2014/15 Winter Reading List: Literary Revisitations

Most of us have, at least once, had the strange sensation of opening a great text or otherwise reputable book only to find it impenetrable and unprofitable––sometimes flatly unreadable. To our dismay, the apparently staggering work, vetted by centuries of readers, lies dead in our hands. We spend the day wondering how such a labor managed to march its way through history, then place it on a shelf somewhere. We may also have had the more pleasant sensation of picking that same book up again, sometimes years later, to find that it has changed somehow: the book really is great. Of course, the point here is not that the book has changed, but that we, as readers, have. Perhaps we read the book too early, too quickly, or under the duress of a tyrannical schoolmarm, but we gave the book a second chance and were glad we did. This reading list is devoted to that sensation: of revisiting a book to find it transformed.

Phong Bui

Postscript: We asked our contributors for a simple list of one to five books, their titles and authors and nothing more, but some felt compelled to go over and above by providing commentary with their choices. Their responses were lively and interesting so we have decided to include them in full.

 

Marina Adams

1. Proust
I am reveling in him right now––it seems likely that I had no need or patience with “looking back” or “memory” as a young person.

2. A Life of Picasso, Volumes I, II, and III
by John Richardson

I had studied Picasso intensely as a young artist in my student years and needed to “throw him out of the studio,” so I could not touch those books when they were first published. But now . . .

 

Naomi Antonakos

l. The Leopard
by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun

2. Macbeth
by William Shakespeare

3. Life and Fate
by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler

4. Six Characters in Search of an Author
by Luigi Pirandello, translated from the Italian by Eric Bentley

5. The Revolt of the Angels
by Anatole France, translated from the French by Mrs. Wilfrid Jackson

 

Marek Bartelik

Part of the sensation you describe above came from the fact that I read those books in two different languages.

1. The Complete Poems
by Elizabeth Bishop

2. L’Ouvrier de la nuit (Night Worker)
by Bernard Clavel
First read in a Polish translation in the late 1970s.

3. Proust contre la déchéance: Conférences au camp de Griazowietz (Proust against forfeiture, conferences in the camp of Griazowietz, 1987 ed.)
by Józef Czapski

4. Rodzinna Europa (Native Realm)
by Czesław Miłosz

5. Cuentos Completos (Complete Works)
by Juan Carlos Onetti

Particularly the short story “Bienvenido, Bob” (“Hello Bob,” 1944) which I first read in a Polish translation in the mid-1970s.

 

Rich Blint

1. Beyond a Boundary
by C. L. R. James

2. Moby Dick
by Herman Melville

3. Paradise
by Toni Morrison

4. Miguel Street
by V. S. Naipaul

5. Wide Sargasso Sea
by Jean Rhys

 

Arthur Collins

I assumed that the assignment of one of the great texts was just a scheme to control and regiment me, which I resented, resisted as much as possible. On the occasions that I knuckled under and read the damned thing, I always found that I had to admit it was pretty good—in fact, very good.

Later, this history made me contemptuous of those who claimed that "the canon" merely reflected power relations and that, if others were to assume power, they would quite properly throw out the old canon and put in their own. This hasn’t happened yet.

1. Confessions
by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

2. Rameau’s Nephew
by Denis Diderot

3. Red Cavalry
by Isaac Babel

4. Absalom, Absalom!
by William Faulkner

5. History: A Novel
by Elsa Morante

 

Patricia Cronin

1. The Divine Comedy
by Dante Alighieri

2. The French and Italian Notebooks
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

3. Memorial To A Marriage
by Lincoln Kirstein

4. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture
by Terry Castle

5. Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays
by Linda Nochlin

 

Aleksandar Duravcevic

1. In Search of Duende
by Federico Garcia Lorca

2. War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

3. Six Memos for the Next Millennium
by Italo Calvino

4. Ficciones
by Jorge Luis Borges

5. The Birth of tragedy
by Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Jarrett Earnest

1. Rivers and Mountains
by John Ashbery

2. Rising Up, Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means
by William T. Vollmann

3. Demons
by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

4. Collected Longer Poems
by W. H. Auden

5. Tess of the d’Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy

 

Robert Feintuch

Here are three books I enjoyed a lot more the second time around. Actually, Zeno’s Conscience took me several somewhat painful attempts across several years, each time starting over. I really liked it in the end. My Last Sigh just became funnier and more pleasurable, the Bellini book richer.

