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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  • The Atlantic on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageThe Atlantic on Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

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    Thanks to Michael Orthofer for this blast from the past. In his look back through the days of yore for various literary... »
  • Wallace MarginaliaWallace Marginalia

    The writing on this is horrifyingly bad, but there is some interesting information here about the things David Foster Wallace... »
  • All Hail AugustusAll Hail Augustus

    Daniel Mendelsohn's introduction to the NYRB Classics' reissue of Augustus is now available online as part of the Aug 14 issue... »
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    I don't expect The New York Times to have mastered the minutia of every single topic on earth, but it would be nice if the... »
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You Say

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

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

Nuns of Reading

I don’t exactly think Claire Messud is wrong when she says this, but I think she greatly overstates the case. When Messud was a young girl, it was also the case that the pop culture of the day was much more likely to facilitate conversation among her peers than Jane Eyre; likewise there was plenty of passive entertainment available to draw away time from the “the concentrated leisure, the active effort, of reading and imagining.”

This state of affairs is much more visible now, when you constantly see people pull out their iPhones to play Angry Birds rather than suffer a moment or two of bored contemplation, but I don’t think these devices have done quite as much as people want to believe. True, they’ve offered a way to devote even more time to mediated entertainment than ever before, but the vast majority of our free time was already long since spoken for. The increase is real, but it is tiny.

Reading is a weird, isolating, difficult thing to do. I think it’s wonderful and essential, and I wish everyone agreed with me, but the fact is many people don’t like it as much as you and I do. I’d say this has more to do with the human condition and the form mass culture takes more generally than it does with us all owning iPhones now.

Also, calling people who are devoted to literature “nuns of reading” doesn’t help.

If Philip Roth’s Mickey Sabbath was a “monk of fucking,” Lesser and Mead are nuns of reading. As a fellow sister in the order, I take particular pleasure in their books. But I’m also aware that nuns are an aging population, and converts ever harder to enlist. My daughter, all of twelve and a voracious reader, lives in a world in which iTunes, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all vie pressingly for her time. Pretty Little Liars stands a better chance than Jane Eyre, and facilitates way more conversation with her peers. In Rebecca Mead’s and my own near-simultaneous youths, “books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be.” It’s not exactly that this is no longer true, but that the balance has shifted, and is ever shifting, away from the concentrated leisure, the active effort, of reading and imagining, toward other, more immediately accessible—and more passive—cultural forms.

Letters, and more painfully, their contents, are already largely gone; other literary species are endangered. The landscape changes inexorably, and we can’t know the future. But Mead and Lesser remind us of what riches we have—an interior world as precious as the external one—and of why we don’t want to lose them.

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More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Always Worth Reading? Dan Green ponders the conventional wisdom that reading is always a good thing, regardless of what you read. I certainly agree with Steve in regarding...
  2. Screen Reading Vs. Book Reading The New Atlantis has a provocative article that comes very close to asserting that screen reading isn’t reading in the traditional sense. The piece starts...
  3. A Bona Fide Capitalist Enterprise Dan nails it: Of course, the whole effort to bring books into the "contexts within which people live" might not be about encouraging reading at...
  4. Ventral and Dorsal Reading Jonah Lehrer in Wired has a very interesting article on the two main parts of the brain used while reading. It turns out that one...
  5. Current Reading I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, a book which I’m gratified to learn is a marked improvement over The Intuitionist. Now it’s time...

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