My Summer Reading List – and Other Ways I’ve Ruined My Life

Via on Jun 23, 2011

It was really horrible what I did to them. Grad school! All my classes paid for plus an entire $1100 stipend a month to live on. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was rich. I was Jimmy Rockefeller. I felt like every worry in life had now shed off me. I was free. And then I really committed a foul crime for it that I’m ashamed of.

On $1100 a month I was able to live for the first time all by myself. Loneliness was so precious to me then. My apartment was in back of a gas station. I loved the smell of the gas and breathed it in all day long. I ate chocolate pretzels or pancakes every morning. I ate out every night (who cooks when so wealthy?)

I’d write notes to all the waitresses politely telling them I loved them and would they please go out with me? (“No!”) I learned how to hitchhike.  I bought t-shirts and used-books and saw movies and went on dates. And lo and behold, at the end of the month there was another check with my name on it. Science and magic mixed together. I was like a radioactive spider created by a mad scientist. Life could not have been more wonderful.

(I had a severe waitress fetish)

But, some might say…I stole the money. For two years I didn’t attend any classes. Almost all of my professors would’ve been better off dead. That’s what I thought of them. What good did they do? Nothing. Every chance I could I lied to them just to keep that $1100 money spigot flowing. While they backstabbed each other mid-race for tenure-ship I quietly began to fail every class (I never showed up) and didn’t let them in on my secret.

At the end of each quarter they would say, “what the hell is wrong with you?” but I would beg and plead, “just one more semester.”  I had new research, I said. New ideas that would save the world.  If you combined computational theory with robot vision I could create a new Planet of the Apes!  I didn’t want to be cut off from that $1100 a month. That was my pig that shat gold!

The real world looked frightening and dangerous. All of the men and women from the real world had a contagious desperate look in their eyes that I was afraid I would catch. I would see them on buses, flipping from face to face like a viewmaster of the Chernobyl aftermath. They would touch me at night in the dark until I woke up scared and alone.

So I convinced grad school to even give me a fellowship and stipend for the summer between my first and second year. I promised to do such amazing research it was like Fermat was a piece of dust to me. I would crush his theorem. I could send toilets into space with my inricate calculations, never discovered prior. Instead, I spent the summer 300 miles away, smoked pot every day, drank, and tried LSD for the first (and only) time, and failed to have sex with any of the dozen or so women I pursued. I gave one talk in Kaiserslautern, Germany for the sake of improving the state of knowledge about highly esoteric and useless artificial intelligence but that was it. Maybe that was enough for them to keep me going. That was the last diesel gas in my sputtering truck engine.

I got hit by a very bad illness my second year of graduate school (the effects of one tab of LSD linger for a long time). I suddenly wanted to write stories and books.  What a stupid pleasure, in retrospect, when I could’ve just spent all my wasted time lying down on the grass doing nothing. [See. 33 Unusual Tips for Being a Better Writer]

(I only had one my entire life. I think the effect is still there 21 years later).

Around the age of 22 I started writing and reading for about ten hours a day. All of my friends got sick of me and one by one they stopped wanting to be around me. Particularly when I insisted we all experiment with a 25 hour a day schedule. Who made the rule that humans need a 24 hour day? Eventually I was always asleep when they were awake and vice-versa. And somehow we never got sync-ed back together. They had moved to an 18 hour a day schedule. It was all messed up. Magic lightning bolts couldn’t fix what had happened.

I stopped going into my little graduate school office (particularly once the guy who made the best chess computer in the world moved out of my office to go to IBM without me).  I instead spent hours at the library. I’d read literary journals to see what authors I liked and then I’d look up those authors in this massive encyclopedia series called “Contemporary Literary Criticism”. Every author imaginable is in there. I looked it up on Amazon and there are around 100 editions with each one costing about $300.

I first read Denis Johnson in the literary journal “Epoch”. Then I found other stories he wrote in “The Paris Review” and then “The New Yorker”. When the collection of his stories finally came out “Jesus’ Son”, I excitedly told one of my professors when I ran into him in the street that was this was the greatest day in literary history. Within hours of that I was officially thrown out of graduate school.

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(I never saw the movie. Is it good?)

Then I read Mary Gaitskill’s collection “Bad Behavior”. It was excellent and inspiring because all of her stories had been rejected (just like me!) before they were finally compiled into the best-selling collection that made her name as a writer.  All her stories were a greasy mixture of sex and relationships. Greasy because the chemicals never got it quite right but it was too late to stop them from exploding once a match lit up.

One of my favorite writers, Reginald McKnight, wrote maybe the best unrecognized novel ever:  “I Get on the Bus”. You can buy it now for one penny on Amazon. When I finished the book, the last line was so powerful I thought my brain was going to explode in joy. I forced my girlfriend to sit down and listen while I described the entire plot over the course of an hour or so just so I could read to her the last line. Recently she de-friended me on Facebook which is the modern equivalent of…I don’t know…defriending me via Morse Code.

