All-Time Must-Read Book List

I'm not the only one who's realized that with the overwhelming access to information provided by the 'net -- particularly as it grows over the next few years and we eventually have unlimited access to movies, books, music, art, etc. from our desktops -- the really important thing will be the ability to sort and filter that information, to find out what's worth finding. That was one tiny part of why two friends and I started a 'netzine way back in the day when we had to invent that word ourselves because along with most people, we didn't know it already existed. Our 'netzine grew to include all kinds of things we hadn't had in mind in the beginning, and very little of what we had actually intended when we came up with the idea, but one small element that did make it to the published issues was what we loosely referred to as "reviews." They weren't really reviews so much as endorsements of some pretty obscure stuff that was too cool to be lost in the shuffle. It was also stuff that most of the planet probably wouldn't get all that excited about, but for the small minority of like-minded geeks who managed to find us in the first place, I like to think we were a good source for some cool recommendations.

It was remembering all this while putting the old UP archives back online after lo these many years that I decided it might be worth making up a few lists of the more obscure things I've run across, things that I found so wonderful as to motivate me to get off my butt and force them on others, because I can't bear to be the only one to appreciate their brilliance.

Herewith, then, my public service for the day: below you will find a "short" list of my all-time favorite books, excluding obvious classics and focusing on the obscure and/or neglected. Naturally, the list reflects only what I've been lucky enough to run across so far, not a comprehensive list of what's out there. Others with interests very close to mine might find that there's nothing here they don't already know about. It's intended more for curiosity-ridden readers who might not have the time or inclination to, say, read enough in the field of Russian history to know what's good and what's not, but who wouldn't mind delving into some of the best if it were offered to them on a silver platter. This is as close as I can get to silver.

Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul For those of you who, like me, don't get heavily into the whole aliens thing, you can still enjoy the genius of Douglas Adams. Personally, I think this is his best work by far (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency actually comes before this one and is connected to it (naturally), but they can stand alone too). Oh, and it opens with a slightly acerbic chick named Kate who's trying to get to Oslo (I lived in Norway for a while, and they don't deliver pizza there either).
Natalie Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography - a best-seller and one of many similar-seeming books out there (the vast majority of which I haven't read so I probably shouldn't criticize, even implicitly, but...). But this one is really worth reading. Even more so, perhaps, for men than women, though if you're a man who is so lost in your own point of view that encountering someone else's is in itself threatening, it won't do you any good anyway.
Nicholson Baker, Vox - I recommend everything this guy's ever written (and I do it often), but if I had to pick one that was most interesting, most unique, most successful, it would be Vox. The story is about a  phone sex conversation, and the novel itself consists entirely of this one long conversation. Baker pulls off the gimmick beautifully, and along the way the He and the She involved are fascinating and fun, while Baker's take on sex and intimacy (and above all, language!) is wonderful. If you're uncomfortable with the very explicit sex, though, read The Mezzanine instead.
Odd Børretzen, "The First Norwegian"- This short story is taken from Norwegian humorist Børretson's The Norwegian People's Sorrowful Life and History (1968). I did a rough (very rough) translation of it when I was 17 and had just returned from a year in Norway. My Norwegian has only deteriorated since then, so it'll have to stay rough, but you can read it here anyway.
Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel" - quite possibly my favorite short story ever. It's in the collection called Ficciones, and Borges is well worth getting to know in general.
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen - A very technical and complicated academic book on cinema sound, but it's the best of the major books out there (as of the time I read a bunch for a course several years ago). He's simply got it right, that's all.
Patricia Clapp  - She's got many titles of Children's/YA historical fiction, and they're all great. Sometimes hard to find anywhere but local public libraries, but they beat the hell out of the vast majority of what's in print, and shouldn't be relegated to the dustbin quite so quickly.
Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time - Colwin is just a beautiful writer, a little off the beaten path of mainstream modern American fiction-about-men-and-women-and-blah-blah-blah-real-life - just off enough to be really saying something new about relationships and people (for once). And off enough to be really funny, too.
e. e. cummings, The Enormous Room - He wasn't just a poet. The Enormous Room is a novel about cummings' experiences as a POW in France in WWI, and chock full of his own illustrations. It's great. Don't bother with anything but the newer Liveright edition that has cummings' original punctuation and lots and lots of colorful French phrases here and there (there's a glossary in the back), plus the drawings.
Feodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot - I don't care if you hated having to read Crime and Punishment in high school. Read The Idiot instead. Stuff actually happens in this one, and often it happens very, very fast.
