Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by John Madera: How Do You Decide What to Read Next?

By John Madera

NBCC member John Madera's thoughts on the third question in the Next Decade in Book Culture series:

First, some figures: At the time of this writing, so far this year I’ve read seventy-five books. I reviewed seven of those books. Deciding what to read next is always a challenge, each book chosen for many different and sometimes opposing reasons, and the process, for me, is marked as much by anxiety as it is dictated by reviewing pressures, which, at this point, alas, is largely self-imposed. I have periods of what I call “binge reading” where I read a mound of books centered on a specific topic or genre, usually in connection with a project I’m working on. For instance, while in the midst of writing a fantasy novel a couple of years ago I’d read a hundred or so classic books in the genre. Also, there’s my tendency toward comprehensiveness, that is, my inclination to read every, or most, of the books of a writer I like. Given all the time in the world, this style of reading would probably prevail over all others.

Like any writer and avid reader, I’d imagine, I have a folder containing multiple lists I’ve compiled over the years of books that I’d like to read. I’d culled many of the books on these lists from interviews with and/or essays by writers I admire. There are bibliographies xeroxed from other books. Jottings from who knows where. Lists, lists, and more lists that seemingly proliferate on their own in this sheave of sheets that I occasionally flip through after finishing a book; but I rarely actually end up finding a book to read from them. I’m more likely to pull a book off from one of my sagging shelves and read that. Books on shelves are accusers. Each spine is an eye bearing down on me. Each title is a shout demanding me to give due attention. I’m also one of the dying breed of burrowing bookworms borrowing books from the library, one who gets lost in the dusty stacks of a used bookstore, following a trail only to embark on a new one. It’s rare for me to read a book that a friend recommends since these books are usually what “everybody” is reading, and this usually works more often as a deterrent more than anything else.

There’s really only one critic whose reviews I follow with any kind of devotion, and since his reviews appear intermittently, “following” is not quite the word. In any case, not only are William Gass’s examinations of any book (of anything, I’d argue) worthy of consideration, the very style in which they are composed serves as inspiration for me as a writer of fiction and nonfiction. In contrast to the many reviews out there which privilege glibness, sarcasm, largely tangential commentary, robotic praise or unthinking dismissal, and, worst of all, bland, predictable prose, Gass’s reviews are standalone essays characterized by erudition, rigor, insight, breadth, droll asides, and sentences upon sentences that are lyrical, musical, and poetic; giving lie to the idea that a book review is just entry-level stuff, something editors should just assign to hacks, something that isn’t really meant to be read but skimmed and obviously never reread, just a bunch of sentences indistinguishable from a brownnosing blurb. Also, I’m more likely to read a book review by Virginia Woolf, Guy Davenport, Leon Forrest, Susan Sontag, Italo Calvino, or David Foster Wallace, rather than something contemporary. I’d love to know about other critics whose work measures up to this cloud of witnesses.

Actually, thinking further, and perhaps with a little less of my characteristic despair at the dearth of quality in contemporary letters, reviews by Brian Evenson, Joyelle McSweeney, Lance Olsen, Vanessa Place, and Steven Moore are always probing, inspired criticism and send me back to the writing desk focused on aiming higher. I also recently read a review by Gary Lutz, delivered in his inimitably eccentric, fussed over prose, which was as brilliant as his fictions. Somebody should put him on the payroll somewhere.

Back to Gass, after reading all of his books this year I decided to take on the marathon task of reading all of the books listed in his essay “Fifty Literary Pillars”. From that list, I reread Wallace Steven’s Harmonium (as well as the rest of the Collected Poetry and Prose (Library of America)); John Hawkes’s simply luscious novel, The Lime Twig; Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (another reread, but this time I read the new translation by Michael Hulse); Plato’s Timaeus in an unimaginative translation; the first volume of Flaubert’s Letters; William Yeats’s The Tower (twice); Paul Valéry’s lovely Dialogues; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (not the best of the Bard’s plays, but certainly full of poetic flights largely courtesy of the irrepressible Cleopatra); Flann O’Brien’s brilliant At Swim-Two-Birds; Thomas Hobbes’s lofty Leviathan; and William Gaddis’s seemingly indomitable, adamantine, but ultimately sensuous, luxurious, comedic, inventive, muscular, and wonderfully sprawling novel The Recognitions, which has inspired me to no end. Having ridden on the spine of Gaddis’s own leviathan, I’m tempted to ditch everything else this year to read everything else by him, and read, as I’m in the middle of doing with Gass’s literary “pillars,” whatever he’d recommended in the few interviews he allowed. I should mention that I’d recently picked up at the library one of these insane all-the-books-you-must-read-before-you-die doorstoppers. What the hell was I thinking?

John Madera’s work is forthcoming in Conjunctions, The Believer,The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and The Brooklyn Rail. He’s editing a book on the art of writing (Publishing Genius Press). Managing editor at Big Other, he also edits fiction at jmww