ON THE AVENUES: The 32 most influential books in my life.


It is said that the average American spends five hours each day watching television in one or the other of its multi-tentacled current forms. It’s harder to calculate the number of movies we consume in a year, but adding another hour to the daily TV calculation probably covers it.

These numbers completely baffle me. No wonder civic discourse has met toilet’s bottom. It’s just incomprehensible, and if I dwell on it for too long, I’m afraid to leave the house. After all, zombies are venerated for a reason.

I watch almost no television, and possibly as few as a half-dozen movies a year. Documentaries and educational programming are my weaknesses, and if they’re lumped in with musical performances, my combined total might account for an hour each year. I’ve missed so much; thank you, Jeeebus.

To me, the vast majority of programs designated as “entertainment” aren’t. They’re either violent or stupid, and frequently both. Naturally there are exceptions, but since Americans are surrounded by violence and stupidity on a daily basis, why waste all that valuable time proving what I can see already by glancing out the door?

That’s not entertaining at all, at least to me. You? By all means, carry on. I’m not seeking a ban, just expressing voluminous personal befuddlement.

But what about sports? Roger, you like sports, right? Surely there’s a point of communion with the masses over wings and hard seltzer at the sports bar.

Indeed, the essence of the games still appeals to me. However, as a collective entity, they constitute a tail wagging the dog. I’ll catch a game here and there, and stay abreast by glancing at the standings and reading the sports pages on-line. In short, I’d rather read about sports than kill four hours nightly watching athletes play them.

The same goes for news. Having come to detest marketing, advertising and the insulting dumbing-down of topics that genuinely matter to me, any exposure to television news is like taking a bath in poison ivy juice, so I have to be careful and place limits on the throbbing pain.

During those five or six daily hours when everyone else is watching television or movies, I’m writing, reading, listening to music or indulging in conversation. There’s nothing elitist or condescending about these habits. They’re who I am and what I do. Self-actualization means marching to your own rhythm section, so long as it isn’t hurtful to others. Just ask New Albany’s woeful mayor: I’m utterly harmless.

Consequently, one of the most important lessons I’ve absorbed during my first half-century-plus-nine on Planet Earth is this: I reserve the right not to answer the question you ask me, but to respond in perfect candor to the query I’d rather hear.

When challenged on social media back in the summer of 2014 to name my top ten most influential books, I immediately decided to select 25 and post them here at the blog. I’ve since revised and updated the list a time or two, and remain cognizant that it isn’t easy to maintain a sense of perspective when so much about the notion of “influential” is dependent on time and distance.

However,  five years seems ample to undertake a reappraisal, so the list has been allowed to grow again with the addition of two novels and two works of non-fiction. The books are arranged alphabetically, not by magnitude of influence, which is a judgment I couldn’t possibly make. Oddly, there aren’t any books about music.

Perhaps I’ve been too busy listening to remember them.


2666, by Roberto Bolaño
These words by reviewer Richard Gwyn in 2009 might be the best one paragraph capsule: “To attempt a summary of 2666 seems almost an impertinence. To begin with, it is five discrete but subtly interlinked novels, and within each Bolaño follows a strategy reminiscent of the films of David Lynch. He provides numerous trails and digressions which may or may not have relevance to any expected outcome but which, cumulatively, keep the reader pinioned inside its shifting structure: something akin to a monumental pressure-cooker, in which what is being cooked are the internal organs of the late 20th century.”

It’s been four years and my head’s still spinning.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
Not because of the mentally unbalanced author, her bizarre message or the self-indulgent politics it spawned, but because my high school senior literature teacher ordered me to read it in two weeks flat after I joked that Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations wasn’t sufficiently challenging. Point taken, Bob Youngblood (R.I.P.) — point very much taken. It won’t happen again.

A Book of Memories, by Péter Nádas.
An intricate novel that tells three love stories, with an undercurrent of Communism’s effect on human relationships. To this day, I can’t explain this book’s hold on me. It’s just one of those inexplicable grips.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Interwoven stories illustrating universality, masterfully executed, and barely nudging out the same writer’s more recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
This hands-down classic New Orleans comic novel never gets old. Closing in on 40 years later, I laugh aloud whenever passing a hot dog cart, glimpsing a pirate or reading the name Boethius.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Traditions of Transylvanian folklore meet straitlaced Anglo conventions, as explained through letters, diaries and logs combining to define the vampire genre as we know it today.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco
What happens when the imaginary Templars-meet-occult conspiracy proves to be all too real? This novel ties it all together.

Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
Ostensibly a novel about rockets as WWII comes to a close, although that doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the quirkiness of the ride.

Jerusalem, by Alan Moore
Can the center point of human history — nay, the cosmos as a whole — be anchored to an otherise drab spot smack dab in the middle of Northampton England? Past and future; alive, dead and in that little known third category, Moore’s characters inhabit a story I was determined from to outset to dislike. Now my eyes get wet just thinking about it. 

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
Beautifully rendered story, written as darkness neared, and perhaps the ultimate expression of Papa’s lean prose style. Truly not a word is wasted.

