20 Nonfiction Books to Read and Discuss | Read It Forward

“The secret to life,” wrote Stanley Elkin, “is specialization,” and I think the same is true for conversation. Nowadays, anyone can comment on the latest article or news story foisted on the world by social media, but the most fascinating discussions come from deeper and more specialized sources: books. To read a well-written nonfiction book on any given subject is to arm you with a richer insight into its topic, so the next time you’re at a party or out with friends, you can actually tell them something they didn’t know. From George Washington to superbugs to sex, here are 20 nonfiction books to read by authors from whose expertise we can all socially benefit. Continue reading…

Processed with VSCOcam with 5 presetPoets Who Shine a Light on Our Present Moment | Read It Forward

The following poets, of varying ages and points in their careers, each tackle, from an eclectic array of perspectives, the dizzying complexities of being alive today. Whether through surrealist imagery or personal narrative, these collections help us zero on the lives and dreams of richly drawn individuals and communities, so that by experiencing a moment in the heart of one person, one family, or one geography, taken altogether we can create a mosaic that resembles, imperfectly but still vitally, the world around us. Continue reading… (Image: @yummypixels)

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7 Anthologies to Broaden Your Perspective | Read It Forward

Books, as we all know, offer views into other worlds, journeys through unknown territories, engagements with unheard points of view, intimacies with the unfamiliar, and confrontations with the oppositional. They are transits into the other, guiding us—sometimes comfortably, sometimes perilously—through a world too big for us to travel in one lifetime. Through books we become voyeurs, co-conspirators, sidekicks, tag-alongs, psychics, and quantum leapers. They are our windows looking out over everything.

Anthologies go even further: they present a symphony of voices, ruminating on a single subject, a common theme, a unifying thread. They acknowledge in practice the truth that no one author can write the story for an entire group, so they collect disparate yet connected pieces to hint at the bewildering complexities of some of our most pressing issues. They amalgamate work from myriad backgrounds into, if not a representative whole then a satisfying unit that scratches at the idea of representation, like puzzles pieces that when put together form another, larger puzzle piece. Anthologies bring together writers and thinkers into a volume, and by doing so bring together readers into a necessary view of distant horizons. Continue reading…

7 Exciting Debut Novels Coming Out This Winter | Read It Forward

The reason debut novels are so exciting is because it’s the chance to witness potential greatness at its earliest stage—there are no previous novels to live up to, no signatures or habits to look out for, and no end to what we can imagine a new voice will do in the future. With each novel by a first-timer that you enjoy comes another career to follow, another sting in the dizzying yarn knot of your literary interests, and soon every month brings out a second, third, or fourth novel by someone who you’ve read since the beginning and whose development you’ve traced like a proud parent or a sports fan. Continue reading…

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10 Collected Works by Great Writers | Read It Forward

For true bibliophiles, there is nothing lovelier than a volume of collected works. Such a book, filled as it is with a career’s worth of writing, isn’t meant to be read conventionally, from beginning to end, but can be nonlinearly perused, occasionally opened, to any old page, to one’s favorite piece, and enjoyed again and again. Add to this the fact that these collection contain all—or at least most—of an author’s work in a given form, which means when it comes to the collected writer, you’ve got them covered; never again will you have to seek out something they published, since you’ve now got everything they’ve produced in a handsome, stuffed-to-the-brim edition. Below you’ll find some recent collected works by some of the most influential and monumental talents in the world—a few you’ve no doubt read, while others may be new to you. But they all, in their careers, ran the gambit of subjects and themes, explored the outer reaches of their forms, and composed a rich array of poetry and prose. Continue reading….

RIF-20-Works-of-Post-Trumpian-Fiction-1200x900-830x62521 Books Set in a Post-Trump World | Read It Forward

Whether we like it or not, this is the age of Trump. Maybe Trump’s actual presidency will last for four years (or maybe less, fingers crossed), or even eight, but the repercussions of his policies, his behavior, and the world’s reaction to him will be felt for much longer. Entire volumes could be written about the impact of Trump’s tweets alone. In less than two years of the Trump era, writers have engaged with our political landscape with renewed passion and indignation. Poets and short story writers have traced Trump’s disheartening influence, and even novelists—not always known to be the quickest to respond to topical politics, considering how long it takes to craft a novel—have already tackled, in various ways, our Trumpian climate.

