(Subtract 1978 and a half for age.)
1989: Interstellar Pig, William Sleator. For a week after finishing it, I snuck out of bed every night and took pillow and blanket into my parents’ room, on account of fear of aliens. Later went back and reread it several times: no terror, all pleasure. “The lichen were confused.”
1990: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. From here forward, the influence of these books can be gauged by how much time was spent writing imitations of them.
1991: Foundation, Isaac Asimov. World-building. A thousand-year, Tolkien-sized history: but with fake science! Why was it less dopey than runes and elves? It has volumes of space opera, by me, to answer for.
1992: “The Call of Cthulhu”/“The Whisperer in Darkness” H.P. Lovecraft. New uses for non-Euclidean geometry, and Pluto.
1993: Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein. The second half lost me; the first I reread many times. I loved how the Martians were described. Jubal Harshaw answered fantasies.
1994: Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky. I once read an interview where someone said that everybody comes young to Dostoevsky. True? This was my worst year, when I was closest to doing something violent. I wanted to understand the writer’s trick; how he knew to turn Raskolnikov’s head and set it at an angle to his world.
1995: The Trial, Franz Kafka.Someone had told me it was an allegory of Communism. No, no. It was about me.
1996: Ulysses, James Joyce. In the spring I read A Portrait, it blew off the top of my head for all the wrong reasons and caused me my ruinous choice of vocation. In the summer I read this. I had puritan ideas and insisted on approaching it with absolutely no background knowledge other than the earlier booklater I learned this was an, er, unique way of doing it. I didn’t know how it connected to Homer, nor how the eighteen chapters were organized, nor that it it was one day long, nor that it was about adultery; and by the end of the book, I still hadn’t figured any of it out. What came through: Bloom’s character; and that half the book was a hilarious parody of something or other; and the crushing, inexplicable sadness of Stephen refusing to stay the night and walking out the door.
1997: Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo/To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. Can’t adjudicate. Two doors opening.
1998: Molloy, Samuel Beckett. Much harder to swallow than the plays. I wanted to push it away, and claim that I didn’t recognize the picture it was painting. Instead I read the rest of the trilogy, and thought for years.
1999: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon. The “Kenosha Kid,” pp. 60-61, was the first occurrence of a game I thought no one else had ever played.
2000: The Questionnaire, Jiri Grusa. It gave me a lot of bad ideas on novelistic license, because I wasn’t equipped to see the rules it was actually following.
2001: Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey. The Iowa years: I read so much contemporary Anglophone narrative. This was the best.
2002: The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. I wish he had finished the squire’s tale.
2003: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. A world with color and sound.
2004: Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Purity of motive.
2005: Waiting for the Barbarians/In the Heart of the Country, J.M. Coetzee. Drawing circles in the sand while Syracuse burns: is that complicity also?
2006: Middlemarch, George Eliot. Failure is yours. Inhabit it decently.
2007: Lenz/Woyzeck, Georg Büchner. Suppose a canvas built up with thirty layers of transparent lacquer.
2008: Villette, Charlotte Brontë / Quanta, Quanta Guerra, Mercè Rodoreda. It’s all in who you pick to tell it.
2009: Prinz Friedrich von Homburg/Die Marquise von O./Michael Kohlhass, Heinrich von Kleist. Angel’s feathers in our homely workaday wind.