Donald Barthelme’s Syllabus

I used to be very resistant to reading and had many gaps in my education. Anything that wasn’t easy for me to understand, I had a tendency to ignore.

However, during my last year of college in Gainesville, Florida, I was given a list of eighty-one books recommended by Donald Barthelme.

My teacher at the time, Padgett Powell, passed this list on to me and only gave me one instruction: to read the books in no particular order. Despite my lack of knowledge, I decided to take this advice and read them all.

Before I could start my hunt, I headed to the Friends of the Library warehouse book sale in Gainesville. Before the doors opened, the parking lot was already filled with fifty people, ranging from die-hard sci-fi fans to Civil War enthusiasts.

At the start of the line were the all-nighters, some of whom were said to have arrived before midnight. The atmosphere was similar to that of a pre-game for the Gators, with the addition of barbecues and coolers, plus radios powered by batteries.

An image is presented, featuring a woman in a wheelchair, with the caption “Disability is not Inability”.

The phrase implies that disabled individuals should not be viewed as limited in their capabilities, but rather that they should be seen as capable of accomplishing great things.

When the garage door opened, I saw the night owls dashing into the warehouse. Its walls were lined with shelves, and there were over sixty tables of books, with a scent of dampness and dust in the air.

Some books were arranged by topic, with others scattered around, such as Dead Souls and Pregnancy for Dummies side by side.

By the time I made it inside, those before me had already claimed their spots: small children going through the picture books in the corner, a man wearing winter attire looking at classic Penthouse magazines, and a graduate student with an Ask Me About Postmodernism pin on his army-style backpack, appearing to ponder the literary criticism section.

The books available for purchase were generally in poor condition, with worn covers and tape marks down the spines.

In the front of the warehouse was a “collector’s room” filled with books written by authors from the local area, such as Harry Crews and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Meanwhile, the aisles were bustling as volunteers brought out new cases of books to restock the shelves. Shoppers eagerly helped the volunteers unload the books, finding their own treasured pieces as they did. Voices of joy could be heard exclaiming their finds: “I’ve got a copy of Nabokov’s Lectures!” and “Ariel is here!”

I stumbled upon a pocketbook version of Hugh Kenner’s A Homemade World (number 39 on the list) with wobbly underlines.

Not long after that, I located Max Apple’s The Oranging of America, Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, and Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Stories (numbers 76, 36, 59, and 77).

Being without money and without ambition, I altered the colored markings on books with higher discounts to those with lower discounts, in order to acquire a more advantageous deal.

This was shameful of me, especially considering my newfound commitment to reading and the fact that most of the books were already marked down to two dollars. Ultimately, I spent fifteen dollars for the twenty-five books I acquired in this disgraceful manner.

My enthusiasm for reading suddenly surged when I had a manageable list of books in front of me.

Saul Bellow’s Augie March, who began his relationship with books by stealing them, famously remarked on the pleasure of discovering reading late in life:

“I noticed how a latent desire or longing, before it is aware of what it wants or before it finds it, can be revealed as tedium or some other kind of distress.”

The book that made me keep my promise was O’Connor’s Collected Stories.

I opened it to “A Late Encounter With the Enemy” and I was taken aback: never before had my expectations of a book been so quickly proven wrong.

I looked at the Irish name, the peacock on the front cover, and the blurb talking about the Deep South and thought that the stories would be about farm life, racial tensions, and the monotony of the area.

I expected to read about moonshiners, crop rotation, and hog-boiling, as well as passionate disputes between porch-dwellers and dirt-yarders.

A screenshot of a computer screen is depicted in the image, which shows that was visited on October 2003.

In contrast, there was “General” Sash, 104 years of age and weary after 12 years of having to recall;

As well as his proud granddaughter, Sally Poker Sash, who wished her elderly grandparent would live long enough to be a model of dignified attire at her college graduation for “the new generation who had changed the world and disrupted traditional lifestyles”. It was clear to me that the text was written with preciseness, firmness, and vision; and with a realistic view of human frailty that had positive outcomes.

