The List of Books That Saved My Life

Keeping track of all of the books I’ve read for past 11 years.

In the summer of 2005, Las Vegas was a hot place. The temperature when I arrived to my new home on Horsethief Ranch Avenue was, to be sure, stultifying and oppressive. But Vegas was also—a fact reiterated ad nauseam in cabs, on buses, at the airport, on the radio, etc.—the fastest growing city in the country, a burgeoning new hotspot where nearly everything is open 24 hours, which meant twice the job opportunities (though the implication that the bulk of the positions were graveyard shifts didn’t seem to dim any of the advertisements’ enthusiasm whatsoever) and of course—wink, wink—twice the fun!

That the soon-to-be-exposed sub-prime mortgage scandal would ultimately deflate the opportunists behind Vegas’s suave PR campaigns (the slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is probably the most brilliant municipal marketing ever) means very little, though, because Vegas, despite the false veneer of booming communities, wasn’t all that great of a place to live. Baked in dry heat (which, despite the lack of humidity, still scorched at over 100 degrees—I don’t care if there’s no humidity—that’s fucking hot) and riddled with twinkle-eyed tourists making dumb faces, or partiers for whom the PR slogan becomes literal truth and thus go way overboard with the drinking and the cocaine and the yelling and the fighting, Vegas is a place where the fundamental aesthetic involves recreating other places. The Paris, New York, NY, the Sphinx and the Luxor with its Egyptian pyramid, Caesar’s Palace—Vegas wants all at once to be no-place, where relishing in bad behavior is, by virtue of its no-placeness, a safe activity, and all-places, which by offering starkly varied geographies in a tiny stretch of road guarantees you’ll never get bored (at least for the duration of your stay). Outside of the strip, on the other hand, the architectural plan seems to have been about hiding everything beyond the casinos: the houses, the businesses, the schools, the fast food joints—everything was sand-colored with maroon trim, like desert camouflage. The darting, dashing revelry of the strip is always within view, almost guiding you to it, a north star of debauchery, or maybe a blackhole.

So anyway, I moved to Las Vegas to go to school, which, I know, sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: I was to attend UNLV and live in a house my friend Greg’s father owned. Despite the promise of Twice the Jobs! ™, I couldn’t find any work. In Ohio, I’d had a job since high school, so suddenly, when living in a new city where I knew like three people and had no job, free time opened up before me like a vast desert after a long tunnel ride. A non-drinker and socially anxious to boot, I wound up reading a lot of books in those first months. I read The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Dubliners, Candide, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and A Confederacy of Dunces. I got super into theater, reading David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Neil Labute, and Tom Stoppard. Contemporary literature, too: Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Saul Williams, Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Tom Perrotta, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, and Nick Horby. I was too dumb and selfish and short-sighted to realize how white and male virtually all these authors were, but though I had been a reader since I could remember, I had never gobbled up books so voluminously. So impressed was I with my homogeneously hetero-normative erudition, in fact, I wanted to count them, to know exactly how many I’d read. So I made a list.

I felt small in Vegas, not merely in the sense of being one among so many, but also unequipped to strive for a life I wanted, because Vegas, being no-place, gave my existence there a purgatorial hum, and, being all-places, it never let me forget just how much was out there waiting to overtake me. When I finished itemizing the books I’d read and the total for the year came to 47 books, it was an act against that sense of smallness: I was preparing, to the extent that I could, for life, and I was learning, progressing, developing, and I needed something to reinforce my efforts, some suggestion of accomplishment to nudge me onwards.

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I kept the list going mostly to see if I could beat myself the following year. Which I did. In 2007, now safely out of Vegas and living in Boston, I read 68 books. In a new city to explore (and a much more literary one, I might add) and with a little more ambition and direction, I excitedly plunged into my life in New England with much more enthusiasm than I had in Nevada. I wrote a lot. And I made friends. I attended readings and shows and parties. I had a social life and finally felt that thing so many people had been back-handedly complaining about: busy.

But the next year I only read 58 books, ten less than the year before. Oh, it’s alright, I told myself, you’re living in a big city now. You’re busier than you were in Vegas. Living is just as important as reading. And so I continued to busy myself with business, and my circle expanded, flourishing into a veritable community. I dated around and made art and hung out at bars and met all sorts of fascinating people whose biographies were richer and more complicated than mine—I was being exposed to a world that would break me of my straight-white-male-centric reading habits (as well as my straight-white-male sexism, racism, and homophobia I thought I was too smart to possess but definitely did, and still do; though now I actively try to fight against those culturally-induced parts of myself), and though I still lacked a precise vision for my future, Boston seemed, at least, like a great vantage point from which to look for it.

The following year, fewer books again, and this time I couldn’t ignore the root cause: alcohol. Before Boston, I never really drank that much, but within a few years there, drinking was a nightly activity, blacking out was an occasional occurrence, and reading was a real struggle when I was hungover. Drinking, of course, wasn’t merely a component of my social life but its whole foundation—as a person riddled with anxiety, I would never have been confident or even comfortable enough to participate in so many functions and gatherings. It was as if I had to make a choice between drinking and popularity. By 2011, the number of books read fell lower than it had since I began the list six years earlier.

In 2012, I finally gave up drinking to dedicate myself to writing (and to save a relationship my drinking had nearly destroyed). I applied and was accepted to graduate school in North Carolina, so I not only made an enormous change by quitting alcohol, but I’d also changed geographies again. My life calmed to a slow current, and I wrote a lot, and I read even more. In 2013, the number shot back up to 62, and the following year reached 80. Another wonderful consequence of not drinking, which I didn’t anticipate, wasn’t merely the additional time and brain-power I now had to read, but that I could write a lot easier, a lot better, and a lot faster.

Within eight months of living in Wilmington, North Carolina, and just over a year since I quit drinking, I published my first literary essay on The Millions. Other publications soon came, gradually, then suddenly, and now less than three years later, I’ve placed just about 100 essays and reviews in over 20 different venues, online and in print. I think (fingers crossed!) I may even make a career out of this whole writing thing. I’ve found my vision for my future—it just took some time and some sobriety to finally arrive.

But it was also my list of books, a Word document I still have open on my computer and that I still studiously maintain more than a decade after I began it. By immaturely measuring my yearly literary endeavors, I also managed (inadvertently) to create a system to keep myself in check, to remind myself of the thing that really matters to me, and to not let myself get too far off track. In Vegas, I needed some evidence of intelligence, of potential, and in that vast desert, a mirage would have satisfied me. But later, the list served as a kind of conscience, a Jiminy Cricket of my passion for books, hovering just over my choices, my lifestyle, and my heart, and as silly as it sounds, I truly believe that list saved me.

Edited to add: You asked and we listened! Click through to see The *Actual* List of Books That Saved My Life by Jonathan Russell-Clark

Illustration: Elsa Ienna

About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

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