Which Barth Should I Read?

As I discussed in my reading resolutions for 2009, after reading lots and lots of world literature for the past couple of years, one of my goals for 2009 is to focus a little more closely on the classic American authors.

To that end, I’m starting in on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater, and over the weekend I picked up copies of The Public Burning (Robert Coover), Three Lives (Gertrude Stein), and an omnibus edition of Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

I’d also like to take on a work by John Barth, but I don’t know which one. I’ve read his short story collection Lost in the Funhouse, so now I’m looking for the definitive John Barth novel. I’m guessing that will either be The Sot-Weed Factor or Giles Goat Boy.

Am I on the right track here? Which is better to start with?


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Everyone will probably say Sot Weed but it is an incredibly annoying book. I say Giles or Chimera.

For Barth, you’d do much better to start with either The Floating Opera or The End of the Road. I think Gertrude Stein is much more important then Roth or Coover, though maybe that’s just me; she tends to be weirdly ignored, having been written off as either difficult or frivolous, neither of which is entirely true. There are a couple of lovely William Gass essays about Three Lives and “Melanctha” in particular that are worth reading.

The best Barth would be “Chimera”. It’s not a novel though, but I really would suggest you read this one first. “Sot-weed…” is not annoying, it’s a marvelous book, superbly written and incredibly funny but I actually enjoyed “Giles” even more.
“Floating Opera” is great but it is pre-Barth, in a way. I found “The end of the road” terrible.

You should really do his first three books in a row–Floating and Road and Sot-Weed. The first two won’t take any time at all while the final will. The first two really tee up what he accomplishes in the third book in a development-of-the-artist way. Fascinating to see it that way, I think.
That said, I’m hoping to tackle Giles this year.

Between those two, The Sot-Weed Factor first, then Giles Goat Boy — although both are terrific books. I think The Sot-Weed Factor is slightly more “approachable,” and of course it came before Giles Goat Boy, so by reading them in that order, you would get to see Barth developing.
As I recall, The Sot-Weed Factor exists in two versions — the revision represents a slight tightening on Barth’s part. That was the version that I read, but if I re-read the novel (possible, although my queue is endless), I’ll track down the original.

try Tidewater Tales…..a very good book

Read the first ten pages of each and then keep going in whichever you like better.

I have all Barth’s books from the first through the mid-90s and Sot Weed is the only one I didn’t finish. God, it is annoying.
I’d second recommendations of Chimera and Giles Goat-Boy.
Floating Opera is good but very different. Less playful, more existential-ish.
I loved LETTERS, but that really requires reading most of his previous novels.

Since there’s been a big “annoying” vote against Sot-Weed, I’m going to have to say that, for me, Giles Goat-Boy outlived its welcome well before the end.
Really, they’re both enormous novels, and the jokes can wear thin. It either bothers you or it doesn’t.

I read a lot of Barth with pleasure when I was in my twenties, and I have to go with the general consensus — The Sot-Weed Factor is a very funny novel. Giles wears out his welcome well before the end of the novel.

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