LISTS June 4, 2021

Six Books That Have Sat On My Shelf Unread As Charged Objects For More Than A Decade

From the Archives: We originally published this list by Jonathan Lethem in our long-out-of-print 2010 debut, Booth #1. This is the first time this work has appeared online.

1. James Joyce, FINNEGAN'S WAKE
Unlike ULYSSES, I have not even bothered to fail reading this book. But it is making me smarter and more literary every day just by being there.

2. Milan Kundera, THE JOKE
His relatively-unknown first novel, I like the title so much I don't want to know if I'd dislike it as much as the more famous books of his that I once ago did try reading. There ought to be a great novel called "The Joke". Also the author photo is marvelously creepy.

3. Thomas Mann, BUDDENBROOKS
I devoured a lot of "bildungsromans" in the time leading up to writing The Fortress of Solitude, but somehow always skirted this archetypal example. The only thing of Mann's I've ever read, I think, is a terrific novella called "The Wardrobe", but I find his aura generally intimidating. The copy I have is my mother's hardcover edition, with a photograph of Mann, taken by my great-grandmother in Germany, tipped-into the endpapers. So I've been living with this book for forty-five years, actually. I'm sure I'll give it to my son, read or unread.

This is a peculiar object, a book published in 1951 with a unique gimmick: the last chapter is sealed in a yellow tissue-paper binding that keeps you from reading it without shredding the paper, and the jacket boasts: "Your Money Back If You Can Resist Breaking The Seal." (The dust-flap explains the story this way: "Your name is Don Ewell. You have a good job, writing a top television show. You have a very comfortable Long Island home, a loving wife, and two children. You meet a young actress named Paula. And fat Henry Hinge, your expert research man, warns you 'That girl's no good. She'd ruin any man she got her hands on...'" Well, I've found the book more spellbinding to contemplate than begin, so I've never learned whether I'd be able to resist, and destroy the yellow seal in frenzied pursuit of the mystery's solution, which now that I think about it, must have been an ecstatic experience for somebody or another, back in 1951. I wonder if they're still honoring the promise of a refund?

First sentence: "At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occurs when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe." I bet I've read that a hundred times, maybe more. Never typed it out before, though.

6. Charles Willeford, OFF THE WALL
My very favorite crime writer, down on his luck in the mid-seventies, knocked out this curiosity: a fictionalized account of the Son of Sam murders, for a fly-by-night publisher called Pegasus Rex Press. I collect Willeford's books, and this is one of the most difficult items to find in all of his many years of marginal publishing. Somehow, though, it doesn't need reading. Or maybe it does. Later.

Jonathan Lethem is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved mainstream success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. Since 2011, he has taught creative writing at Pomona College.