What I’m Reading: In Praise of Lists

In the mid-2000s, I read an article that would change my life. That sounds terribly cheesy, but it’s true. I’d opened up Slate Magazine (this is back when I still read Slate–a bygone era when the “Arts” section wasn’t completely taken up with musings on popular television shows, but actually talked about culture from time to time) and found an article on small press books.

I suppose I’d always known that such a thing as the small press existed, but I imagined people in dark basements stapling together spooky and unnecessary tracts full of misspelled words and randomized capitalization. At the time, I’d just finished reading through every Salman Rushdie book available, though, and I was eager to try something new. It’s been such a long time now that I couldn’t tell you who wrote the article, or even what it was called. But it made three recommendations that I read immediately: Clown Girl by Monica Drake, Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff (never mind the fact that this wasn’t exactly a small press title), and The Exquisite by Laird Hunt.

I was so impressed by those three titles that I started to change my reading habits, and became quite the small press enthusiast. By late 2007, I’d be enrolled in the MFA program where I met the good people of the Red Hen Press, for whom I work today as managing editor for The Los Angeles Review. I don’t think I’d be editing at all, and certainly not reading and writing in the same way, if I’d not stumbled across that little article in Slate.

Since I came across that list of books, I’ve been looking for similar lists. I want to be absolutely knocked over by books I’ve never heard of before, and might not hear of otherwise. Slate never ran another article of its kind, and over the years, I’ve been sorry to see that many “must-read” lists might be better titled “a bunch of so-so books by friends of the list-maker.”

But this January, when The Millions came out with its list of Most Anticipated books of 2012, I felt as though I’d found that treasure trove of books I’d been looking for. No, they’re not all small press, but they’re not all mega-hyped titles either. Many of them I’d likely not come across in my own bookstore wanderings. I’ve been dutifully making my way through as many of these month-by-month groups of new titles as I can, and haven’t been disappointed yet. Maybe I’m late to the game (it appears that The Millions has been doing such lists for some time), but I’d love to recommend this 2012 list to your attention. I hope you’ll find a book you love, a book that knocks you out. Then come back here and tell me all about it.

4 Replies to “What I’m Reading: In Praise of Lists”

  1. Interesting how you got into indie lit. And if the truth be told, you were one of the influences on my turning in that direction, so your serendipitous reading of the Slate article had a ripple effect.

    And as a side note, it’s also interesting to see how writers’ works are influenced by the books they read. As I read the submissions of queries and samples for LA Review’s self-published book reviews, it’s easy to spot the writers who have only read the mainstream novels, and not much else. Not bad writing, but so formulaic and uninspiring, it could only come from reading too much Danielle Steele and John LeCarre. But a couple of real jewels in the pile too.

    I’ll have to blog about it on Saturday.

  2. Thanks, Kelly. I look forward to perusing the books on this list, but most of all, I was happy to read a post by someone so fond of small press books and books that are not “a bunch of so-so books by friends of the list-maker.”

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