Favorite Reads 2016: Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich



Suddenly Russia is very, very on trend! If you want a volume of insight into the post-Soviet mind, there are probably few if any books that would do you better than this.

Were this all that Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich did, that would be much more than enough. But this in fact is only the first important thing this book does. The narratives in this book have such emotional power, such range, such philosophical depth, such insight, such observations. Did I mention they are also simply beautiful and engrossing to read?

In addition to this, Alexievich knows how to engage with Russia’s long history—it’s not for nothing that this book prominently features Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor discussing the riddle of freedom in its opening pages. Although Second-hand Time does not always address Russia’s history with that directness, it is true that this is a concern throughout. Alexievich knows how to channel the big arguments regarding the major historical forces of the region and the 20th century into these stories, but to do it lightly, so as to never compromise the individuals who are sharing their lives with her.

Few books I’ve read this year are both so absolutely necessary and such an incredible reading experience. Read this!

Favorite Reads 2016: Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky



Sculpting in Time by Andrey Tarkovsky is one of the best books I’ve read on art in a long time. This isn’t a terribly long book (250 pages) but it took a very long time to read because in each paragraph—and often each sentence—you will find something to linger over, an observation, aphorism, confession, explanation, whatever, and it will require some time to reflect on just what you’ve read.

If you know Tarkovsky’s films at all (e.g. Stalker, Solaris), you know they are meditative, incredibly shot, lyric, romantic, profound. As a writer he’s very much the same, moving through his work with a very refined style that nonetheless feels very, very taut, as though Tarkovsky has distilled his language down to the most essential words possible.

At the heart of this book is Tarkovsky’s argument about the way time functions in cinema (he sees his work as the filmmaker as “sculpting time”), which in itself is a powerful and provocative way to look at film, but I find it hard to look at Sculpting in Time as a film book per se. You could get equal good out of it if you were a poet, painter, philosopher, essayist, humanist . . . anyone who is sensitive to beautiful things will really feel that this book is intensely powerful.

I was surprised what a true discovery this book is. An obvious must-do for anyone who cares at all about film, but really I hope that everyone who reads this takes the opportunity to experience this incredible meditation on art.

24+ Books That Have Shaped My Understanding of the 20th and 21st Centuries



Probably most people who know me through this website know me primarily as an arts and literature person. That is my profession, and that’s mainly the way I’ve oriented this website, but I’m also heavily into politics. My undergrad degree was in Political Science and Economics, and I still read a lot in those disciplines, even if that reading tends not to make it to this blog.

Well, with the state of the world as it is, maybe it’s time to feature a little more of those kinds of books on this site.

So, with that in mind, here’s a list of books that I think can go a long way toward helping understand exactly where we are now in the world, politically speaking, and where this all might be headed. This is not an exhaustive list; it’s a very idiosyncratic, personal, and probably incomplete list of the books that have shaped my vision of the world.

Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy by Barrington Moore

“Fascism” and “Nazi” are two words that are getting thrown around quite a bit right now. Well, this is basically the book on where fascism in Europe came from, why some societies went toward fascism, while others went toward democracy. In terms of understanding the contemporary drift toward authoritarian leaders, this is worth roughly a million thinkpieces on the Trump voter.

Postwar by Tony Judt

World War II was basically the Big Bang that exploded out into the world we live in today. You can’t understand our current globe without understanding what that war did, how the West recovered from it, and how the resulting global order evolved over the decades. Tony Judt’s Postwar is basically the single best text for comprehending this.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

I just gave you Postwar, and now this: what I consider the definitive novelistic response to the Second World War

Capital in the Twenty First Century by Thomas Piketty

I look at this as the essential companion volume to Postwar. Basically, the long European conflict now known as World War I and World War II opened the way for an economic regime unlike any that had ever existed in Europe. This is where the middle class and the postwar wealth, freedom, and (relative) equality came from. Piketty lays it all out, as well as explaining why this order looks to be regressing to something much more 19th-century.

Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer

The decision to go to war is one of the gravest a society can make, particularly when said society has more destructive firepower than the next 10 combined. It’s hard to know just when war is warranted (if it ever is). Michael Walzer is one of our nation’s leading political philosophers, and this is his major statement on these questions. The thoughts here, as well as the discussion of major historical examples—including many from the signal conflicts of the 20th century—is essential.

