Best Books to Pretend to Have Read in 2018 — Some People

We all hate end-of-year book round-ups. No-one has ever read a single book included in an end-of-year list, especially the people who compile them. Yet they keep coming, with all the crushing inevitability of a Brendan O’Neill hot take. For they perform one essential function: to provide a discussion point for vapid metropolitan dinner parties. With this in mind, and acknowledging that the denizens of Minor Literature[s] exist on a somewhat lower plane of social interaction, we asked some of our friends to send us their Best Books to Pretend to Have Read in 2018. Most ignored us, but here is what we received from the handful who replied.

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I’ve been obsessed with manifestos this year, so my recommendation would be an incendiary pamphlet of some sort. Of course manifestos are generally short and plain spoken — not exactly Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage or late Henry James in terms of need-to-fake-it. So to increase difficulty I’ll nominate the following pairing: The Xenofeminist Manifesto by Laboria Cuboniks (Verso) and Xenofeminism by Helen Hester (Polity). I can think of no more militantly attractive and beguilingly suggestive set to have tucked under your arm as you stroll the streets of your metropolis, provincial town, or country lane. While they are both fairly slim volumes, they are tough enough to merit faking, existing in the lineage of earlier cyberfeminisms and adjacent to various accelerationisms and transhumanisms. A brand new print edition of The Xenofeminist Manifesto has just been published — the manifesto was previously available only in website form, in thirteen languages, here. The two books feature quite possibly the most eye-catching cover designs of the year. Posing with copies in your favourite café will make you look very clever indeed. And if you read the contents and join XF’s fight to ‘generate new worlds’ you’ll be more clever still.

Julian Hanna, author of The Manifesto Handbook (Zero Books, 2019)

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You want to be cool, right? You want to seem edgy at your North London literary soiree. You need the right names to drop? Well Manchester is back, baby. No more Stone Roses or Happy Mondays. Now we’re all bleeding edge publishing collectives and DIY independent scene-makers. The launch of the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Manchester anthology (edited by Thom Cuell) is going to go down in history like the Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in 1976. Everyone who was there is gonna form their own small press. Most of them probably have already. Thom Cuell is the new Tony Wilson. Sian Cummins is the Ian Curtis de nos jours. Dostoyevsky Wannabe are Factory 2.0. No-one needs a 2k18 Mick Hucknall. Buy the anthology, if you want to pass yourself off as one of the new 24-hour party people. You don’t have to read it though. We just want your cash.

Thom Cuell, editor at Minor Literature[s]

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Publishers are so old-fashioned: they still send out press releases. These save me the trouble of wading through piles of ‘must read’ books just to sound credible to the few literary types I know.

Take Lucia Berlin’s much-hyped Welcome Home. It’s a remnant of sorts, an unfinished book of autobiographical sketches spanning 30 years — and (by her own count, in a list titled The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In) 33 locations — of her chaotic life. Berlin is a writer whose pared back prose helps overcome the sense that if she hadn’t existed, The Paris Review would have had to invent her. Her US publisher, Farrer, Straus and Giroux, refers to her “gritty glamour”, which is prissy PR shorthand for booze, drugs, sex and generally being a hot-mess-with-talent. In the fragmentary episodes of Welcome Home, just like in the movies, the bad guys (and yeah, they’re always ‘guys’) get all the best lines: “You only look in my eyes now to see if they are pinned,” one of her three husbands, a junkie, tells her.

Berlin spent the last years of her life in a trailer park in Boulder, Colorado, then a converted garage behind her son’s home in Marina Del Rey, in Los Angeles, before dying, at age 68, of lung cancer — she closed her last letter to a friend, with the words, “Message on my tombstone: Breathless.” Which underscores, for me, the only problem with all of Berlin’s stories. You kind of know how they end.

C.C. O’Hanlon, editor of The Island Review

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What We’re Teaching our Sons by Owen Booth. What are the fathers teaching their sons? Please, tell me. How to navigate love, death, sex, adventure, masculinity? Through childhood, towards a less confusing, fraught adulthood than theirs, maybe, if that’s possible? I hope it’s possible. The task, endeavour, sentiment, I’ve heard, is enough to induce tears, at least. Allegedly, Booth writes with immense style and apparent ease. How annoying of him.

