07 February 2011

Life-like reading list 1: Encyclopedia novels

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec is selected as Conversational Reading's Spring 2011 Big Read. No weekly reading schedule yet, but it's supposed to start in early March.

In December I mentioned in my post on writers' top 10 that I received as book prize the corrected edition of Georges Perec's book in a contest where one was asked to submit a top ten list of books inspired by Georges Perec's Life A User's Manual. "Top 10 encyclopedia novels" is the one of two top 10 Life-inspired lists that I submitted. The list is inspired by the structure-architecture of Perec’s book, as well as by Roberto Bolaño’s influences in the writing of his novel Nazi Literature in the Americas. Perec's book is considered by Bolaño as one of the "five books" that marked his life.

These encyclopedia novels are made up of discrete topical entries arranged systematically (e.g., alphabetical) or subdivided thematically. I haven’t read all these books, but I’m familiar with them as I own or read some of them. The common theme that runs in some of these books is the "secret of evil." That is, they are usually inventories of bad people and/or their evil deeds. But any catalog of things can be an encyclopedia novel.

Top Ten Encyclopedia Novels

1. The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kiš

2. The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

3. A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges

4. A Perfect Vacuum by Stanisław Lem

5. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

6. The Temple of Iconoclasts by J. Rodolfo Wilcock

7. Zero by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão

8. The Atrocity Exhibition by J. G. Ballard

9. Imaginary Lives by Marcel Schwob (excerpt)

10. Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic


  1. George Perec's jigsaw-puzzle of a novel is the archetypal post-modern novel. It's one of my all-time favourites which I've recently re-read, but one must be patient in reading, not a lot of action going on, but extraordinary detail in description and construction. Look out for the page with the letter e moving diagonally down the page, a nod to his 'A Void' a novel Perece wrote without a single use of the letter E!

  2. oh what a interesting list I ve read the bolano and Borges and BALLARD ,ALL THE BEST STU

  3. Great list, and great *idea* for a list, Rise. Would Flaubert's "Dictionary of Received Ideas" count, or is it not encyclopedic enough? This also brings to mind two very enjoyable French works by Charles Dantzig, both of them perhaps difficult to classify as novels but certainly belonging in the fiction section, and both unfortunately yet to be translated into English: his "Idiosyncratic Dictionary of French Literature" and his "Capricious Encyclopedia of Everything and Nothing" (my own translations of the French titles). - Scott

  4. Interesting list. I had voted for A Naked Singularity on the poll, but I am happy about this one too. Looking forward to read it next month!

  5. Kevin, the need to be a patient reader with it already makes it my kind of book. I'll just try to forget my attention deficit, I guess. 'A Void' is on my next list, coming up.

    Stu, the titles alone (carrying words like 'devil', 'infamy', 'atrocity', 'Nazi') can be scary.

    Scott, it's my first time to hear of this book by Flaubert. Another one for my wish list! I hope the pair of Dantzig novels make it in English soon. The "Everything and Nothing" in the title makes me think it's Borgesian.

    Madhuri, me too. A Naked Singularity looks like a fine choice too. But I know I'll have trouble searching for it in book shops.