In the second year of my Arts degree at the University of Queensland, I took a critical theory course from which I remember only two details (I did not do well). The first is the lecturer gesturing towards an image of a glaring, turtlenecked Foucault and describing the philosopher as being present ‘in all his sartorial glory’. The second is a piece of wisdom delivered by my tutor, a perpetually beleaguered wild-bearded PhD candidate who, at the time, seemed sagaciously ageless but, looking back, was probably 24. Responding to a student who had asked what he liked to read, the tutor avuncularly explained that since beginning his postgraduate career he’d read nothing for pleasure.
Ten years later, weeks from submitting my own doctoral thesis, I find that I can read only for pleasure. This is a relief, because the tutor’s conviction that grad school made this impossible had so shaped my expectations that I’d perversely prepared, in exchange for undertaking the project, to trade in the delights that books have always provided. Now, I can say that the best thing I’ve learnt as a literature postgraduate is that the emotional attachments we form with books aren’t distractions from their proper study, but rather part of the study itself, invitations to proclaim their worth.
Over the course of writing my thesis one particular category of book has become indispensable. This category accounts for the books I internalise, those that reshape my picture of the world as it confronts me, those that speak with, for, and to me. I think of these as the books I am always reading. By this I don’t mean the many perennially half-read books on my bookshelf. I mean those I am forever and will forever be returning to, re-examining, finding comfort in. I do not lend these books to anyone because I may need them tomorrow. I can turn to a page at random and am greeted with a familiar, familial warmth. If some book-hating maniac invaded my apartment, pressed the muzzle of a gun to my temple, and told me I could keep only the books I can carry (putting aside this person’s history and reasoning and just going with the scenario), these are the books I would grab.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
I own four copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and would not part with any of them. The first, I bought in my early twenties on a whim, having until then been only vaguely familiar with its author. The second is included in my copy of Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, which I purchased on the last day of my first trip to New York. The third was passed to me by benevolent neighbours, former English academics now shrinking their sizeable book collection. This is an early edition sporting the original cover, which is also the best. The fourth belonged to my grandfather, an inscribed gift to him from my parents. When he was alive I did not know who Didion was. Now, as happens with the best people we meet as well as our favourite writers, her voice has been incorporated into my own.
In this first essay collection, and in everything she has published since, Didion writes with the scorching clarity of a prison yard spotlight, one that she frequently points inward. She has her faults—her prose can be a little mannered and she tends to see detachment as a prerequisite to analysis, but her writing taught me that it makes no sense to talk about style and substance as separate entities, they are entwined like love and loves.
It was Didion who gave me my obsession with perfect endings. For several years, every final sentence I’ve written has existed in the shadow of the last line of her essay ‘Marrying Absurd,’ a brief piece about Vegas weddings: ‘Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry, “It was just as nice,” she sobbed, “as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”’ I’ve read it so many times. I’ll read it so many more.
The Verificationist, Donald Antrim.
The Verificationist is a startlingly funny novel about a group of psychoanalysts who come together for a pancake dinner, and it is unlike anything I’ve ever read (except perhaps Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, a novel about one hundred brothers). Antrim writes characters who have been damaged in a way that precludes them from seeing how they damage others. In this particular book, we witness the narrator’s disintegration, brought about by the kind of hyper-intellectual shoring up and justification of selfish motivations that can be so appealing to the overeducated.
The constant presence of this novel in my life functions as a warning against overreliance on intellect. It is possible to take from a postgraduate education a self-assuredness that presumes the academy equips us to sort out our lives and command the lives of others. The Verificationist suggests that the confidence endowed by certain kinds of knowledge—for example, the ability to speak with authority on the finer points of Self/Other Friction Theory—is not only non-transferable to our social and emotional lives, but can in fact threaten to consume them.
Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme
When I first finished this collection of stories, I was left with the impression that anything written after Barthelme could only ever re-tread his ground. He had done all there was to do. Thomas Pynchon bemoaned that he ‘happens to be one of a handful of American authors there to make the rest of us look bad.’ Sixty Stories gathers up works from his first five collections, showcasing a cosmic range of skill and acuity, an eye for the texture of existence I’ve never seen replicated. Across distorted fairy tales, strange, unattributed dialogues, and tales of suburban mundanity, Barthelme shatters not only the conventions of narrative but the conventions of experience.