Mrs. May? Ruined. Lucynell Crater the younger? Left snoozing at a diner. The fool and his turkey? Quickly parted ways. The grandmother? Doesn’t matter, she was doomed.

Barthelme’s list of books reflects his passions with elements such as “Beckett entire”. Majority of the works are novels, with the exception of two; Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Flaubert’s Letters (numbers 15, 40).

Most of them have been written in the previous thirty years and they all share a sense of freshness and surprise which are the characteristics of great books.

An example of this is the Tragic Magic by Wesley Brown, which is a story of a black conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, and Max Frisch’s I ‘m Not Stiller (numbers 50, 11), which is a narrative of denied identity

. Another example is the Paris Review Writers at Work interviews (number 31) in which Faulkner is asked about his writing. He suggested a solution to people who have trouble understanding it: “read it four times”.

Included in the list are some challenging texts, such as Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, which has no paragraphs and contains long, winding, self-subverting sentences (number 7); Andre Breton’s Nadja, a perplexing short novel combined with perplexing photos (number 65); and John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig, a work that reads as if a conventional novel was fed through a shredder and reassembled (number 21).

I read 60 Stories by Barthelme, which was not on the list (perhaps due to his humility), yet it was more mischievous, urbane, amusing, and insightful than anything I had read before.

For example, the journal entries of a boy-adult in “Me and Miss Mandible” were quite humorous: “Miss Mandible is in many ways, especially regarding her bust, a very delightful person.

” Additionally, Barthelme’s re-created Snow White included the command to “Change your lives for the better!” Within the light-heartedness, I detected an underlying truth regarding a world more dynamic than my own.

Come summertime, I was almost halfway through my list of books and was feeling quite accomplished.

As some titles were out of print, I searched to and fro in Central Florida, at second-hand shops in Micanopy, estate sales in Palatka, and even my birthplace of Daytona Beach–where I discovered the wonderful Mandala Books, which became one of my favorite spots on Earth.

On the corner of International Speedway Boulevard (formerly known as Volusia Avenue) and a Lutheran church is a used bookstore with kaleidoscopic mirrors and tie-dye psychedelia in the windows. I’m not familiar with the owner of Mandala’s, who is bald with a mastiff named Odessa, usually found near the travel book section.

It’s obvious that the owner isn’t passionate about the used book business; once I heard him talk about how he had declined an offer to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1970s.

He’s fond of Saul Bellow but doesn’t think much of Barthelme or Robert Coover as he considers them to be “too look-at-me cutesy”. He also scolded me for attempting to haggle on Joseph Blotner’s two-volume Faulkner biography, calling it “piss-cheap” already.

I located approximately a dozen of the list’s books and around the same number not mentioned.

And if purchasing these vintage publications seems like a minor act of kindness, when I discovered the compilation I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels (number 73) I was extremely appreciative–to the author, to Barthelme, to Mandala Books

. Who could have foreseen such a precious liveliness sitting deactivated and innocuous-looking among Judith Michael’s accounts of ardent pursuit and Fern Michaels’s stories of zealous quests, in a shop that is located among pawn stores and an Oriental grocery store, just a few blocks away from a black billboard featuring Dale Earnhardt’s Number 3 with angel wings?

As the summer months ended, two revelations became clear to me: Unreasonable resolutions are most often kept; and this new pursuit had me more engaged, whether or not it made me more intriguing.

Joseph Campbell in Hero With a Thousand Faces (number 27) expresses, “A slip-up – seemingly sheer luck – unveils an unseen world, and the person is pulled into a relationship with powers that are not truly comprehended.”

That year, I hadn’t yet come to fully comprehend the consequences of my noble goals. Yet, I was gradually starting to grasp the meaning of the unknown.

The effects of climate change can be seen in the form of extreme weather events which have become much more frequent in recent years.

It is evident that these phenomena have been amplified by global warming, leading to much higher temperatures and more extreme weather patterns. As a result, the occurrence of floods, droughts, and other natural disasters has increased significantly.

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