Barbara Alpern Engel, Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia - This one is hard to find (I know, I've been looking for years) but any halfway-decent library should have it (but how many are halfway decent??). Engel writes about a sub-group of the nineteenth-century radical intelligentsia in Russia: namely, the women. There were a heck of a lot of them, in very important positions in radical and terrorist organizations, which is one of the odd phenomena for which Engels presents a convincing explanation. This book goes a lot further than that, but I don't have room for it all. If you're interested in gender in history, nineteenth-century Russia, or radical politics and political terrorism, you'll find it fascinating, and if you're interested in all three you should hunt it down now. It'll also drive you to read the memoirs of many of the women portrayed - several are published and readily available in English.
Evgeny Evtushenko, Don't Die Before You're Dead - Evtushenko is primarily a poet, and a very famous member of the 60s "Thaw Generation," though he's much less popular among Russians these days. He's considered "less interesting" now than the younger, more uncompromising and less tempered faces. Westerners make up for it though by thinking he's great (sort of like the Gorbachev thing). And he is great. Thanks to his popularity over here, he can often be caught touring universities and suchlike doing readings from his poetry. If you can hear him read in person, it is well worth it, as the experience is quite indescribable. For non-Russian-speakers who can't see him in person, though, I suggest reading this prose novel first. It's about the August 1991 coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and maybe the best analysis of that situation I've ever read (including the course list for Ronald Suny's University of Chicago course on the collapse, which was actually really really good. I won't even go into how much literature is out there trying to make sense of 1991 and its aftermath, though, or how much of it is drivel). Oh, and it's also bloody hilarious. Especially the bit with the hedgehog.
Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin's Peasants: Resistance & Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization - In class one day, Professor Fitzpatrick remarked that "one should never underestimate the Russian peasant." This was one of the handful of Great Truths I took away from my college education, and her book makes the case beautifully. It's written so well that you'll never imagine you're reading an academic text (one that also, as it happens, is an extraordinarily rich contribution to the field of Soviet Studies). I bet you can't read just one chapter.
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman - a series of graphic novels, a.k.a. comics, that leave me completely speechless. They're often funny, but make no mistake - they are real, intense, beautiful, enduring and important works of art and literature.  Give them a chance. Maybe even start with Volume II, The Doll's House, then backtrack to Volume I, Preludes and Nocturnes (as that one is a slightly tentative introduction, only hinting at the greatness to come, and also involving a lot of in-jokes and references to a comicbook universe that most of us are only vaguely aware exists). When you've recovered from reading straight through the entire series (and thank whatever lucky stars or supreme beings you believe in that you could read them all in a row and not have to wait month after unbearable month as the story unfolded issue by issue over the course of eight years in the late eighties-early nineties), then go check out Scott McCloud and prepare to welcome a whole new artform into your life (and obsessive acquisatory compulsions).
Martin Gardiner, The Annotated Alice - Okay, Alice in Wonderland is amazing enough all by itself. In Martin Gardiner's Annotated edition, he provides not only background and references and helps explain some of the now-archaic language, but he adds layers and layers of detail and delight in the kind of puzzles, word games and artistic flourishes that make Lewis Carroll so amazing.
Eugenia Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind - Possibly the best of gulag memoirs, certainly one of the most well-known. There's also a sequel called Within the Whirlwind, and it deserves mention that Ginzburg's son, Vassily Aksyonov, is a well-known and talented novelist in his own right. Personally, I think Ginzburg's memoirs are a much better introduction to the facts and questions of the Soviet Gulag system than the more obvious Solzhenitsyn tomes (Ginzburg will make you want to read those, too, and by then it won't feel like work).
Nikolai Gogol', "The Nose" - If your high school or college freshman lit experiences taught you that Russian literature was only about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and if they were really good, Chekhov), read this. While you're at it, read Pushkin and Sinyavsky, and Akhmatova and Nabokov and Turgenev. Then re-read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Did I mention that "The Nose" is a really short story?
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence - Also a best seller that might have been lost in the shuffle, especially if, like me, you tend to wrinkle your nose at anything that reeks too much of self-help, pop-psych or, But it's really good, and we all should know more about Emotional IQ. Especially boys. cf. Kindlon, et al, Raising Cain, below. It'll make the world a better place for everybody - promise.
Edward Gorey, Amphigorey - There are actually at least three collections of Gorey's work under this title (Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also, Additional Amphigorey...something like that), and they're all mind-bogglingly brilliant. If you can't figure out why his style looks familiar, it's because he's the guy who did those great illustrations for The House with a Clock in Its Walls that you loved as a kid. He actually wrote all kinds of things, most of them dark, some of them very very dark, all of them illustrated with his weird and wonderful artwork. He does a great send-up of Victorian family values and children's literature, too.