1. Zeno's Conscience
by Italo Svevo

2. My Last Sigh
by Luis Bunuel

3. Giovanni Bellini
by Rona Goffen

 

Raymond Foye

1. The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

2. Bel Ami
by Guy de Maupassant

3. Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman

4. Indian Journals
by Allen Ginsberg

5. On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

 


Robert Gober

1. Light in August,
by William Faulkner

2. The Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner

3. Falconer
by John Cheever

4. To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf

 

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

1. The Order of Things
by Michel Foucault

2. The Collected Works of Lord Byron
by Lord Byron

3. Jude the Obscure
by Thomas Hardy

4. Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace

5. The Sheltering Sky
by Paul Bowles

 

Mark Greenwold

Frankly, I can’t imagine going back to a book years later and feeling radically different about it. I think the books that moved me when I was young, by and large, still do––though perhaps for different reasons.

I tend to begin books with caution (like relationships) and either get taken over by them or lose faith––or some combination of both.

Someone once said we’re like funnels, a lot goes in but our sensibilities are idiosyncratic, narrow, and remain pretty much the same over time.

1. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
by Janet Malcolm

2. Sabbath’s Theater
by Philip Roth

3. The Enigma of Arrival
by V. S. Naipaul

4. Lolita
by Vladimir Nabokov

5. The Denial of Death
by Ernest Becker

 

George Grella

1. The Time of Music: New Meaning, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies
by Jonathan D. Kramer

2. The State of Music
by Virgil Thomson

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig

4. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science
by Werner Heisenberg

5. The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance
by Knud Jeppesen

 

Jeffrey Hoone

1. Da Vinci’s Bicycle
by Guy Davenport

2. Encounters with the Archdruid
by John McPhee

3. In Cold Blood
by Truman Capote

4. The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution
by Barbara W. Tuchman

5. The Sweet Flypaper of Life
by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava

 

Deborah Kass

1. Sula
by Toni Morrison

2. Uncle
by Julia Markus

3. The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives
edited by Susan Robin Suleiman

4. Black Popular Culture
edited by Gina Dent

5. Need More Love: A Graphic Memoir
by Aline Kominsky Crumb

 

Perri Klass, MD

1. Silas Marner
by George Eliot

2. Howards End
by E. M. Forster

3. The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton

4. "Hills Like White Elephants"
by Ernest Hemingway

5. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John Le Carré

 

Birte Kleemann


1. Onze Oom
by Arnon Grunberg

I am lover of his work. I started the book, but fearing that it might take an unexpected turn I had to put it down. It is waiting for me and I will grab it whenever I am ready. In the meantime I shall read another of his novels.

2. Siddhartha
by Hermann Hesse

I first encountered the book during a school lecture in Germany’s 10th grade, and though I certainly loved the metamorphosis of Hesse’s Hermine in Steppenwolf, much of the parable of Siddhartha felt forced and pretentious to me. Perhaps reading it again would shed a new light by placing it in the 1920s context. I am saying this out of memory, because I read it more than 20 years ago.

3. Shakespeare

I just can’t get enough of it. I am always excited and driven by curiosity whenever I find the time to read a play in full, reveling at every iamb. Molière is another classic I admire for his wit, and I would love to read all of his plays in French again, but would need a translation at hand.

Talking about French: re-reading Michel Houellebecq’s books in their native tongue would be wonderful, but that’s certainly a future project. Many other books are waiting in line.

4. Odyssee (Odyssey)
by Homer

I would love to read it in full and have a German/Latin version in Berlin. Unfortunately I never got to really read Latin fluently in school, so this a bit of a challenge. Perhaps I should just give up on the Latin part of it.

5. Siegfried
by Harry Mulisch

It’s the last book I started reading that is hanging out on my bed stand. I put it down in favor of a different project, but sometimes interrupting a lecture is great because it keeps the topic around in your head.

I hardly read novels and am a sucker for news and books dealing with history, sociology, philosophy, and psychology, and theater plays for their subversiveness and ability to transform, many of which I shelve and un-shelve several times. Whenever I am in need of some inspiration I hope to find it there.

 

Mike Lala

1. Nightwood
by Djuna Barnes

2. The Importance of Being Iceland
by Eileen Myles

3. Decreation
by Anne Carson

4. Cane
by Jean Toomer

5. Four Elemental Bodies
by Claude Royet-Journoud translated by Keith Waldrop

 

Corina Larkin

Here are a few relatively new translations that enabled me to actually get beyond the first page, or re-read and enjoy on a deeper level. So happy to be relieved of my old Penguin Classics versions.