Word is this is the kind of book that will make you take five before finishing it. Give it a day, two, a week maybe. You won’t want it to end. So far it hasn’t ended for me because I’ve not started it yet. But when I finally finish it, I’m sure I’ll find it funny and sad and uplifting and heartbreaking and just, simply, beautiful. Goddamn it.

Harry Gallon, author of Every Fox Is a Rabid Fox

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I have two copies of Felix Guattari’s A Love of UIQ on my bookshelf, one in its original French and the other in English translation. Why, you ask? Well, when I first heard that Guattari had written a sci-fi screenplay I almost lost it. This was years ago, the book hadn’t even been translated but I knew I was going to pretend to read it one way or another so I ordered a copy right away, doubling the pretension by trying to read it in a language I barely understood — my two years of high school French consisted of some basic words (les mots) scribbled on a chalkboard (le tableau noir) by a terrified old woman (la vieille femme); a stuffy classroom heaving with misdirected teenage rage (les adolescents rebelles?), lots of flying chalk (la craie), and teacher’s tears (les larmes), but that’s a different story altogether.

For years I pretended to read Un Amour D’UIQ, until I found out that Univocal was about to publish it. I pre-ordered the book immediately so I could carry on with the charade. 2018 is coming to an end and I’m still at it. This is what I’ve learned so far, mainly by googling (le googlè?): Axel is a young biologist experimenting avec chloroplastes dans le phytoplancton (pardon my pretend French, it has become an uncontrollable tic). While studying the microscopic innards of plants Axel makes contact with alien intelligence, the Infra-quark Universe, UIQ (l’Univers Infra-quark!), a deterritorialized subatomic field synthesizing information and sending out signals. Classic Guattari, right? Add to the script Axel’s friends: an american journalist, a punk DJ called Janice and her band of outsiders (Bande à part?), a commune of squatters. Top it all off with some classic chase scenes, I imagine, as authoritarian forces (le fucking pigs) come after Axel and friends and try to shut it all down.

Guattari believed in the revolutionary potential of cinema and was really going for it with this screenplay, trying to reach the masses Hollywood-style. So much so, he turned A love of UIQ into an actual love story, but with a natural Guattarian twist. I don’t want to spoil the book in case you want to pretend to read it too, so let me finish this review with a quote from the screenplay synopsis, which I did read in its entirety, by the way:

“While on the surface this screenplay might read as a graphic novel, at another level it addresses questions of a philosophical, psychoanalytic or even psychiatric nature. Lastly, it gives visual form to a series of speculative hypotheses of the world we inhabit.”

The world we pretend to inhabit, je crois.

Yanina Spizzirri, artist, editor Minor Literature[s]

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One hundred years after it was first serialized in The Little Review, I took up James Joyce’s Ulysses after swearing for decades that I wouldn’t ever.

My hatred of Joyce resulted from a terrible and pretentious professor in graduate school who required A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in his Contemporary Literary Theory. Instead of anything recognizable as contemporary theory, readings consisted of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hippolyte Taine, Walter Pater, Émile Zola, Oscar Wilde, and Leo Tolstoy. Whose contemporaries, exactly? There were weeks when we read nothing but T.S. Eliot’s unreadable criticism. In the end and from sheer spite, I refused to finish Joyce’s novel.

This year The Wild Detectives, Dallas’ independent bookstore-cum-bar, chose Ulysses for its reading challenge. For twelve-and-a-half weeks, from the spring equinox until Bloomsday, I slogged through the text with a group of equally determined readers. We met every week for much-needed mental and emotional rehabilitation over drinks. I couldn’t have — I wouldn’t have — finished it otherwise.

There are a lot of fart jokes. And stupid wordplay, which I always appreciate: “Come forth, Lazarus! And he came fifth and lost the job.” James Joyce’s Ulysses is the hottest book of 2018. Highly recommended!

Frank Garrett is a writer and translator; he is the smartest hillbilly in Hillbilly Town

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Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes sits on the top of a pile of books in my kitchen, and recently a friend came over and said oh, you’re reading Roland Barthes! and I said yes, although I wasn’t, and hadn’t, but I had at one point picked it up and looked at the photos. There’s one where Barthes is sitting on some grass, there’s a church in the background and the caption starts: “As a child, I was often and intensely bored”. I thought that was cool. Then I looked on Wikipedia and found out that Barthes had lived with his mother for 60 years. This made me feel I had a lot of insight into Barthes, though I hadn’t read Roland Barthes.