Sometimes directly and sometimes less overtly, it’s impossible to deny the effect Trump’s election has had on literary art. Many have called this the “post-truth” era, but these 21 books show that great literature doesn’t lie like Trump lies—self-aggrandizing, fault-avoiding, and shortcut-chasing. Instead, literature invents in order to tell us hard-won and difficult truths. Deception conceals; literature reveals. Continue reading…

Learners-830x625Clever Gifts for Lifelong Learners | Read It Forward

With so many how-to websites and YouTube instructionals out there, we often forget that books can still be used to teach us things—like practical, everyday things, as well as the weird, historical, and out-of-this-world. For those who’ve never lost that sense of curiosity, we present gifts for lifelong learners: books on all manner of topics, from science to history to economics and more. Continue reading…

(Photo credit: Matt McCarty)

AudiobookLover-830x62510 Gifts for Audiobook Lovers | Read It Forward

There’s no wrong way to read a book—in print, on an eReader, or through audio. Audiobooks, for instance, can offer things that other forms simply can’t. With a talented performer at the narrating helm, an audiobook can enhance the depth of the characters through voice, capture the rhythm of the prose, and emphasize the emotional subtext of important scenes. Continue reading…

(Photo credit: Matt McCarty)

RIF-ClassicReprints-1200x900-830x6257 Wonderful Classic Reprint Series | Read It Forward

I’m such a sucker for handsome reprints of classic books that I own—no kidding—multiple copies of probably 20 or 30 books. I just love a new edition of a book I love; I can’t help it. And maybe you can’t, either. For those like me who’ll shell out 20 bucks for a new version of The Left Handof Darkness or Regarding the Pain of Others, or for anyone who doesn’t yet own some of these fantastic and vital works of literature, this list is a guide to my seven favorite reprint series. Continue reading…

RIF-Back2SchoolForYourBrain-1200x900-830x62516 Back-to-School Books for Your Brain | Read It Forward

Every September there appears—in stores, in advertisements, in themed issues of magazines—a bewildering profusion of all things “back to school.” These are aimed, obviously, at children: to sell supplies, fashion, food, and whatever other product can somehow be categorized into the seemingly forever-growing category.

But here at Read It Forward, we thought, “What about everyone else? Are we not continually educating ourselves? Isn’t it our duty (especially right now) to always remain students? Shouldn’t we, in some sense, go back to school, too?” Continue reading…

The Nabakovs At WorkKeeping Up with the Nabokovs | Read It Forward

July 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov’s death in 1977. He was a multilingual master of prose who crafted some of the twentieth century’s most enduring works of fiction, including Lolita; Pale Fire; Ada, or Ardor; Pnin; and Invitation to a Beheading. His sentences were more like sculptures than strings of words, even when he wrote in English, his fourth language. Although profound on the darkness of human behavior, he was also funny as hell—who could forget, for instance, how he unceremoniously explained Humbert’s mother’s death in Lolita with two words: “picnic, lightning”? His fiction could be challenging and ambitiously experimental, as in his novel Pale Fire, which consists of a 999-line poem written by one of the characters, and endnotes to the poem written by another. Nabokov’s novels were each… Continue reading.

sharon-olds-antonio-olmos-900x675The Poetic Persistence of Sharon Olds | Read It Forward

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.                              
—Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)

It hasn’t been easy being Sharon Olds, especially in terms of the critical response to her work, which has been two-fold: to ignore her completely, or to lambast her for “exhibitionism.” Continue reading…

Screen Shot 2017-09-05 at 10.15.51 AMSo You Want to Be a Writer? | Read It Forward