Ryszard Kapuscinski

It’s hard to pick any one book by Kapuscinski, since he tended not to write large, all-encompassing volumes (maybe his “tyrant trilogy”—The Emperor, Shah of Shahs and Amin (unfinished) comes the closest). But in terms of understanding what was happening in the developing world in the 20th century his body of work is essential.

The Master Switch by Tim Wu

Knowledge is power, information is capital. Facebook spread more fake election news than real. If this rings true to you, then you want to know who’s controlling the information you get and how. Tim Wu has written a pretty definitive account of how the major media of our age—radio, TV, film, the Internet—have all pretty much taken a similar path in terms of who controls them and to what end.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer

Fascism, Nazis, Hitler, these are all common points of comparison nowadays. If you want to see what the genuine article was and how it came to exist and eventually be exterminated, this is the book you need. It’s very big, and also addictive.

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

If The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the nonfiction you read on Nazism, this is the fiction. How German is it? Where does radicalism come from? How deeply is fascism embedded in the West’s cultural DNA? This is the book to read on these and other related questions.

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

An essential text on the USSR. I’m not sure if the sell an unabridged edition any more (the link goes to an abridged, recent edition).

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

The essential novel of the totalitarian mind. This and Orwell’s 1984 go together like peanut butter and milk. And also, probably, The Captive Mind, which I’m reading right now, and of course the work of Hannah Arendt.

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

The key text on the struggles of the oppressed peoples of the 20th century.

Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud

One of Freud’s most famous texts, also very readable and probably one of his most relevant works today. Basically, what impulses led human beings to work together in communities, and what impulses are threatening to tear those bonds apart?

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Not a book about the 20th century per se, in explaining how the world map got to be as it stands is explains the deep roots of modernity and thus gives a very deep look into societies in general. A great, hugely illuminating read.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama

Don’t be intimidated by the title: this book is very easy to read, ad hugely fascinating. Basically, it’s an authoritative account of what makes democracies tick, how they have been given stability and strength, and how these qualities have been detracted from. The sections on the U.S. are of great importance right now.

Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

This is a key work for processing how the order of the early 21s century transformed in the years after the war and turned into the postmodern, heavily mediated present. Essential reading for figuring out how we process political realities at the moment.

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

How does the modern nation-state enforce its values? How does it generate the power it uses to control its citizens? Where do these things come from (historically)? This is the book to read on those questions. Contains Foucault’s discussion of the “panopticon,” definitely one of the most famous pieces of writing Foucault ever made.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

One of the core texts of Keynesian economics and a great education on where the industrialized world came from. Still one of the best cases against the “self-regulating” market.

Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama

The French Revolution is basically the big bang of the modern values core to any Western-style democracy. This is the best single-volume popular account.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

This is the story of American thought in the post–Civil War era. Basically, Menand covers much of the groundwork for the various strains of thought that have come to dominate America thought in the realms of politics, science, education, and philosophy in the 20th century.

River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit

My favorite Solnit book, and a great read alongside the Menand. Basically, where to modern concepts of time and distance come from? (Photography, the railroads.) And how have they shaped the modern perception of the world and life?

Rise to Globalism by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley

How did America become a world power, and what did it to with that power once it had it? A very strong single-volume narrative of American foreign policy from the era of the Nazis through 9/11.

The Faith of the Faithless by Simon Critchley

A great book about how belief in God has become belief in State in the 20th century. Also about how authority is legitimatized in the modern nation-state. On these and similar questions I would also recommend Simone Weil. And you’d probably also want to have Sartre on existentialism in here, too.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

This book is so foundational to feminism in the 20th century that even if you haven’t read it, you’ve kind of already read it, because so many ideas that are now second-nature originally came from it.

Mark Danner

Mark Danner’s reporting on Bush-era war crimes and abuses in the NYRB was the best reporting I read on the subject. He’s published some volumes collecting these pieces, plus a lot of other reporting from all around the world. I recommend it.

Black Friday for the Litblog



I hope you all (in the States) are having a sweet Thanksgiving holiday, in spite of the fact that politics is a total shitshow right now. Regardless, I want to take the momentto thank everyone for reading this site (and The Quarterly Conversation!).