I wrote McKnight a letter analyzing his last line. By coincidence he taught on campus. He responded to the letter and said I should sit in on his class.

So here I was, a grad student in Computer Science, not attending a single comp sci class but religiously attending three days a week McKnight’s class (each week was a different “perspective” – first person stories, third person, even second person (“You”),  stories told in letter form, etc. ) We’d write stories and he’d critique each week.

Turns out he loved comic books also. We’d go to all the comic book stores or flea markets, buy comics, then eat dinner and read them.  I think I insulted him once though. I told him some advice that I now forget. I concluded my un-asked-for advice with, “you’ll really have a career as a writer then”. And he said, “I already have a career as a writer”.

I never saw him again after that although one time I called him with a long rambling message about how I hated my girlfriend at the time. He never called me back.

Then I fell in love with Steve Erickson’s books. “Tours of the Black Clock”. What a beautiful title. He also wrote a book about the 1988 election, “Leap Year” . It was brilliant, particularly the prophetic and beautifully written synopsis of perennial loser  Al Gore. So I decided I would call him up and interview him for a magazine. I made up the name of a magazine and I got him on the phone.

(Great cover)

He sent me a review copy of his as yet-unreleased “Arc D’X”. I think I ended up physically licking every word on the page I liked it so much. (although requires reading all his prior novels to fully appreciate). And then I proceeded to call him no less than 500 times trying to arrange the interview. I would call and usually nobody would answer. Then I’d call 5 minutes later, someone would pick up, I’d say “Hello?” and he’d hang up. Then I‘d call again. And again. I never got the interview.

During this time I found William Vollmann. The guy writes about 10,000 words a day and has such bad carpal tunnel syndrome he has to type with two pencils and hold them as if they were his fingers. I started with the “Rainbow Stories” (out of control good!) and then “Whores for Gloria”, “Butterfly Stories”,  and a few others.

I played a prank on him. I wrote him a letter through his publisher and said that he should be careful what he writes. How I, like the main character in “Butterfly Stories”, went to Thailand and got AIDs and now regret it. I have never been to Thailand.

He then called me! In a very whispery voice he left a voicemail saying he was sorry about what had happened to me and I could call him any time, that there were always people I could talk to. What a nice guy he is! What a bad guy I was!

I went through a 1920s phase (Dos Passos, Hemingway, Fitzgerald), then a 1950s phase (Mailer, Heller, Kerouac, Vonnegut, later Hemingway), then a 1960s phase (puke! Pynchon, Farina, Roth, Updike, Bellow, blah), then a 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s phase. A brief 1800s phase (Chekov, Dostoevsky,  Tolstoy).  A mostly unpleaseant experimental phase (Lish, Calvino, Marquez, and I’ll even throw David Foster Wallace’s first novel in there (“Broom of the System”) which I despised, and Rushdie, who is so unreadable makes me wonder how he gets so many women to like him).

Even had a genre phase (John Grisham, not as bad as I thought, Stephen King (unreadable to me but people tell me I didn’t give it a chance), Robert Ludlum (Bourne not so bad), Anne Rice (vampire series a pageturner but then got somewhat flat).  And, of course, a brat pack phase: Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz (loved her!), Donna Tartt, and various others.

(Tama Janowitz – I liked her hair)

Then I started writing my own horrible novels (you can imagine by the titles: “The Book of Orpheus”, “The Book of David”, “The Pimp, the Prostitute, the Porn Novelist, and They’re Lovers”) and maybe over 100 short stories that I still have buried in some pile somewhere. [See, I am Guilty of Torturing Women] I’d go into grad school (and later, work, after 29 out of 30 professors who voted on it finally kicked me out of school when they came to their senses. I never found out the one professor who voted for me. If you are the professor who voted for me, please tell me.) late at night and use all the copy machine paper to print my stuff out to send to 30 different publishers only to receive 30 form letter rejections. Then I’d repeat the process again and again. I never lost hope. But it was hopeless.

Everyone around me went on to start Internet companies they sold for billions but I kept pushing. I wanted to be a published writer. Only then would I be worthy of RESPECT. Finally, I applied for a job at HBO and got it, figuring NOW I’ll finally make some connections .This was the only thing stopping me. I needed to be in the big city!

Instead I totally switched artistic directions. Then veered completely out of control. And even further and further away. How lost can you truly get from your dreams until you can no longer say, “this is who I really am”. At some point (usually after exposure to Gold Kryptonite) you lose your super powers and only become “Clark Kent”, mild-mannered reporter. Its only in the past eight months I feel real happy creatively again.

