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61 essential postmodern reads: an annotated list

listpostmodern literature

The thing about postmodernism is it's impossible to pin down exactly what might make a book postmodern. In looking at the attributes of the essential postmodern reads, we found some were downright contradictory. Postmodern books have a reputation for being massive tomes, like David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" -- but then there's "The Mezzanine" by Nicholson Baker, which has just 144 pages. And while postmodern books would, you'd think, have to be published after the modern period -- in the 20th or 21st centuries -- could postmodernism exist without "Tristram Shandy"? We think not.

Below is our list of the 61 essential reads of postmodern literature. It's annotated with the attributes below -- the author is a character, fiction and reality are blurred, the text includes fictional artifacts, such as letters, lyrics, even whole other books, and so on. And while this list owes much to George Ducker and David L. Ulin, you can address all complaints to me.

And now: The 61 essential postmodern reads!

Kathy Acker's "In Memorium to Identity" Icons_3459
Donald Antrim's "The Hundred Brothers" Icons_567
Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin"Icons_2346
Paul Auster's New York TrilogyIcons_12347
Nicholson Baker's "The Mezzanine"Icons_3411
J.G. Ballard's "The Atrocity Exhibition"Icons_123457
John Barth's "Giles Goat-Boy"Icons_578
Donald Barthelme's "60 Stories"Icons_23479
John Berger's "G"Icons_3457
Thomas Bernhard's "The Loser"Icons_12
Roberto Bolaño's "2666"Icons_3456710
Jorge Luis Borges' "Labyrinths"Icons_234569
William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch"Icons_345712
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"Icons_3412
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"Icons_467
Julio Cortazar's "Hopscotch"Icons_34
Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association, Henry J. Waugh, Proprietor" Icons_23456
Stanley Crawford's "Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine"Icons_34511
Mark Danielewski's "House of Leaves"Icons_2345679
Don Delillo's "Great Jones Street"Icons_56
Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle"Icons_246
E.L. Doctorow's "City of God"Icons_23456
Geoff Dyer's "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence"Icons_1469
Umberto Eco's "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana"Icons_469
Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"Icons_134579
Steve Erickson's "Tours of the Black Clock"Icons_2345678
Percival Everett's "I Am Not Sidney Poitier"Icons_1457
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"Icons_3512
Jonathan Safran Foer's "Everything Is Illuminated"Icons_134567
William Gaddis' "JR"Icons_356
William Gass' "The Tunnel"Icons_34567
John Hawkes' "The Lime Twig"Icons_345611
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"Icons_4512
Aleksandar Hemon's "The Lazarus Project"Icons_134567
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"Icons_13
Shelley Jackson's "Skin"Icons_34511
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"Icons_351112
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"Icons_12367
Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn"Icons_356
Ben Marcus' "Notable American Women"Icons_1357
David Markson's "Wittgenstein's Mistress"Icons_2345
Tom McCarthy's "Remainder"Icons_45
Joseph McElroy's "Women and Men"Icons_345610
Steven Millhauser's "Edwin Mullhouse"Icons_3467jpg
Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"Icons_345
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"Icons_23456
Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds"Icons_234567
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"Icons_1347
Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"Icons_1367
Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow"Icons_345678
Philip Roth's "The Counterlife"Icons_234
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"Icons_13479
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"Icons_34561112
Gilbert Sorrentino's "Mulligan Stew"Icons_234569
Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance"Icons_2345
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & IIIcons_1347911
Laurence Stern's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"Icons_3456712
Scarlett Thomas' "PopCo"Icons_356
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five"Icons_345711
David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest"Icons_345610
Colson Whitehead's "John Henry Days"Icons_345679 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (108)

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Some wonderful folks & books on this list, & my compliments. Still, I've got to pick some nits. Re: John Barth, he's a better read & more po-mo as well in books that followed GILES, like CHIMERA or his late-career masterpiece, THE LAST VOYAGE OF SOMEBODY THE SAILOR. Re: G. Sorrentino, the STEW's doesn't quite work, finally; go with the earlier IMAGINATIVE QUALITIES OF ACTUAL THINGS, or the later LUNAR FOLLIES. Re: Coover, c'mon, the one you want is SPANKING THE MAID. Plus, any good list has got to have some Carole Maso (maybe AUREOLE) & some Michael Martone (maybe MICHAEL MARTONE BY MICHAEL MARTONE), plus the Dutchman Cees Nooteboom.

Hmm... Where's Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer? It almost seems too obvious to exclude. Good list otherwise. There's so much good postmodernist literature out there it's difficult to grab it all.

Lists such as these are good only to start arguments. These arguments can be fun, when entered into in the right spirit. This is a fun list to argue and wrangle with. Nice to see Burton on there.

Classicism sez art imitates life
Modernism sez life imitates art
Postmodernism sez art imitates life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating art imitating life . . . .

what an awful list. It starts off ok but then devolves into randomness. The Scarlet Letter, are you kidding me? a fine book, of course, but I have never heard the term post-modern used with it and hope never again to

one-eyedlist: No Finnegans Wake, No Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, No Pirandello (1920s), No Machado de Assis (1880) - lots of European novels paved the way but not here - and Beckett beckett beckett?

I am a bit confused about post-modernism but I'm reading a book in class and it seems to be a well writen post0modern book. The book is called Things Fall Apart by: Chinua Achebe

I hate to jump on the "my favorite author is not on the list" bandwagon, but no Samuel R. Delany seems like a real oversight.

Thank you so much for that list!
In the course of a seminar we read and discussed Sterne's "Tristram Shandy" and after that I was eager to get to know more examples of such experimental/postmodern (call-it-the-way-you-prefer) literature.

Now following that list I read Ballard's "Atrocity Exhibition" and Murakami's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" - Both were unique and unusual in the way they affected me.

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