I hadn’t read it because I’d been watching a lot of television, which is embarrassing to admit. But if someone stands in your kitchen, picks up Roland Barthes, shouts ROLAND BARTHES! and asks if you’re reading it, you say yes. You’re not going to say, no, I’ve been watching television. But the thing about pretending to have read a book then agreeing to write about the book you pretended to have read is that I felt shamed into reading it. So in the course of writing these 300 words, I did just that. I read it. Which means this contribution is pointless and a lie. I’m sorry.

Eli Lee, writer and fiction editor, Minor Literature[s]. (Note: she has not read Roland Barthes)

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After having pretended for years to have read Ernesto Sabato’s On Heroes and Tombs , and fleetingly catching those sombre words on old, veined spines in unexpected places (most recently, three summers ago, cobwebbed in a shaded corner of a bungalow in the Blue Mountains near Sydney), I was finally freed from my pretensions by the good folk at David R. Godine, who reissued the novel late last year, in Helen Lane’s tested translation, for a new set of English readers. What is there to say except that for the better part of a month I inhabited a darkening world of menace, madness, and malice, a place filled with shadow and flame, love and obsession, the scent of rain and lightning on passionate adolescent bodies surprised by the elements on a forested beach — all traced back somehow to the originary myth about the violent birth of a nation. That, and the damp caverns beneath Buenos Aires (which open out into the likeness of a Thomas Cole painting touched with a Dantean frenzy) and the globalist conspiracy of the blind (the irony too delicious to ignore in our present moment). A thoroughly baroque experience.

—Aashish Kaul, author, The Queen’s Play

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The obvious choice would have been Richard Dixon’s new translation of The Ruin Of Kasch: for some time I’ve been thinking of this book as my Bible — ultimate text, so thick and tangled with materials, its density of thought punctuated and punctured with paragraphs, sentences, or individual words that agitate the reading with glimpses of clarity, feverish accelerations, visionary turns. I have opted instead for Roberto Calasso’s very early text — his university dissertation from 1965 — I geroglifici di Sir Thomas Browne (The Hieroglyphs of Sir Thomas Browne). I ordered it from Italy two weeks ago, of course it has not been delivered yet. It came to me in a vision though, just like the rsis so dear to Calasso saw the Vedic hymns. Here’s what I saw, without my reading glasses: raw versions of this writer’s obsessions and of his enthralling cosmologies: digressions around the edge of meaning and silence in the hieroglyphs, later expanded in Tiepolo Pink; speculations around the intellectual subconscious of Europe, a thread spun in later years through his rapturous reading of Gottfried Benn, and into the recent L’innominabile attuale; meanderings around the obfuscation of symbols, echoed in Literature and the Gods — all aimed at a reading of Browne’s prose that needs to be attuned to the very substance of its fabric, its erudition and cadence, its gravitas. I saw ashes too, plenty of ashes. 

Daniela Cascella, editor, author of Singed

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I’d like to recommend that you pretend to read Differential Algebraic Topology: From Stratifolds to Exotic Spheres by Matthias Kreck. I haven’t read it. I mean, not really. It can’t be read. And that is helpful to me. As a writer I have a great deal of disdain for books that are highly praised for their thoughtfulness, cleanliness, and erudition… you know just like success in general… but are not written by me. Yet, I crave reading material that can distinguish me. Holding Dr. Kreck’s book and looking at my knees over the top of the book, with the knowledge that the book was composed and printed with full awareness that it could not be read… that because it is mostly equations, any remote chance that the prose has of embodying its quiet desperation or its strident refinement, is annihilated by the disruptive convulsions of nonsense like listening to a book-on-tape remixed by Merzbow. You might call that a failure, but it cures all cases of, “Dear god why would this middling pap get published?” & “What leverage does this person have over the people who are lauding their book?” You will appear spectacularly intelligent without the slightest pang of professional envy… and please do tell people that I recommended it, and perhaps even that I’ve read it.

