Friday, November 20, 2009

What Are You Reading?

by Jennifer Brown

Writers read.  A lot.  At least they should.  And they learn from it. 

My semester has been about reading at least as much as it has been about writing.  I’ve read (or reread) Countless short stories by the likes of Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien and Stuart Dybek; The Odyssey; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Hamlet; Eliot’s Wasteland and The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Crucible; Huck Finn; Tom Sawyer; Roughing It; Life on the Mississippi; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Pudd’nhead Wilson; The Conjure Woman; Moby Dick; Country of the Pointed Firs; St. Mawr; Hemingway Stories; Faulkner Stories; Death Comes for the Archbishop; Under the Volcano; East of Eden; Wolf Willow; The Sheltering Sky; Light Years; Far Tortuga; Legends of the Fall; The Crossing; and a lot of Chekov.  

That is quite a list.  And I’ve learned from all of it and grateful for having been introduced to it all. 

But what I really want to tell you about is this:  This week I have fallen in love with Ambrose Bierce. I think my writing life has changed forever.  A friend of mine sent me a link to a story of his called “Chickamauga,” and I will never be the same.  When I proclaimed my love for it, she said “It’s so you” and I was overjoyed—because I hope it is.  Oh, how I hope it is. I sit here now next to a copy of The Complete Stories of Ambrose Bierce. 

Y’all know how it is right? When you find that special writer, the one that really speaks to you and you just fall hard?  This has happened to me before, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Faulkner, John Irving, Salmon Rushdie, and most recently with Cormac McCarthy.  But this Ambrose Bierce thing—this is serious!

So what have you read this semester, and have you fallen in love with any writer in particular?


  1. “Writers read. A lot.”

    I’d say that reading should matter to a writer as much as writing. Or the act of interacting with the text should be meaningful in all of its complexities. Something like that—rather than “a lot.”

    I say this just because I think the wording “a lot” is deceptive. Reading something defiantly complex slowly and thoughtfully is often more fruitful than reading a lot.

    To bring that closer to the "real": reading a passage for a couple of minutes and then thinking about it for an hour is often more fruitful than reading sixty pages within an hour and thinking for five minutes.

  2. Great topic! I love talking books. For craft this semester, we've had to read a huge variety of books: Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami, I the Divine by Rabih Alameddine, Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro.

    Right now, I have a literal stack of books that I'm going to try to tear through over winter break for my own personal research. Some stuff by Chang Rae Lee, Toni Morrison, Ha Jin, and James Baldwin. Some non-fiction stuff too, like Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freiere and Race Matters by West. One of the main reasons I can't wait for break to start is so I can finally get some breathing room to read stuff of my own... I guess I'm in the right major!

  3. Eric, I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go (read it this summer) and also liked Lee's Native Speaker a lot. I am also always up for a little Murakami! The Elephant Vanishes is a favorite book of mine.

    Right now I am reading Rhyme's Reason by John Hollander, along with Cocktails by D.A. Powell, Plus Shipping by Bob Hicok, Flight: New and Selected Poems by Linda Bierds, Sky Lounge by Mark Bibbins, and Atlantis by Mark Doty.

  4. Hmm... I've been in a fiction reading course this semester, and I'm sad to say it hasn't really yielded anything I'm madly in love with. In workshop, however, we read a few books that have really jumped out to me. For you poets, I highly recommend "The Mansion of Happiness" by Robin Ekiss (especially if you are interested in writing a series).

    In the undergrad class I assist with, we've read a lot of contemporary poetry that I had somehow missed out on in previous classes. Charles Simic and Louise Gluck have been pleasant surprises.

  5. Why wouldn't you share the link to the story with us? Come on! :)

  6. I was constantly finding writers that "spoke" to me in new ways when I was in my MFA program but I think the one that most put me in "shock and awe" in the best way was when I read "Modern Life" by Matthea Harvey. It just blew me away how she could write this often surreal, fantastic work but it still felt so accessible.

    The last two books that really pulled me in were both non-fiction "Something to Declare" by Julia Alvarez and "Invisible Sisters" by Jessica Handler. Interesting, both of these writers are also poets or have written poetry and you can sense that in the way they write their sentences.

    Great topic!

  7. Tory -- Haven't actually read Never Let Me Go yet, just starting it, but have heard tremendous things about it. Needless to say, I'm incredibly geeked out about it. As for Murakami, I'm very impressed. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is absolutely mind blowing; I'll be sure to put The Elephant Vanishes on my list.

    I'm in the middle of Lee's The Gesture Life. It's not bad, but I've heard that Native Speaker is the better of his two books. Looking forward to both, though.

  8. Margosita--here is the link to my new favorite story:

  9. Definitely a great topic. Poetry books:

    Albert Goldbarth: Beyond
    James Tate: return to the city of white donkeys
    michael palmer: company of moths (again)
    Larry Levis: The Selected Levis
    Andrew Zawacki: Petals of zero, petals of one
    Dean Young: Skid
    Ilya Kaminsky:Dancing in Odessa
    and three books by Patrick Lawler: A drowning man is never tall enough, reading a burning book, and feeding the fear of the earth.

    i recommend all of the above.

    also some non-fiction: the philosophy of physics, No Brow, Hollow Earth. Great technical language, and nice to look at the world at a different way without having to use the lens of poetry.

    I wish I was reading fiction, too, if I had the time.

    And while I'm partially in agreement with you, Aaron, that taking the time to reflect on what you're reading can be more beneficial than the reading itself, I think there's also something to be said for just reading whatever you can get your hands on and letting the diversity of work affect you in ways you cannot, because of their multitudinous-ness, predict.

  10. Prose Lit seminar:

    complete stories, basically, of:
    Alice Munro
    Saul Bellow
    John Cheever
    Flannery O'Connor
    Jean Stafford
    Katherine Anne Porter

    On the side right now:
    Donald Barthleme, "60 Stories"

  11. Brace yourself for a long list, and future applicants note that UOregon's Program includes very VERY heavy reading (though I haven't been assigned any required literary analysis essays); I have to discuss and defend my interpretation of some of these texts in what's called "Writing and Conference."

    For Writing and Conference:

    Ovid's Metamorphoses (All of it!)
    Propp's Morphology of a Folktale
    Rilke's essay "On Dolls"
    Levis's essay "Some Notes on the Gazer Within"
    Simic's Dismantling the Silence
    Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain
    Merwin's The Lice
    Sexton's Transformations
    Levis's The Dollmaker's Ghost
    Ted Hughe's Crow
    Peter Everwine's Collecting the Animals
    The Popul Vuh

    For Workshop:
    Lots of craft essays, many by Voight. I highly recommend her book "The Flexible Lyric."
    Carl Phillip's Selected: Quiver of Arrows
    Robin Robertson's Swithering

    For Seminar:
    Literally up to 100 pages a week of poetry ranging from Horace to Charles Wright to Bishop to Appolinaire.

    Surprises? A newfound love of Tu Fu, Voigt's fabulous (AND PRACTICAL) craft essays, still digesting the rest...


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