I very often get people in my messages asking me to recommend them books, or suggest reading lists, but I like to think that I’m a thoughtful person, and it can be difficult when you put such constraints on yourself to give everything you try to do the attention it deserves. Reading is personal, and someone’s taste can be hard to judge without knowing them at all. Meanwhile, I’m usually talking about or recommending books on my timeline frequently enough that I sometimes take for granted that everyone is familiar with some of the books I enjoy. For the friends I’ve made here, and known for a long time, my favorite books are familiar staples of my content, and even I get tired of recommending them after a while, however much I really would like it if everyone read them.
Further complicating things is that book recommendations, in my experience, rarely stick, and everyone already has so much they want to read to begin with, they rarely make it past the first few books of Wilhelm Meister before moving on to something else. I certainly don’t fault them, it’s one of the reasons that not just reading, but scholarship, is such an enjoyable past-time, for we are, after all, the beneficiaries of the erudition of millennia and there’s never any shortage of good books to read.
Constructing a good reading list is therefore no mean feat. First of all there is the question of subject matter. What sort of literature do you, the list creator, want to highlight? The more specialized your focus the more efficiently you can exhaust all the possible introductory avenues, but by being too narrow in your selections you run the risk of excluding potential users who simply don’t share your particular hobby horse. Furthermore, how do you structure your list? As a prescribed syllabus, moving from one work to another programmatically in order to outline a specific point? Or do you go the route of providing a menu from which the curious reader is permitted to select? It can be difficult to match all the elements to one another, but at some point choices have to be made if you’re to make any progress at all in this monumental labor you have (happily) burdened yourself with.
I wrote, several weeks ago, about the role of literature, specifically the Novel, in shaping public consciousness during the modern era. This is not an original thesis, but is a cornerstone of critical scholarship. Even for contemporary theorists the rise of the novel engendered many such observations.
There are, in all scholarship, two prevailing tendencies, the historical tendency, and the theoretical one. The Theory of the Novel by Georg Lukács is a very good example of the latter tendency, while The Rise of the Novel by Ian Watts is representative of the former one. While Lukács examines the role of the novel in synthesizing experience out of the fractured components of Man’s modern mind, Watts takes the opposite approach of historical empiricism which questions the generic coherence of the novel as a historical category. These two tendencies have been at war now for many years, and I get the impression that it is currently fashionable in the English speaking academy to favor the historical approach, and to ask whether the novel ever even existed at all, or whether it wasn’t perhaps just some dream of the less informed scholars who preceded today’s crop of critics.
Watts proposes a definition of the novel centered on the indefinability of novels. Novels, he says, are not bound by any consistent rules, but are defined by their own experimental novelty. Perhaps the most basic definition there is however is the one that goes: novels are works written in prose of a certain length. Anyone who thinks of the novel in these terms will be a bit bewildered surely when they see Schlegel saying that even plays like Hamlet and Nathan the Wise have “something of the novel about them.” He is not mistaken, and though comments like his are difficult for unfamiliar readers to decipher, they are not intentional paradoxes, but point to a clear and definite conception of the novel.
“Novels contain novellas,” Goethe said, and this to me is a definition unsurpassed in terms of elegance. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to name one example, the narrator at one point, while elaborating his father’s peculiar interests, inserts an entire novella in the style of Cervantes about a man with a big ‘nose’ who inspires curiosity wherever he goes. Not only that, but he presents a dual language text with the Latin ‘original’ on the left and Tristram Shandy’s own ‘translation’ on the right. Nothing is more fundamental to the style of the novel than this. Novels involve the interaction of stories that the characters tell about themselves or others to one another, and how this interaction shapes a mutual social reality that governs our interactions. These metafictional conceits are not just flourishes of novelty, but play a fundamental part in the novel as a tradition.
In novels like Tom Jones or Gil Blas or Don Quixote the heroes travel around and the people they meet tell them their life stories, and these stories entangle one another and create a subtle network of layered meaning. The power of ‘Society’ and the Spectator Club is that of distributed computing. Each individual subject, though individualized, is capable of performing independent subjective calculation. This is superior to a monolithic model where a single institution is responsible for performing societal calculus, as when the entire literate population can each carry out judgments on behalf of Society as a whole, you can explore many more potential perspectives much more rapidly. The only difficulty is in structuring these cores and coordinating their computation.
When one subject engages in self-narratization he projects his own interpretation of himself as a character into the shared world of society. Truth or falsity is not the primary criterion of success. We create our projections in order to affect other people by whatever narrative means we feel comfortable using. Usually we do this benignly, when we attempt to be judicious, fair and honest in our own self-appraisals, and allow others to make up their own minds about us. Other times people self-narrate deliberately to deceive those listening about their intentions and desires. The point is, the validity and social existence of the character we cast out into the world of society is not dependent upon notions of truth or fiction. A false hard luck story told to us by a grifter, if told well, can still inspire us to give the confidence man everything he asks for.
Herein lies the power of these little confessions we so often meet with in novels, by reading the story the social projection it creates becomes as ‘real’ for us as it does for the protagonist its being told to. These confessions become self-creating pockets of individual subjectivity, and these are arranged by the narrator of the novel to structure the interaction of the characters. (It’s always at the turning point of the book when a misunderstood character writes a powerful letter explaining themselves to the heroine that everything changes.) The manner in which the narrator structures things becomes a model of social reality, and as the novel develops as a genre, this architecture becomes more deliberate and philosophically conscious of the problem of inter-subjectivity.
This reading list will then serve as a companion to my #NovelMindset article, as, though this topic might not arouse everyone’s interest the way it does mine, the history and theory of the novel remains central to my reading, and, as this is my list, I believe it should be reflective of what motivates me. I encourage everyone to create similar lists for themselves, as creating a reading list is an opportunity to survey the terrain you have conquered in your studies, and to judge the true extent of our own little empire of taste. Not only do you create a list of books, but it becomes a novelistic exercise in self-creation unto itself.
Study of the novel in its earlier phases allows us to witness first hand the birth of Society. No other tension today is more keenly felt than the one between the individual and society, and regardless of political affiliation, each cultural party has its own interpretation of this struggle that it proposes is definitive. Novels, as the battle ground where the stresses of inter-subjectivity play themselves out, offer us an unmatched perspective into the socio-historical evolution of something that defines our modern cultural-political discourse.
In addition, the books I mean to recommend utilize every manner of style and technique conceivable, and besides simply being entertaining, they offer the aspiring content creator an endless arsenal of conceits from which to draw when building the literature of tomorrow. Suffice it to say there is much to recommend the reading of novels to us, and this list, I hope, will provide some interesting and enjoyable selections for your consideration.
When one is first entering into a domain of knowledge unfamiliar to them, I believe the best approach is to expose oneself to as much material as possible. Rather than recommend long, intimidating, and difficult novels like Tristram Shandy or Gargantua and Pantagruel, what follows is a serving of more manageable reads. Some of the selections I have made can be read in a sitting or two without much difficulty. They represent a wide cross section and will provide a broad basis for the formation of critical judgment later on. This is not to mention what should obviously be the main appeal though, that they are all enjoyable works of literature in their own right, full of humor and humanity enough to sustain us in these dark and difficult times.