1. Swann’s Way
by Proust translated by Lydia Davis

2. War and Peace and Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

 

Chris Larson

1. Wise Blood
by Flannery O'Connor

2. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century
by Greil Marcus

3. Sculpting in Time: Tarkovsky The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art
by Andrey Tarkovsky

4. “In the Penal Colony”
by Franz Kafka

 

An-My Le

1. The Tale of Kieu
by Nguyen Du translated by Huynh Sanh Thong

2. Orientalism
by Edward Said

3. On Creativity and the Unconscious
Sigmund Freud

4. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
by Bruno Bettelheim

 

Susie Linfield

Books that were terrific the first time and even richer the second.

1. The House Gun
by Nadine Gordimer

2. Personal History
by Vincent Sheean

3. The Company of Critics
by Michael Walzer

4. One Palestine, Complete
by Tom Segev

5. The Marxists and the Jewish Question
by Enzo Traverso

 

Nalini Malani

1. Life Against Death
by Norman O. Brown

2. Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture
by Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi

3. Toba Tek Singh
by Saadat Hasan Manto

4. Breast Stories
by Mahasweta Devi (translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak)

5. Bapu* – My Mother
by Manubehn Gandhi (translated by Chitra Desai)
* Bapu or father is the familiar form for addressing Mahatma Gandhi

 

Donald Moffett

1. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America
by Roger Tory Peterson

2. The Leopard
by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

3. Silent Spring
by Rachel Carson

4. Song of Songs, from the Old Testament

5. To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf

 

Thomas Nozkowski

I think the inverse of your description is the more commonly observed: Many of the “masterpieces” of youth become unreadable or pretentious or just plain embarrassing as time goes by. I could fill a library with those! In fact my library is filled with those—and getting bigger everyday.

But I do have one example that I am happy to share. And it didn’t take years to grow into the full bloom of greatness—I think it took a week or so, certainly not longer than a month!

I first read Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema” issue of Film Culture in the spring of 1963 and thought that it was some sort of joke. Or maybe something delusional. It crossed my mind that this could be the film scholarship equivalent of the Kuchar Brothers or Jack Smith! I mean … Hollywood? Was he kidding? Who were all these directors I had never heard of?

With nothing better to do I walked around the corner to the Loews Commodore on Sixth Street and Second Avenue which was showing a double feature of two recent films: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Howard Hawks’s Hatari!. Well, need I say more?

1. The American Cinema
by Andrew Sarris

 

Rona Pondick

1. Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism
edited by Maria Pötzl-Malikova & Guilhem Scherf

2. The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany
by Michael Baxandall

3. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
by Benvenuto Cellini

4. Great Apes
by Will Self

5. Franz Kafka The Complete Stories
by Franz Kafka

 

Carter Ratcliff

1. Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

2. Paradise Lost
by John Milton

3. House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton

4. The Good Soldier
by Ford Madox Ford

5. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation
by Donald Davidson

 

Joyce Robins

1. The Cultivated Wilderness, Or, What is Landscape?
by Paul Shepheard

2. The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics
by J. B. Jackson

3. The Granite Garden
by Anne Whiston Spirn

4. The Language of Landscape
by Anne Whiston Spirn

5. Plants, Man and Life
by Edgar Anderson

 

David Ross

1. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place
by Harry Crews

2. System and Dialectics of Art
by John D. Graham

3. Love Had A Compass
by Robert Lax

4. Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

5. The Horse’s Mouth
by Joyce Cary

 

John Ryan

1. The Inferno
by Dante Alighieri translated by Robert Pinsky

2. Essays
by Michel de Montaigne translated by J. M. Cohen

3. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
by Albert Einstein
(More clear and comprehensible than most explanations of it.)

4. An American Tragedy
by Theodore Dreiser

5. Anna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy

 

Ed Schad

1. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
by Edward Gibbon

Winston Churchill read it when he was 20 years old and became Winston Churchill. I found it on the shelf in college and turned away, intimidated and shy, and became whatever it is I am. Ten years later, I ventured in, 10 pages a day for a year, and found not only a text I will revisit for the rest of my life, but a text that made everything during the year I read it feel alive and meaningful. This is an essential book. In a world of constant exaggeration, Gibbon’s capacity for understatement absolutely bends your mind: armies of thousands can fall within a clause, the mightiest are cut down with almost no fanfare. Furthermore, Gibbon frames and articulates very well the origin of ethnic and tribal disputes that still rage today. I can see why Jorge Luis Borges read it multiple times and am eager to start on it again. The book is endless is best possible way.

