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John Jeremiah Sullivan Answers Your Questions

August 31, 2012 | by

This week, our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, stepped in to address your queries.

Dear Paris Review,

I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.

Still with me?

Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.

I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how "Ms." is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that "Mrs." is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.

Help.

Sincerely,

Down and Out in the Deep South

Dear DODS,

What kind of soulless freak could fail to answer your call? Your intelligence glows through your professed ignorance (as does the authenticity of “a very specific religious cult”). That sounds like an educationally less-than-ideal but, in other ways, fascinating childhood. My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read.

A place to start is with Guy Davenport’s nonfiction collections, Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus (with more pieces in The Death of Picasso). You’ll learn an enormous amount from these essays and sketches, but almost without realizing, because they give off the pleasure of great stories. Read the title essay in The Hunter Gracchus (about Kafka and the way symbols can take on a life of their own), and see if it isn’t as stimulating and creepy as the last good movie you saw.

Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)

Read My Ántonia, and then read everything else by Willa Cather. Inside her novels you’ll find it impossible to doubt that high enjoyment and extreme depth can go together. The most difficult art.

Read Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. I’m saying that randomly, because it seems right, and to approve the spirit of randomness.

If you get into a writer, go all the way and check out everything he/she has written. This summer I fell into a Defoe hole. Started with the major stuff, the best novels and the good journalism, and then read everything down to the poems and the tedious political pamphlets, since by that point I was equally interested in him as a human being and wanted to have as accurate a map of the inside of his brain as possible. His is one of the minds that helped shape the modern world—we’re literally still telling his stories—so there’s a vital interest. I read Maximilian Novak’s super-solid biography of him, Master of Fictions. That sort of questy reading ends up enriching your experience of each individual book and piece, and it lends a sense of adventure to the whole business, which after all involves a lot of lying down or sitting on your ass.

Borges and Denis Johnson—anything by either. Edith Wharton’s story “The Young Gentlemen.” (Random, random.) Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and then his poems if you’re feeling spry. Find on the Web and buy an old paperback copy of the Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine–edited anthology Six Centuries of Great Poetry (a book for life). Read the next two things I’m going to read and then see how you like them: Grant’s Memoirs and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Books that got me kick-started were the great modernist biographies, especially Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. Read those two books and you’ll have a decent-size grid on which to plot the rest of your reading. I’m somehow moved to spurt out, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. People have been writing about Shakespeare for half a millennium, and the very best of it just happened.

Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop. I was reading Phoenix Force novels until I was like thirteen. These days a lot of people I know are into Murakami. I should have said more novels. If it’s by a Russian, read it.

Dear Sir,

I was looking at your Web site today, I entered it but wasn’t able to leave it. No matter what I did I couldn’t leave it and get back to my other work. I couldn’t go back, I couldn’t go forward, I couldn’t even turn off my computer to start over again! I felt like there was a force field surrounding me and my whole apartment building, too! I tried to relax a bit to see why I had been jailed here. I read some more, tried to change my attitude, even though I felt I was being pulled into some kind of dark vortex and I might never return! Only at sunset did the force release me, long enough to write this letter, maybe it didn't release me??? But I have to write you and ask you what your power is and what you want, I have no more strength to resist your pull. What do you want???

Yours, Latitia

Dear Latitia,

Those were interesting hours we shared. I was wondering if you would write. At first I didn't think you'd let me very far in, but once we'd unlocked the main shame-circuit (the thing with Terry), we moved some pieces forward. The power was yours—owning that is gonna be a biggie on your journey. I'm glad you dig the site.

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35 COMMENTS

26 Comments

  1. Irene | September 1, 2012 at 8:24 am

    Who indeed can resist Down and Out’s plea? Since the important thing is to start, my suggestion is that he begin with books that have been made into good or good-enough movies. Great Expectations. 1984. Lolita. The Magnificent Ambersons. Goodbye Columbus. Then move on from there, as Sullivan describes he did with Defoe. What a treat he has in store.

  2. Down and Out in the Deep South | September 1, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Wow. This was . . . unexpected.

