Attempt to map out a basic “Nick reader”
For future and current reading, see Nick’s Shelf of Doom and Allconsuming

When I first got around to constructing a list of my “best books”, it was this:
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes| |Breakfast of Champions | Kurt Vonnegut | This book is funny and fairly profound; I fell (perhaps immaturely) in love with Vonneguts introduction of himself as a character, and the intimacy and vulnerability characterizing his interactions with other characters as a character. But when I found out that “Kilgore Trout” is based on an actual writer, this book immediately dropped from the highest circle of my favor.| |A Way Home |/2. Theodore Sturgeon |/2. Once I realized the true identity of Kilgore Trout and started actually reading Sturgeo, I realized that he was head and shoulders above Vonnegut in all the areas that count. Sturgeon is a technically brilliant short-story writer with great imagination and vision, but more importantly his writing is full of compassion and humanity, qualities that are not always present in creative works, at least, not apart from bloated preachiness.| |Vintage Collected Stories| |The Crazy Hunter | Kay Boyle | I bought this book on a whim, largely because of the interesting physical construction and the great author picture on the cover. (Thank you, New Directions Bibelots.) I was rewarded beyond all guessing by Boyle’s fascinating style, full of grim mid-century teen angst, lush description, weird gender and horse issues, etc.| |Reservation Blues | Sherman Alexie | Don’t recall who originally recommended this to me, but it’s absolutely brilliant: a bittersweet, funny, tragic story that captures a great deal about America, native and otherwise.| |Cristina Garcia | Dreaming in Cuban | This is a book I bought purely on a whim at the College Hill Bookstore in Providence. A good book (several generations of Cuban women deal with a variety of issues; reasonably complex and subtle politics, great characters), but not, on later reflection, as good as I originally thought.|
Now, let’s sit down and think more broadly:
h2. Literary Speculative Fiction
(SF that is also simply top-notch writing.)
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes| | The Fortunate Fall | Raphael Carter | Amazing. It’s excellent semi-hard cyberpunk with some deep-thinking socio-political speculation, strong detective noir roots, reflections on love, sexuality, and freedom, and fun Milton references. The author seems to have vanished since publishing this, the best debut ever.| | Dream Master |/3. Roger Zelazny | Zelazny is best known for his classic (though in my opinion overrated and indulgent) Amber fantasy series. However, his science fiction is of a much higher quality—darker, cleaner, and ultimately more imaginative. Dream Master is his greatest work of science fiction and one of the best “soft sci-fi” (i.e., social science fiction) novels are written. It begins with the premise of a sterile, prosperous, but grossly overpopluated world serviced by psychoanalysts using direct brain linkages to directly shape dreams. (Originally “He Who Shapes.”) It’s rich with psychological and sociological speculation, literary and mythological reference, and some great material on the future of the upgraded dog.| | The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth. | | A solid collection of Zelazny stories. | | Last Defender of Camelot | | | Amnesia Moon | Jonathan Lethem | Lethem appears to have gone straight with a couple of solid more-or-less mainstream novels under his belt, but for a while there he was one of the great hopes of next-generation SF: surreal, lyrical, bizarre, with heavy (but tasteful) importations from other genres. Amnesia Moon riffs elegantly on the themes of apocalypse, memory and identity.| | The Intuitionist | Colson Whitehead | Racial allegory involving mystical elevator inspection techniques. Need I say more?| |Bunny Modern|David Bowman|It is absolutely impossible to describe this adequately.| |The Jewels of Aptor|/3. Samuel R. Delany | I don’t always enjoy Delany—he’s sometimes too smart for me, sometimes too artsy, but certainly he’s an important (and under-recognized by the mass) writer in the history of sci-fi. Jewels of Aptor, his first novel, is more accessible than much of his other work, but still gives a sense of what he’s about.| |Babel-17| | Also a relatively accessible but still interesting and important Delany work. Does good things with linguistics and posthumanity.