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What Are You, Illiterate?

Unrequired Reading or "Books That Will Turn You Into an Asshole"

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Back to School

Jesus fucking Christ. Are you reading Atlas Shrugged? Don't you know it'll turn you into an asshole for at least two years? When you're college-age and your parents are paying for everything, you're likely to be a big believer in people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Ayn Rand appeals to your age group for that reason, but the problem is, once you actually have to pay your own way, bootstrap-pulling gets a whole fuck of a lot harder, and Rand sounds more and more like a creepy Republican. If you're over 25 and you still think her books are great, you're (a) white and (b) an asshole.

But you probably already knew about Rand. After all, you chose to go to college in Seattle, so odds are good that you're not a racist country clubber. But did you know that millions of people your age are routinely turned into assholes by books? In fact, certain books—more than music, film, or any other art form combined—seem to trigger the genetic sequence for fucktardism in 9 out of 10 readers.

Everybody knows someone who's taken the Charles Bukowski thing too far. He read Ham on Rye and suddenly he's boozing it up every night, pecking out stories on his manual typewriter about people who drink too much. Do your Bukowski friend a favor and give him a copy of anything by John Fante. Fante was one of Bukowski's heroes, and anyone can tell that Bukowski's best writing reads like an echo of Fante's. Start with Ask the Dust. Or maybe West of Rome, which is one of the funniest modern American novellas ever. If you prefer something from the 21st century, Sam Lipsyte's Home Land is a hilarious novel about a dropout that rings a hell of a lot truer than the Henry Chinaski cycle.

On the Road's mystique escapes me: Any twatwaffle can take a road trip and conclude that he's the most important human being on the face of the earth. Some of Jack Kerouac's later writing, especially Desolation Angels, is much more responsible, human, and beautiful. And while Hunter S. Thompson is a great writer, people take the wrong lessons from him, thinking that his books are advertisements for pill popping and narcissism. Everyone should be forced to read one Mike Royko book for every Thompson book they read. Royko's folksy, down-to-earth writing voice belies a rattlesnake's understanding of how politics—and human nature—really work.

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, raises an important question: How do you write a bad novel about a goddamned talking gorilla? Answer: By making the talking gorilla spout some bullshit consciousness-expansion hoo-ha that falls apart like a snotty tissue if you think about it for half a second. Likewise, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is a deep book for shallow people; it is a weak, pointless novel disguised as a half-assed fable. If you want something that's fantastic in both senses of the word, try Fup by Jim Dodge, which is as close to a perfect book as I can imagine, or just about anything by Italo Calvino or Aimee Bender.

There's a lot of chick lit that should be avoided, but the worst is The Secret Life of Bees, a hideous novel about a Magical Old Black Woman and the touching, inspirational lessons she teaches her young white lady friend. (Guess which one is the main character!)

There are a couple of authors who use Hot Topic–style goth novelty to sway cults of readers into thinking they're the shit, but really: Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is The Blair Witch Project combined with the staggering literary force of a word-processing "draw on" feature. And Chuck Palahniuk's first three novels were fun, but everything since is Generic Palahniuk Product, a lackluster rehash of the first three.

Maybe it's optimistic to believe that douchebags can be saved from themselves, but it's heartening to think that dissuading someone from buying their significant other a copy of Griffin & Sabine will save them both from a few years of gooey, melodramatic precociousness. Luckily, it's easy to find good books. Virtually anything published by the New York Review of Books or Dalkey Archive is amazing, and many of those books can be as life changing (in a good way) as, say, Still Life with Woodpecker (which is life changing in an obnoxious, masturbatory know-it-all hippie way). I know my life changed the day I started reading Stanley Elkin, and I'm not an asshole. Jesus fucking Christ! Are you reading Siddhartha now? I give up! recommended

 

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