The Pope’s Rhinoceros, by Lawrence Norfolk
In the early 1500s, a scheme is hatched to influence the Pope with the gift of a rhinoceros. The author’s descriptions of daily life in Rome are classic reminders of why we shouldn’t trust epic historical films casting actors with nice white teeth.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry
The doomed, self-destructive consul Geoffrey Firmin stumbles drunkenly through his last day on earth, amid the tumult of the Day of the Dead, in the shadow of two Mexican volcanoes.


And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts
Profoundly moving journalistic account of the onset of AIDS, but moreover, a book that helped me to understand lots of issues we weren’t taught in school. An eye-opener to the real world.

Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee
For me to be enamored by a book about geology is unfathomable. But there it is. Tectonic plates, anyone? Deep time? The utility of interstate dynamiting?

Atheism: The Case Against God, by George H. Smith
The Bible insofar as my introduction to atheism was concerned; an otherwise unknown and forgotten book that I fortuitously spotted at the NA-FC public library in 1979, reinforcing what I already knew was true. Even as a child theism didn’t make any sense to me.

Ball Four, by Jim Bouton
Groundbreaking, ribald baseball expose, which I’ve been joyfully quoting from for more than 40 years. Bouton died in 2019, but his achievement lives on.

Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook (1980 edition)
Once I’d been to Europe, there was a problem; Louisville didn’t have as many ethnic eateries then as now, and I was enamored of certain European menu items. The solution was here, and it got me back into the kitchen.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty
The odds of an impossibly dense exposition about economics making this list suggest a tremendous long shot. Piketty’s argument: an ever greater concentration of wealth occurs when the rate of return on capital (interest, rents, etc) is greater than the rate of long term economic growth; this heightened concentration of wealth creates inequality and accompanying social and economic problems. Or, in other words, what we already knew — with lots and lots of charts.

The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote
I’ve read perhaps 200 books about the American Civil War, and at one time, Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy would have been the most influential, but Foote currently wins out. Factual storytelling at its finest.

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches
Yes, it is possible to chart the entire 20th-century history of American pop culture, and a good deal of non-pop culture history, through an examination of the life of entertainer Dean Martin.

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman
A chronicle of the late Middle Ages (plague, crusades and schism), woven around the tumultuous life of a French nobleman.

Europe on $25-A-Day, by Arthur Frommer (1985 edition)
The Bible insofar as my introduction to budget travel was concerned. Armed with the plausible theories contained therein, I swapped a seven-day jaunt for a three-month baptism, and still had a C-note left over upon returning home.

The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922, by Edmond Taylor
Written in 1963, I discovered the book in 1979, and it contributed immeasurably to my fascination with the European empires that collapsed during and after the Great War.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, by Hunter S. Thompson
In which the author suffers a nervous breakdown, but somehow manages an enduring explanation of the ways modern American electoral politics work.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, by John Barry
I originally read this account of the deadly influenza outbreak at the end of World War I while laid up with pneumonia, which is not a course I recommend.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis
The only sports team of any kind possessing my allegiance is the Oakland Athletics, and while Lewis’s book ostensibly is about a Billy Beane’s (A’s general manager) winning strategies, it’s really about the art of winning any unfair game, baseball or otherwise.

Prejudices: The Complete Series, by H.L. Mencken
The Bible insofar as my introduction to polemics was concerned. For my money, Mencken is the greatest expository writer America has produced.

Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt
It’s no more than a history of the whole continent since WWII, both west and east, and while this might not seem significant, just try to find another like it.

Selected Essays, by Samuel Johnson
The late Dr. Richard Brengle introduced me to Samuel Johnson in an expository writing class at IU Southeast, and it was the exact moment I knew I’d never be a novelist or a poet. I’m an essayist, period.

Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch
In essence, the pursuit of pleasure through trendy substances, beginning with the spice trade, irrevocably modified the social order in Europe.

Thomas Cook European Timetable 
Known as the “Bible of train travel,” 1,526 monthly editions were published over a 140-year period until 2013 (I’m told it has been revived). For a youthful Europhile trip-planner, the timetable provided hours of daydreaming about routes, sights and experiences to come, as well as reliving visits already made.

The Uses of the Past, by Herbert J. Muller
Beautifully written essays on the lessons of history, offered by an Indiana University professor (1905-1980). In 1985, I made a special effort to travel to Istanbul for the express purpose of visiting the Hagia Sophia, precisely because of Muller’s description of the church.

The World Guide to Beer/The New World Guide to Beer, by Michael Jackson
The Bible insofar as my introduction to better beer was concerned. Jackson invented contemporary beer writing, and since his death, there have been no challengers to his pre-eminence.

Recent columns:

August 15: ON THE AVENUES: Breakfast is better with those gorgeous little herrings.

August 8: ON THE AVENUES: Unless you open your eyes, “resistance” is an empty gesture.

August 1: ON THE AVENUES: The whys and wherefores can drive a man to drink; our lives just ARE, and that’s that.

July 25: ON THE AVENUES: Until philosophers become kings, beer and food work just fine.