Category Archives: lists

15 Great New Directions


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

Simply put, if you think you know what poetry is, read Nicanor Parra.

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.

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.

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.

Essential Works by Oulipo Members in English


I’m the co-author of
The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin), available from Zero Books. Here’s an expanded version of the list of essential Oulipo books that can be found at the end of The End of Oulipo?

Invisible Cities — Italo Calvino

Calvino wrote this novel shortly after his legendary translation of Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers introduced him to Oulipo. This account of numerous cities of the mind that Marco Polo recounts to Kublai Khan bears the clear mark of Oulopian writing and may be Calvino’s best book.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler — Italo Calvino

This famous work by Calvino begins a new, different novel with each chapter. Alternating chapters about a reader trying to read this excessively strange book tie it all together.

My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 — Harry Mathews

A fine Oulipo entry into the genre of autofiction, here Mathews recounts his experiences as a pretend member of the CIA. As an ex-pat writer in Paris, many suspected Mathews of being a CIA in disguise, and when no one believed his denials he decided to go with the flow.

Singular Pleasures — Harry Mathews

Another one of Oulipo’s famous dare books, this one finds Mathews recounting 62 short tales of masturbation. As an added bonus, this book is illustrated by the Italian painter Francesco Clemente.

Life A User’s Manual — Georges Perec

Perhaps the biggest, most ambitious and encyclopedic novel to ever come out of Oulipo, we are fortunate that Perec finished it before succumbing to cancer at the far-too-young age of 42.

A Void — Georges Perec

Probably the most daring and most famous book to come out of Oulipo, here Perec writes (and Gilbert Adair translates) a full novel without the letter e. The playful story perfectly matches the form, as it’s all about a certain “Anton Vowl” who has gone missing.

Exercises in Style — Raymond Queneau

The great ancestor of constrained writing, here Queneau retells the same short incident 99 times. A virtuosic execution of a daring idea, this book is also a testament to the art of translation. As translator Barbara Wright puts it, the book is “a profound exploration into the possibilities of language.”

The Blue Flowers — Raymond Queneau

Perhaps the most untranslatable book of any Oulipo writer, this book tells twin narratives: the story of the Duc d’Auge at 175-year intervals is joined by Cidrolin in the present day. As the two dream of one another the narratives interrelate in this extremely dense philosophical novel, bringing in everything from Finnegans Wake to Hegel.

The Great Fire of London — Jacques Roubaud

A relentless anti-novel, Roubaud began writing this book in 1961 and then started taking it apart in 1983, when his beloved wife, Alix, died prematurely. The result is a staggering mix of constraint, philosophical digression, and raw emotion.

Some Thing Black — Jacques Roubaud

Declared one of the greatest works of poetry to come out of Oulipo, this is Roubaud’s tribute to his wife, Alix, after her premature death from pulmonary embolism. It has been translated into English by one of the language’s greatest living poets, Rosemarie Waldrop.

Alix’s Journal — Alix Roubaud

An ideal accompaniment to some thing black, this is the genre- (and punctuation-) defying journal that Alix kept as a photographer and writer. It shows equally why Jacques was the right partner for her and what an unfortunate loss her early death left the writing world with.

Hervé Le Tellier — The Sextine Chapel

Like a cross between Exercises in Style and Singular Pleasures, this book presents variations on the theme of sex between over 20 partners. As time passes their interlocking connections come to resemble the tangle of humanity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The Writings Of Marcel Duchamp

Though his art tends to overshadow his writing, Duchamp was a member of Oulipo in good standing. These writings include his “Texticles,” as well as notes on some of his most famous works of art and two interviews.

Suicide — Edouard Leve

Though Leve was not a full-fledged member of Oulipo, he might have one day become one had he not committed suicide ten days after delivering this final work to his publisher. The marks of constrained writing are in evidence in this short, powerful meditation on suicide, just as they are in the other four fictions Leve published before his death in 2007.

Eunoia — Christian Bok

Though Bok is not a member of Oulipo, his book deserves a place on this list, as it goes A Void one better: each of the five chapters in this short work uses only words containing one of the five vowels. Thus one chapter has only words with a’s in it, another i’s, and so on.

Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature — Warren F. Motte Jr.

A collection of critical writings from Oulipo members brought together by one of Oulipo’s most astute critics. This book makes the perfect introduction for the budding reader (or practitioner) of Oulipo.

The List of Contemporary English-Language Authors to Read

With a big assist from the commenters on this post, here’s what I think I need to read. Point out everything I missed in the comments. And please let me know of anyone overrated that I shouldn’t waste my time with.

Lorrie Moore. People were pretty clear that I should avoid her latest novel and give the stories a try. So I suppose I’ll start with her first collection, Self-Help.

Brian Evenson. Seems like the place to start with Brian Evenson is Last Days (an endorsement that seems to be echoed in Matt Bell’s excellent essay), although I already have a copy of Fugue State, so I might just start there.

A.M. Homes. I’m not really sure where to start with her, but I found Music for Torching at a garage sale yesterday for a buck, so that’s probably going to be it.

Curtis White. At that same garage sale (actually, it was a “block sale,” I found Requiem by Curtis White, one of the American postmodernists I haven’t yet gotten to.

David Markson. Speaking of White, David Markson is a known quantity, but he should definitely be on this list.

Chris Adrian. I have yet to find anyone who doesn’t absolutely love this guy’s work. I myself was amazed by The Children’s Hospital. Looks like next I’ll go with A Better Angel, the latest story collection.

Percival Everett. This guy has been in the back of my mind for a while now. Definitely someone to try out. I was recommended to start with American Desert . . . any ideas?

Kevin Wilson. Was told to give this guy a shot in the company of George Saunders (someone I should read a little more systematically). So is Tunneling to the Center of the Earth the place to start?

Margaret Atwood. Reading the coverage of her most recent novel, I am reminded again of what a strong body of work she has put together. I should really at least get started with her. The Handmaid’s Tale is the obvious place to start, but from there where to?

Steven Millhauser. He definitely seems like someone doing good work. Is Dangerous Laughter the one to start with?

Aleksandar Hemon. Seems pretty clearly worth keeping an eye on.

Tom McCarthy. His body of work is only three books deep at this point, but Tom Mccarthy definitely seems like someone to watch.

Joe Meno. His latest
has been getting good reviews, and he has a lot out there. Worth it?

Ron Currie, Jr. Although he has just a short story collection and a first novel to his name, we’ve given each very strong reviews, and he seems like an extremely promising author.

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