Loren Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union - In a very unique format for an academic book, Graham divides his narrative into two parts. The first is an absorbing biography of a hitherto obscure Russian engineer named Palchinsky, whose career just happens to have touched on, been shaped by, or been a living embodiment of the course taken by technology and industry in the Soviet Union. The second part uses Palchinsky as a take-off point to describe the nature and failures of Soviet technology. There's a lot more in here than you'll get from Newsweek, it's convincing, and it goes down easy, too.
Mark Hansen, The Royal Facts of Life: Biology and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Europe - This book finally gets to all the interesting stuff about monarchy that every other historian has ignored. Like, how miserable would you be if you had syphilis and all the other diseases these guys always seemed to have? How much of the craziness of European monarchies came from all that inbreeding, and why didn't they figure it out? What was it like for royal women, whose entire lives were devoted to one goal - a profitable marriage and a healthy heir. Is it just me, or did European royal women all just cease to exist after the heir was born, according to all history written to date?? Oh, and this is also the book that, along with Wortman's Scenarios of Power, inspired my BA essay and brought me to a PhD program in Russian History at Columbia. He's also one of the guys behind those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, apparently. Weird.
Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia - A YA memoir/novel about a young Jewish girl from Vilno who has the mixed fortune to get caught by the Russians before the Germans could get her. She ends up, eventually, living out the war and subsequent years in Siberia with her grandmother.
Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life - One of the reviews on the back cover says that every woman should read this book, and I agree. It's about writing about women - which not very many of us do - but it's also about how women and men "write" narratives to make sense of women's lives, their roles, and the possibilities open to them. Depending on your narrative, the same actions can look like triumph or failure. For most of recorded history, the narratives societies had for women were limiting, degrading, and destructive. It's about time we paid more attention to where we've gotten this shit from in the first place, and how very manufactured, fallible, and ultimately counterproductive most of our narratives really are -- for all of society, male and female.
Richard Hellie, "The Structure of Modern Russian History: Toward a Dynamic Model" - An essay that I read at least once a year, and still find something new in every time. The sentences are often much longer and more unwieldy than they should be, but it's worth slogging through.
Georgette Heyer - (and now for something completely different). If you've always wondered why the vast majority of historical romances are all written about one tiny little historical moment - Regency England - it's because of Georgette Heyer. She started writing romances set in this period in the 1940s (along with a bunch of mystery/detective novels I haven't read yet and the occasional foray into other historical periods), and did it so bloody well that everyone and her sister has been trying to imitate her ever since, and failing. She's funny, her history is pretty good, and her ear for authentic historical dialog (upper class British slang, especially) is amazing. If you thought Peter Wimsey talked funny...
P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman - P.D. James is one of the best detective novelists of all time, a master of the "Detective Novel of Manners" (to use Carolyn Heilbrun's term), and the only detective novelist I know of who actually manages to work real, solid character development into a whodunnit - every time. This title is probably her most well-known, and introduces one of the few (and best) female detectives in fiction.
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth - One of the best children's works ever written. I didn't discover it until last year, and therefore hope to prevent other kids from suffering the same fate....
Laura Kaplan, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service - "Jane" was the name of an abortion service founded at the University of Chicago, and it's a fascinating story (which I discovered first in an amazing documentary screened on campus a few years ago - alas, I've lost track of the title or director's name).
Daniil Kharms, Kharmsiada / Anekdot: Komiksy iz zhizni velikhikh - Kharms is a Russian absurdist writer, who I recommend even in translation. If you've got the Russian, though, Kharmsiada is a must-have.  It's a small book of cartoons featuring all Russia's literary titans, in all their, uh, glory.
Kindlon, Dan and Michael Thompson, with Teresa Barker, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys - Okay, I'm not and have never been a boy, but this book explained a hell of a lot for me. The only other person I know who's read it so far is also a girl, and also not someone who's ever been involved in actually raising a boy (though she does teach some real doosies), so I'd be interested to know what actual boys think of this. My first reaction to seeing it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble was, christ, don't boys get enough attention as it is? Just because we did the whole girl thing with Reviving Ophelia -- the whole point of which is that all the conventional wisdom, time and attention of our culture is devoted not to "children" so much as to boys -- how on earth does it make anything but financial sense to do a Reviving Hamlet? But I took a closer look, and had to retract my cynicism in this one case. It's actually a book about how our society forces boys into a mold (as unnatural to them as traditional "feminine" models are for any real girls) that cause them to grow up into the adolescents and men we all know so well - blindly destructive to themselves and the rest of us, without an emotional clue and stunted because of it. The saddest part is that is doesn't have to be that way.