Suppose there was some kind of mysterious portal into a magical realm, and you, for all your life, have wanted nothing more than to march right up to that enchanted threshold and toss your body through it. But let’s say, too, that there have been others who’ve entered the portal before you, but when they report about their experiences—reports full of wondrous creatures and fantastic occurrences—their language is riddled with irked reservations, petty complaints, and seemingly obstacle-less problems. Yeah, they seem to say, the realm’s an incredible place—you ain’t seen nothing like it. But does it have to be so damn chilly all the time? Sure, no one actually complained about the chilliness of the place, but they may as well have. Because for you, simply getting into the portal is the whole point of your life, and yet here are these ingrates acting like it’s some burden to exist in a world of imagination. Continue reading…

170720_FCiccolella_ReadItForward_FINAL_REV-900x675How One Becomes What One Is: 7 Memoirs of Artistic Development | Read It Forward

I’ve read a lot of memoirs by writers—in fact, it’s probably one of my favorite categories of literature. First of all, there is the sense of seeing what life is like for someone you’ve only known about through writing and/or their celebrity. Secondly—and this comes almost as a consequence of the first—it can be an absolute delight getting the inside scoop on other writers and figures of note. Think, for instance, of Ernest Hemingway talking shit about Ford Maddox Ford in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris. Or consider the juiciest bits of Stephen King’s On Writing, as in, e.g., that his novel Misery is a metaphor for cocaine addiction (which makes perfect sense when you apply it to the narrative!). Memoirs can function like literary tabloids, revealing the underbelly of the written word. Continue reading…

Image: Elsa Jenna

clichés-definitionClichés Are Dangerous | Read It Forward

There is more danger in certain clichés than the risk of confusion, or the laziness of pat phrases—some of them perpetuate really lousy ideas that, if you stop to think about their implications for a few minutes, don’t hold up to scrutiny at all, and seem in fact to be effective only because they’re clichés, so common that people forget to question the inherent philosophies underneath them. Here are a few dangerous clichés that I hope we stop using—or at least cease employing them so reductively. Continue reading…

denisjohnson-900x675Denis Johnson Reads Notes from the Margins |
Read It Forward

Denis Johnson, 1949-2017

Luckily Johnson gave me an unexpected glimpse. Though he read from Nobody Move, Johnson said he wanted to take this opportunity to read some of his poetry. Being much less familiar with his verse, I grew interested in seeing what a terse novelist would bring to poetic writing. But before he even opened the book in front of him, he intoned a brief preamble. He said that he found the book in his hand, his 1982 poetry collection The Incognito Lounge, at a used bookstore somewhere, and that when he found it and opened it, he was delighted to discover all these little notes in the margins of his poems. Some of them were complimentary; some decidedly not. What he wanted to do, he said, was read some of the poems as well as the liner notes accompanying them.

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Strange Gods, Odd Ducks, & Other Unreliable Narrators | Read It Forward

Obviously though Talese fully intends the reader to take Foos’s story as true: from the no-frills candor (what one might call a Talesean trademark) of the opening line—“I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur”—to the implied ickiness of Foos’s manuscript, the book practically drools over Foos’s every illicit description, a creepiness that is only palpable if the reader 100% believes that Foos actually saw (and, sometimes, did) the things he wrote about. My point isn’t to defend Talese here (though nor is it to decry him either) but to point out that The Voyeur’s Motel wouldn’t have been that different, content-wise, if instead of taking Foos’s claims for gospel they had been explicitly doubted throughout—but doubted with a growing and gross sense that he actually did do a lot of the shit he said he did and can to a certain degree prove it. The discreetly camouflaged vents Foos claimed to use for his purposes really exist, for instance, and Talese even joins the voyeur on one of his invasions into his guests’ privacy. Knowing these facts, his inconsistencies and half-truths wouldn’t be detractions from the efficacy of the narrative but a pivotal component its very vitality, as it doesn’t really matter if we believe that Foos spied on these particular people doing these exact acts—what matters is that we believe that Foos saw things like those. Our imaginations will do a far better job than reality, anyway. Continue reading…

rorshachLiterature as a Kind of Rorschach Test | Read It Forward

The story of Rorschach’s infamous test and the life it took on after its creator’s death is told in Damion Searls’s new book The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, and it’s gotten me thinking about the inkblots in a literary way, combining Rorschach’s projective interpretation and Kerner’s inspiration-based poetry—that is, to see what controversial books from the past (and what was written about them) compared to the language used to describe the same or very similar books now. To give literature, in other words, a cultural Rorschach test. Continue reading…