John Trefry is a writer and architect in Lawrence, Kansas

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Definitely the best book I’ve pretended to read this year is Kudos by Rachel Cusk. I absolutely loved the style of it, and the content. If I’d read it, I know I would have adored Cusk’s tone, too: not only the way she writes but what she writes about. I was particularly keen to pretend to read it because I couldn’t get over how incredible it was when I pretended to read Transit and Outline, the two preceding volumes in the trilogy. The books also have beautiful covers, and these I have seen in real life so that isn’t even a pretend opinion. Kudos boasts great graphic design that is possibly, nay, probably appropriate to the content.

It’s great to engage with the voice and the characters and the events within Kudos; pretending to read it was a wonderful experience and I recommend pretending to read Kudos to anyone who’s thinking of pretending to have read some 2018 books in the New Year. Thank you.

Scott Manley Hadley, bald poet, author Bad Boy Poet

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The book I most want to recommend this year I haven’t found yet. I’ve been looking for it. It’s there sending smoke signals over the high street where the bookshop should be but isn’t anymore because it’s a bakery. The bakery sells delicious bread but it won’t do anything for the badness inside you and a whole loaf of bread costs the same as a book. I need to save that money for this book when it turns up. It’s got pages, a cover, page numbers, words. It’s got sentences and punctuation. It’s got a title I’ll remember when I see it. But the most important thing about this book is that reading it will take the badness out of you. Something will slip from the pages to jump through your pupils and rearrange the contents of your head. And when you close the book you won’t want to die anymore. The words will all line up along your ribcage and though it’s nothing in the words themselves, something in the way they’re all put together will turn a lock-picker inside you and let the badness drain out.

Xanthi Barker, author One Thing

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I’ve been too busy vaping at metropolitan dinner parties this year to read many books. Unless the book holds the secret to the True location of ALL Infinity Stones. Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s Manchester anthology threatened to take residence upon the bedstand, until I read Mick Hucknell’s visceral review. That Manchester-related life, though. (Shout-out to teh Pilcrow Pillcrew.) I’m fully prepared to pretend that it was a real page-turner, if only DW would bloody respond to my increasingly desperate DMs. I know they’ve seen the message. The messages. The many messages. They all say ‘read’.

Now where’s my token fee?

Russell Bennetts, editor of Berfrois, spiritual adviser for Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
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Having devoured all seventeen books from the Karl Ove series after the penultimate book was released, it was a year’s wait before I could once again nourish myself with Hard K Knausgård’s postchristian-problematic unreliable-confessional tour de force. For this toxic bibliomaniac, self-care comes from feeding myself on the nutritious musings of Knausgaaard, and The End utterly broke me. The book, a hardback weighing in at two King James’s and a bottle of flat Coke, is said to come into its own during the reservoir of its central 1200 pages, affectionately known to fellow skippers as “the Hitler bit”, which I skipped, but in its closing 300 pages I realised that Knausgärd has been cheating us all along. I smelled a rat, picked up Some Fucking Rain Falls drunk on suspicion to espy… SHOCK… he’s just copy-pasted eighteen of its pages into The End, hoping no one will notice. Worse than that, on further investigation, the line: “I took a medium sized spoon and stirred the instant coffee twice. Once. Twice. The coffee was stirred, and grandma’s arse really smelt bad,” was used on thirty-four separate occasions throughout the series. Could it be that we’ve all been skipping through the My Struggle series and that Knausgārd has pulled off the literary scam of the century? Yes. 

Sean Preston, writer and editor of Open Pen

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Nobody reads Robert Aickman; some only pretend to have done so. Early this year, I tracked down Compulsory Games, the NYRB’s spanking-new collection of Aickman B-sides, which I was quick to slide into the quiver of my bookshelf, next to his official catalogue. I can confidently state the fifteen stories in the new anthology could fit in any other by the author; but this should not mislead you into thinking that I read them, since I haven’t and I cannot and nor can anyone, as far as I’m concerned.

Not to say the preface by Victoria Nelson is deceitful — some sincerely believe they’ve got their Aickman down —, but most of us adepts are adept liars who presume there might be something to extract beyond the English veil in the same way we once boasted about having seen the skidmarks of the Elder Gods.

It really does come down to set and setting. A barometric low hangs over the Atlantic. At sunset on a hot spring day, two men were seen to be at Patriarch’s Pond. The Thing Itself is moody, atmospheric. Das Ding is what’s (b)ringing the change.