Bruce LaBruce: Ride, Queer, Ride! - available in the stranger and more alternative of bookstores, this contains full scripts of M. LaBruce's films (Super 8 ½ and Hustler White) as well as interviews, miscellania and lots of pictures. In case you didn't hear about him on Entertainment Tonight, Bruce LaBruce is a gay porn star turned filmmaker who made a brilliant little movie about gay porn called Super 8 ½. Hustler White, alas, didn't nearly measure up (ahem, in quality and artistic merit) to Super 8 ½, largely because the project wasn't entirely in the hands of LaBruce - his bits in HW are the brilliant highlights in an otherwise boring failed attempt to be artsy and shocking and pornographic all at the same time.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life - Like I needed more excuses to sit around telling myself I'm going to quit grad school and write the Great American Novel, but for anyone who loves words, this is a great and fun tour into the world of writing.
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie - French historian, author of Montaillou and many other great books. History at its very best, if you ask me. But what would happen if someone turned this stuff in as a dissertation at, say, Columbia University? Hmm?
John Lennon, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works - Forget he's a Beatle for a second, and put these on your shelf next to Carroll and Joyce. See what happens.
Hilary Liftin  and Kate Montgomery, Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) By an Ocean - My friend franny and I have to fight over which of us really gets to be "Kate" and which of us is more "Hilary."
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra - This is not great history, but there's a reason it's the book that got practically everyone I know interested in Russian history.
Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics - If you're "not a comics person," all the more reason to take a look at these. And will someone please employ this man to re-write every textbook ever written?
Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita - Just read the first page. (And yes, it's definitely worth getting the annotated edition.)
E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers - E. Nesbit was one of the first writers of children's literature to actually write from a legitimately child-like perspective. Hence, her books are also among the first examples of children's literature that are great fun to read (at any age).
Grace Paley, Collected Short Stories - They're weird, radical (politically and otherwise) and beautiful.
Richard Peck, Ghosts I Have Been - This is the best of a four-book children's series that's great from beginning to end. The series features a girl from literally the wrong side of the tracks (her mother is a toothless fortune teller, her father long since got run out of town) named Blossom Culp. Rather to her surprise, she discovers she's got the gift of second sight (much to her mother's envious disgruntlement), and adventures inevitably ensue from there, often involving the reluctant rich boy from across the tracks, Alexander, who to his own horror has a few supernatural gifts of his own.
Elizabeth Marie Pope, The Sherwood Ring - a superb ghost story that alternates between a modern setting and an historical tale told by a series of personable ghosts who experienced some unusual guerilla warfare in upstate New York during the American Revolution. The hero of the ghost story is a Redcoat unfortunately named Peaceable Sherwood, who for some reason bears a striking resemblence (if you ask me) to Lord Peter Wimsey.
David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb - The best of many western journalistic accounts of post-Soviet Russia.
Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat - I could take or leave the rest, but this one is really extraordinary and beautiful.
Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters (U of C Press dual language edition) - The best motivation I've found to learn French, which I'd been avoiding for many years now. I've typed in my favorite Rimbaud poem -- which IMHO is also the sexiest poem ever written -- called, "The First Evening." Enjoy. (link to French version also available on the same page)
Jim Riordan  and Sue Bridger, eds and trs., Dear Comrade Editor: Readers' Letters to the Soviet Press under Perestroika - Remnick's account may be good, but nothing really compares to some primary sources. This is an amazing and often very entertaining collection, presenting a much more comprehensive and significant picture of late Soviet society than one might imagine from the title.
Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages - This is certainly a classic in its own way, but I've included it because there may still be some people out there who think a set of short biographies of a bunch of Victorian writers' marriages isn't up their alley. To those people, I suggest at least reading her introduction and seeing what you think. Basically, it's a book of good old-fashioned juicy gossip, based on the thesis that the only way we can learn about and understand how relationships work (or don't work) is to gossip - to understand what kinds of narratives people have written about their own relationships, and what worked and what didn't, and how important those narratives are in the first place.
J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter - Quick read them before the hype becomes too much for you. They really are that good.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night - The best and most famous of all Sayers' wonderful detective novels. It features the climax of the long drawn-out affair between Sayers' famous amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and her less famous but even more  interesting fictional-detective-fiction-writer-and-amateur-detective, Harriet Vane. This book is equally about Harriet's love affair with Oxford, a bit at least as real and entertaining to me as the relationship with Wimsey. Did I mention that this is my favorite "romance" novel?