| |Driftglass| | A collection of stories that demonstrate a more mature talent than that of, say, Jewels of Aptor, while not locked into unaccessible headspace. The Star Pit and Aye, and Gomorrah are among the best and most disturbing stories in science fiction. The collection as a whole (and of course Delany’s work more broadly) dwells on predicaments arising from otherness; Delany inverts the usual mechanism of SF, which is to use the alien as a lens through which do examine humanity, or as a proxy for some segment of humanity. Delany’s perspective is that of a person (and a member of communities) shut out of the routine visions of humanity.| | The Artificial Kid | Bruce Sterling | I read this back in the day at the Berkeley public library. Like Schismatrix, The Artificial Kid is far more interesting, complex, daring (“dangerous,” to borrow Ellison’s term), and important than Sterling’s tepid recent work. Also, as with Schismatrix, notable for its exploration of biology (biopunk, I suppose) alongside other technological advances; also interesting is its exploration of the ultimate impacts of the universalization of “tape”, i.e. video. | | The Postman | David Brin | More than any other novel I’ve read (not that this is saying os much, in this regard), The Postman captures what is beautiful in the American experiment in democracy. Of course, post-apocalyptic literature as eulogy to modernity is nothing new, but it is seldom done so well. The Postman is a lyrical reflection on the tragic frailty of democracy and civil society, on the uses of power, force, and war, on leadership, and of course on the importance of imagination in the course of concrete struggles. (This highly Deweyan (cf. Early Works, Experience and Nature) message is one one of the under-thought (potential?) contributions of speculative fiction.) | | Labyrinths | Borges | | All the Bells on Earth| James Blaylock | The conclusion to James Blaylock’s “Christian Trilogy”, which plays with elements of Christian mythology (and other bits that are only semi-Christian, like the Arthurian “Paper Grail”). Blaylock is an unusually sensitive and compassionate moralist with a greater than usual (for SF) interest in human feeling and values—all of which makes him sound like something he’s not, i.e., preachy and silly. All the Bells is a book of incredible importance.| | Last Call | Tim Powers | I’m not as impressed by Powers as some people are, but I’m pretty impressed nonetheless. While he seems not to understand the concept of character development, he tells compelling stories, and Last Call is an unusually successful blending of characteristically European and characteristically American mythology. |
h2. Classic Science Fiction and Fantasy
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes | | Dune |/2. Frank Herbert | Not at all a usual work for Herbert. Good, though, and one of those “everyone reads” books. Does a good job capturing the epic spirit, explores the question of what is “human” rather well; provides best-ever excuse for “swords in space” | |Whipping Star (+The Dosadi Experiment)| Nobody reads Whipping Star, but everybody should. Speculation on language, sociology, and especially on politics and law; unique and important thinking, especially on the relationships between modes of government (including bureaucracies and legal systems) and fundamental problems of human freedom). | | Something Wicked This Way Comes | Ray Bradbury | Classic, characteristically American fantasy novel, rooted in the child’s sense of the fantastic, manifest both in the openness of the young protagonists to the world of magic, and of course in the carnival as the incursion of this world into the mundane sphere. The black hat/white hat talk is a wonderful, light-handed, exploration of morality, and the smiling bullet is hands-down the coolest weapon ever put on paper.| | Ender’s Game| Orson Scott Card| Card is a hit and miss kind of author; I firmly believe he himself can’t tell the difference between his great work and utter crap; otherwise how could the author of Ender’s Game willingly publish something like Hart’s Hope? In Ender’s Game he puts his creepy fascination with children to good use, exploring the intersection of the political and military sphere with the moral and spiritual one, using the lens of childhood innocence—not so much in the sense of purity as in the sense of an uninformed (i.e., “fresh”) perspective on what a more jaded conscience can easily justify, dismiss, or ignore.| | The Man Who Was Thursday | GK Chesterton |
h2. Mystery