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What I’ve Found in Books | Read It Forward

The most fascinating note I’ve ever found in a secondhand book is in a hardcover copy of Seamus Heaney’s Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971—2001, which I bought this past summer at Tin Can Mailman in Arcata, California. I was visiting my sister Sarah, who lives there with her daughter Emma and her partner Donny. When I travel the only attractions I’m ever interested in are the local used bookstores, so besides hanging with my sister and my niece, my memory of my trip to northern California pretty much consists of what I looked at and bought at Tin Can Mailman and the other stores I checked out (which also included Eureka Books, Northtown Books, and Booklegger—fantastic establishments all). Continue reading…

weighHow Much My Life Weighs: On Moving 2,500 Books Across the Country | Read It Forward

In Jason Reitman’s 2009 film Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham asks a group of people a metaphorical question: “How much does your life weigh?” Though ordinarily a guy who companies hire to come in and fire off employees, he’s a motivational speaker on the side, so his question is meant to invoke the pressure the things we own put on our lives:

“Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knickknacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff, clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.”

To this already impossibly full backpack Bingham asks the audience to “go bigger” and stuff couches and tables and even houses into the bag. “Now try to walk,” he says. “It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.”

Continue reading…


51mkm-sbq6lThank God [sic] for George H. Smith | Read It Forward

When I was a kid I began to have dangerous thoughts—scary, world-shattering thoughts with enormous implications not merely in my daily life but the afterlife as well—thoughts that could potentially harm my family, even, and for all eternity no less. What I didn’t understand then, what I probably couldn’t understand then, as a 10-, 11-year-old boy in Pickerington, Ohio in the mid-90s, was that just on the other side of the harrowing danger was complete absolution, since if, as I suspected, there was no God, there subsequently wouldn’t be any worry of said God’s wrath—in this life or the next one (because, again, there wouldn’t be a next one). Continue reading…

shutterstock_533741428-1-900x675What People Really Mean When They Say, “Yes, I Read That Book” | Read It Forward

  1. “Yes, I have actually read that book.”
  2. “No, I haven’t read that book, but I own it and know enough about it that I don’t want to let you get credit for reading it when I may as well have read it but simply haven’t yet, and because one day soon I will pick it up it seems most logical to say, for the economy of things, that yes, I’ve read it.” Continue reading…

shutterstock_324004145-900x675The Love of Language, the Language of Love |
Read It Forward

Those instances—when acquiring a second (or third or fourth, &c) language relates to something deeper and more essential to the learner than practicality or general interest—and Lahiri’s personal and passionate account of her own instance lead me to a person in my own life for whom the acquisition of a specific language was less about achievement and more about the realization of an ingrained part of her identity. To explain: I fell in love for the first time when I was 20. Her name was Jackie, and holy shit did I adore her. We’d known each other since high school, but now as college students there was that air of adulthood that rather than responsibility and compromise suggested freedom and autonomy. She was smart and ambitious, and so was I, and together there seemed to be no end to what we could accomplish, both separately and individually. Jackie wasn’t a writer (though she was more than capable at it), but she read like one, tackling the kind of novels hardly considered pleasure reading. And most importantly was her preternatural passion for language. In her case, English, yes, but especially Spanish. (Continue reading…)

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-1-21-15-pmAspects of the Book | Read It Forward

Most books on literary history focus on the writers and social forces that engendered what we call literature, the abstract totality of creative and intellectual authorship. But over the course of human civilization, there is another story demanding to be heard, and that is the numerous narratives that lead to the book as an object, a literal thing you can hold in your hand. Although it may seem like the more stale story, the history of the book and its myriad parts is as deeply rich and as populated by fascinating figures as any text on a specific writer or movement.