Simon Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) - This is one of the less well-known titles by Schama, and maybe suffers a bit from a deliberate lack of clear linkage between the various stories it contains. Each section, though, is utterly absorbing, like all Schama's histories. It follows the lives and deaths of James Wolfe and an historian who studied him, Frances Parkman, in the first part, then George Parkman and his murderer, Harvard professor John Webster, in the second. The account of Webster's arrest and trial is probably the most interesting trial fiction I've read since To Kill a Mockingbird. Schama, by the way, is one of the best writers of history ever, and also a professor here at Columbia.
John Scott, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel- John Scott went to the Soviet Union with a lot of other Americans in the 1930s, when the Depression was making Western capitalism look like a miserably failed experiment (hm, sound familiar?) and the Soviet Union's booming industrial sector seemed a model of just, humane, and prosperous socialism in action. Scott finds that the story is considerably more complicated than that, of course, and his account of work in Magnitogorsk is gripping, sobering, and probably very accurate.
Andrei Sinyavski (a.k.a. Abram Tertz), The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism - Sinyavsky, who wrote under the pseudonym Abram Tertz to express solidarity with Jewish writers and intellectuals who were suffering persecution by the Soviet regime, was eventually sent to Gulag himself in 1965, but not before publishing several works in the West, including On Socialist Realism in 1959, an analysis of the inane "official" style known as Socialist Realism and the predicament of the writer in Soviet Russia, as well as the novel The Trial Begins in 1960. His politics were important -- and almost suicidally gutsy under the circumstances -- but he's also one of the best writers of Soviet-era literature, by any standard.
Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Changeling - a wonderful and imaginative children's book. But then, how could someone named "Zilpha" not write great children's lit?
Valerie Solanis, The SCUM Manifesto - Yes, she's the chick who shot Andy Warhol (and from the movie with Lili Taylor). And yes, she was a more than a bit off her rocker. But she also had some bloody great and true ideas strewn in there with the weird stuff. Too easily dismissed.
Jonathan Spence, The Death of Woman Wang - Spence is a very well-regarded Chinese historian, but this particular work is very controversial for its novel-like style and occasional liberties with facts and sources. The liberties he takes, though, are based on close readings of fiction from the same region of sixteenth-century China, and they bring a very rich and authentic quality to a shocking, gripping -- and nearly forgotten -- corner of Chinese history.
Elswyth Thane, Dawn's Early Light - Thane wrote great, if sometimes rather dated-feeling historical fiction. This is the first and best of her series set in Williamsburg, Virginia from the period of the Revolution (which this book covers) through the course of American history right up to the twentieth century. 
Emily Toth, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia - No woman in academia should be without it! (if only because it's a great way to lighten us all up).
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter - A trilogy set in medieval Norway. Wonderful.
Gore Vidal, Burr - We all saw the TV movie based on his book about Lincoln. That's actually just one in a series of good historical novels, the very best of which is the first, Burr.
Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy - He also wrote biographies of Lenin and Trotsky, but this is the best and most important. Volkogonov was a general in the Red Army and a historian for many years under the Soviet Regime. As soon as perestroika opened things up, he used his privileged access to government archives to do this research, finally unveiling mountains of information Western historians have been having to guess at for decades. (Disclaimer: my mom, who has only a casual interest in Soviet history, found this way too academic. Venture in at your own risk.)
Ellen Emerson White, The President's Daughter - Book one of a fine trilogy. White was my favorite YA author for many years, and I've got most of her books memorized by now. The older ones can be hard to find these days, but her latest books are arguably even better - the YA title The Road Home , and a mystery novel for grownups called All Emergencies, Ring Super . If you ask me, she's one of the most under-appreciated YA authors ever.
Joseph Williams, Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace - Based on Williams' famous University of Chicago course on Professional and Academic Writing (popularly known as the Little Red Schoolhouse), it's the most clear-headed and smart course on writing you'll find anywhere. Every college student on earth should have to read this book - the world, not to mention academia, would be a much better (and clearer) place. (Note: If you happen to be a Columbia undergraduate, forget everything you were told in L&R (if you haven't already) and read this instead.)
Richard S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy - Professor Wortman is my advisor here at Columbia, and this book is why I came here. Just read it. (all of it - volume two is now finally out!)

I've linked most of the authors above to their pages on, but many of them are out of print. No need to despair, however. There are several great sites out there that bring together databases of used bookstores all over the world and make it relatively easy to order directly from the stores. The best and easiest is though there are several others nearly as good (and yes, none are comprehensive so you have to search all of them, sigh). Try also: ABE,, and the Barnes and Noble out of print page.

Send your comments on my list or its contents to