Running CR/TQC takes time, energy, $$$, etc, so it’s actually really, really rewarding to see that there’s a pretty sizable audience for this little litblog, and its online journal cousin. Thank you for being here!

And while I’ve got all your attention, this is also my moment to ask you all to give a tiny bit back so I can make CR 2017 fantastic.

One of the things I’m eager to do next year is lots more short interviews on the site, in addition to the usual mix of intriguing lists, brief essay on fascinating books, recommendations rundowns, and assorted odds and ends.

As a reminder, a few of the posts you may have enjoyed so far this year (+ the “interesting new releases” list and my upcoming favorite reads of the year):

If you dig that stuff & wanna say thanks by giving a little something back to me, this is your moment.

(As always, no one should feel obligated. If you can’t afford to or just don’t want to, don’t worry about it. And if you’re one of those people who has already donated, bought via the links, etc, THANK YOU YOU RULE!!!)

Number one, the easiest thing is to just do your regular Amazon shopping after visiting Amazon through my links. You get your stuff, I get a kickback, and we probably entirely kill Jeff Bezos’s razor-thin margins. Everybody wins!

Another nice thing would be to purchase one of my ebooks for yourself. You get some great reads, I get a little of your money, unbeatable deal for everyone.

Right now I’m offering a pretty sweet buy on the Latin American Mixtape and The Missing Books. That is 35,000 words for just $4.99.

You can read the whole deal right here, or just get it below.

The Missing Books——which has been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed——can also be purchased separately:

Kindle ($4.99)

And, of course, Paypaling me a little funds is always nice.

Thank you in advance for everything. And I hope to see you here for my “best reads” breakdown next month, plus all the fab-ness of CR 2017.

Recommended Reading: Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, James Gleick, Javier Marías, Abdellatif Laabi, André Breton, Tobias Carroll, Alex Beam, Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson


It’s been a very busy time writing-wise around here, so the blogging this month has been very light. My apologies for that. Though, if it’s any consolation, the next issue of The Quarterly Conversation (which has been absorbing some of the energy that might have otherwise gone to blogging) is going to have a ton of great stuff in it.

Anyway, I’ve been reading some good things this month, so let’s share a few of those.

First off, I enjoyed Absolutely on Music a book of conversations between Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa on the subject of classical music. It was a really pleasant read, and a nice change of pace for Murakami, showing a new and very skillful side of his intellect. You can read more in a review I wrote of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Just this week I’ve been knocking away Time Travel, the latest book by James Gleick. What I admire about Gleick is his indefatigable research and his ability to synthesize large amounts of information from a wide variety of disciplines to create his own nuanced picture of a subject. Also, his subjects tend to appeal to me—The Information, his previous book, brought all sort of great ideas to mind. Gleick is something like a sample menu: he doesn’t pursue any one idea into a huge amount of depth, but he does give you tons and tons of samples of all kinds of ideas, all in one place, and in a very readable, witty package. So that’s what I like about him.

I also recently finished Thus Bad Begins, the latest novel by Javier Marías. I’ve got mixed feelings, which are going to be explained in an upcoming review, but for now I will say you could do a hell of a lot worse. Certainly if you dig Marías’s thing, this book is for you.

While I’m mentioning Marías, I should also recommend To Begin at the Beginning, his Cahier, just released. It’s a wonderful little document, and the illustrations, by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam are absolutely stunning.

Earlier this month I did an event with Donald Nicholson-Smith, the translator of In Praise of Defeat, a selected poems from the entire 40-year career of Abdellatif Laabi. Laabi is perhaps the major North African poet of his generation, certainly the leader from Morocco, and there’s been something of a Laabi renaissance in English in recent years. These are well worth your time.

Another thing I’ve been dipping in and out of are the Manifestoes of Surrealism by André Breton. These are very loopy, often frustrating texts, although there is also tons and tons of gold in here. With a mind like Breton’s, you’ve just got to take the good with the nonsense. Certainly there’s a ton in here to think about, and interfacing with Breton’s intelligence for a while will do wonders to anybody’s noodle.