To prove this, I present 7 books on different aspects of, well, the book, beginning with Keith Houston’s The Book, as it is not only a wonderfully engaging and lucid work moving through various details and geographies and centuries, but it’s the perfection foundational text for this list. The Book covers every aspect of our venerated codex, while the rest focus on specific subjects or developments. The book is mankind’s greatest achievement, so it’s only right that we should celebrate all the people and all the circumstances that helped usher it into existence. Continue reading…

bargainsWhy Books Remain(der) | Read It Forward

“I had a friend once who looked at his library and discovered that even if he completely stopped filmmaking (he was a filmmaker too) and just decided to read the books he had in his library, it would take him until he was 100 years old. He was a little bit panicked. But he was courageous. He went out of his house. He went to the bookstore. And he bought ten books.” —Alain Resnais, director, Hiroshima mon amour

“We talked about books, how boring they were to read, but how you loved them anyway.”  —Charles Baxter, Feast of Love

1.

Used bookstores ought to be melancholy affairs. If described in objective terms, you’re really just sifting through other people’s trash, their overstock, their leftovers. Books rest on the shelves like orphaned children, making gee-shucks eyes at passersby, their bindings pocked with the fault lines of age. Scrawled on the opening pages are handwritten notes, dedications, dates of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, now years past and long forgotten. Some words are circled, underlined or annotated for a college course, now a memory. Stale air, musky odors. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-10-16-53-amA Cornucopia of Dystopia Read It Forward

If you were to base your attitude toward the future on fiction writers, your outlook would probably be pretty bleak, as novels tend to depict one of two potential outcomes for any given civilization: either it’s full-on dystopic—replete with mass deaths, razed cities, droughts, paucities of food, even cannibalism—or it merely appears utopic but is actually a totalitarian regime disguised (or not so disguised) as harmony, unwaveringly to the benefit of the rich and elite. So in the coming decades, we’re either going to be lost in a post-apocalyptic world where we fight amidst anarchy for survival, or we’ll be deeply embedded in a corrupt system that exploits the complacent nature of societies.

Cool. That sounds awesome. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-11-18-at-11-53-29-amThe Actual List of Books That Saved My Life | Read It Forward

A few months ago, Read It Forward published an essay of mine chronicling the last eleven years of my reading life and the list I kept of every book I read in that period. The point of the piece was less the list itself and more the process of maintaining it—how it encouraged me when I felt inadequate, and how it nudged me onward when I let my reading slip—so I neglected to include the actual list itself. It seemed, to me, beside the point. The essay found a readership, which I’m grateful for, and many people have expressed interest in seeing this Word doc of mine, this strangely private itemization of my literary endeavors, and while I still think the essay stands without the list, I also do not mind at all sharing the list with whomever would like to peruse it (it’s probably, I suspect, a lot less interesting than some people might assume). But no matter how casual I act about publishing the list, I can’t shake this feeling of exposure, of being without some heretofore-invisible armor, the accumulated wisdom of over a decade of pursuit that no one, other than myself, has seen cataloged so starkly. Reading over it, though, I see how the meaning and vulnerability I imbue into the list stem not from some inherent quality of the record keeping but from my nuanced attachments to the books and to the times in which I read them. It’s a shorthand history of who I was, who I am, and who I want to become—but the language in which it’s written is one that only I can translate and understand. Still, I hope there’s something in it for everyone else. Continue reading…

gap-900x675The Gap* in Literary Art | Read It Forward

*As in, the abstraction, not the store

As we continue to write and, moreover, continue to read, another gap begins to slowly appear—this time, between the depictions of human moments, brief commentaries or implications of psychology, and how you’ve experienced an actually lived life. It is not that these renowned authors are getting anything wrong, exactly; it’s that you realize that their greatness often lies not in accurately describing life but in convincingly describing it. And this relates back to an earlier issue, namely that of making stories work. You see, when a young writer reads a great novel, it isn’t merely the style or the story that overwhelms the amateur. It is way in which the characters live. A neophyte doesn’t just read this as good and effective writing; it is seen a deeper level of living, so the gung-ho beginner thinks that not only are they unequipped literarily but also sensationally. They don’t think they live their lives as richly and psychologically complex as the fictional characters being described. Their fault, they might come to believe, lies in their essence, their experience, and their shallowness. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-9-59-15-amThe Difficult Second Album | Read It Forward

Okay, so now you’ve published your first novel! And, better still, it’s highly acclaimed! Your picture’s in The New York Times! You may have even won a prestigious award! All of your dreams have come true!

