, you ask the waiter what's the best choice tonight. At the video store, you check out the employee picks. So, when looking for books, ask the people behind the counter at your local independent bookstore. They love to talk about this kind of stuff. Get a list of five or six, spend a half hour looking them over, then take home something literary and something interesting to you.

Okay Encino, rock on. And everyone else: If you've got book recommendations, old and new, in any genre, here's a good place to leave them. Thanks.


EnglishAtCase said...

I just finished The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder and Oracle Night by Paul Auster. I'd highly recommend both. Wilder's short novel is now one of my favorites and Auster's book features a writing with a blue notebook (!).

BlueVelveeta said...

This is maybe the most obvious recommendation ever, but I highly recommend that writers in any genre read (or re-read) Lolita with an eye to craft. When I'm feeling stuck, reading even a little helps me fall in love with language enough to forge ahead again. Orlando (Woolf) is great, too; the language has a liberated, rhythmic quality that makes me want to be a better writer. Other books I've enjoyed recently are: (fiction) Norman Rush's Mating and Jose Saramago's Blindness, and (poetry) Larry Levis' The Selected Levis and Jane Miller's Memory at These Speeds.

Anonymous said...

Tobias Wolff IS awesome. I've read everything that cat's published. Wasn't too crazy about "Old School," but I think he's one of the best living short story writers in the world.

I re-read some short stories from Junot Diaz. Among other things, that guy has three things going for him: voice, voice and voice.

RLN said...

Some recent fiction reads:

Barry Unsworth's LOSING NELSON. A little predictable but a right-on examination of faith + patriotism as psychopathic crutches. Probably not for anybody who cheered the Nelson impersonator on the HMS VICTORY float at last year's London Lord Mayor's parade.

Frank Tallis's ambitious, gorgeously well-researched mystery VIENNA BLOOD. It's been a strange trip to 1902 Vienna and a I know a lot more about Mozart's librettist's imagery now.

Caroline Thompson's politically prophetic 1983 dystopian horror novel FIRST BORN. I had to find this through a used book search service. Some publisher, PLEASE reprint it? In paperback?

Reread George Eliot's ROMOLA, because it's one of my favourite books. You go, Renaissance Woman! (Rom, that is).

... please bear in mind that my medium ISN'T prose fiction, so this might not be a good list for an aspiring novellist.

Anonymous said...

Granted they're translations, but I think that Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami may be the two most wonderful books I've read in several years (englishatcase: if you like Auster you'll probably love Murakami, in case you've never read his stuff). And for that combination of fun and fertile grounds for thievery, you certainly can't go wrong with Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Anne Haines said...

When you are looking for someone to give you reading recommendations, asking at the bookstore is great, but don't forget your local librarian! Many public librarians actually have advanced training in "reader's advisory" -- how to make good recommendations based on what sort of books you say you enjoy -- not to mention, most librarians are insatiable readers themselves, and they're not selling anything either.

(Which doesn't mean a bookstore employee won't give you good recommendations even though they are selling stuff. Nothing against bookstore folks at all. Just didn't want us librarians to be forgotten!)

Anonymous said...


Any chance you hold an M.L.S.? I think that's a good "alternate" degree for someone who is unsure about an MFA program. I've heard they're fairly practical in the career hunt, too.

Anonymous said...

Book rec:
Drop City by T.C. Boyle
As I Lay Dying by Faulkner

For the poster considering an MLS, I highly recommend it. I'm going for an MFA and then doing an MLA. There is a shortage of librarians now, plus the pay is decent. If you're unsure about a career in academia, consider the MLS.

Anonymous said...

Same poster as above. I meant "MLS" not "MLA." Typo!

Anonymous said...

I've just read the ever-controversial yet highly praised, "Everything Is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foers. I was blown away! It is by far the most amazing book I've read in relation to literary form and style. It's experimental, but so very engaging!

Anonymous said...