Also, I was very pleased with Tobias Carroll’s first collection of short fiction, Transitory. These stories are mostly set in hipster New York, but they have a very interesting feel to them, almost like you’re back in the old New York of the Henry James era. Carroll kind of combines the old and the new in his own way, and there’s a unified aesthetic here. The premise of each story is always intriguing, and Carroll tends to do a lot with them. Were I to make a critique, it would be that in some of these pieces I wish Carroll had gone a little bit further in penetrating to the depths and complexities of the really ripe situations he’s created here. But that’s more a hope for his next book of stories, and not a knock to this one.

Lastly, I’ll just put in a plug for The Feud by Alex Beam, about Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson’s infamous feud over Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin. It’s a great story, and one that’s very illustrative of translation. I haven’t read this book yet, but I’d be very surprised if it disappoints.

Missing Books + Latin American Mixtape Bundle Offer



I’m now offering The Missing Books and the Latin American Mixtape as a bundle for the sweet price of $4.99. That’s gonna be 35K+ words of blissful literary idyll——

The Missing Books is a living, growing, updating collection of books that don’t exist, but should.

Since its release on Oct 10 of this year, it’s been featured in Literary Hub, 3 Quarks Daily, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and many others, as well as co-signed on Michiko Kakutani’s Twitter feed.

Featured authors include: Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé.

Whoever purchases The Missing Books receives the right to all future versions for free. Version 2.0 is in the works and currently slated for release at some point next year.

The Latin American Mixtape is charismatic, fun tour through a continent’s leading writers.

In includes an in-depth interview with César Aira, the most important digression of Aira’s career, why Roberto Bolaño has become a worldwide phenomenon, why Guatemalan superstar Rodrigo Rey Rosa needs to be on your to-read list today, + lots more. Over 25,000 words on Latin America’s finest.

Get both of them:

The Missing Books can also be purchased separately:

Kindle ($4.99)

Megan Abbott: Writing Noir in a New Way



One of the reasons I love editing The Quarterly Conversation is that it opens up so many authors I would never find out about otherwise. Having some of the best, most open-minded, engaged readers in our world writing reviews and essays of top notch writers is a little like having my own private research staff cluing me in to great stuff. For a writer who thrives on creative influence as much as I do, this is incredible.

Case in point, last issue Angela Woodward (a very interesting writer herself) intro’d me to Megan Abbott with this essay. After editing it and publishing it, I knew I had to check Abbott out.

The elevator pitch for Abbott is that she does feminist noir. That’s a reductive label, but it’s a powerful way to coordinate what makes Abbott’s fictions feel so interesting to me, so I’m just gonna go with it.

Abbott is the author of several novels, all noir-like in their structure and feel, but insofar as I’ve read her it feels like no noir I’ve ever read before. The narrators are female, and though the stories play on familiar noir tropes (the femme fatale, the private investigator, etc, etc) the books are resolutely feminine: the focus on women’s relationships, they view masculine relationships from a female perspective, and (perhaps most interesting to my mind) the narrative voice has a very “female eye” for detail.

Let me focus in on that last point for a minute. Typically noir constructs a very masculine world, not just in things like the protagonist (who is usually male), his desires, his methods, etc but also much more quietly in the very texture of the story. The items the noir trades in (the guns, the cars, the clothes) are masculine items, the approach the protagonist takes is a man’s approach. The very word choice and incidental detail is geared toward evoking a masculine sensibility.

With Abbott’s novels, all this is couched in a feminine perspective. For instance, as I was reading Abbott’s Die a Little, I was struck by all the little details here and there that continuously created a female world:

And I take his arm. And my hand doesn’t even seem to make it halfway around his thickness.

Their fingernails are painted dark.

“Oh?” I say politely, taking my hand back and burying it safely in my dress pocket.

One night, lice is putting delicate finger curls in my hair . . .

Two pencils poked out of her upswept hair.

On and on, these details are endless, and I think there’s an important purpose to them in Abbott’s writing. Die a Little is very much about Lora the narrator’s journey, how this subversive woman named Alice comes into her life and shows her a kind of femininity she never before knew existed. All these little details establish Lora’s world—what she pays attention to, what she notices, what seems normal to her, and what’s dangerous—and as Lora develops her eye begins to catch other details. Whole new realms of signification open up to her. She comes to understand what these things signify, she even tries some of them on her own body, or wants to possess some of them as objects. She takes the typical noir plot of a rough woman shaking up a man’s life and she reimagines it for a relationship between two women.

