Monday, February 15, 2016

Reading Every McSweeney's Book

I recently completed a reading project that has been my obsession for the past several years. I’ve read every book – all 232 of them – ever published by McSweeney’s press.

According to the reading journal I keep, I began 2007 by binge-reading everything by Dave Eggers I could get my hands on. In January I read his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, his Generation X memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and his short story collection, How We Are Hungry. Then, in February, I came across Egger’s newly published What Is the What. It was the first book published by McSweeney’s that I’d ever purchased. The book itself was a work of art with its burnt orange cover and stylish artwork. To just hold a McSweeney’s book is to experience holding a work of art, is to merge the act of reading with wonderful tactile sensations. The story, Eggers’ novelized autobiography of the life of Sudanese lost boy Valentino Achak Deng, might be the most powerful, devastating, and beautiful thing I have ever read.

(Here I am with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers at a book signing in 2013.)

Later, in the spring of 2007, I stumbled across an issue of McSweeney’s quarterly, issue 22. It had a pleather cover and binding and three removable smaller books that attached to the binding with magnets! The three smaller books included: 1) a collection of short stories inspired by random notes found in a journal of ideas kept by F. Scott Fitzgerald; 2) a collection of poetry in which ten poets pick poems by their favorite poets who, in turn, pick poems by their favorite poets and so on; and 3) a collection of new writing form Oulipo, a French literary movement known for experimental writing and most famous for producing Georges Perec’s novel A Void, an entire novel written without the letter E. (If I never read anything else by McSweeney’s I’d be thankful for the poetry collection introducing me to the work of Jane Hirshfield who has since become my favorite poet.)

I was hooked. In the spring of 2007 I got my first subscription to McSweeney’s (and Wholphin) and began to read through as many issues of the quarterly as I could get my hands on. Later, during a trip to the Bay Area in 2012 in which I made a pilgrimage to the Pirate Supply Store that is a front for the 826 Valencia, a creative writing a tutoring center for urban children and youth founded by Dave Eggers, and also found an out-of-print early McSweeney’s publication at a hip bookstore in Berkeley, I decided to collect and read everything they’d ever published.

These books have brought me joy, laughter, amazement, tears, outrage, surprise, confusion, and awe. It’s hard to pick just a few of the books to talk about, because so many are so wonderful. A full list is available here. But, there are also a few I feel inspired to note:

Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann. I read this work of obsession in 2013. Over seven volumes and more than 3,000 pages Vollmann attempts to provide a moral calculus for when violence is justified. I’ve never read anything like the later volumes, in which Vollmann travels the world attempting to track down and interview violent actors. He goes to Cambodia to try to find and interview Pol Pot who was in hiding with the last members of Khmer Rouge. He goes to Yemen in 2002 in hopes of finding Al Qaeda members to interview.

The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault. Emily Dickinson wrote 1,789 poems. In this volume Legault answers each poem with a “translation” in the form of a snarky, humorous, or absurd tweet. Legault renders “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers…” as “Hope is kind of like birds. In that I don’t have any.” In 2014 I read Legault alongside a collection of Dickinson’s complete poems.

Patriot Acts compiled and edited by Alia Malek. McSweeney’s Voices of Witness series has produced a dozen books illuminating human rights crises through oral histories. Half of them deal with human rights crises around the world in places like Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Colombia, and Palestine. Others deal with human rights crises in the United States, including survivors of Hurricane Katrina, the experiences of undocumented immigrants, and those incarcerated in the United States. Patriot Acts deals with human rights abuses in the United States following 9/11. In these oral histories we hear from those who experienced extraordinary rendition and extralegal imprisonment, victims of Islamophobic hate crimes, and a college student detained and interrogated for carrying Arabic language flash cards.

The Instructions by Adan Levin. This 1,000 page debut novel is the apocalyptic tale of what happens over three days at a Jewish middle school in Chicago involving a student who may be the Messiah.

Recipe by Angela and Michaelanne Petrella. Published by the McMullens division of McSweeney’s, I’ve enjoyed sharing numerous children’s books with my daughter. Her favorite is Recipe in which a young girl attempts an outrageous cooking project.

I could go on and on and on. Thanks, McSweeney’s, for years and years of great reading.

(My collection of every book McSweeney’s has ever published.)