Now all you have to do is repeat the process all over again, except now the likeliness of duplicating the first book’s impact, receiving the same accolades, and winning more awards is basically a fraction of what it was your initial go around—which, even then was pretty remote—and if you understandably fail to achieve these things (again), you’ll disappoint people you’d never asked to esteem you so highly in the first place—and here you thought you’d made it and were finally free from the thankless work of obscurity, but these people, the very ones who lifted you from anonymity, now seem to be almost deliberately forcing back down into it. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-10-45-40-amAuspicious Beginnings: 7 Excellent Recent Debuts
Read It Forward

So the following debut novels are ones that over the last year or so have really stayed with me, moved me, compelled me, and in general felt especially deserving of acknowledgment and recognition. Some of these books have received some wide acclaim, some have benefited from major marketing pushes from their publishers, and some haven’t gotten the attention and the accolades they absolutely deserve. I truly hope all of these writers have long and flourishing careers in literature. Continue reading.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-16-59-pmRethinking the Novel | Read It Forward

It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little, the number of amendments to the original statement are so great and their permissibility so near total that, hell, the damn definition itself could be considered a novel. How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a hand-written novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, e.g., How do we sell this book? The answer to this, as everyone knows, is nevernuance. It’s short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. So something like “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism”? Nobody’s gonna get that, let alone remember it. As these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more and more distinct and less forgiving to cross, and like all fences they keep out just as much as they keep in, and soon the gaps have grown so vast that certain writers who seem able to nimbly and indiscriminately hop over them are viewed with as much perplexity as esteem. And so well if it’s not the page it’s printed on or its length, and if it’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if it’s the seeming pervasiveness of an understood definition is merely the result of repeated and successful branding on the part of publishers, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.

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12 Books of Poetry You Should Read Right Now |
Read It Forward

Although poetry is often dismissed as an almost anachronistic form, in my opinion, poets are offering some of the most vital work being written today. Like artful reporters from the front line, poets communicate experience one step beyond autobiography, as if they’ve set their heartbeats to music. Great poets record their footsteps as they move through life; their records aren’t exact but are more like sketching an object without looking at the paper, or a tape of one’s self humming a song one hopes to remember—the point lies in the idiosyncrasies of the lines, the particularities of the hum. And these histories are truer and much more representative future relics of our present era, for it is not the facts they report or the ideologies they extol but the rhythm of their soulfulness, and the melodies of their humanity, that best capture what it’s like to live today. Historians should always begin with poetry. So here are 12 books for posterity, and for you, reader, to take the temperature of today. Continue reading…

635975461622081858-1023457797_booksThe List of Books That Saved My Life | Read It Forward

So anyway, I moved to Las Vegas to go to school, which, I know, sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: I was to attend UNLV and live in a house my friend Greg’s father owned. Despite the promise of Twice the Jobs! ™, I couldn’t find any work. In Ohio, I’d had a job since high school, so suddenly, when living in a new city where I knew like three people and had no job, free time opened up before me like a vast desert after a long tunnel ride. A non-drinker and socially anxious to boot, I wound up reading a lot of books in those first months. I read The Great GatsbyAnna KareninaDublinersCandideNine StoriesFranny and Zooey, and A Confederacy of Dunces. I got super into theater, reading David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Neil Labute, and Tom Stoppard. Contemporary literature, too: Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Saul Williams, Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Tom Perrotta, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, and Nick Horby. I was too dumb and selfish and short-sighted to realize how white and male virtually all these authors were, but though I had been a reader since I could remember, I had never gobbled up books so voluminously. So impressed was I with my homogeneously hetero-normative erudition, in fact, I wanted to count them, to know exactlyhow many I’d read. So I made a list.

