Category Archives: On My Shelves

On My Shelves: David Foster Wallace

I’ve read most of everything by or about David Foster Wallace (not counting the mountains of academic prose dedicated to him). Here are my copies of these books.


Here’s where it all started: one of Wallace’s two undergrad honors theses and first novel, The Broom of the System. As you can see, I got the fancy re-issued edition. (As to Wallace’s second honors thesis, more in a bit.)


And here’s his first story collection, Girl with Curious Hair. This one includes the infamous “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” of which Wallace later said:

Twenty-five year-olds should be locked away and denied ink and paper. Everything I wanted to do came out in the story, but it came out just as what it was: crude and naive and pretentious.

I was a little kinder in my judgment of it. This collection also contains the rather hilarious “Little Expressionless Animals,” which includes Alex Trebek as a character and is about a Jeopardy! champion who just can’t lose.


Next up is Infinite Jest. This was back when I wasn’t writing in my books, so you can see I used a lot of sticky notes to mark passages I wanted to come back to. Kind of strange that the Seattle Times gets the front cover rave. I bet that’s different now.


I also found this list of terms paperclipped in, apparently to help me through Gately’s fever-dream sequence toward the end of the book when he starts speaking in terms that I knew nothing (or very little) about at the time.



Next up is A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I still don’t really get the cover of this book.


The title essay is one of the funniest of Wallace’s I’ve ever read. And of course it contains this one, to which I still continue to return:


Then there’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, a bit of an outlier for Wallace:


Following that was one of Wallace’s more maligned books, Everything and More a book on the concept of infinity.


This was part of the “Great Discoveries” series, wherein famous authors were asked to write on a subject of their choice (and which has led to more than a few oddball titles). I liked this book a lot, as it made math interesting to me in a way few books have (and infinity is an inherently Wallac-ian concept that he really does a lot with in this book), but mathematicians have taken Wallace to task for what they say is a poor understanding of the math. I wouldn’t know.


Next up was Wallace’s last major fictional work, the short story collection Oblivion. Here’s a shot of a spread where I circled two words very important for Wallace’s line of thought, audience and performance.



Then came Consider the Lobster, Wallace’s last essay collection. My copy is a galley.

And here’s a page from the infamous talk radio essay, “Host” (actually not that hard to follow).


These last two were both posthumous releases, both appearing in 2011: Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, and Wallace’s other honors thesis, Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will.



Not pictured here are This Is Water, a commence address delivered to Kenyon College in 2005, somehow padded into a 144-page book, which obviously was a smart marketing move (I’m sure the sales surge every spring), Both Flesh and Not, the drawer-clearing uncollected essays that I may purchase one day if the mood happens to strike me at the right time, and Signifying Rappers, which I’ve never actually seen in person.

There are also some adjacent works. One day I received in the mail the impressive Elegant Complexity.


The cover looks a little like Infinite Jest, and the book is nearly as massive. It’s a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, with helpful notes, guides to characters and themes, etc:


And in the back there are some short pieces toward interpretation and final thoughts about the book’s unresolvable issues.


Then there’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is essentially a transcript of recordings journalist David Lipsky made while driving around with Wallace on his Infinite Jest tour (the recordings were for a magazine profile that never saw the light of day). My copy is the galley I got for the mixed review I gave to the book in the LA Times.


And then there is Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D.T. Max’s readable and informative (though a little boilerplate) biography of Wallace.


Not pictured here is The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a collection of rather good academic writing on Wallace (plus some remembrances by famous authors like Don DeLillo) edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. I did read this book (I interviewed Lee about it for Bookforum), but my copy is electronic, not printed.

On My Shelves: W.G. Sebald

The first Sebald that I read was The Rings of Saturn. This was in the spring of 2006.

Back then I didn’t like writing in my books, so I used these sticky colored tape things to mark passages I found interesting.

After that was On the Natural History of Destruction. There was no real reason I read this one next—I just happened to find it used at Moe’s Books, and I took it to Mexico with me.

I read it in late 2006. You can see my ticket for the anthropological museum of Xalapa, Veracruz, which has a magnificent collection of enormous Toltec heads, among many other items. Definitely a Sebaldian location. Incidentally, that entry fee is in Mexican pesos, not dollars, so it came out to about $4.00, not $40.00.

After that it was Austerlitz. I recall reading this in a subletted apartment in Berkeley right after I had returned form Latin America, while writing an essay on Bioy and Kafka.

It was about this time I read my first work of Sebald criticism, J.J. Long’s W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity.

And some marginalia.

Than came Vertigo, one of the first books of many, many I was to read on my commutes on the Bay Area Rapid Transit.

