I desired to kill myself at a party last fall. All I wanted to do was drink beer and play a refreshing round of “I Never,” but the main blowout activity was a heated jabber session on Jean Genet. Eugh! I have, however, had an outrageously fun time with the same partygoers getting drunk and blabbering about whether Toni Morrison is an essentially modern or postmodern figure. So while I’m not always up for book-related banter, not only can it be amusing, it can be necessary—especially in this city of self-proclaimed aesthetes, stylish intellectuals, and annoying populist fakers. Thus, a list of 10 titles you’ll want to be able to discuss—because you never know who you’ll want to impress, and the time may arrive when “I Never” finally feels too philistine (like when a fool bursting with pride claimed, “I never snorted a line of coke off an erect penis”).
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey
This is a saucy account of Abbey’s experiences working for the National Park Service in the ’70s. “I was so inspired by Abbey’s outspoken commitment to America’s wild places,” you say over coffee with earth-mug-toting renegades. Noteworthy: He died in 1989, raged against the development of the Southwest, seduced young she-rangers, and bragged about his exaggerated antitourist exploits. Like an environmentalist Norman Mailer.
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion if Identity, by Judith Butler
The density of Butler’s writing style (tough shit if you can’t understand it) makes her work hard going at times, yet her ideas are absolutely influential in feminist-theory circles. Butler attacks the naturalized, “seamless category of women,” which opens feminism “to charges of gross misrepresentation.” “Female” is no longer a stable notion; it is as troubled and unfixed as “woman.” Butler asks, “Does the female constitute a ‘natural fact’ or cultural performance?” You argue the latter; think of Divine starring in John Waters’s Female Trouble.
Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes
Comic artist Clowes’s teenage heroines Becky and Enid hold yard sales, stalk Satanists, critique a slew of boys, perform youthful acts of personal-ad cruelty, reject Sassy during its age of glory (“Bitches who think they’re ‘cutting edge’ because they know who ‘Sonic Youth’ is!”). Next time you’re approached by an intimidating English major, be a defender of the whole comics genre, with Ghost World as your reference point. Say: “Straight texts bore me. Clowes is more subtle in one frame than legions of prattling writers are in whole novels. And the narrative is so fucking good, the book’s getting made into a movie by the guy who directed Crumb.”
Girl With Curious Hair, by David Foster Wallace
Although the trendy fiction bunch adores the relentlessly clever Infinite Jest of a few years ago, it’s cooler to tout the short stories in the older Girl With Curious Hair (no article, OK?). The first, “Little Expressionless Animals,” is a riveting tale of ’80s L.A. intrigue and game-show politics, and contains not only hilarious portraits of warring Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek, but compelling characters like the brilliant, surly young lesbian Julie Smith, the Jeopardy champion whose autistic brother is dragged out by the show’s producers to defeat her.
Learning from Las Vegas, by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour
For chats with architecture majors, LV kitsch fanatics, and anyone interested in tracking the transition from modernism to postmodernism. Learning scoffs at the immodesty of “high” culture’s “heroic” monuments, and offers a contrary theory of “ugly and ordinary” architecture for the needs and values of common people. Designate drab buildings “architecture of inclusion,” and condemn “the deadness that results from too great a preoccupation with tastefulness and total design.”
The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), by Andy Warhol
This pop-art classic spottily charts Warhol’s life from his first NYC living experience, in a 103rd Street basement with 17 people, to his exorbitant art-world success. Representative chapter titles: “Beautiful Monotony,” “Why I Try to Look So Bad,” and “My Aura.” Disaffected art student: “That book is so boring, like B’s 26-page description of cleaning her apartment.” You: “I know, but that’s why it’s such genius. Form and content totally merge! I love the chapter where he talks about his obsession with buying underwear at Macy’s. His command of the banal in American culture is nothing short of brilliant.”
The Pleasure of The Text, by Roland Barthes
This seminal work of philosophy and narrative-theory is somehow always appropriate. If someone ever says something like, “Gosh, Moby Dick is fabulous, but many parts are quite dull,” you say, “Yeah, I know, but I skipped the boring parts!” That’s the great thing about Barthes. He writes, “It is the very rhythm of what to read and what not to read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: Has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word?” He eroticizes the consumption of texts by looking up, skipping, dipping in again.
Reading Rock’n’Roll: Authenticity, Appropriation, Aesthetics, edited by Kevin J.H. Dettmar and William Richey
For the popular-culture-critiquing crowd, this professor-penned anthology—discussing, among others, Madonna, George Clinton, and Elvis Costello—is good for trying to be, as someone once described, “the coolest kid in a room full of smart people, and the smartest kid in a room full of cool people.” Memorize the title ” ‘I Have Come Out to Play’: Jonathan Richman and the Politics of the Faux Naïf” (the essay itself is fairly boring). When some rock-savvy intellect asks your opinion, complain that there are two pieces wasted on silly U2, and that Neil Nehring’s essay on Bikini Kill and Bakhtin offensively states that Kathleen Hanna’s “slut” championing may invite “opportunistic listeners to find justification for careless sex.”
Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller
You’d think after that dumbass movie Henry and June, a faux-titillating mainstream debacle, kids would reject the whole Henry Miller aura as annoying, but no. It comes up all the time. Tropic, banned in the U.S. for 27 years, is now considered one of the great novels of the century. The lowdown: A clichéd, disaffected expat writer in Paris fucks a bunch of people, including prostitutes with STDs. Less plot, more rant. Sample line: “The ass is worn down, scraped, sandpapered, smooth, hard, bright as a billiard ball or the skull of a leper.”
The Veil, by Denis Johnson
Sad, accessible poems by the author of the new novel The Name of the World and the breathtaking short-story collection Jesus’ Son, which is now a movie, and not a bad one either. Be conversant in Johnson’s deadpan poetry, which inspires the party as 5 a.m. light streaks in the windows: “The eight-ball is a meatball in whiskey heaven” and “I know I’m suburban, I’ve got a shitty whiskey in my hand/I work a job like eating a knife.” The title poem makes the biggest impression, with its urgent last lines “You would know goddamn it. And never be able to say.”