Not on the Exam: In Praise of Bookforum’s Syllabi

The reading list has a bad rap. For obvious reasons. Those words conjure up nothing so much as college-age resentment and all the guilt of a stack of neglected New Yorkers. But a reading list is, after all, just a list, and who doesn’t like lists? That’s where Bookforum’s Syllabi come in. This terrific series provides unapologetically subjective guides to a variety of pop cultural and esoteric topics, ranging from the World Series to the Manson Family.

Like a friend’s suggestion or a shelf of good staff picks, the best syllabi make you want to read things you didn’t know you were interested in. How about a list of books about Doubt by Maud Newton? Or Comic Novels selected by Ed Park?

Bookforum wisely asked each contributor to include a short blurb about each book, which makes the lists a lot more approachable. Each syllabus is organized by a unifying theme or passion, but other than that, there’s little rhyme or reason to the categories themselves. Some of the highlights include:

The World Series by Allen Barra
Doubt by Maud Newton
Postcollege Ennui by Daniel Pearce
On Being an Artist by Sheila Heti
Becoming Jane Austen by Laura Brodie
The Manson Family by Eric Banks
Deconstructing Disney by Hannah Frank
London Underground by Hari Kunzru
Comic Novels by Ed Park
Walking by Lisa Darms
Writing the West by Jane Ciabattari
Schizophrenic Memoirs by Rachel Aviv

Our favorites, though, have to be “Writing about not writing” by Sarah Manguso and “On color” by Maggie Nelson. The first could be a whole sub-genre of prose and the second is just charmingly eclectic. With plenty of fascinating books you’ve never heard of and zero sense of obligation, what better way to kick of ’10?