David A. Beronä: Wait­ing for Noth­ing by Tom Kromer. As far back as I can remem­ber, I have enjoyed read­ing diaries, jour­nals, and auto­bi­ogra­phies and have sought dis­tinct works that expose lifestyles that encour­age me to dis­cov­er a dif­fer­ent way of view­ing the world. Some ear­ly auto­bi­ogra­phies that expand­ed my world were by Hen­ry Miller, Ned Rorem, Vaslav Nijin­sky, Charles Bukows­ki, Alexan­der Troc­chi, David Woj­narow­icz, and Tom Kromer.

It is Wait­ing for Noth­ing, the only book pub­lished by the Amer­i­can Tom Kromer (1906−1969), that I found espe­cial­ly dis­turb­ing when I dis­cov­ered it in my mid-20s. It is a book that I have returned to every few years for its unapolo­getic hon­esty and truth. It was first pub­lished in 1935 by Alfred A. Knopf, reis­sued by Hill & Wang in 1968, and reprint­ed as Wait­ing for Noth­ing and Oth­er Writ­ings in 1986 by Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia Press.

Although much has been writ­ten about the Amer­i­can Depres­sion, few books match the scathing depic­tion of squalor in the amaz­ing­ly sim­ple style pre­sent­ed by Kromer. Iron­i­cal­ly, the book clos­est to the spir­it of Kromer’s text is Lynd Ward’s mon­u­men­tal word­less graph­ic nov­el Ver­ti­go, pub­lished in 1937. Both books sin­gu­lar­ly cap­tured the des­per­a­tion in the lives of men and women dur­ing this era.

In the pref­ace to the Hill & Wang edi­tion, Kromer wrote: “Some­times I would stay in a town for four or five months doing odd jobs for a room and some­thing to eat.  Most of the time I slept and ate in mis­sions, dinged the streets and hous­es, and used every oth­er rack­et known to stiffs to get by. I had no idea of get­ting Wait­ing for Noth­ing pub­lished, there­fore, I wrote it just as I felt it, and used the lan­guage that stiffs use even when it wasn’t always the nicest lan­guage in the world. Parts of the book were scrawled on Bull Durham papers in box cars, mar­gins of reli­gious tracts in a hun­dred mis­sions, jails, one prison, rail­road sand-hous­es, flop-hous­es, and on a few mem­o­rable occa­sions actu­al­ly pecked out with my two index fin­gers on an hon­est-to-God type­writer.”

Kromer’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy is an account of a home­less man mov­ing from one place to anoth­er in the hope of find­ing work. It is told using ver­nac­u­lar of the streets from the 1930s in a strik­ing real­is­tic style of effec­tive short sen­tences that jab us with dis­turb­ing truths. Kromer dis­plays the hope­less­ness on the streets that changes the lives of men and women who no longer “know what is right or what is wrong.”  In a series of short chap­ters, Kromer expos­es dis­turb­ing evi­dence of our inhu­man­i­ty with ten­der moments of redemp­tion and was an impor­tant book in my life that revealed the need of com­pas­sion for oth­ers.

Matthew Cheney: I’m writ­ing this a week after the death of a great writer, and so the only pos­si­ble rec­om­men­da­tion I can make is: Read the work of Lucius Shep­ard. If you’ve nev­er encoun­tered Lucius’s work before, then the place to start is The Best of Lucius Shep­ard edit­ed by Jonathan Stra­han and pub­lished by Sub­ter­ranean Press. The col­lec­tion gives a good overview of Lucius’s whole career, though because Lucius’s best work was most­ly done at novel­la length, any sin­gle-vol­ume col­lec­tion is inevitably just a sam­pler. Still, a col­lec­tion that includes “The Man Who Paint­ed the Drag­on Gri­aule”, “The Jaguar Hunter”, “R&R”, “Only Part­ly Here”, “Hands Up! Who Wants to Die!”, and oth­ers, is among the best short sto­ry col­lec­tions of recent decades. Read­ers already famil­iar with Lucius Shepard’s work should seek out The Drag­on Gri­aule, which col­lects a series of sto­ries that are impres­sive on their own and breath­tak­ing togeth­er. Of course, there’s a lot else that could be rec­om­mend­ed, too — I’m espe­cial­ly fond of his late novel­las Floater and Via­tor, the first a kind of hard­boiled noir, the lat­ter (par­tic­u­lar­ly in a revised edi­tion pub­lished as Via­tor Plus) a tale of fecund sur­re­al­ism that con­tains some of Lucius’s most majes­tic sen­tences — and he wrote many a majes­tic sen­tence.

Lil­lie Elliot: Pho­tographs Not Tak­en: A Col­lec­tion of Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Essays, edit­ed by Will Stea­cy. A fas­ci­nat­ing look into the mind of the pho­tog­ra­ph­er.