Columbia sent all its fiction students the following optional reading list. I thought it was pretty interesting, diverse and quality. Seems appropriate to post here:

AIRSHIPS – Barry Hannah
BLOOD MERIDIAN – Cormac McCarthy
SIXTY STORIES – Donald Barthelme
AS I LAY DYING – William Faulkner
THE LIVING END – Stanley Elkin
DUBLINERS – James Joyce
THE SCARLET LETTER – Nathaniel Hawthorne
MADAME BOVARY – Gustav Flaubert

Anonymous said...

The Columbia reading list looks good except Murakami, whom I don't think deserves to be there. It's really hard to take him seriously.

Anonymous said...

Once in a House On Fire by Andrea Ashworth

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Lucky by Alice Sebold


The Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Short Stories, Bobbie Ann Mason

Short Stories, Shirley Jackson

Short Stories, Julio Cortazar

Bodega Dreams by Ernesto Quinones

Joe College/ Little Children, both by Tom Perrotta

Anonymous said...

I'm about to sail Tom a message about the M.L.S. After all, his book addresses alternate options other than enrolling in an MFA program. I think the M.L.S. would be a great way to go. I just contacted Kentucky and requested an information packet about their M.L.S. I'm also curious what type of financial aid is available.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to admit, the Columbia list looks like some boring-ass shit. ;) Just kidding; but so little of it seems like fun.

So let me offer something different. Here's my completely disrespected list of stuff I simply LOVE to read, that are worth your reading too:

- The Monkeywrench Gang, by Edward Abbey
- A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin (first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series)
- Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer (nonfiction)
- All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
- The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro, by Ernest Hemingway (short story, available free online; do a Google search)
- The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum (Shut up; I love this book!)
- any short fiction (or novels, for that matter) by Dennis Lehane
- Selected Poems, by Kennneth Patchen
- Forever, by Pete Hamill

Anonymous said...

I loved 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy, and 'Midnight's children' by Salman Rushdie.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be interesting to go around and have everyone say what books made them want to do an MFA (or at least pursue writing in a serious way).
So, to answer my own question:
"Evening," Susan Minot
"Motherless Brooklyn," Jonathan Lethem
"A Room With a View," E.M. Forster
"Dog of the Marriage," Amy Hempel

Anonymous said...

"Cat's Eye" & "Wilderness Tips" Margaret Atwood

candidobsvr said...

A few more books that I found to be interesting reads.

Jazz - Toni Morrison
Paradise - Toni Morrison
Light in August - William Faulkner
Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven - Sherman Alexie
Go Tell it On the Mountain - James Baldwin
The Hours - Michael Cunningham
Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susannah Clark
The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood
The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst

That's my most recent list hope it helps.

Anonymous said...

I love reading lists, but in this case, isn't the point to devise the list yourself, think about what has been influential and could be instructive in your own little teaching environment? I wouldn't want to hand that over to anyone else.

Anonymous said...

It's me, the immediately previous anonymous! Here to assure you my last post was in fact a question--though it sounded kind of harsh.

It seems a good chunk of Encino Man's concerns, though, have less to do with what to read than how to present what he does read. I love how honest George Saunders is in interviews about how he just hasn't read much of the canon, about how Monty Python is a big an influence as anything. But like Encino Man I wonder if this would fly with admissions committees. In my case, I read enough hi-falutin' stuff, but worry that most of it is non-canon monkey-biz from the wrong century. If you can learn anything from MFA lists, it's how to prop up your contemporaries.

So is there anyone (else) in ht e know, here? I've got this sinking feeling that 'be honest' doesn't cover it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I have to admit, the Columbia list looks like some boring-ass shit. ;) Just kidding; but so little of it seems like fun.

People like Barthelme and Borges are pretty much the epitome of fun for me.

Of course, the opposite of fun reading for me is trying to drug through the tin eared prose of an Ayn Rand. ;p

Celia said...

I'm the co-founder of a new literary magazine, Slice, and a big fan of Junot Diaz. Check out our website for more about our debut issue, which includes an exclusive interview with Junot about how he started his writing career.

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Michelle Gilliam said...

Oxford recommends everyone start with "as many of the Victorian classic novels as possible" (including Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot and Hardy), "as well as the major Victorian poets" (including Tennyson, Browning, Arnold and Hopkins). So it obviously varies depending on which college. You can request a pdf of most any MFA program's reading list.

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