Because of this blog, all the comments, new friends,  people who send emails, people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and learn from. I feel blessed. I feel I can finally be honest when most others in the past industries I’ve immersed myself in are still lying out of fear. What a horrible decade it was for everyone. And to step out of line is scarier than ever so we feel we have to lie to hide and protect ourseleves. But it’s possible.

This is a long way of saying….thanks.

Summer reading list:

These are either books I’ve just read and will read again in the summer,  or I’m planning to read. I might update this list throughout the summer. All of the books are fiction. BUT they are almost all a particular style of fiction that is almost 99% autobiographical without the authors admitting it.

A)    I had a book here. But I just got it from Amazon, read the first two chapters and it was no good.

B)     Ham on Rye,  by Bukowski. I happen to think this is the greatest American novel ever written. Not sure why it’s not taught in high school literature classes while meanwhile the un-aborted Bronte Sisters/Jane Austen (aren’t they all the same creature?) continue to bore generation after generation of people out of reading. I plan on re-reading this summer. Note, they says it’s a novel but I’m pretty sure its 100% autobiographical. I don’t really like Bukowski when he veers into fiction. The more autobiographical, the better, for him.

C)     Journey to the End of the Night by Celine. The entire book is like the raving of a mad-man who hates everyone and his one grasp on sanity is that he strongly doesn’t want to get his head blown off in a war (WWI). I’m about 1/3 of the way through. The writing is raw, angry, desperate, and beautiful. Supposedly he became a raving anti-semite mentally ill nazi towards the end of his life which is unfortunate but I’d kill to have to the powerful voice in this book. What’s interesting is that Vollman writes the afterward, Vonnegut refers to Celine in his autobiographical book “Palm Sunday”, and Bukowski wrote his last novel more or less about Celine. All of these writers with strong voices recognize each other and stick together.

(nice cover)

D)    The John Fante Reader. Supposedly the inspiration for much of Bukowski’s work. Curious to check it out.

E)     Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions  I don’t think I’ve ever read it. Recently re-read “Slaughterhouse 5″ and thought it was beautiful.

F)      The Double Life is Twice as Good by Jonathan Ames. I like the TV show on HBO roughly based on this. He has a strong literary voice (I read his first novel probably 15 years ago) even though almost everything he writes is memoir-ish. He has an extreme honesty that I aspire to.

G)    No one Belongs Here More than You by Miranda July. Rereading.  Its packaged as fiction but I’m sure its borderline memoir.  Every word is infused with severe love addiction and artistry.

H)    Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. This is a Bukowski summer. Another guy that supposedly influenced his works.

I)       The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel,  I’ve read everything Raymond Carver wrote a billion times over . I might even re-read him again this summer.  Hempel was one of his students so I figured I’d read her.

J)       The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders, literary nonfiction by a great fiction stylist. Read the first essay and it was excellent.

K)    The collected stories of Lydia Davis. Read a few of them and I like the voice. I hate writers who tell a great story but add nothing with their voices. She seems (like everyone on this list) to have a strong voice.

L)     Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.  I reread it probably once every month or so.  I wish I could find just one writer who comes close but I’m afraid it’s impossible. I wish I could write 1/10 as good as him.

M) Butterfly Stories by William Vollman. Rereading. Heck, maybe I’ll play the same trick I played on him 18 years ago.

N) The Yoga Sutras. The one “non-fiction” book on the list. Claudia has gotten me into the philosophy that underlies yoga and this is a particularly readable interpretation. Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras around 400BC almost as a response to Buddha. It was like Hindu marketing. Buddha kept stealing the customers so Patanjali wrote 195 lines in response. In my opinion the 195 lines basically describes Buddhism, and throws in the physical aspect (which we call “yoga”) and the breathing aspect. Two of my most popular posts in the past month are secretly based on just two of the 195 lines.

O) Please add more suggestions in the comments. Self-promotion encouraged.

There’s more on the list but this is enough for now. And I’m going to add to this, particularly if I read stuff that turns out to be so good I want to recommend it.

I’ll close this list with a quote from “Jesus’ Son”. Maybe it will share why I love the book so much.  This quote comes from the first story in the book:

“Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”

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4 Responses to “My Summer Reading List – and Other Ways I’ve Ruined My Life”

  1. Jessica says:

    Don't underestimate the strength of your voice. As a newly avid reader of Elephant articles, I feel like I can pick yours out based on the tone of title. We're lucky that you veered off track and dove into writing. Thanks for sharing what you love to read – my summer reading list just got a lot longer!

  2. JamesAltucher says:

    Thank you Jessica. What a nice comment to read.

  3. Katherine says:

    I completely agree with Jessica- your voice is incredibly distinct and you are easily my favorite writer here. I will certainly be taking this list of recommendations with me on my next trip to the used bookstore. Thanks for the great list!

  4. Candice Garrett Candice says:

    aw…I like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters!

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