    Thanks for answering my plea for help, and giving me plenty of suggestions. Also the bit about having a different mindset was very helpful. It’s hard not to get into the ladder mentality when it seems like everyone on the smart part of the web knows all the things that you don’t.

    Also, thanks to Irene for suggesting some movie adaptations; if any other readers have any suggestions, it would be appreciated!

  3. Lakshmi | September 1, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Just to add to the suggestions, I think it’d help to pick books based on how you are feeling or what you are doing at a certain point.
    I enjoy humor. I am big fan of P.G.Wodehouse and I highly recommend the Jeeves and Wooster series!
    I very recently read D.H.Lawrence’s Women in Love and I’d recommend that too.
    Also, most movies do seem to be based on books, but in my opinion most movies don’t do the books justice!

  4. jonathan iverson | September 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    If the letter were not fake, which went through my mind many a time as I read it, then I believe that the writer of it already has what he (presumably) needs in order to find out about the world- an inquisitive mind and the ability to write and probably think in an impassioned, literate way.

    As for the suggestions, they seem to be mostly a half baked lot of “writing” but it isprobably appropriate, coming as it does from a “southern” editor who does not even suggest Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.

  5. Marianne | September 2, 2012 at 2:13 am

    I love a bit of other-people’s-bookshelves porn, if you can call it that – Anne Fadiman has a wonderful collection of essays called Ex Libris, all about the books that have graced her life. Nick Hornby’s Complete Polysyllabic Spree is also great and has put me on to some authors and books I now can’t live without.

  6. mary lou bethune | September 2, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I think The Color Purple might be a good addition to down and out’s list, I loved everything else on your list, and I am from South Carolina. yikes.

  7. Brandon Cook | September 2, 2012 at 6:03 pm

    Goodness me; whenever I’m asked for beginning reads I resort almost immediately to David Mitchell or Anthony Burgess, in terms of enjoyment. I must learn the art of proper recommendations.

  8. Amber | September 2, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    I think because he’s left a religious sect, he needs some James Baldwin in his life. James was a child preacher any by the time he as 17 he had grown out of it. I’d read “Go Tell It on the Mountain” first and then “Just Above My Head.”

  9. Marie | September 4, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I could draw a great writer out of a hat for this! There are so many. Salinger’s “A Catcher in the Rye” and Richard Wright’s “Native Son”.

    1984. A Handmaid’s Tale. The Great Gatsby. Fahrenheit 451.

  10. Alec | September 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    READ John Jeremiah Sullivan’s PULPHEAD!

  11. Clayton Burns | September 5, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    1.Absalom, Absalom! (Modern Library) (Hardcover) by William Faulkner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Amazon website text:

    page 19:

    as if for Christmas… this ogre of djinn…

    Vintage International 1990

    page 16:

    as if for Christmas… this ogre or djinn…

    Original Modern Library 1993

    page 18:

    as if for Christmas… this ogre of djinn…

    Modern Library 1993 now in the Chapters Robson bookstore

    page 18:

    as if for Christmas… this ogre or djinn…

    2.Original Modern Library 1993

    page 100:

    this man miscast for the time and knowing it, accepting it for a reason obviously good enough to cause him to endure it and apparently too serious or at least too private to cause him to endure it and apparently too serious or at least too private to be divulged to what acquaintances he now possessed…

    1993 Modern Library now in Chapters Robson

    page 100:

    this man miscast for the time and knowing it, accepting it for a reason obviously good enough to cause him to endure it and apparently too serious or at least too private be divulged to what acquaintances he now possessed…

    Vintage International

    page 78:

    this man miscast for the time and knowing it, accepting it for a reason obviously good enough to cause him to endure it and apparently too serious or at least too private to be divulged to what acquaintances he now possessed…

    This is just a sampling.

    Over the years, Noel Polk and I have had telephone and e-mail discussions about the 20 major errors in the original 1993 Modern Library. There has never been a resolution.

  12. doug | September 5, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    the best and most specific reading advice i’ve come across

  13. Jade | September 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Marianne makes an excellent suggestion: Nick Hornby’s Pollysyllabic Spreee books are made up of his monthly reading column for the Believer. Each month Hornby lists the books he bought vs. the books he read. His straightforward assessments of the books he’s read are always a pleasure to read, frank and unsnobbish, and often point me toward new books. Hornby’s lack of literary posturing might put some of Down and Out’s insecurity to rest.

