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NYRB Reading Week, even though I’m a ringer: I have been lucky enough to work with the press in various capacities since I first got obsessed with NYRBs in 2002 or 2003. (I now own 134 of the Classics.) You’ll be happy to hear that the folks at NYRB are as lovely as their book covers.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of my top ten favorite NYRB Classics. The next ten books down are great books too, and the ten after that, and etc., but these are ten I can no longer live without, not one of which I would have read without NYRB.

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The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

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Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

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Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • A Treatise on Shelling Beans by Wiesław Myśliwski March 9, 2014
    A man enters a house and asks to buy some beans, but we aren’t given his question, only the response: humble surprise from the narrator and an invitation inside. This modesty, though it remains at the core of the narrator throughout, is quickly overwhelmed when his questions, his welcoming explanations, flow into an effort to tell his whole life story, from […]
  • The Gorgeous Nothings by Emily Dickinson, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin March 9, 2014
    The Gorgeous Nothings, the dedicated work of visual artist Jen Bervin and author Marta Werner, presents in large format the first full-color publication of all fifty-two of Emily Dickinson’s envelope writings. As such, it opens up an aspect of her craft that suggests she was, in the so-called late ecstatic period of her career, experimenting with creating te […]
  • The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber March 9, 2014
    The Mehlis Report follows the architect Saman Yarid on his daily perambulations around Lebanon's capital, where his memories of the city's past and his observations of the high-rises that have emerged from the ruins of the nation's civil war dominate the faint plot. But the book transcends Beirut: Jaber writes about what is left behind when pe […]
  • The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton March 9, 2014
    Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Midd […]
  • The Fata Morgana Books by Jonathan Littell March 9, 2014
    After The Kindly Ones, the nine hundred-page long Goncourt Prize-winning “autobiography” of a Nazi, fans of the Franco-American writer Jonathan Littell may heave an inward sigh of relief at the sight of The Fata Morgana Books. A slim collection of “studies” (as some of these stories were called in their original French incarnations), The Fata Morgana Books n […]
  • Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North March 9, 2014
    There is no better way to ensure the early demise of a form or a style than to proclaim its newness; fewer epithets are as old as “new.” A well-known work by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci reads, “All art has been contemporary”—we may wish to amend it, for present purposes, and have it read, “All art has been new.” Yet surely this is something of a truism. […]
  • A Life Among Invented Characters: A Tribute to Mavis Gallant March 9, 2014
    Two things immediately come to mind when remembering Mavis Gallant: her unique sense of humor—stories always told with a wry half-smile—and her near-comical stonewalling when confronted with leading questions about her craft in interviews and with audiences. The first time I was in her simple three-room apartment on rue Jean Ferrandi, a mere three blocks fro […]
  • The Guy Davenport Reader March 9, 2014
    Poet-critic. Think of that word, made of two—what a beaux construction. The first is wild, hair mussed, looking at a bird in a tree—yet the follower is practical, urbane, and seemingly obeisant to word counts. Together they bleach out the fusspot academic and appeal to logos—Davenport once said that he was “not writing for scholars or critics, but for people […]
  • [SIC] by Davis Schneiderman March 9, 2014
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  • The Ben Marcus Interview March 9, 2014
    I do tend to generate a lot of pages when I’m drafting something, and I cut as I go. I make strange noises out of my face, on the page, and they are for the most part not worth keeping. Some of the stories don’t take shape until I overwrite and pursue every cursed dead-end I can think of, which clarifies everything I don’t want the story to become. But I don […]

Damion Searls' Top Ten NYRB Classics

I am grateful to The Quarterly Conversation/Conversational Reading for letting me guest-post a review for NYRB Reading Week, even though I’m a ringer: I have been lucky enough to work with the press in various capacities since I first got obsessed with NYRBs in 2002 or 2003. (I now own 134 of the Classics.) You’ll be happy to hear that the folks at NYRB are as lovely as their book covers.

Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of my top ten favorite NYRB Classics. The next ten books down are great books too, and the ten after that, and etc., but these are ten I can no longer live without, not one of which I would have read without NYRB.

To avoid needless repetition, please cut and paste in your mind the following sentence into all ten descriptions below: “It passes the bounds of human understanding how good this book is.”


The Winners, by Julio Cortázar, tr. Elaine Kerrigan

Cortázar is well known for lesser books; this early novel is my favorite. A cross-section of Buenos Aires society wins a cruise in a lottery, and the opening section swirls among the different couples, families, and individuals at a café on shore, where they meet to await further instructions. Then they’re off on a mysterious ship to an unknown destination. Intricate, philosophical, and transcendent.

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Combine a great story (a charming 18-year-old travels on foot across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople, in 1933), forty years of learning and reflection (the book came out in 1977), and the richest prose stylist in the language since Thomas Browne: the result is a travel book overflowing with magnificence. NYRB publishes the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which covers the second third of his journey; we all pray that Fermor, age 95, will finish volume 3 and bring us to Constantinople.

