skip to content or skip to search form

The Bookshelf

I don’t have a special shelf for my favorite books—not even an imaginary one, because I lack whatever psychological trait that allows people to easily create hierarchical categories of the things they like. I have books I especially love, but I never know where to draw the line between “favorite” and “not quite.” But Rick Geerling created a meme, list the books on your special shelf of favorite books, which has been spreading through the blogosphere (Ken Lowery, David Fiore, Dave Intermittent). I suppose I’ve caught the meme as well.

On David Fiore’s comments thread, Jess Nevins notes that the problem with this meme is that “The Bookshelf” (as Rick calls it) is going to end up with hundreds of books on it. Actually, I think it’ll probably end up with too many or too few, depending on whether your listing is governed by an obsessive completism or a reticent hesitance to include every book you know you really should. To save both you and me some time and boredom, I’ll choose the latter governor.

Before I start my list of favorite(ish) books, though, I want to note something I’ve just noticed. Many of the ones I’ve chosen are about what Rose calls “creation of self through narrative” and David Fiore calls “identiy-formation through narrative-building.” These are narratives that literalize narrative: the characters in these stories usually know or figure out they’re in a story. Sometimes they get to meet the Author. I think if we humans were offered a little discussion time with God—not just your standard prayer or divine visions but a meeting in which you could get some real answers—most of us would eagerly accept the offer. Even those of us who don’t believe in Him would, I think—wouldn’t you like to know what God would have to say about all those clever arguments atheists have come up with to “disprove” Her existence? I know I would. Can God create a rock so heavy even He can’t lift it?

Why is there suffering? Why didn’t you ever answer my prayers—is it just because I didn’t believe in you? If you had a chance to get not just the answers but The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything—well, who wouldn’t be tempted by that? We have all these questions we’d love to ask God, but She doesn’t answer (if God exists then He seems to have been out to lunch for the last few million years, and I never trust people who have a personal relationship with Jesus). The only place we can get God to answer our questions is in our fantasies, that place where we’re more powerful than God and get to tell Her what to do. I think that’s why there are so many stories about meeting God. But then, God (creator of the Wor[l]d) and an author (creator of words) have a lot in common, don’t they? J.R.R. Tolkien discusses writing, especially of fantastic stories, as a reverent imitation of God’s creation of the world in his essay “On Faerie Stories.” In Animal Man, Grant Morrison and God are the same.

My Bookshelf (for now) consists (largely, but not at all entirely) of fiction texts that take on these intersections of text, authorship, and humanity’s own search for cosmological answers.

The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick

The dangerous thing about finding God and asking your questions is, of course, what if God won’t answer? Or can’t answer? What if He answers but the answers make even less sense than your own feeble guesses? What if the only useful thing you got out of your meeting with God was a reminder of the idea of free will—and you couldn’t even get God to tell you whether you actually have free will or if it’s just a comforting fiction you invented yourself? Are you even capable of dealing with the responsibility for your own stupid mistakes and fucked-up life, the liberating and terrifying fine-print clause in the free-will contract? (And why didn’t God ever ask if you wanted to sign that contract?)

(In other words, what if you were human?)

The Dark Tower, Stephen King

The fantasy epic about a gunslinger straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, on a quest for The Answer, which lies at the highest level of the Dark Tower—or does it lie in the home of the young writer of Salem’s Lot? King thinks the opening sentence of The Gunslinger, the first book of his Dark Tower series, may be the best opener he’s written in his career: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I like the next sentence even more: “The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what might have been parsecs in all directions.” It’s the “parsecs” that makes it great—any writer with the audacity to put “parsecs” in the second sentence of a book like The Gunslinger, and the skill to actually pull it off without sounding like a jerk, is a writer worth reading. (In the recent and ill-conceived revised edition of The Gunslinger, King foolishly replaced “parsecs” with some safer and forgettable word. Too bad for him.)

Vurt, Jeff Noon

Labyrinths are almost as important a theme in this genre as the quest for God, labyrinths as a metaphor of the text. The goal at the center of the textual labyrinth is meaning… but there’s a nasty structural ‘flaw’ in the labyrinth: there is no center! There is no one perfect interpretation of any text—even the simplest of texts may have several plausible interpretations. (This is not to say all interpretations of a text are equally plausible—the lack of one correct interpretation is not the same as the lack of any wrong one.) And don’t fall for the intentional fallacy—a statement of the author’s intended meaning may look like a map to the center of the text, but it’s only another textual labyrinth. What do you do with a centerless labyrinth (the only escape is not to read)? Why not be a writer yourself, a creator of labyrinths?

Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges

In some shelf of some hexagon [of the Library], men reasoned, there must exist a book which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has perused it, and it is analagous to a god. …I pray the unknown gods that some man—even if only one man, and though it have been thousands of years ago!—may have examined and read it. …May heaven exist, though my place be in hell. Let me be outraged and annihilated, but may Thy enormous Library be justified, for one instant, in one being.
— “The Library of Babel”

Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
— “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”

More books…

And now, since this is going to be ridiculously long and time-consuming if I keep writing so much about each book, I’ll list the rest of the books with no more than one or two explanatory sentences each…

  • If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino. The book is narrated in the second person, so you the reader become the protagonist as well.
  • The Invisibles, Animal Man, The Filth; Grant Morrison. Morrison is one of few comics creators I’ve encountered in my short career as a comics reader who gets into these metatextual themes (and, more importantly, deals with them intelligently) (I have no doubt there are plenty of other comics creators who do as well, but I’ve not yet discovered many of them).
  • Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco. I read an essay by John Updike in which he claims Foucault’s Pendulum shows what might have resulted if Borges had attempted to write a novel. He may be right about that, but his belief that it’s a flaw in Foucault’s Pendulum probably shows why I don’t waste my time reading Updike.

For this next book I’m afraid I need to go back to a longer format:

Good-Bye Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson

In this book, Craig Thompson emerges as a young comics master: In the purest narrative form he tells a highly charged personal story, crammed with pain, discovery, hijinx, penance, religious conviction and its loss… and along comes self loathing. In this story of family and first love, that which goes awry in life, goes well as art. Mr. Thompson is slyly self-effacing as he bowls us over with his mix of skills. His expert blending of words and pictures and resonant silences makes for a transcendent kind of story-telling that grabs you as you read it and stays with you after you put it down. I’d call that literature.
Jules Feiffer

Feiffer is writing about Thompson’s Blankets, but he could just about be writing about Good-Bye Chunky Rice. The funny thing is, what he writes makes a lot more sense if you pretend he is writing about the latter rather than the disappointing (and generally redundant, after Good-Bye Chunky Rice) Blankets.

Even more books…

This is getting way too long. OK, here’s the rest of my list:

  • Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Pattern Recognition; William Gibson
  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Ubik, The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, et al.; Philip K. Dick. If I kept going I might end up listing every one I’ve read. Dick’s books are often incoherent and clumsily written, but no other writer inspires quite the same fascinating effect of simultaneous desire to throw a book across the room and unwillingness to stop reading long enough to throw it.
  • Robert Howard’s Conan stories
  • Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

I guess that’s it. For now!


  1. Rose says:

    It’s a good sign that we’d have a lot of overlap. I’d go with Calvino’s Cosmicomics as well as (but maybe not instead of) If on a winter’s night a traveler. If I get through one more Dark Tower book (well, and then another when there is another) and the Dick and Howard works, I’ll be through your shelf! But I have a feeling this is not the sort of shelf that has an end.

    — 7 July 2004 at 5:48 pm (Permalink)

  2. Dave Intermittent says:

    Welcome back you two….

    I’m always surprised that Swanwick isn’t held in higher regard. Iron Dragon was just a sucker punch of a book, over and over again.

    — 7 July 2004 at 7:13 pm (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    I think that’s my favorite of his (at least now). Steven read it for a class last fall and I followed suit, and I’ve since read Bones of the Earth, Vacuum Flowers, In the Drift, and Stations of the Tide.

    Have you read any China Mieville? I was pushed to read his stuff and Jeff Noon’s books by that same class, and I enjoyed both in very different ways.

    — 7 July 2004 at 7:42 pm (Permalink)

  4. Dave Intermittent says:

    Swanwick’s Faust is also good; haven’t found a copy yet of Vacuum Flowers.

    I have read Mieville; King Rat and Perdido. I’m bringing the Scar along with me on vacation, but may or may not get to it. It’s sort of far down in the batting order. Noon? Read and enjoyed Vurt, very much. I’ve been meaning to pick up Automated Alice, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    Sounds like an interesting class; what else was on the syllabi?

    — 7 July 2004 at 10:56 pm (Permalink)

  5. Steven says:

    The scariest thing about IDD is the note of hope at the end. You don’t know if Jane will finally be happy, if she’ll fall into the same old traps, if she’s really free from her self-made prison as she seems to be—and not knowing is liberating (for Jane, at least, who’s finally done with others telling her story for her) and terribly frightening.

    Now, let’s see, the books for the class were: The Golden Compass, Voyage to Arcturus (obscure post-World War I gnostic fantasy by David Lindsay), The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, The Bloody Chamber, Vurt, The Mount,Towing Jehovah, Perdido Street Station, some Borges stories. We also watched the movies The Dark Crystal, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Wings of Desire.

    — 8 July 2004 at 12:01 pm (Permalink)