There’s another important thing that I think Abbott is doing with Lora’s eye for detail. All of these little things that are a part of Lora’s world—how the dress she wears feels, how Alice’s makeup connotes danger, how little her hand and body is as compared to a man’s, how she inhabits space and moves around a room—these details are working to establish Lora’s vulnerability. And I think this is one of the most interesting things about Abbott’s noir. She creates a world in which Lora feels very, very delicate and vulnerable in a very true and deep way. Because most likely a woman like Lora in the 1950s was in a very vulnerable and subjected position, and in establishing this and integrating it into the plot and very texture of the story, Abbott gets across something very important about how women exist in our world and why they act as they do, why they choose the strategies they choose, why they communicate as they communicate, etc, etc. What Abbott does is to help someone who doesn’t know this world begin to understand it, which seems to me a very important thing.

Abbott is first and foremost a storyteller. She’s not preachy, she’s not didactic. I’m sure lots of readers just enjoy her books as stories and never come to think of the things that Ive found in her books. But I do think she writes with something along the lines of a purpose or an agenda, made just call it a powerful point of view that guides her literary sensibility. This moment from Die a Little has stuck with me:

It reminded me of a conversation I witnessed between Bill and Alice right after Edie’s miscarriage. Bill had talked about how these women, they were so delicate, like those flowers that look too heavy for their stems to support, that seem to defy their very structures.

“I’d say you men are the fragile ones,” Alice had replied. “Too soft for this world.”

When she said it, I thought she was teasing. but I could tell Bill was affected, that he found the remark surprising, penetrating. Even if he couldn’t put his finger on why.

The look in Bill’s eyes had been: She knows things. Things I can’t begin to know.

I think what Alice “knows” is simply what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world, which is to have to give the impression of great delicacy while also having to live with the fact that all the people of power and status in your world view you as a delicate object. And so who is really the strong one, the one who stands up to that pressure every day, or the one who benefits from and controls that arrangement?

I think that Abbott’s book is such that, by the time we reach this moment, anyone who has been paying attention can likely read this subtext. And this is why I call her work feminist: it gets across this perspective, simple by very powerfully evoking this world and this lifestyle for anyone to see.

I would just add in conclusion that it seems that fiction like this is still greatly called for. I happened to read Die a Little almost exactly as the revelations about Donald Trump’s sexual abuse of women were occasioning a flood of testimony about sexual abuse that the women I know in day to day life had experienced at some point. So I think that even though Abbott writes about a society that is decades old and that we can think of as something we have left behind, certainly many tenets of the female experience she brings to the page have not aged at all. I would hope that in reading her books the genders can come to understand each other better.

Interesting New Releases: November 2016



Here are a few new releases for the month of November 2016 that have caught my eye. All of these, and many, many more new releases, can be found on my Interesting New Books — 2016 page.

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías Nov 1. New Marías is always a moment. Been hearing lots of good about this one.

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach Nov 1. Final volume of a bio of Kafka that will break new ground for the English-language reader.

Landscapes: John Berger on Art by John Berger Nov 1. Major new work from John Berger at 90. You gotta love it.

The Voynich Manuscript Nov 1. Nobody actually knows how to read this. Maybe you’ll decode it!

The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante Nov 1. Elena for your children.

The Apparently Marginal Activities of Marcel Duchamp by Elena Filipovic Nov 4. New take on Duchamp.

Pieces of Soap: Essays by Stanley Elkin Nov 15. Beloved essay collection by one of America’s most respected experimental authors.

Wayward Heroes by Halldor Laxness Nov 1. A new translation of Laxness is always a big deal.

The Attraction of Things by Roger Lewinter Nov 1. Short and vvvery powerful.

Nocilla Experience by Agustín Fernández Mallo Nov 8. If you dig experimental, pomo lit, Book 2 in the Nocilla trilogy.

Spooky Action at a Distance by George Musser Nov 14. I liked this a lot last year in hardcover.

Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days by Thomas Bernhard Nov 15. Bernhard talks about himself for 3 days; so probably brilliant and horrifying at once.

The Post-Structuralist Vulva Coloring Book by Elly Blue and Meggyn Pomerleau Nov 15. I’m not actually recommending this, I just think it’s one of the most oddly specific titles I’ve ever seen.

In Praise of Defeat: Poems of Abdellatif Laabi Nov 15. One of the major poets of North Africa.

Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso Nov 21. Classic of Brazilian lit, for the lovers of Faulkner. Supposedly Clarice was a big fan.

Recommended Reading: Henry Green, Alberto Manguel, Megan Abbott, Werner Herzog, David Constantine



A few things I’ve been recently enjoying, or have been recently released, that I think you all should read.

Caught, Back, and Loving by Henry Green. Although Green has been around for a while, he’s criminally under-read and hard to get a hold of, so NYRB Classics is reissuing everything of his, starting with these three. If you want to know why he’s great, Dan Green’s essay in The Quarterly Conversation is a good place to start. There’s also an appreciation Deborah Eisenberg just wrote for the NYR Blog and an essay in The New Yorker. When heavyweights like Parks and Eisenberg are stumping for Green, you better give him a look.

Reading Pictures by Alberto Manguel. Manguel is a real polymath, kind of like a less flashy but better researched Geoff Dyer. He’s written on all sorts of things, and this 2002 release is him giving deep readings of numerous works of art. Engrossing, filled with all sorts of magnificent research and delightful trivia. This book is such an education, like the art history class I never had mixed with the mass media critiques I learned in college.

Die a Little by Megan Abbott. Another TQC tie-in. Angela Woodward wrote a really smart essay on the feminist noir of Megan Abbott, so I decided to give it a look. Die a Little deserves its own post at some point, but for now I’ll just say that it reinvents the conventions of noir from a female perspective in some really surprising and deep ways. I’ll be reading more Abbott.

Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed by Werner Herzog and Paul Cronin. I’ll say right off the bat, 600 pages of interviews with anyone, let alone Herzog, is going to be a wee bit extreme for some people. I love interview books, and I dig Herzog’s energy, so I loved this book. And I will say, if there’s anyone who could bullshit about himself and his career for 600 pages and keep it fresh and surprising and illuminating the entire time, it’s probably Herzog. Film lovers should definitely check this one out.

The Life-Writer by David Constantine. I first found out about David Constantine while staying in a friend’s apartment. She shoved his stories into my hands and said I had to read them. So I did, and from the very first sentence I knew I was in the presence of a master storyteller. Think Mavis Gallant, Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro. So when Constantine’s first novel in 30 years came out, it was a must-read for me. It did not disappoint.

21 Great Books to Demystify and Remystify Translation



The Craft of Translation, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte

For a primer on the central dilemmas and activities in the practice of translation, you can learn a lot from the essays collected in this book. (Also see Biguenet and Schulte’s Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida.)

The Man Between, eds. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Russell Scott Valentino

A tribute to Michael Henry Heim, one of the most artistic and successful translators of the 20th century, plus a remarkable translation advocate and a man who translated from nearly a dozen languages. The book collects tributes, essays, and interview to give an accessible idea of Heim’s ideas on translation, the nuts and bolts of his translation practice, and the impact of his translations (make sure to see Sean Cotter’s piece on how Heim’s translation of Kindera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being essentially gave the English language the construction “the un-x-able y of z”).

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos

Another good, accessible primer on the central questions in translation and the practical matters of how people translate. Bellos is a major translator of French fiction, having done, among other things, the English-language edition of George Perec’s Life A User’s Manual, an extraordinarily challenging (if not impossible) translation.

If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa

Rabassa, who recently passed away, is one of the great translators of the 20th century, creating the English-language editions of canonical authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar (García Márquez claimed Rabassa’s English-language One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than his original). This is Rabassa’s memoir of a lie in translation, as well as his ideas on the practice.

The Subversive Scribe by Suzanne Jill Levine

Levine is a translator (and friend) of many canonical Latin American authors, including Manuel Puig, Julio Cortázar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and this is her book laying out her ideas and experiences. Notable here is Levine’s idea of translation as subversion.

The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship by Alex Beam

This forthcoming title tells the tale of the feud between Nabokov and Wilson over Nabokov’s highly controversial (and widely panned) translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Looks to be a fascinating book for people curious to know more about translation orthodoxy and how/why Nabokov decided to shatter it in his translation of the canonical Russian novel in verse.

