I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. What books should I read?

“I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read,” articulates an anonymous reader in the Ask The Paris Review section.

The letter and the response from the Paris Review to this cry for help are must-reads.

Dear Paris Review,

I live in the deep south and was raised in a religious cult.

Still with me?

Okay. I’m attempting to throw off the shackles of my religious upbringing and become an intelligent well-informed adult. My primary source of rebellion thus far has been movies. I would watch a Fellini movie and then feel suddenly superior to my friends and family because they only watched movies in their native tongue (trust me I know how pathetic this is). My main question involves my reading selections. Obviously, I have stumbled upon your publication and am aware of its status as the primary literary periodical in English. Also, I have a brand-new subscription to the New York Review of Books, since it is apparently the intellectual center of the English-speaking universe. I am not in an M.F.A. program or living in Brooklyn working on the Great American Kindle Single, I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start. To give you some background info: I was not raised as a reader and was not taught any literature in the Christian high school that I attended. What kinds of books do I like? My answer to that would be movies. I’m desperate to start some kind of grand reading plan that will educate me about the world but don’t know where to start. The classics? Which ones? Modern stuff? Should I alternate one classic with one recent book? How much should I read fiction? How much should I read nonfiction? I went to college but it was for nursing, so I have never been taught anything about reading by anybody.

I realize this stuff may be outside of your comfort zone, as most of the advice questions seem to be from aspiring writers or college-educated people. Please believe me when I say that I am out of touch with the modern world because of a very specific religious cult. I want to be an educated, well-read, cultured, critically thinking person but need some stuff to read. Before I end this letter, I’ll provide an example of just how out of touch I am: you know how “Ms.” is the non-sexist way to refer to a woman, and that “Mrs.” is sexist? Yeah, I just found out about that. I’m twenty-five.

Help.

Sincerely,
Down and Out in the Deep South

John Jeremiah Sullivan, from the Paris Review responds:

Dear DODS,

What kind of soulless freak could fail to answer your call? Your intelligence glows through your professed ignorance (as does the authenticity of “a very specific religious cult”). That sounds like an educationally less-than-ideal but, in other ways, fascinating childhood. My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read.

A place to start is with Guy Davenport’s nonfiction collections, Every Force Evolves a Form, The Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus (with more pieces in The Death of Picasso). You’ll learn an enormous amount from these essays and sketches, but almost without realizing, because they give off the pleasure of great stories. Read the title essay in The Hunter Gracchus (about Kafka and the way symbols can take on a life of their own), and see if it isn’t as stimulating and creepy as the last good movie you saw.

Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)

Read My Ántonia, and then read everything else by Willa Cather. Inside her novels you’ll find it impossible to doubt that high enjoyment and extreme depth can go together. The most difficult art.

Read Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales. I’m saying that randomly, because it seems right, and to approve the spirit of randomness.

If you get into a writer, go all the way and check out everything he/she has written. This summer I fell into a Defoe hole. Started with the major stuff, the best novels and the good journalism, and then read everything down to the poems and the tedious political pamphlets, since by that point I was equally interested in him as a human being and wanted to have as accurate a map of the inside of his brain as possible. His is one of the minds that helped shape the modern world—we’re literally still telling his stories—so there’s a vital interest. I read Maximilian Novak’s super-solid biography of him, Master of Fictions. That sort of questy reading ends up enriching your experience of each individual book and piece, and it lends a sense of adventure to the whole business, which after all involves a lot of lying down or sitting on your ass.

Borges and Denis Johnson—anything by either. Edith Wharton’s story “The Young Gentlemen.” (Random, random.) Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, and then his poems if you’re feeling spry. Find on the Web and buy an old paperback copy of the Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine–edited anthology Six Centuries of Great Poetry (a book for life). Read the next two things I’m going to read and then see how you like them: Grant’s Memoirs and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Read Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Books that got me kick-started were the great modernist biographies, especially Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era and Richard Ellmann’s life of James Joyce. Read those two books and you’ll have a decent-size grid on which to plot the rest of your reading. I’m somehow moved to spurt out, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World. People have been writing about Shakespeare for half a millennium, and the very best of it just happened.

Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop. I was reading Phoenix Force novels until I was like thirteen. These days a lot of people I know are into Murakami. I should have said more novels. If it’s by a Russian, read it.