New Directions is a publisher that has brought so many household names into existence, and here are 15 of its books that have meant a lot to me personally. These are all books that have changed the way I read and how my mind thinks.
As a bonus, if you want to know about the history of this press—how it was founded, how it first evolved and became self-sustaining, and how this dream list was amassed—read the admirable Literchoor Is My Beat by Ian S. MacNiven.
- Alphabet by Inger Christensen (translated by Susanna Nied)
Years after I’ve read this book, lines of it still pop into my head, and I feel that its rhythms are in my thoughts for good. A list of sorts, but also a philosophy, an ecology, and a reminder of the fact that love exists.
- By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Chris Andrews)
The paranoid, deathbed rant of a bankrupt priest, this book showcases Bolaño’s power and his ability to conjure up the dark psychology of a Goya.
Hawkes will forever be haunted by some words he said about the enemy of literature being character, plot, etc. If you bother to read him, you’ll see that this does not mean he doesn’t put character, plot, etc into his book. In fact, he is a master of these things, and Second Skin surely shows this.
- Água Viva by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler)
This is Lispector at her listy-est, a book that looks a reads a little like late David Markson, albeit if you substitute radiant passion for somber irony. There are more quotables and ponderables here than anyone should be entitled to write.
- Battles in the Desert by José Emilio Pacheco (translated by Katherine Silver)
Although he’s not terribly well-known here, Emilio Pacheco is regarded as one of the foremost Spanish-language poets of his generation. He also wrote prose, and Battles in the Desert is a novella that’s required reading in Mexico. It’s a book about memories and nostalgia and childhood innocence, a bit of a red-herring-esque whodunnit in the tradition of a Bolaño.
- Seiobo There Below by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (translated by Ottilie Mulet)
I think this book stands as good a chance of any to be read 100 years from now. It’s a book about beauty and art’s purpose in this world, and how humans make order from anarchy. It’s also stylistically radical and utterly engrossing from virtually the first page.
A seminal book of New Criticism. Empson starts from the idea that ambiguity exists when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading” and moves on from there to construct a genealogy of the seven kinds possible. In its willingness to see this-as-that and to wonder where the sense in a text lies, it seems to anticipate some of the great critical movements that would come later in the 20th century.
This is the infamous book of Aira’s that involves a plot to take over the world with clones of Carlos Fuentes. I always tell people that this is one of Aira’s best, even if it sort of falls apart 2/3 of the way through. Which, actually, may seem like the most Aira thing about it.
A poet’s novel, a beast that a decade in the making, a book that tries to capture the American idiom, or at least what it was before America completely changed size and shape from the ’60s onward (but still, an idiom that can be found if you look in the right places).
- Bartleby & Co by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Jonathan Dunne)
Although other of Vila-Matas’s books have worked his central ideas in more elaborate ways, this may still be my favorite of his because of the brevity and tautness to it. A series of footnotes with no original, a series of riffs on modernism, a punchline with no joke. Read it in an afternoon, think about it for the rest of the month.
- The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald (translated by Michael Hulse)
To me this is the quintessential Sebald, a walking tour that takes in the whole of European art and history, plus life, death, logic, rationalism. And “the rings of Saturn” must be one of the better organizing metaphors I’ve ever encountered.
- Antipoems by Nicanor Parra (translated by Liz Werner)
Simply put, if you think you know what poetry is, read Nicanor Parra.
- Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby)
I believe this was my first New Direction ever. This book has introduced generations of readers to new worlds, and it will continue to as long as books are read.
- The Tanners by Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky)
I don’t even really know what Walser has set out to do here, or what kind of a novel this is supposed to be. I only know that it is unlike any novel I have read, and that it gives new definitions to the word weightlessness.
- Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
A spy novel mixed with a philosophical inquiry into Europe, the world view of its major religion, and its political possibilities. Plus an attempt to know oneself, and that Beckettian imperative to finally fall silent.