Mónica Belevan writes. She is the editor of LapsusLima.com

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I wanted to read a Bolaño book because every serious intellectual from Latin America loves him, quotes him, guilts for not having read him, and so I bought the book, and let it sit there, on my bookshelf, where I would pick it up and skim through a scene here or there, but I just… what is the word… I couldn’t immerse myself in the language, no matter how much I recognized how well-written it was. I couldn’t help but feel like, if I actually read this, then how am I any different or, more importantly, better than my friends? If there is one guiding principle in my life, it is to be a step ahead, in taste and culture, and pretention, and there is little that is more pretentious than lording over your friends heads how little you care about their opinions. Reading Bolaño would be a declaration of defeat that I could not bear. So it sat on that bookshelf for over a year, staring at me, mocking me, and so I finally picked it up, and read it beginning to end in an afternoon orgy of self hatred and obsessive dedication. So this is Bolaño, I said to myself, again and again, with every period after every page and a half of run on sentences, this is the master, the writer I will never be, and then the revelation hit me — I always though that reading the master would lead me to recognize my own shortcomings, but now, if anything, it only fortified the belief that had carried me through years of friendships with Latin American writers: that no matter how passionately they argued for this writer or that, that their taste was terrible, and my resisting it was a badge of honor. 

Jon Marcantoni, author of a bunch of books, founder of LCG Press, soon to be podcast host, and obscure misfit of the 21st century

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Social Creature, the compelling debut from Tara Isabella Burton, was hands-down my favourite novel that I didn’t read this year. Scathing critiques of social media mores are very much in vogue, and Social Creature has been compared to Patricia Highsmith crossed with Edith Wharton for a mobile-phone age. I can think of no better comparison (having not read it) but I took artful pictures of the gorgeous foiled cover that got me 298 likes and 32 new followers, as well as some more ARCs from the Big 5. With a subtle examination of the gaps between wealth, privilege, and intelligence, Burton exquisitely captures exhibitionist young libertines, writing ‘more poetry’ on each other’s arms and getting drunk in very expensive bars. I wrote ‘more poetry’ on my arm and got retweeted by the author, the publisher, and the author’s agent, making it a multiplatform novel.

 With a truly audacious new voice in the contemporary literary canon, Burton mercilessly skewers vain millennials and their habits of living online, whilst still maintaining a level eye on the glittering, beautiful people of New York. The result is an unflinching and unputdownable psychological thriller for the 21stcentury. 

Sylvia Warren works in publishing and writes reviews and non-fiction

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Year in year out, when asked to pick my favourite books of the year, I erect a pile of advanced review copies and choose those by people I owe favours to. Sometimes I even add some urgent titles, in a bid to boost my personal brand. This year, much like a Toby Young of the indie literary scene, nobody asked me to contribute to any real end of the year list. So I truly welcomed this ironic invitation.

Perhaps the best book to pretend to have read in 2018 would be an autofictional novel written from the POV of a creative writing lecturer, or something — a tour de force maybe — about the joys and sorrows of being a writer in residence somewhere continental. But I think these kinds of book are better homed in serious literary magazines — those that pay a token fee to their contributors, so that their contributors can pretend to live off their writing, and comfortably create books in the genres previously described. So I will go for something obvious and therefore suitable for a place like Minor Literature[s]. I will pick Proust.

Although I have quoted the “madeleine moment” at length many times, like most of the people quoting it I haven’t read Proust. And I don’t have any intention of doing so either, because his books are too long and he’s been dead for a long time and reading dead people depresses me. What’s more, among some of my friends “reading Proust” is an elegant euphemism for those “moments of solitary pleasure” no one likes to talk about but everyone engages in. That’s all I have ever needed to know about Proust. Yet in late November, instigated by my attorney Sean Preston, who announced to me in no equivocal terms that “a library without Proust is a farce of a library”, I bagged myself a copy of In Search of Lost Time Vol I, for a meagre £3, off a secondhand bookshop in Stoke Newington Church Street. Now £3 is almost a pint of Guinness at The Rochester Castle, just a couple of blocks down the road but the book comes in nice colours and I thought it would look great on my Twitter feed and it did. It looks amazing in my library too, next to other books I will never read, but that I might put in end of the year lists at some point in the future.

Fernando Sdrigotti, author of Shitstorm, founding editor, Minor Literature[s]


Image: books, Dominik Gubi,Creative Commons.