10. On Writing

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Stephen King

2000

You must not come lightly to the blank page.

In the crowded genre of books about writing, we can now declare Stephen King’s On Writing to be a standard. It’s so often read and recommended that many who have never tried a word of King’s fiction will yet have this one on their shelves. And for good reason. King, whose stories have entered our cultural lexicon in a way that other fiction mega-sellers, like John Grisham or Danielle Steel, couldn’t dream of, is as successful and prolific a guide as you could wish for. Continue reading “10. On Writing”

9. The Lottery and Other Stories

Shirley Jackson book, The Lottery and Other Stories, sitting on a bed of stones.

Shirley Jackson

1949

“The teacher spanked a boy, though,” Laurie said, addressing his bread and butter. “For being fresh,” he added, with his mouth full.

Around eight years ago I was dutifully reading my way through an anthology called The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia. I sometimes forget it now, but this book was a great supplementary education, even for somebody who had ostensibly begun to study literature. I’d recommend it to anyone. It was here that I first encountered “The Overcoat” by Gogol, “The Dead” by Joyce, and “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, to name some. Among all of the gems in this collection, slotted between Zora Neale Hurston and Henry James, was a story by an author I had not heard of until then. The editor’s introduction noted that, after this story was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, the magazine received more letters from readers—most of them puzzled or upset—than they had received for anything else they had ever printed. That alone is an intoxicating fact to carry into a story, and like seemingly everyone else who reads “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, I was horrified and delighted, and probably uncomfortable about the ancient tribal reflex that it stirred faintly within me. Continue reading “9. The Lottery and Other Stories”

8. Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin Edition

Thomas Pynchon

1973

Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.

You’re confused, and you’re supposed to be. You’re lost, but not for lack of information: if anything there’s too much, covering more abstruse topics in more detail than you ever wanted. No, it’s something else: the shrouded logic, the elusive plot, the expansive setting over which the action spreads like a Poisson distribution across the maddening globe. There’s nothing to guide you. Yet a few signals make it through the chaos, and they all point to a single image that unites everything, the central enigma of Gravity’s Rainbow: the Rocket. Continue reading “8. Gravity’s Rainbow”

7. Silent Spring

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

1962

The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.

Fifty-five years ago a voice emerged to report on a little known and unromantic cause: environmental destruction due to chemical pesticide use. Rachel Carson wrote a steady and meticulous essay, calling for environmental protection with a keen feeling for the damage being wrought on the world’s ecosystems, and confidence that her readers would share in her outrage. Her book Silent Spring was not only a well-researched polemic—it was also an ode to the natural world as she saw it: a wonder of complexity, a system of checks and balances in which every piece was necessary to the health of the whole. Carson’s descriptions of environment and biology broke new ground in popular writing on science and are still some of the finest examples of the genre. She shows us nature as a delicate machine, which, if tampered with, can run itself into grotesque and alarming shapes. Recklessly transforming the natural world, she wrote, would have effects on humanity that could last generations. With its enormous popularity, Silent Spring kick-started the environmental consciousness of a nation and, along with the ensuing denials and smears from the chemical industry, sparked a new phase of the never-ending battle between commerce and the defenders of a clean and hospitable planet. Continue reading “7. Silent Spring”

6. Green Grass, Running Water

Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Thomas King

1993

“There are no truths, Coyote,” I says. “Only stories.”

In October of 1829, President Andrew Jackson wrote a letter to an army major who was soon to be passing through the country of the Choctaw tribe in present-day Alabama and Mississippi. The government was working to induce the tribe to peacefully cede their lands to American settlers. In his letter, Jackson instructs his emissary to promise them new lands, further west, which would be theirs for good. The major, wrote Jackson, should tell the Choctaw that they would live,

There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as Grass grows or water runs.

Continue reading “6. Green Grass, Running Water”

5. Down and Out in Paris and London

George Orwell Down and Out

George Orwell

1933

You have talked so often of going to the dogs—and well, here you are to the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it.

Much of the world works on the principle that everyone should be afraid of poverty. For the middle class, suspended between poor and rich, this fear shapes most of our ideas about success. Poverty is the dark threat always looming, and we learn to envy those who have so distanced themselves from it that they can forget it exists. And so, we go to work. Life becomes a treadmill that could at any moment pitch us backwards into destitution if we fail to keep up, so we must continue running. It’s an odious way to live when you think about it, so in our baser moments we delude ourselves into thinking that those who live in poverty must in some way deserve it. If those people don’t deserve their way of life, how can I say I deserve mine? So the fear of being poor feeds into the stigma and misconception around poverty, leaving mostly ignorance about what it actually is like, by those who may never experience it but will always dread it. Continue reading “5. Down and Out in Paris and London”

4. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

1937

De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.

Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece broke many rules of black American fiction when it came out in 1937. It depicted black communities in the South without any pretense of raising their status in the eyes of “cultured” white, Northern readers. In Their Eyes Were Watching God the characters speak their own language, tell their own stories, and move in their own world. They work on farms and manage stores; they drink at dance halls where men fight over women and guitar music plays until dawn. Hurston’s contemporaries, whose reviews of Their Eyes seem self-serving and incongruous when read today, lamented that such a novel could only fuel white stereotypes of black people as uneducated farmhands and Sambo clowns. To Richard Wright, as he wrote in his infamous review, Hurston had done nothing but captured the simplicity of the “Negro folk-mind”—hers, he wrote, was just one more tale in a long and enforced tradition, “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” Continue reading “4. Their Eyes Were Watching God”