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Filling Up Your Bookshelves

By Orli Van Mourik
Quick Tips

  1. A stocked bookshelf is powerful – Don’t underestimate the fringe benefits of a well-stocked bookshelf. It adds some flavor to the décor, creates a source of conversation when you have visitors, and may even provide entertainment if you get the strange urge to actually read.
  2. Impress with eclectic books – An easy way to appear well-read is to stock bookshelves with the lesser-known works of famous authors. Examples: East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Pale Fire by Nabokov. Special bonus points if you actually read them!
  3. Chicks dig poetry - Balance out brawn with a little verse and win major sensitivity points. Time-tested classics: Rainer Maria Rilke, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost.
  4. Become a word jockey - Reading is the best way to exercise that linguistic muscle. Soon you’ll be dropping “SAT words” like they’re hot and earning a swift kick in the ass from your friends. But at least you’ll be able to rock the Time’s crossword.
  5. Don’t become a literary douche – There are some limits to this whole endeavor, because at the end of the day no one likes a showoff. Never forget that the purpose of conversing about books is to exchange information. Pompously pontificating on Nabokov’s presaging David Foster Wallace’s post-post-modernist/pre-post-structuralist use of footnotes is the second best way to get someone to keep their pants on, right after…“Oh, by the way, I have STDs.”

After graduating college, I found my new Ikean bookshelves filled with nothing but books from various classes in Victorian Lit (all of which were marked with a big orange “Used” sticker) and several well-thumbed copies of US Weekly. Though my collection did manage to

expose a couple suitors’ obsessions with Britney’s latest drinking binges or the use of simile in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, I wanted a library that did more than weed out weirdos and sycophants. I wanted a collection that would inspire sexy pseudo-intellectual banter while bringing a touch of class to my first post-college dwelling. I started by building one book at a time, and I eventually came up with what I think is the perfect library for looking (and maybe even being) sexily smart.

The best “Time To Revisit It Now That It’s Off the Reading List” book:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gatsby loves Daisy, but Daisy’s married to Tom. Tom loves Daisy, but he’s having an affair with Myrtle. Tom confronts Gatsby and Daisy. Daisy and Gatsby leave in a tizzy, mowing down Myrtle on their way home. Melodrama ensues.

Reason to read:

This short novel reads like an incredibly erudite episode of Days of Our Lives. Fitzgerald paints an indelible picture of the glamour, gaudiness, and depravity of the roaring ‘20s that’ll make you feel a little bit better about your own drinking and carousing.

Four More

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  • The Sun Also Rises, Earnest Hemingway
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

The best “Yes, I am an intellectual. What tipped you off?” book:

Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco

It’s sort of like High Fidelity except it’s set in boutique publishing house in Italy instead of an underground record shop in Chicago, and instead of vinyl, the triad in this story are experts in occult conspiracy theories. In fact, Belbo, Diotallevi, and Casaubon know so much about the purported history of the Knights Templar and the Freemasons that they decide to invent their own conspiracy. But their plan begins to take on a life of its own…

Reason to read:

It’s a satire wrapped inside a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma, wrapped inside a conundrum. Eco offers up a smorgasbord of esoterica guaranteed to impress both lit and math geeks alike!

Four More

  • Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo
  • The Magus, John Fowles

The best “In My Spare Time I Like to Ponder the Human Condition” book:

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks

Literature’s foremost neurologist takes readers on a tour of the bizarre world of brain disorders, painting riveting portraits of various odd people, including a man with no short term memory (think Lenny from Memento), the twin autistic savants who inspired the movie Rain Man, and a woman who can’t feel her own limbs.

Reason to read:

The dude honestly mistakes his wife for a hat—need I say more?

Four More

  • A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
  • How the Mind Works, Stephen Pinker
  • The Moral Animal, Robert Wright
  • The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen J. Gould

The “Why Yes, I Do Follow The New York Times Bestseller List” book:

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell marshals the expertise of a cavalcade of academics to confirm what we already know: Our instincts are generally on target.

Reason to read:

The payoff? Learn the fastest way to ruin a marriage, why some people prefer Coke to Pepsi, and the secrets of good salesmanship.

Four More

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
  • The Battle for God, Karen Armstrong
  • The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright
  • Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

The best “Has Anyone Ever Really Finished This?” book:

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

It’s World War II and there’s this US Army lieutenant named Tyrone who keeps having sex in places that end up getting bombed by V-2 rockets, see. So, his superiors send him to a casino in France (of course) where he learns about a mysterious device called the 00000, fabricated from a new kind of plastic invented by a man who could be responsible for Tyrone’s psychic sex romps . . . then again, he might not. So confused. Must rest eyeszzzzzzzzzzzz.

Reason to read:

Masochism and/or an inborn need to feel like you’re better than everyone else. And, you know, masterful writing . . . blah, blah, blah.

Four More

  • Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner
  • A Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
  • Ulysses, James Joyce
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

The best “Yes, I sometimes read magazines that are not pornographic” periodicals:

The Believer

This literary rag is published by San Francisco's famed McSweeney's, also known as the house that Dave Eggers built. Essays, pop culture criticism, and other nuggets of digestible pedantry fill the handsomely illustrated pages, and Nick Hornby's (About a Boy, High Fidelity) book reviews are always a highlight.

Reason to read:

This alt-geek publication will help you bump up your culture quotient without investing too much time. Never underestimate the importance of the bathroom branch of your personal library.

Four More

  • The Economist
  • The New Yorker
  • The Week
  • Paris Review



This article was really helpful. I like the suggestions now that I am a graduated English major with no syllabi left to tell me what to read every week! Anyone have any other classics they always have meant to read but never had the time?
ps. I enthusiastically recommend Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. One of the most wonderful books I ever read.

Thanks for these pretty cookie cutter choices. Btw Jessia, A Portrait of a Lady literally sucks my nuts. Put some Saul Bellow or Faulkner on that list muthafuckas.

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