The Delighted States by Adam Thirlwell

Thirlwell’s fun, very readable, anecdotal trip through some of history’s major translation questions. Although Thirlwell can be maddeningly superficial at times, he does a good job of explaining (and subverting) translation practice, making this a good one for both demystifing and remystifing translation all at once.

19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger

In looking at 19 different translations of a single Chinese poem, Weinberger gives you some fascinating trivia on the Chinese language, as well as some excellent reasons why translation is impossible (or at least translating Chinese poetry into English). Eye-opening if you’ve never seen the practical side of translation up close.

Writing Beckett’s Letters by George Craig

Craig, who was an editor and translator on the mammoth project to make Beckett’s letters available in English, discussed the particular questions the came up with the project. This included the challenge of reading Beckett’s handwriting (often stylized to the point of incomprehensibility), dealing with Beckett’s movement between languages in a single letter, and many others. Also see all the Cahiers (or which this is #16) for more great discussions of translation in all its forms.

The Poetics of Translation by Willis Barnstone

Barnstone is, among other things, one of the major Biblical translators, as well as a collaborator with Borges. These are his ideas of how translation can be an art form of its own. His discussion of Biblical translations (ancient and more recent) are especially interesting.

The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes

Few if any people have written better than Barthes on what happens when a reader experiences a text. This is a matter essential to translation, because translation is often (and probably rightly) called the closest form of reading. The “erotics of reading” (Richard Howard) that Barthes creates in The Pleasure of the Text must deeply discuss what happens in a translator’s mind while immersed in the remarkably complex task of translation.

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

The book where Queneau famously wrote the same brief anecdote 99 different ways is great for seeing how many different forms a story can take (many of the ones in this book transcend language altogether). The expanded 65th anniversary edition from New Directions has additional exercises from the likes of Jonathan Lethem and Enrique Vila-Matas to give greater breadth to the idea of translation here. Also check out Matt Madden’s 99 Ways to Tell a Story, which brings Queneau’s idea into the realm of graphic fiction.

Ventrakl by Christian Hawkey

These are Hawkey’s experimental translations (and/or mistranslations) of the major Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl (including translation via shotgun). Along the way you get Hawkey’s reflections on the art of translation and his personal experiences of Trakl (or his ghost).

Deformation Zone by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson

In twinned essays, McSweeney and Göransson lay out their (sometimes controversial) ideas of translation as Frankenstein-like deformation of the original text (as opposed to the ideas of fidelity and transparency that translators generally espouse).

Experiences in Translation by Umberto Eco

In addition to all the writing he did, Eco translated a great deal (including the Italian edition of Queneau’s Exercises), and this is Eco’s definitive statement on the practice, with copious illustrations from his own experiences of translating and being translated. (Also see Eco’s Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation.)

After Babel by George Steiner

After being released in 1975, this boo quickly became an essential text on the theory and practice of translation (although it’s also still an accessible work. Steiner finds translation as an essential quality of all communication and an indispensable practice for cultures to comprehend one another. He also, memorably, claims translation to be “not a science, but an exact art.”

The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys

Leys’s massive essay collection is a bounty in many ways, one of which are his reflections on translation (which he did much of himself). “The Experience of Literary Translation” is his most direct approach to the subject, but you can fin observations and theories throughout the other essays in this book.

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Erich Auerbach

Not a book on translation per se, this is the major study on how reality has been transformed into literature throughout 3,000 or so years of Western literature. An essential book for anyone interested in the many ways reality can be composed into literature and the cultural and historical differences that have made for different representations. Without translation, this book wouldn’t exist, and it gives a good idea of the many different ways of seeing and comprehending the world that a reader can discover by reading translations.

Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin

Recommended because it contains Benjamin’s major essay “The Task of the Translator,” which lays out Benjamin’s (often controversial) ideas on translation as well as his thoughts on what he calls a “pure language.”

Dictionary of Untranslatables, eds Barbara Cassin, Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, Michael Wood

A mammoth compendium of some 400 philosophical ideas that are “untranslatable.” A weird, fun, in-depth book that will live with you for some time (it’s over 1300 pages long).

Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt

The incredibly massive, Joycean German mega-novel deals with a pair of Germans translating Poe. According to David Auerbach, the book is about “a sort of shared linguistic unconscious, where ‘etyms’ form a deep structure of language that guides how we interpret reality”—a provocative idea for those who are trying to get a better grasp of translation.


The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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