In what might be his most beautiful piece of writing, ‘The Balloon’, a great balloon inflates to cover a city, metaphorising emotional tension. This is the rare literary symbol that outgrows its referent and remakes ordinary existence in its image, gifting the reader new tools with which to be alive. Barthelme’s dollhouse worlds (dollhouse in the sense that they are perfectly arranged, not minor) are formed from a language so vibrant that it seems to invest all the words you already know with the bright energy of an entirely new vocabulary.
Read aloud the opening sentence of ‘I Bought a Little City’: ‘So I bought a little city (it was Galveston, Texas) and told everybody that nobody had to move, we were going to do it just gradually, very laid-back, no big changes overnight.’ How could you not read on? How could such a rhythm, such gentle, human dexterousness, not find its way into your bones?
Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein
I encountered this work of philosophy in the first year of my PhD, shortly after moving from Brisbane to Sydney, and its discovery transformed me. The book has a permanent place on my nightstand, I often pack it when travelling, and I do not understand most of it. This is not because the prose is unclear or convoluted, but because the concepts are so revolutionary that they demand, it seems to me, a lifetime of careful attention.
The book is comprised of numbered passages, some only a sentence long (‘123. A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way about.”’), some running several paragraphs. Its strange, koanic rhythms are hypnotic and enlivening and difficult for me to praise without sounding like I’m participating in some mystical occultism. If the book has a fundamental message, it is that ‘a meaning of a word is its use in the language,’ and, consequently, words have no essential meaning beyond their context and use. I will spare you an extensive exegesis, it’s enough to say that this work has profoundly influenced my thinking, my writing, and how I aim to treat others. To follow Wittgenstein is to discover that using an elevated metaphysical vocabulary is obscuring rather than clarifying, and that we can better understand the world and those in it if we pay attention to language as it is used.
Philosophical Investigations is an offering, an invitation for the reader to think for themselves and go on with what Wittgenstein gives them. Whenever I’m disappointed with the quality of my work, or feel that I’ve been a poor friend, or am met with the world’s blind cruelty, I turn to the last paragraph of the preface. It begins with a clear statement describing the best goal to which intellectual pursuits can aspire: ‘I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.’ Then there are these final lines: ‘I should have liked to produce a good book. It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it.’ About this he was wrong.
Outline, Transit, Kudos, Rachel Cusk
I came to this trilogy last year and, as I write, am savouring the final pages of the concluding instalment. I know that the Rachel Cusk advocate is a common specimen of late. There are good reasons for this. From early on in Outline, I knew I was experiencing something new, most significantly a near-agonisingly astute way of thinking about conversation. These books show how we talk past one another and they map our motivations for wanting to be heard, motivations usually unavailable even to the speaker.
That being said, as I finish the trilogy I have more questions than when I began it. While I know that these three novels will likely become books I’m always reading, I cannot extract the ingredient that makes this the case and I don’t expect or wish to. I think of what Montaigne wrote after the death of his dear friend La Boétie: ‘If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: Because it was he, because it was I.’ Right now, I simply need what Cusk is writing; I will continue to need it.
When I was a child, perhaps nine or ten, my father read to me from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. It remains the funniest book I know. Each night, he sat on my bed and read a single chapter, whatever its length, which varied wildly. I did not comprehend much of the dizzying eighteenth century dialect, but I was smitten by its rhythms and the way dad let the various manic voices inhabit him. I loved how the words, in their frenzied, self-assured lunacy, would bring us both to a halt, breathless from laughter. I’d laugh when he laughed, and laugh harder when the voice of the novel clicked, allowing me to divine enough from the archaic, twisty prose to envision the narrator’s world. This year, it occurred to me that we had, for whatever reason, never quite finished the book. It had been misplaced, or I’d grown too old to have my father sitting, reading on my bed. So a few months ago I phoned him and began the book again. I’m still reading it to him.
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney. His work has been published in Overland, The Guardian, and Australian Book Review.