Case Hath­away-Zepe­da: Oryx and Crake, by Mar­garet Atwood. I’m a huge fan of Atwood’s “spec­u­la­tive fic­tions” as she con­stant­ly re-imag­ines the world’s future. She helps me PAY ATTENTION to the here and now while also con­sid­er­ing alter­na­tive men­tal and emo­tion­al real­i­ties of day-to-day life.

Mik­ki Kendall: The first time I read For Col­ored Girls Who Have Con­sid­ered Sui­cide When the Rain­bow Is Enuf, by Ntoza­ke Shange, and real­ized that I didn’t have to tell sto­ries to suit any tra­di­tion­al mod­el. I’ve been find­ing my own way ever since.

D. F. Lewis: Rameau’s Nephew by Denis Diderot. This work is about me. Or what I would like to be. I recent­ly reviewed it here.

Frans Masereel: Song of Myself, by Walt Whit­man.This is the city and I am one of the citizens,/ What­ev­er inter­ests the rest inter­ests me, pol­i­tics, wars, mar­kets, news­pa­pers, schools,/ The may­or and coun­cils, banks, tar­iffs, steamships, fac­to­ries, stocks, stores, real estate and per­son­al estate.”

Nji­hia Mbitu­ru: Alfred Bester’s, The Stars My Des­ti­na­tion. Synaes­the­sia. Lead into gold and back. Prose that bends and twists back in on itself (and on the page too). Dread. Heat. Ver­tig­i­nous delight. Foyle in his float­ing clos­et at the begin­ning of the nov­el, adrift and alone, full of a rage impos­si­ble for a sin­gle body to con­tain yet which is sus­tained through the nov­el and out past its com­plete­ly beguil­ing end. Read­ing this fine book is every­time for me like doing a head­stand on a uni­cy­cle on a tightrope while jug­gling frag­men­ta­tion grenades. It seems that some­thing is already going wrong — that is, counter to the gen­er­al run of aes­thet­ic plea­sures you get from a book — and that there­fore one ought to stop, or implode. But of course that does not hap­pen because the oppo­site feels equal­ly true: this is, you begin to sus­pect, the sin­gu­lar read­ing expe­ri­ence — that Pla­to is right and there are Forms and the point-to-point par­i­ty of read­er and text — of this won­der­ful book and me, is that of ide­al Read­er and Ide­al Book. And then the book’s over, and I’m not sure any­more. Every time. In fact, I’m not the same per­son I was, and to fig­ure out the how and why of it I’d have to read the book again, test this new guy’s impres­sions and assess­ments against the oth­er one, the man who began the book. And to do that, is to be changed again, and again.  But real­ly it’s just a great, great book, slop­py & and dash­down­i­ly corny in parts but so fun and dar­ing I gen­er­al­ly don’t care. And like all great books its scenes, images, set pieces, locales & char­ac­ters become as mem­o­ry, indis­tin­guish­able from those of your own life. Gul­ly Foyle’s adven­tures are yours, and per­haps a lit­tle of the man him­self too, and he is you.

Richard Bowes: The Grove Press Dirty Book of the Year (1962−64). I for­get who applied the “Dirty Book” label. Time Mag­a­zine, the then home of pruri­ent tit­il­la­tion, seems a like­ly sus­pect. Grove had already blown the cen­sors’ doors open with Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1959) and Trop­ic of Can­cer (1961). I don’t know what Grove was up to in 1960. But D.H. Lawrence and Hen­ry Miller, a gen­er­a­tion and more after their books gene­ses seemed old fash­ioned and stale to a U.S. teenag­er look­ing, as ado­les­cents do, for a reflec­tion of him­self. The next three years, though, pro­vid­ed the shock of recog­ni­tion and then some.

(1962) Naked Lunch by William Bur­roughs: What­ev­er, for good or ill, this book was sup­posed to do to the Amer­i­can Psy­che, what it gave me was the endur­ing les­son that one could write what one want­ed the way one want­ed and let the world be damned.

(1963) City of Night by John Rechy: His world of trag­ic camp and hus­tlers bound to near-chival­ric codes of macho con­duct was oper­at­ic and over-the-top. But the Street and the Meat Rack were cen­tral to gay life when all was ille­gal. Here they were treat­ed not as fleet­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions but as coast-to-coast real­i­ty.

(1964) Last Exit to Brook­lyn by Hubert Sel­by Jr.: Film Noir meets Hyper­re­al­ism: drags, drugs, dumb studs. A world so unlike my glimpses of the New York City of 1964 — The Vil­lage and Uptown Sky­scrap­ers — that it felt like some Weegee 1940’s past. Its cur­ren­cy only hit me after I moved here.

Eric Schaller: Sid­dhartha, by Her­man Hesse. I have reread this short nov­el many times. It is one of the few works that has inspired me to be a bet­ter per­son than I am, mov­ing me to action from inac­tion in sur­pris­ing ways (none of which I will reveal here).

Bri­an Fran­cis Slat­tery: I Remem­ber Clif­ford” is real­ly one of the most beau­ti­ful melodies around.