|. Title/Series/Protagonist |. Author |_. Notes| | Dave Robichaux | James Lee Burke | Probably the best writing in the mystery field outside, maybe, Dashiell Hammett. Highly atmospheric, deals as much in history, culture, and meditations on time and change as it does on bloodshed.| | Red Harvest |/2. Dashiell Hammett | Excellent for modern tragedy. Dark, ugly, cynical, but terribly beautiful. | | The Maltese Falcon | | Of course you have to read The Maltese Falcon.| | The Bookman’s Wake | John Dunning | I think this book is the bee’s knees, and Gaston and Eleanor Rigby are forever burned into my memory, but none of the people I’ve persuaded to read it have agreed with me. Not sure why. | | Spencer | Robert B. Parker | I never know how much to like the Spencer books. While not really possessed of literary quality most of the time, there are certain passages that really do transcend the genre. Also, Parker is steeped in literary history, both within his genre and more broadly speaking. Looking for Rachel Wallace is probably the best place for a skeptic of ex-boxer PI novels to begin. |
h2. Funny, odd, enjoyable
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes | | Sewer, Gas, Electric | Matt Ruff | Loving sendup of Ayn Rand, including a huge cast of hilarious, charming, heroic, wounded characters; this is a comic future that nonetheless has a feel of reality to it, and a vision of human destiny that I can only think of as darkly optimistic.| | Doorways in the Sand | Roger Zelazny | Possibly my favorite book (rather than the book I most respect), Doorways in the Sand is not Zelazny’s best work, and not even a very serious one, but it manages to maintain some interesting depth, while being primarily just an enjoyable way to kill an afternoon. The basic premise is like something out of David Brin’s “Uplift” universe, dealing with the question of how humanity copes with a much larger, older universe populated by powerful others who are not all friendly. However, the book is not centered on politics, espionage, or war; as a story, it more resembles “The Thin Man.”|
h2. Things that aren’t dictionaries
| Quiddities | Quine | “An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary”—really just a bunch of funny, vaguely thought-provoking essays by the noted polymath.| |The Khazar Dcictionary| Milorad Pavic | An interesting, though maybe overly ambitious, novel told in the form of not one but three dictionaries. Explores interesting pseudo-mythology, especially pertaining to the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Very weird. Not entirely entertaining. Cooler in theory than practice.| |A Lover’s Discourse| Barthes | Hilarious examination of the relationship between normal discourse and the discourse of those who are in love. Tends to undermine the positions of both the lover and the cynic.|
h2. Philosophy and theory
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes | | Gravity and Grace |/3. Simone Weil |/3. Weil is my favorite thinker of all time. Better than almost anyone (Kierkegaard leaps to mind as a competitor), Weil combines an uncompromising faith with an uncompromising intelligence; neither ever gives way to the other. She is also a strong and sometimes rigid, but always original and thoughtful moralist. She also speaks to me, personally, more than most writers; I always have the feeling that if I were better than I am, I would be more like Weil. She also had worthwhile things to say about eastern and western religion and the relationship between technology and humanity, and in many ways her views were convergent with those of the pragmatists. Gravity and Grace is my go-to work for her religious thought, Lectures on Philosophy for her theoretical perspective in itself, and The Need for Roots for her politics. | | Lectures on Philosophy| | | | The Need For Roots | | | | Experience and Nature |/3. John Dewey | | John Dewey: The Early Works | | | Democracy and Education | | | Pragmatism | William James | | Between Past and Future | Hannah Arendt | | Beyond Good and Evil | Nietzsche | | Discipline and Punish | Foucault | | Black Skin, White Masks | Frantz Fanon | | The Question of German Guilt | Karl Jaspers | | The Poetics of Reverie | Gaston Bachelard |
h3. Secondary litearture
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes | | The American Evasion of Philosophy | Cornel West |
h2. Old School
|. Title |. Author |_. Notes| | मूलमध्यमिककारिकाः | Nagarjuna | | | Chuang-Tzu |
h2. Poetry
|. Poet |. Poems | | Wallace Stevens | |
category:Nick book list