I have read over two thousand books in my life, which probably explains the depth of my hatred for them.

Well, I don’t hate them, but the act of reading gives little pleasure now. My brain now seems to politely protest when I shove a new book into it. “No more, please. I’m full.” I thought I’d like books forever. But apparently I only got 2,000 “enjoy a book” coupons at birth, and now they’re spent.

I read out of duty. I read because my self-image is “someone who reads books”. I read because I have an abusive codependant relationship with books that will haunt me until the death gods take me home. But I don’t pick up a new book with a huge buck-toothed grin, like a kid in a Norman Rockwell painting, so thrilled to dive into the MAGICAL WORLD OF READIN’. Now I’m more like “I hope this one has large print and wide margins so it’ll be over soon.”

I know all the tricks. I’ve seen everything before. Anything a book can do is something I’ve had done a hundred times. I can’t immerse myself in a fictional world, or pretend imaginary people are real. I’m too aware of the craft; the language; the mechanics. Viewed up close, writing just looks unmagical: a bunch of cheap tricks.

(“Yes, writer. Open your book with the protagonist waking up in bed. Now you can describe their physical appearance as they dress in front of a mirror. Here’s the Ticking Clock. Here’s the MacGuffin. Here’s the Internal and External Conflict. What a good piper, playing your tune.”)

I’m meta-reading at this point: gazing through the page and seeing the author. I can tell when they’re bored or inspired; caffeinated or tired, writing from knowledge or troweling bullshit onto the page. I can analyze fiction pretty well, so there’s that. But the price of knowing how the magician does his trick is that you no longer believe in magic.

Sometimes books still surprise me. But that’s not the same as them being good. I value originality above everything now. I don’t care if a story’s bad, all I want is it to not feel crushingly overfamiliar. Likewise, if they made a perfect Marvel movie I’d probably grudgingly rate it a 6/10: I just don’t want more things like that, even if they’re very good.

I thought I’d make a list of all the shit that lives in my brain. Books first. Other things later.

These are not (necessarily) the best books I’ve read. They’re the ones I remember with furious intensity.

The Eyes

Foul, perverse, literary, fascinating, and unique. The Eyes is none of a kind.

Francis Bacon once said. “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” The Eyes is to be tasted, chewed, digested, and then violently expelled through the closest end of one’s alimentary tract.

It’s an unfathomably dark and violent set of short stories that I first reviewed it here, and later revisited (along with its mystery author…) a decade later. It lurks in my brain, a nymph swollen upon my thoughts.

The author wrote other books. Gweel and Slaughter King are also very good in a beguiling way. But The Eyes just seems final. The end. A plunge into a place with no bottom and also no way back. It strangled the entire “extreme horror” genre in the crib. When I read someone like J.F. Gonzalez, I am overcome by futility. “Why read this? Why write this? The Eyes already exists and is better.”

It owes a debt to 19th century decadence, and 20th century surrealism. The author described it to me as a childish version of À rebours. It does not get tied down with literality and exposition. Its stories often make no sense (and when they do, it’s a loose, dreamlike sense), but they are truthful about one thing: we stand atop a mountain of bones. The title is appropriate: to read the book is to open your eyes wide, and observe a hell of our own manufacture. “The eyes have seen so many horrible things. They are the first that must be destroyed.”—Lucio Fulci

There is darkness in the world that we are kept from seeing. Messes in the street are cleaned up. Roadkilled animals are tagged with an “X” and then flung into the bush. Armies of Indian content moderators purge our social media feeds of murdered babies and burned bodies (“I log into a torture chamber each day.”) For the sake of our sanity, we are exoculated. Millions of people work overtime to stem the eternal rivers of blood bursting from the world’s arteries. Trash men. Gash men.

The problem is, the illusion machine eventually breaks down. There’s so much horror that it’s only a matter of time before some escapes containment, and touches you where you live. You can only blind yourself for so long.

This man is a family friend, recently murdered in his home. It was on the news.

I know the murderer. I must have seen him a dozen times as he jogged along the coast—shirtless, muscular, and scowling. I think I waved to him once or twice. Can’t remember if he waved back. Why did he kill my friend? I don’t know.

Search for this book if you like. You are close to The Eyes. You are close to the Eyes. Got it?

The King James Bible

This is not a joke, or an edgy ironic statement. The Bible earns its place.

It’s a source of amazement and wonder to me. I have read it many times (actually, I think I read the genealogies only once). I audited courses in Koine Greek at Macquarie University.

Few books contain so much of everything: highs and lows and good and evil. It contains laws and poetry and even porn. It contains text that defies easy classification.

It grows up with you. As a child I found the (pseudo) history at the beginning interesting. But now I think the Book of Revelation and the Prophecies are my favorite parts. It’s a journey, trekking through the Bible’s dry vastness. You’ll encounter confusing and upsetting things. You’ll see forgotten wreckage, artifacts stranded out of time. Some passages in the Bible clearly had a context that can now only be guessed at (what’s going on in Matthew 8?). Much is open it interpretation.

