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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.

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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 Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

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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.

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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
    In 2011 Andrew Gallix, in the Guardian, wrote a piece on unread difficult books, and mentioned “an anthology of blank books [edited by Michael Gibbs] entitled All Or Nothing,” and we can consider Blank as continuing that line. Kenneth Goldsmith’s prefatory essay “Why Conceptual Writing? Why Now?” in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing (201 […]
  • 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 […]

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?

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Lost in the Funhouse It was while reading DFW’s long story (novella, really) "Westward Goes the Course of Empire" (from Girl with Curious Hair) that I first heard...
  2. Anchor Book of Short Stories I’ve been hearing lots of good things about the new Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. One of the highest compliments I’ve heard thus...
  3. Don’t Read James Dellingpole makes one of the lazier cases I’ve seen for not reading canonical books Mainly though, you’re excused by the fact that there’s no...
  4. The Quarterly Conversation–Don’t Miss Out! After the first week of Issue 12, it’s clear that no one needs help locating our Macedonio Fernandez essay. That’s wonderful, since it’s a great...
  5. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman I agree with M.A. Orthofer: The quirky invention, the sympathetic narrators (most of the stories are told in the first person, though it is not...

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12 comments to Which Barth Should I Read?

  • Matt

    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.

  • hal

    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.

  • Stan Scott

    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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