  14. JSA Lowe | September 6, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    Down & Out, I don’t really have book suggestions, but just a bit of hope to offer. I was you. That is, I am you. Cult, “homeschooled,” rural, no friends, only child, very limited access to literature. My first year in college I used the word “Negro” in an academic paper, because I thought that was the appropriate identifier. I went into Biology 101 firmly believing the world was created in 7 days. I didn’t hear a song by the Beatles until I was maybe 19 or 20. My first asparagus was out of a can. Etc.

    So I just want to say, mostly, hang in there. It does get better. Today I am a working writer and teacher, and (with therapy, which I recommend) (especially w/r/t the cult stuff) a generally productive, generally content human being. My family isn’t altogether happy about who I’ve become but they’ve finally made their peace with it. When your mind gets opened by books you will find yourself in altogether different and astonishing places. Let me know if you ever want to talk.

    PS also—okay, I’ll bite: why has no one said Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? you’d love that. Or, for books about the South, Bastard out of Carolina? the stories of Breece D’J Pancake? The Moviegoer by Walker Percy? One of my best old tricks was to buy college literature anthologies at yard/book sales; you can usually get them for a quarter or so, and reading the excerpts can tell you a good deal about what you’re instinctively drawn to (and what you should be reading even though it scares/repels you, precisely because it does). What about Orwell’s essays? Or Annie Dillard’s, or Woolf’s? You can learn from these great prose stylists, and get a lot of pleasure from such lessons. Oh oh—one more, and an important one: James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Actually, scratch everything above and just read Agee. And best of luck to you—

  15. Florian | September 7, 2012 at 6:56 am

    DODS, read Thomas Bernhard, especially his autobiographical writings. He was basically in the same boat as you are and became one of the world’s greatest writers.

  16. JSA Lowe | September 7, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    PS one more—Richard Wright’s Black Boy. Especially the chapters where he teaches himself to read, gets a library card through lying and saying an older white man wants the books, and stays up all night restructuring his brain via, of all things, HL Mencken. Malcolm X’s literacy narrative is similarly inspiring. But the Richard Wright piece (which incidentally I read in one of those yard-sale anthologies) was something I clung to, in my teens and twenties. If Richard Wright could become Richard Wright, then I could become something more than myself, too.

    You totally got this one.

  17. barath | September 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I have a brief answer for DODS as well, three nonfiction books that can help reshape and expand one’s understanding of the world (and humanity’s place in it), and open the door to further books and further knowledge:

    1. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

    2. Eaarth by Bill McKibben.

    3. The Wealth of Nature by John Michael Greer.

    Those three books will set you on a road to understanding the world around us in a way that your upbringing might not have, and will lead you to many other fascinating works.

  18. NancyKay Shapiro | September 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    The letter touch and JJS and commenters’ replies touch my heart so deeply, and I write that as someone who NEVER says something “touched my heart so deeply”. Wow. You stand on the doorstep of Literature, and it’s all there for you.

    All the recs above are fantastic.

    I’ll come in from the contrarian side then, and suggest a couple of things you needn’t waste time on — Ayn Rand will probably be recced to you (not here, but somewhere). Please feel exonerated from having to read her.Or, only do so after you’ve read all the books JJS and the commenters above have pointed you at.

    To end on a positive rec note, a hearty second on Willa Cather, who was, like you, an American from an unintellectual place who wanted to know books, and then wrote masterpieces.

    And you might also get hold of a good American short story overview anthology — such as Granta’s, edited by Richard Ford, or the one chosen by John Updike — all the big publishers have some version of this anthology of best short fiction by American writers, stories you can read in an hour and that will knock your brain to Neptune. And many of those writers will have written novels you’ll then want to try.

  19. Katherine R | September 9, 2012 at 1:50 am

    I am you, too although I thank God every day that I went to public school and then rejected Bible college.