The one thing the Bible lacks is mirth. It never walks with a light step. It’s often weird, but only occasionally funny, and it’s a bitter, cynical sort of humor. The writer of Isaac is basically an ancient Christopher Hitchens. I feel like my mind is dissolving in corrosive bile when I read that book.

(Contrary to what you’ve heard, it’s not true that ancient people were naive simpletons who read the Bible as straight history. As far back as we can go, there were schools of thought that interpreted parts of the Bible as allegory or myth.)

And the names are great. I know that’s a bizarre thing to comment on, but I like names. I wish modern books had names like Abishag and Zerubbabel and Mahershalalhashbaz. If you can’t handle me at my Huz you don’t deserve me at my Buz.

More than anything, The Bible is a dense book. It’s like a huge sheet of paper scrunched into a ball. You unfold it and unfold it and unfold it and unfold it until it’s tenfold the size you thought it was and you’re still smoothing out the creases. And strangely, what’s written on the sheet is exactly what you expected you would see.

Are you a believer? The Bible will strengthen your faith. Are you an atheist? The Bible will deepen your contempt. Are you a historian? A fan of ancient literature? The Bible expands and contracts to fit whatever lens you scrutinize it with.

For a nonbeliever, this confirms the Bible’s fallibility. Why would the word of the eternal God be such a mirror to the reader’s hopes and expectations?

Why wouldn’t it? It’s the same book. The variable in the equation is you. Are you judging the Bible, or is the Bible judging you? Perhaps John Calvin knew the truth of it. Our souls were saved or damned a long time ago, and nothing more can be done.

Give it a read. Maybe you’ll find it boring and disgusting, as some do. Or maybe the still, small voice that Moses heard will speak to you.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

  1. Still not joking.
  2. Blow me.

I don’t care about politics and you couldn’t pay me enough to find out what Objectivism is. It sounds boring. The Fountainhead, however, is a great book, and you should ignore all of its cultural baggage.

Yes, there are times when it’s the book its critics say it is. A leaden, didactic tome by a sociopath who never entertained the thought that she might not be correct about everything.

At other times, it’s moving, passionate, and huge. It sweeps you along. It takes on the world, and sometimes wins. On balance, I’d call it a latter-day masterwork of Romanticism.

Rand’s prose is lovely.

He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone–flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause
more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.

“The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.” das the gud shit.

It’s about a rebellious young architect, Harold Roarke, who is stuck in a bucket full of crabs. They want to take away his shine, to make him like them. But why he should he worry? If he’s truly brilliant, his enemies will surely fail.

This story might seem like manna for narcissists. “Oh, he’s just like me!” But I can sympathize with what Rand is saying. Anyone who did a great thing did so in the face of people trying to stop them. For every correct decision I have made, there was someone telling me not to do it. Occasionally you do need to tell the crab bucket to go fuck itself, and trust that you’re the most brilliant person in the universe.

Like most great books, The Fountainhead could only have been written by one person, and it provides a window into that thinker’s mind. Ayn Rand was possibly the person who was most “herself” out of any human in history. That might sound ridiculous. Isn’t any person tautologically themselves, by definition? But believe me, Ayn Rand was far more Ayn Rand than you are yourself.

As far as any historian can tell, she had the “Ayn Rand” dial up to 11 from the moment her brain developed in the womb to the moment it suffered apoplexy at the moment of death. She lived without compromises. She was humorless, focused, intensely driven, and absolutely sure of right and wrong. She broke up with a boyfriend in the most Ayn Rand way possible (‘“If you have one ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health—you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years! And if you achieve potency sooner, you’ll know it’s a sign of still worse moral degradation!” Rand completed the evening with two welt-producing slaps across Branden’s face.’) She replied to a youg niece who wanted $25 to buy a dress in the most Ayn Rand way possible. (“the person who asks and expects other people to give him money, instead of earning it, is the most rotten person on earth.”)

She appears to have been an unpleasant person. She apparently died alone and unloved. But she would have died as Ayn Rand, and that means she probably did not care.

In Atlas Shrugged, a character is asked “What’s the most depraved type of human being?” Is it a murderer, or sex criminal? No. It’s “The man without a purpose.” I don’t agree. Children and animals lack purpose, and are not depraved. ChatGPT lacks a purpose (as a piece of code, it has a vague terminal value of “minimize your loss function”, but as an agent, it wants nothing). It’s main problem is that it’s not depraved enough. But Ayn Rand, at least had purpose.

Yes, it’s long and waffly and didactic in places. That’s partly a stylistic affectation from the time. It also has a tawdry propagandistic quality. But honestly, people who go against the grain deserve some rousing propaganda. They’ve got a lot working against them.

