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Brian Francis Slattery's Top 10 Books That Don't Get Enough Respect

Brian Francis Slattery, author of two of the most original novels of recent years--Liberation and Spaceman Blues--has extremely eclectic reading tastes. In fact, Slattery might just be the ideal "omnivoracious" reader. So I thought it'd be interesting to ask him for his picks for ten books that don't get enough respect. Little did I know one of my own would wind up there. - Jeff

      Horsemen     Outlaw

Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad - Except for the last couple chapters—you’ll know what I mean—this novel about a fictional revolution in Latin America at the turn of the last century is everything you could want in a book: satirical, romantic, smart, and an excellent adventure story. Plus, it has some ruminations on capitalism that make one question just how different 2008 is from 1908.

Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone - An astonishing piece of journalism for the way that it pulls such substance from an unlikely subject and despairs without ever being mean or condescending. It’s also one of the most hilarious books I’ve read in a long time.

Petersburg, by Andrei Bely - Vladimir Nabokov said that this book was among the four best books of the 20th century (the other ones, to him, being Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu). It is as good as Nabokov says, but also, it rips along like any good thriller about a terrorist plot—which this is—should.

The Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen - The most moving, beautifully written book on island biogeography and environmental destruction you’ll find.

Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey - Dave Hickey—art dealer, editor, professional songwriter, professor, MacArthur fellow, and cultural critic—writes like the bastard child of Walter Benjamin and Lester Bangs. Few people have enough material to be able to bury a phrase like “bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege” in the first half of a sentence about Liberace, but Hickey’s one of them.

Little, Big, by John Crowley - A medium-sized group of avid readers spend a lot of time wondering aloud why John Crowley isn’t ridiculously famous. By page 50 of this book, I was one of them.

Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, by Noel Mostert - Mostert’s lyrical and intensively researched doorstop of a book about the founding of South Africa made me cry.

Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer - This eerie, gorgeous dream of a novel—in which two highly articulate and squabbling siblings relate their own family’s drama and the history of the decadent and doomed city they live in—reads like a dispatch from another world and a not too distant corner of our own.

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, by William Langewiesche - A terrific piece of reportage about pirates, smugglers, the shipping industry, and how much we’re kidding ourselves about our ability to govern international waters, written by a man who writes like he means it.

The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Economic Change, by Lester Thurow - This sharply written, wonderfully cranky book about economic policy is both highly accessible and suddenly relevant.


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Forgot to add: Also, Krugman is *definitely* smarter than I am.

@ David Jacobson

Your positioning of Krugman as "still bemoan[ing] the loss of his Soviets" is at odds with Krugman's own description of himself: "I have always been a free-market Keynesian: I like free markets, but I want some government supervision to correct market failures and ensure stability." (Available at


@ Brian Slattery

Thank you for the last paragraph of your comment. While it _may_ be true that Krugman is way smarter than you, it is true that like Thurow, Krugman holds of positions that history will show are just plain wrong. Krugman still bemoans the loss of his Soviets. Ah, the good ol' days. For my money the proper replacement would be "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism."

Hello all,

I'm enjoying reading your comments about The Zero-Sum Society. I should add that, just because I put it on the list, it doesn't mean that I agree with it; it's that I found it to be really interesting, particularly because it was published at a point when the U.S. economic regime was undergoing some serious upheaval (Bart: That would be 1980, not 1989), and, having talked about that period in my economics classes, it was fascinating to read an attempt to analyze what was going on as it was happening.

Certainly many of the things in Thurow's book have turned out not to be accurate, and with the benefit of 20 years' distance between that book and today, it's easy to dismiss the entire book because of it. It's also easy to dismiss the book because of its title. (See above re: not getting enough respect). But I found the book to be really helpful for its unvarnished look into the logic that governed a certain school of economic thought—a logic that persists, to some extent, today. And for every point Thurow made where I thought, "well, *that's* not true any more," there was another that made me stop and think—that made me reevaluate my own assumptions about the little I understand regarding how economic policy is made and made me think of questions I hadn't thought of before. That made for a much more interesting read, in some ways, than reading Paul Krugman, whom I love and can find little to disagree with, partly because I seem to share virtually all of his political views and partly because he's way smarter than I am.