And some marginalia from that one.

Shortly thereafter, I think it was around the spring of 2011, I came upon these two works of Sebald criticism. The bottom one, Searching for Sebald, is particularly special. It’s about 600 pages in length, is full of very interesting photos, mixed media pieces, essays, and interview. It even includes this:

The infamous photo taken where Sebald had his fatal car accident. Some say that the patters in the smoke resemble Sebald’s face, particularly his trademark mustache. (This photo was later discussed in the Sebald documentary, Patience (After Sebald), which I viewed in spring 2012.)

About that time I also happened onto this book: Unrecounted, which combines portraits of eyes with brief poetry. Famously, Javier Marías is included in here:

I discuss this briefly in an essay I wrote on Marías.

It was after Unrecounted that I acquired After Nature, Sebald’s first book, and Campo Santo, which was the first book of Sebald’s that I ever heard of, via a review published in the San Francisco Chronicle upon the book’s release in spring 2005.

2013 brought Across the Land and the Water and A Place in the Country, an essay collection which is Sebald’s most recent book in translation (and possibly the last?)

The latter I bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in May 2013, shortly after presenting a paper on Bolaño at a conference in Warwick, England.

All that leaves is The Emigrants, which I have not yet read. This was actually the first book of Sebald’s that I ever purchased, but I did so as a gift. Being as much of a Sebaldian as I am, I know I will have to read this one day, but I’ll also be a bit sorry to see any unread full-length Sebald departing from my life.

In addition to The Emigrants there also remain For Years Now, a short book of stories/poetry, and The Emergence of Memory, which is interviews, not writings.

I would be interested if anyone is aware of any other worthwhile books of Sebald criticism.

On My Shelves: César Aira

This is all the César Aira I own, as it would be seen on my bookshelf if you came to my home. I have him in my “Latin America” collection, sandwiched between some other Argentines—Ernesto Sábato, Tomás Eloy Martinez, and Adolfo Bioy Casares. (My copy of The Conversations is missing in action.)

The first Aira I purchased, and the first I read, was Como me hice monja (How I Became a Nun), which I found at Ghandi Books in Puebla, Mexico in 2007. I believe it was something I read about Aira in either La Tempestad or Letras Libres that finally got me to pick him up. Ghandi Books is a nice chain bookstore with locations all throughout Mexico, and it has a pretty good selection of literature, including some English-language books, plus a nice CD section.

As I am fond of telling people, after the first few pages I was hooked on Aira. I have yet to read Chris Andrews’s 2007 translation.

You can see some very faint underlining on some of the lines in this page. The bookmark is from an excellent bilingual bookstore in the middle of Oaxaca, where I bought a number of things, including my copy of By Night in Chile (in English), the second Bolaño that I read.

Next up was Ghosts. You can see here a bit where I underlined some of the long digression toward the middle of the novels, still one of the best statements on Aira’s aesthetic that I’ve read.

After that I read The Literary Conference, released as a New Directions Pearl. This remains one of my favorite Aira books, even if I think the ending of this one doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book. Also, as we move closer to the present, note the presence (or absence) of the translator’s name on these covers, and how the cover raves change.

After that I went back to Aira’s second in English, and one of his best: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. You can see here that at this point New Directions was trying to leverage Aira’s relationship with Bolaño to generate some attention for him. Although this was technically Aira’s second in English, it was essentially his first, as the real first (which we’ll get to in a minute) quickly went out of print and was hardly noticed, so it’s no surprise to see New Directions trying to utilize Bolaño here (although he was hardly well-known in English at this point either).

Here’s an interior shot:

Then it was on to Varamo. I think in terms of the unity he achieves this book and the lines he walks, this is one of Aira’s most successful, most complete novels. Here we see the first cover rave, from the Boston Review.

Then comes, The Seamstress and the Wind (one of the most bizarre Airas yet translated), The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (very underrated, in my opinion), and Shantytown (note the presence of the New York Times cover rave).

The in 2014 came The Conversations and The Hare (a re-release of the 1998 Serpent’s Tail translation, which pre-dates the rest of Aira in English by nearly a decade):

Last of all is The Musical Brain, a collection of short stories that is forthcoming in March of this year. One of the pieces in this collection has been serialized in The New Yorker (Aira has come a long way). I read an early translation of “Cecil Taylor,” the last piece in this book and probably one of the best, while I was interviewing Aira for Issue 49 of Tin House.

There is more Aira on the horizon. Dinner has been announced for October of this year, and, with Aira’s reputation continuing to grow, it will certainly not be the last.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


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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