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes

The best book ever written about childhood, and descriptive powers as mighty as Faulkner’s without any of the difficulty. One of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century; I wouldn’t have minded seeing it at #1.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal

A six-year-old girl whose mother has died and her grandmother on a Scandinavian island. Like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—another book mourning the author’s mother—The Summer Book is a work of such beauty and perfect balance that to mention its glittering summer light makes it hard to believe it could be so dark, but to call it a book about grief and loss makes it hard to imagine it could be so bright and funny.

An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, tr. James Kirkup

A young man in Togo stumbles upon a book about Eskimos and vows to go to Greenland someday; it takes years, but he gets there. This is his absolutely winning memoir. One of the first NYRBs I bought on the basis of the cover and NYRB’s track record alone—a great discovery.

Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, tr. John Bátki

A Hungarian fever-dream of love and death amid mist-shrouded forests. The style may seem a little crazy at first, but let yourself go and this novel transports you like none other.

The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by Álvaro Mutis, tr. Edith Grossman

It is impossible to describe this book and how good it is, especially the first three or four of the seven novellas it contains. It’s about a philosophical drifter and his adventures of life and sex and thought and the poetry in our souls that can never be written. Gabriel García Márquez calls Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”—Gabriel García Márquez, people!

Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser, tr. Christopher Middleton

Walser is slowly getting the fame he deserves, thanks in no small part to NYRB. This novel, about a young man at a school for servants, is the book on this list most likely to change not only your life but the person leading it. Here’s the opening: “One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all. Inward successes, yes. But what does one get from such as these?”

Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The title of this book should be The Complete Mr. Fortune: it has nothing whatsoever to do with maggots. Warner’s two long stories about an inimitably gentle hero, a missionary who goes to “convert” an island “native” but is converted himself. Prose as refreshing as watching a baby play.

Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White

Another discovery—I had never come anywhere near hearing of Patrick White, Australia’s Nobel Prize winner in literature. This book has an epigraph by Blake and lives up to it: one of the two most visionary novels I have ever read, and the most painterly. Gobs of radiant color streak through the world as you read it. The variety and interplay of the four main characters of the four parts are astonishing.

And, one honorable mention:

The Journal: 1837–1861, by Henry David Thoreau, ed. Damion Searls (me)

Not on the main list for obvious, favoritist reasons, but it shouldn’t go unrecommended just because I’m the recommender. Thoreau’s Journal is his life’s work, has some of his best and most appealing prose, and is one of the great life-companions you can find between book covers.


This post appeared as part of NYRB Reading Week and was written by Damion Searls. Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going and the translator of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, praised on the front page of the New York Times as a “masterpiece” in an “eloquent translation.” He wrote the preface to the newest NYRB Classic, Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-huang.

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12 comments to Damion Searls' Top Ten NYRB Classics

  • David

    My favorite NYRB Classic is “Names on the Land” by George R. Stewart. It is a non-fiction work about how places in America got their names. Fascinating.

  • Reed

    I would have a hard time paring down the list to 10. “Inverted World” by Christopher Priest is a vastly entertaining and sharply metaphorical piece of sci-fi, and Kenneth Fearing’s “Clark Gifford’s Body” is a bizarre work of political noir; along the lines of “It Can’t Happen Here” but far stranger and yet more weirdly apt.
    Or “Stoner” or “A Way of Life Like Any Other” or “Fancies and Goodnights,” or “Morte D’Urban” etc etc etc.
    Or Collette! Olivia Manning! I’ll stop now…

  • Paul

    Grossman’s Life and Fate surely deserves a place on any top ten NYRB list…

  • Appreciate this list. NYRB’s books are also my favorites, however my list would include the novels of Georges Simenon, especially Pedigree. In reading this book I felt I became actually part of the whole scene. (Wups, not sure that’s a Classic).

  • Neil Griffin

    My wish list just got longer and my bank account just got emptier.

  • Just added The Winners to my wish list. My favorite NYRB title is The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig.

  • David, Sharon, and Frances: those are favorites of mine too, especially “Post-Office Girl.” “Pedigree” definitely is an NYRB Classic.

    Paul, I haven’t gotten to that one yet, but you should check out Der Nister’s “The Family Mashber,” another great Russian epic.

    Reed, I have somehow not read ANY of yours! except “Stoner.” Our venn diagrams only sliver.

    Neil, my favorite internet comment I’ve ever gotten!

  • JW

    Stoner left me in tears, and the tears started on like page 10. This whole series is wonderful and I appreciate the books above as I’ve never heard of them. Will look into them.

  • [...] Lists Interesting New Books — 2011 Damion Searls’ Top Ten NYRB Classics Ten Essential Southern Novels What I've Read So Far in 2010 Top 20 Spanish-Language Novels [...]

  • I love this, except why are you linking to the Amazon pages? These books can be ordered straight from the NYRB, without recourse to a behemoth middleman.

  • Thank you Damian, I’ve only read a couple of those but will definitely track down some, first – the Walser! Thanks to others for their recommendations too.

    My favourite, by some margin, is GB Edwards’s The Book of Ebenezer Le Page – had me weeping like a baby! Also loved The Post Office Girl, as did others. Have two other Patrick White novels on my shelves, dauntingly dense but I’ll give them a go, thanks for the encouragement.

  • [...] it in my mind to work my way through the entire series someday; but thankfully, I also came across this – a Top 10 NYRB Classics list – over at Conversational [...]

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