Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Literary crushes from college

while I wait for the espresso to brew (here's the inspiration for this post, the rather appealing Slate compilation "My First Literary Crush - The books famous people loved in college").

It is funny how clearly I remember the new books I was introduced to in my first two years or so of college. I had already been reading like a maniac for a long time (well, forever really, I have been a truly obsessive reader since I was five years old or possibly even longer), and I've got a litany of names I associate with high school (fortunately I went to the kind of high school where reading was cool): Burgess, Fowles, Pynchon, Bukowski, Robert Graves and Gore Vidal and other opinionated historical novelists, Nabokov of course (I remember writing a college application essay about Pale Fire and theories of linguistic perspicuity, it would be funny if I could dig that one up and post some of it here--I must look next time I'm at my mom's house), a host of others but those are the ones that come clearest to mind now. Dickens, Austen (who remain the two most important classic novelists for me, the two I really can't do without). A lot of science fiction and fantasy and crime: Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, the trashy but much-loved Anne McCaffrey.

College? A funnier assortment, and most particularly a rather stringent one: 1988-1990 was a testy and judgmental though still enthusiastic phase in my reading habit. (I continued to read a lot of more or less trashy novels on the side, which made me almost unique as far as I could tell in that environment: most college students then as now simply do not feel they have time to read anything that's not assigned. Which is a great pity. But I'm delighted how many of my students at Columbia have proved an exception to this rule: lots of them really do follow their inclinations as far as reading goes, and I love it that way).

Most mind-blowing read: Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari, which I read again and again.

Most "I want to write a book like this" read: Sartre's The Words.

Most influential on my fiction-writing (for better and for worse): Beckett's trilogy.

Favorite extracurricular reading: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love; Pynchon's Vineland, which I uncharacteristically and extravagantly bought in hardcover because I was so impatient to read it (and which delighted me by including a Deleuze and Guattari joke I would have missed a few years earlier--aesthetic convergence!).

Most important for future career: an independent study on the eighteenth-century novel (well, technically it was a junior tutorial) with my favorite grad student tutor, M., who was a brilliant and kind mentor and generously introduced me to narratology as well as lots of other things. We read Pamela and Rousseau's Confessions and Tristram Shandy and some other stuff I can't now call to mind and though I think I was particularly distracted and badly behaved that semester (I seem to remember M. shaking her head at me in despair as I turned up with yet another completely different hair color to our Friday afternoon meeting--pink, blue, green, whatever--and saying "Everything would be better if you spent as much time preparing for tutorial as you do dying your hair"... then again M. was also the person who charmingly, naively, inquired of me at the end of my first year of college, with true academic quasi-sociological interest in the drug-taking habits of myself and my peers, "So, Jenny, do you and your friends shoot up acid?" Happily I was able to answer in the negative), I loved those books and they have since become my bread and butter.


  1. I remember vividly reading "A Wild Sheep Chase," the first novel of Murakami's I ever came across: I was living off-campus in 1992 or so with a bunch of roommates, one of whom had just returned from a couple years in Japan and loaned me his copy. Have you seen these adorable Japanese-English translations (by which I mean English-language translations produced in Japan)? It was the cutest little two-volume set, small-format and visually quite unlike any book you'd ever get here; I was blown away by it, and I think it remains my favorite novel of his. MADAME BOVARY was definitely another important moment; in fact, I forget how much time I spent reading French fiction, that and Celine's VOYAGE AU BOUT DE LA NUIT were two particularly important ones (plus almost anything by Marguerite Duras).

  2. In class? Definitely "Mansfield Park" (yep, your fault!). I can't believe I didn't get there until the last semester, but at least I discovered it! Outside of class? Thomas Kuhn's "Structure of Scientific Revolutions." There are no words to accurately describe how it completely changed my thinking!

  3. omg geek love

    talk about collegiate crushes-
    i wanted to marry that book!