I felt small in Vegas, not merely in the sense of being one among so many, but also unequipped to strive for a life I wanted, because Vegas, being no-place, gave my existence there a purgatorial hum, and, being all-places, it never let me forget just how much was out there waiting to overtake me. When I finished itemizing the books I’d read and the total for the year came to 47 books, it was an act against that sense of smallness: I was preparing, to the extent that I could, for life, and I was learning, progressing, developing, and I needed something to reinforce my efforts, some suggestion of accomplishment to nudge me onwards. Continue reading…

PhillipRothFeatImageAll of Philip Roth’s Novels, Ranked | Read It Forward

Philip Roth is—or, since he’s not dead but retired, I should probably say was—the best American novelist of the 20th century. Between Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and Nemesis in 2010, Roth published 27 novels and four books of nonfiction, and he won three PEN/Faulkner Awards, two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two WH Smith Literary Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Franz Kafka Award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2010 National Humanities Medal given by Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. Whew. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll of writers, critics, and editors regarding the “single best work of American fiction published in the past 25 years,” six of Roth’s novels made the cut, more than anyone else. Critic A.O. Scott noted, “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, he would have won.” Continue reading…

literarysleepinessThe Unacknowledged Obstacle of Literary Sleepiness | Read It Forward

So I want to throw my two cents into this non-conversation and try to elucidate how sleepiness is a regular part of my reading (and thus professional) life, and see what that means, if anything. Of course it’s different for everyone, and I can imagine there are some readers for whom maintaining energy isn’t a problem at all. I’m only talking about my own experience—which from talking to numerous literary types seems at least relatable, if not universal—and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else other than myself.

Here’s the thing: reading and writing exhaust. They expend my intellect, deplete my creative capabilities, and tire my body. These are not, though, inherently bad things; in fact the only reason reading and writing have those effects is because they are both extraordinarily operative—it is difficult, then, to engage with them half-heartedly, because it’s basically the equivalent of not engaging at all. It would be like exercising without a rising heart rate: you may look like you’re doing the same thing as everyone else at Planet Fitness, but you aren’t getting any thinner or any healthier. Continue reading…

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Biographies That WON’T Make You Sick and Kill You

(underline ‘won’t’ because that makes it look like the other ones…)

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Look, I understand that in some fundamental way one’s interest in a biography cannot be completely divorced from one’s interest in the subject. So, unlike other forms of literary art, even biographies of wide acclaim don’t necessarily presume a large readership outside of the already converted. Despite knowing this, I’m just going to say it: for the most part, biographies are really boring—and here’s the kicker—even when the subject is of great importance to me. I’ve picked up lengthy tomes on some of my favorite writers, only to find myself drowning in the banal minutia of ancestors and hometown history and childhood development—and before long I’ll close the book in frustration, muttering something about how I couldn’t give a shit about what my heroes were like as kids, at least not in punishingly comprehensive detail. Get to the part, I think, where they accomplish the things that made me want to read a biography about them in the first place!

The reason I’m complaining at all is because I really love a good biography, and moreover, I really need them to do my work. So when I come across ones that hold my attention—or even rivet it, in some cases—I’m profoundly appreciative of its author for turning what might have been a grueling and tedious chore into a joyous and illuminating experience.

borrowing-900x675Against Borrowing Books | Read It Forward

There is a certain tyranny to borrowing books.

For me, the reading of books—and not just books in the general sense but very specific ones—is a vital activity, one that, yes, stumbles and stutters and loses its way, but it is my progress nonetheless. Now, the choosing of my next read is, most of the time, a wonderfully open task, as I am able to pick from all the books I’ve yet to read, which is literally most books that have ever existed. Faced with such bewildering numbers and such endless choice, I rely wholly on my literary whim—that is, whichever author or genre or style or subject is doing it for me at that moment, that is what I ought to pursue, because the passion that results from inarticulate interest is how I will get through even the tiniest portion of literature’s outrageous multiplicity. Continue reading…

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14 Complex, Ambitious, and Experimental Novels by Women | Read It Forward

The authors of the following tomes seem less driven by the feat of epicness and more by its potential for infinite complexity. These women—some young and precocious, some experienced and wise—pursue their stories and ideas with all the same brilliance and playfulness and buoyancy and seriousness of the Joyce’s, the Pynchon’s, and the Wallace’s of the world. The only difference is these women rarely seem to shout about their accomplishments, and the world doesn’t present them as competitors in the big, ambitious novel game. But literature is not a game—or at least it isn’t one in the sense these men believe it to be. The art alone, independent of its relation to the gifts of its maker, is what is entered into the fray, and its value (the art’s) is where any sort of competition might play out—that is, through the experience of readers. A novel written with extra-textual goals (e.g., status, respect, fame) seems like a real waste of effort and time.