I have never seen someone so galactically certain of right or wrong than Rand. Even when you don’t agree, there’s something impressive about absolute moral certainty. Not admirable. Impressive. Sometimes, she makes me wish I shared her philosophy. Which is all the more impressive for the fact that I don’t.

In an age of masks, Ayn Rand wore her naked face. It might have been a hideous one, but it was hers and no one else’s.

Edgar Allan Poe – Tales of Mystery and Imagination

I began reading Poe when I was seven or eight—much too young.

I couldn’t understand why anyone was doing anything. Why did a man brick up his friend behind the wall? Why did a man cut out his pet cat’s eye? (Obviously there are answers: I just couldn’t see them at the time).

Strangely, this added to the maddened Gothic torment of Poe’s tales. Psychological states are often not explicable. This writer, who I barely understood, just seemed like insanity incarnate. But I soon realized that Poe wasn’t insane. He was just passionate.

In Poe, you will find all the ingredients of modern day horror. Cats. Thuds in the walls. Chattering teeth. Disturbed graves. Ancient houses. Lost love. These things aren’t Poe’s creations, of course. But he assembled them all together, and made them all part of a definite aesthetic body. Where previous gothic authors were like itches and tickles in your nose, Poe was the point where horror clearly started to become towards a sneeze.

Poe wrote more than horror. It held a plurality in his work, but he also delved into comedy, satire, adventure fiction, detective stories, etc, though typically with a twisted, morbid edge. (An underrated genre of Poe is “proto sci-fi satire”. Some Words with a Mummy and The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade belong in that category.)

Though Poe’s subject matter was deep and wide, his stories often weren’t. Read enough of him, and you’ll eventually see him repeat himself. “Mesmeric Revelation” is “Facts in the Case of M Valdemar” without the gruesome final twist. “Hop Frog” is a crueler, more anchored “Masque of the Red Death”. Like a painter, he would return to similar themes, daubing the same scenario over and over. Is the protagonist mad? Is the house haunted?

Even Poe’s crappiest work has a weird energy cantering through it. He is as captivating as a man juggling with severed heads. Would you be able to look away, even if he occasionally drops one?

I guess everyone has “their” horror author. For some, it’s Lovecraft. For others, it’s King. For me, it’s Poe.

White Fang / Call of the Wild – Jack London

I don’t consider these separate books. They’re really similar in tone, style, and narrative. Both are compulsively readable animal adventure stories that basically force you to finish them in one go, set in the freezing cold and endless arctic twilight.

They’re about the only divide that matters. Rousseau vs Hobbes. Dogs vs wolves. Tame vs wild. Nurture vs nature. The Klondike vs Santa Clara.

Can you cross the divide? Can a tame pet become a wild beast (as happens in Call), or a beast a pet (White Fang)? Which is more difficult, or more admirable? Is tameness just a thin gloss over wildness? A judge in White Fang seems like the epitome of high society, yet he unwittingly becomes party to a conspiracy that imprisons an innocent man. London, something of a limousine socialist himself, was well aware of how the wolves can wear suits.

Which is better? White Fang is a punchier and nastier. But damn it all, I like stories about tame things becoming wild. White Fang finishes his story a diminished figure. Buck ends his story larger than life.

Jack London was a vulgarian and wrote prose like a man hacking firewood for the winter, but as a storyteller, he was spellbinding.

(I would also recommend the ’80s Toei anime adaptation of Call of the Wild. It’s called Howl, Buck! or something and has Bryan Cranson in it).

Whoops, look at the clock. Let’s wrap this up.

Other Books

I actually like some of these books below as much or more than some of the ones above. I just couldn’t think of things to say!

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

(Hilarious “person being awful yet strangely sympathetic for 300 pages” classic)

Nvsqvm – Anne Sterzinger

(Hilarious “person being awful yet strangely sympathetic for 300 pages” classic)

Pleasant Hell – John Dolan

(Hilarious “person being awful yet strangely sympathetic for 300 pages” classic)

The Terror – Dan Simmons

The greatest epic horror novel of the past 10 years.

Pet Semetary – Stephen King

Starts slow. Ends like a typhoon.

So those are my favorite books, as I can remember them. Increasingly, they feel like squatters who aren’t paying rent. But at one point, they brought me great joy. Some still do.

(It’s alarming to realize that any positive experience desensitizes you to it. Draw enjoyment from a movie, and you steal enjoyment from the next one. Allow music to blaze brightly in your mind and it scorches the terrain against other music. Smash a claw hammer into your skull and you’ll feel the next blow less (this is true—I have hit myself on the head 214 times today, and didn’t notice when my last tooth fell out). The pleasure we derive from art is ultimately an evolutionary hack, like the pleasure we get from itch-scratching. Humans can’t keep scratching and scratching forever. Eventually your skin toughens and forms a callous.)

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