@ Rob: Please don't let your dislike of Thurow dissuade you from checking out the other books that seem interesting to you. They're all terrific books and, as the title of the post suggests, deserve more recognition than they have.

@ Bart

I agree. Seeing Thurow, a laughably misguided economist, on this list vaporized the credibility of the whole thing.

nostromo, nice! stoner by john williams is severely overlooked as well.

"The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Economic Change" is a book that deserves to be forgotten. It is pretty weak that it made this list.

Even back when it came out, it was widely known that the average American had a much higher standard of living than the average Russkie. The Russian economy was known mostly for shoddy products (matches that wouldn't strike, batteries that didn't work, etc), and shortages. One of the reasons we were able to beat them was because they could not keep pace with our military spending. We bankrupted them. They were spending 30% of gdp on defense and still couldn't keep pace.

Lester Thurow's "insights" were on the wrong side of history, yet I have never heard him recant or admit he was wrong. One wonders why this book, which deserves to be forgotten, would make a list like this.

You're all not old enough. Were you old enough, you could remember Walter Liberace's short nightly TV performances from the mid-50's. Kitsch, kitsch, kitsch -- Liberace could play. I wish some pomo ironist would get past the Vegas scene and remember that for us.

@Bart -

"The Zero-Sum Society" made Brian Francis Slattery's list because, evidently, he has the same tired, groupthink politics that so many novelists and intellectuals imbibe as part of their education and social class.

Just note the phrase, "ruminations on capitalism that make one question just how different 2008 is from 1908." No one who has thought hard or well about the economic history of the 20C could say that. And note too the "despairing" take on the "Big Fat American Dream" that's supposed to emerge from a book about competitive eating.

Finally, you do realize that his own book, "Liberation," is set in the near future -- after the economic collapse of the United States, right? Not that Publisher's Weekly is to be trusted, but they call it a "heavy-handed fable of a near-future America fallen into economic and social chaos." That should give you the picture.

And yes, I know he has a Masters degree. In "Economic development, with concentration in human rights" -- and I know just what that means.

This is the same sort of moral narcissism that makes one think the line, "“bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege” is such genius that you should quote it in a short blurb. "Residue of someone else's privilege" -- WTF? Who thinks Slattery actually believes that about, say, fans of his own writing? Anyway, if he actually believed this, what in the world would be the point of making a list of books that don't get enough respect? Respect is just the residue of someone else's privilege, right?

Except, of course, he doesn't really believe that at all. It's just kitchy, ironic cool to kind of like Liberace -- so long as you don't have to listen to him or anything.

I can't see how the book "The Zero-Sum Society: Distribution and the Possibilities for Economic Change" made your list. From the reviews at the page:

'Here is a quote from the author: "Can economic command significantly... accelerate the growth process? The remarkable performance of the Soviet Union suggests that it can... Today the Soviet Union is a country whose economic achievements bear comparison with those of the United States." That was in 1989, JUST BEFORE the Soviet system collapsed. How can anyone be more wrong? Unfortunately, these people teach our kids.'

I mean, really. When the Soviet Union imploded, we learned that the supposed Soviet economic miracle was a sham and a facade. The author's insights and prognostications were clearly on the wrong side of history.

The last nearly 30 years have demonstrated quite conclusively the economy is emphatically NOT a zero sum game. I'd go into detail but I have to log off my home computer now and turn down the volume on my digital plasma satellite-linked-to-300-channels TV which is playing a program I Tivo'd to answer a call on my iPhone from my sister in France.


Regarding Crowley, I enjoyed "Little, Big," but I *loved* "Aegypt."

He is an awesome writer.

Excellent list, Brian. I confess, I haven't read any of these, but will be sure to look them up.
Thanks for the education in obscurity. Since obscurity seems to be my goal, it's essential I should learn more about it. ;=)

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