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7 Single-Sitting Stunners | Read It Forward

I recently sat down to read Max Porter’s extremely well-acclaimed novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers, a genre blend of essay, poetry, and fable, and without once moving from my position, I devoured the entire thing. The experience—of both the beauty of Porter’s writing and the book’s short length—gave me that rare and satisfying feeling of wholeness, of having internalized an entire narrative with all the varied undulations of its emotional trajectory, the sensation of getting in one fowl swoop the intentions of an artist’s work. Short stories can yield such a sense of completeness, but these for economical reasons often don’t (or can’t to the same extent) allow the reader enough empathetic exposure to the character to invest in their plight and their humanity—we’re usually given the plight.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.36.52 AMRemarkable Books Written by Teenagers |
Read It Forward

Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some stupidly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel (usually) that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into the highly extolled books of the preternaturally gifted with dubiousness, almost a suspicion of such quickly realized talent, so that upon publication the impassioned responses are drastically polarized between those much impressed by the early effort and those for whom it is nothing more than crass publicity on the part of the publisher and less the insights of some twenty-something genius.

Surrounded by BooksWhy Books Are the Best Roommates | Read It Forward

Living with someone is like dancing in that it’s less about particular moves and more about staying in rhythm with your partner. No matter what your skill level, you have to move in some kind of unison with the other person, and while I’ve had my fair share of wonderful roommates, still, everyone I’ve ever lived with—family, friends, girlfriends, doesn’t matter—inevitably has the talk with me. Sometimes it’s introduced casually, like it’s no big deal, while other times it’s a serious, sit-down discussion, a whole thing, but ultimately what they all boil down to is this: “Jonathan, you’ve got to do something about these books.” At this point their eyes scan whatever room we happen to be in (again, doesn’t matter) at all the piles and stacks and bags and shelves of books, variously sized heaps littering the floor like miniature skylines, spilling out onto everything, occupying chairs and tables and counters and cabinets. Then they look back at me, their expression articulating an implied, You know what I’m saying?

9780139230035-us-30014 Posthumous Classics from the 14th Century to the Present | Read It Forward

Classic works of literature can seem so historical, so chiseled in stone by antiquity or genius, that it’s easy to forget the frail human beings behind them. We forget—or overlook—that all writers from Shakespeare to Sophocles possess the same weaknesses and idiosyncrasies as the rest of us, because their artistry not only survived history but created it. So ancient tragedies like “Antigone” and “Oedipus the King” become foundational texts around which subsequent tragedies are designed, retroactively creating the impression that the originals, rather than copied templates, were always crystalized paragons. Continue reading…

man-withbookshelfDon’t Ask Me What My Favorite Book Is
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The problem with naming one’s favorite book has less to do with the futility of reducing all literary experiences into one representative title and more to do with the inexactitude of the question. The query “What is your favorite book?” is too vague, too open-ended to be answered by any serious reader. But if the inquiry were amended to, say, “What are your most significant reading experiences?” or “What do you think are the most historically important books?” or “What are books that had, at the time, a major impact on you as a person or as a reader?” Now these questions may have some answers—maybe not one but at least these are much more conducive to responses.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 11.28.50 AM14 Unique and Innovative Short Story Collections | Read It Forward

To celebrate National Short Story month, here are fourteen innovative and unique story collections, the kinds that contain wonderful tales but also add up to a singular, cumulative experience. Instead of disparate narratives one after the other, these are stories as riffs, as meditations, as commentary, as thematic development, and collections as standalone works of art, which show that stories needn’t be isolated figures, like trees, but can become, in the right hands, forests and jungles—or better yet they can be turned into houses, and it doesn’t matter that you can’t recognize the individual trees.