2. The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams

I remember hearing politics majors whine about Henry Adams in college, finding him pretentious and boring, and I was inclined to have the same opinion when I gave him the briefest of chances one morning off a friend’s bookshelf about 15 years ago. I was glad I chose to return to Adams, eager for a first-hand account of 19th century. I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for. As Adams himself will acknowledge, he can only give you an insight into a narrow privileged aspect of American society. However, one does get an intimate portrait of social groups in young America. Politics are alive in this book, especially as Adams struggles to find where he stands and how to develop his own commitments. As a side note, The Education also gives a portrait of perhaps one of the least emotional, most repressed men you will ever encounter. Adams’s gloss on the personal tragedies of his life and his use of the third person in relation to himself is breathtakingly strange. I felt almost required to grieve and mourn for “Young Adams,” over a hundred years too late.

3. “The Present Age”
by Soren Kierkegaard

This short essay, written as a review to a now untranslated and unread book, is usually not among the assigned texts of Kierkegaard that one gets in undergraduate philosophy courses. However, the more I navigate contemporary life, the more this essay continues to emerge as important. In the text, Kierkegaard is basically describing the victory of media, long before Facebook and Twitter and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle. In this victory, Kierkegaard saw a dissolution of political commitment and the decline of candor in world where everything is seen, packaged, and sealed instantly: a P.R.-driven world resistant to nuance and incapable of further reflection. Very familiar indeed.

4. The Rock Crystal
by Adalbert Stifter

This is the children's book I wish had been read to me as a child, though I did not find it till the age of 28 through a reference to its author found in the work of W. G. Sebald. Stifter is a Romantic and perhaps part of a tarnished legacy of lyricism and scouting that became the Third Reich (the author even appears in Anselm Kiefer paintings), but this is a book that should be widely read. It is very simple: on Christmas Eve, two children miss their turn in the mountains due to snowfall and no one knows they are missing. Never has an author done so much with so little. I was tense while reading this book, very very tense. The story has a way making it feel as though the world itself is at stake in the journey of these children. Stifter, of course, had no way of knowing the decades of horror that awaited Germany just years in the future, but that future is somehow present in this story. It is much more tender, but The Rock Crystal has much in common with Michael Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon. Sometimes, all one needs to do to reflect on history is think about what the children were doing.

 

Lowery Stokes Sims

1. Ulysses
by James Joyce

2. Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance
by Erwin Panofsky

3. Thus Spoke Zarathustra
by Friedrich Nietzsche

4. The Black Book
by Orhan Pamuk

5. The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand

 

Carol Szymanski

1. Middle C
by William H. Gass

2. Cigarettes
by Harry Mathews

3. By Night in Chile
by Roberto Bolaño

4. I Ching
by Fu Xi

5. Our Bodies, Ourselves

by Judy Norsigian

6. Civilization and its Discontents
by Sigmund Freud

 

Amei Wallach

1. War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

2. Letters to a Young Poet
by Rainer Maria Rilke

3. Billiards at Half-Past Nine
by Heinrich Böll

4. Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting: 1825-1875
by Barbara Novak

5. The House of the Seven Gables
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

6. The Blue Flower
by Penelope Fitzgerald

7. Daniel Deronda
by George Eliot

 

Lawrence Weschler

1. Moby Dick
by Herman Melville

Wasted on high-schoolers. Or rather, I’d almost say, wasted on readers of any age. Which is to say, there’s always so very much more each fresh time out. Such infinite capaciousness. Best is if you smuggle yourself aboard the Arion Press rendition (which the University of California Press released in a popularly priced edition), not just for its glorious Barry Moser documentary illustrations of the whaling life, but for the luscious typesetting and typography that renders every page a sensual exaltation. As of course is the text itself.

2. The Heart of Hawthorne’s Journals
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne being another one who’s wasted on high-schoolers, though for a different reason. They can’t help but misconstrue him as all prim and musty, when in fact he is anything but. On the contrary, somehow he seems eternally of the moment. And the slim little volume that Paul Auster put together several years back and released under the title Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa, an excerpt from the daybooks of a stretch when Hawthorne’s wife and daughters had to go to town for a few weeks, leaving the author in charge of his young son and the bunny in question, may be the best thing ever on fatherhood––and furthermore reads like it was written yesterday.

 

Angela Westwater

1. The Charterhouse of Parma
by Stendhal

2. The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams

3. Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar

4. The Banquet Years
by Roger Shattuck

5. Orientalism
by Edward Said

 

Stanley Whitney

1. Swann's Way
by Marcel Proust

2. War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

3. The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann

4. Malina
by Ingeborg Bachmann

5. The Charterhouse of Parma
by Stendhal

Contributor

Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.

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