    I would suggest that you read Karen Armstrong (and Marcus Borg, if you still consider yourself a Christian). They helped me place fundamentalist Christian thought in a better perspective and understand how I could have my God-given intelligences, critical thought AND my faith.

    I especially liked Armstrong’s History of God and Borg’s Heart of Christianity.

  20. Scott | September 9, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Down and Out-

    First of all, your letter is one of the most inspiring things I have read in a long time. I teach at a University in the South and I have had many students who come from similar situations as you- many are openly hostile to the fundamental goals of education and they can be disruptive and frustrating. I know I will be just a little bit more patient with them from now on, because of your letter.

    Want some simple advice about what books to read?

    If you really enjoy a film, look back at the credits and see if it was based on a novel. Get a copy of that novel, and read it.

    You’ll also develop an understanding of the differences between an art form you already love- film- and one you want to know more about- literature. It’s a cliche that the book is always better than the movie (and there is some truth to it) but your appreciation and understanding of both forms will grow.

  21. NancyKay Shapiro | September 10, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Quoting Hermione Lee in her biography of Virginia Woolf, on VW reading:

    ‘VW asks a great many questions about canon-formation, and insists that great books must be set in the context of inferior, ordinary, forgotten books: trashy novels, obscure memoirs, especially of women’s lives, dust-gathering volumes of letters, mediocre biographies, minor plays. “A literature composed entirely of good books” would soon be unread, extinct; “the isolation is too great.” We need “trivial ephemeral books”: “They are the dressing rooms, the workshops, the wings, the sculleries, the bubbling cauldrons, where life seethes and steams and is for-ever on the boil.” They fertilize our minds and get the ready for the big masterpieces. We can’t always be reading Keats or Aeschylus or King Lear, so she defends the pleasures of bad books, the historical importance of the rubbish heap. She argues for serendipitous, random reading from the shelves of second-hand bookshops and public libraries: “I ransack public libraries & find them full of sunk treasure.” All her life she celebrated the democratic function of the public library as the university of the non-specialist, uninstructed reader; it is the reading room for the common reader.’

  22. Marie | September 10, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    D.H. Lawrence’s travelogues.
    David Foster Wallace’s essay on David Lynch.
    Any short story by Alice Munro, Amy Hempl and Lorrie Moore.
    Don DeLillo’s White Noise.
    Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.
    Their Eyes Are Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, then all the rest of her books.
    Sula and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
    I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett.
    Also, since you feel ‘behind’ in reading, go ahead and outdo a majority of American readers and read from other countries. Here are some great authors to start with:
    Italo Calvino
    Sonallah Ibrahim
    Naguib Mahfouz
    Blaise Cendrars
    Alvaro Mutis
    Alejo Carpentier
    Marial Ba
    Amos Oz

  23. Kristina | September 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Hi DODS,
    Your letter is great. So are so many of the responses and suggestions. I’m not sure where you live now, but I wanted to tell you about Ourshelves Library in San Francisco. It’s a privately run library that offers one-on-one curatorial services and personalized recommendations for members and visitors alike. The curator will read a book along with you so you can talk about it once it’s done. She will offer suggestions based on your responses and the films that you like. If you email the curator through the website, I’m fairly sure she’d be your “new reads” penpal. Almost positive, in fact.

  24. Devin | September 21, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    My gateway drug to literature was short stories. Every grade in high school we’d get a new collection and do maybe three or four stories in a book of twenty. I’d read the whole thing; my university anthology’s still one of the jewels of my library. Years later, I’d pick books off library shelves specifically because I’d liked one of the author’s shorts.

    This technique has some advantages: used short story anthologies are dirt cheap at used book sales, you’ll read good stuff that many other people have probably read in high school, you’ll read stuff you might not otherwise think to, you don’t invest too heavily in any given author, and can compare authors and styles easily.

    The main disadvantage are that high school readers rarely stray off the beaten path: you might be hard pressed to find queer or experimental literature. You’ll miss a lot of excellent genre fiction, and you will miss some authors who just, for whatever reason, never got around to writing a short story.

  25. newsom thomas | September 25, 2012 at 6:13 am

    hamil penn

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