The PEN Book Report is a weekly series that challenges the notion of “best of,” “top,” and “seasonal must read” lists and the default books and authors that regularly appear on them. We simply asked contributors to share with us a list of books they turn to over and over again, ones that both inspire and challenge how they engage with the world.

Founded by Hafizah Geter and Antonio Aiello, participants include Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Melissa Febos, Kelly Forsythe, Nathalie Handal, Abeer Hoque, Gene Luen Yang, Loma, Lisa Lucas, Joseph Mains, Colum McCann, Rick Moody, Darnell Moore, Celeste Ng, Gregory Pardlo, Khadijah Queen, Camille Rankine, Jeff Shotts, and many more.

These are mostly books from a syllabus I’m teaching in the spring of 2016, namely “experimental” writing by women, and they are on the reading list because they are all books that I think are really moving and important. Ishmael Reed was in the companion class I taught a year ago. I like books that are unexpected and original. A book is “great” or canonical, for me, in proportion to the way it rethinks the conventions of form. This might imply that the canon for me is always anti-canonical, which further implies that canonicity is always in flux. The canon is constantly in danger of self-erasure, of deferral in favor of some other competing canon. Canonical activity is therefore, paradoxically, provisional activity. Or: these are the canonical books today, and I stand by them, and they are all anti-canonical! You should read all of them. -Rick Moody

Dawn by Octavia Butler (Grand Central Publishing)

I doubt Butler would consider herself “Afrofuturist,” and I don’t know if there’s a really perfect definition of that term, or whether there are rigorous aspects of fiction-making that a required for a novel to be “Afro-futurist,” but Butler often writes in a futurist/speculative way, but with real heart, too. And with a real narrative gift. She’s part of an African-American impulse that includes Sun Ra and Samuel Delany, but also part of a feminist tradition that includes Lessing and Le Guin and Atwood.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press)

Such a remarkable and unusual book, about deep history in Chinatown, SF, CA, but also about voice, the Asian-American experience in many forms, and about what constitutes the novel. An inexhaustible and demanding and beautiful and important book.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed (Doubleday)

This writer gets a shout out (an ahistorical one) in Thomas Pynchon’sGravity’s Rainbow, which is high praise indeed. In a way, Mumbo Jumbo is canonical in experimental writing circles, and deservedly so. It’s collaged, and savage, and incisive, and hilarious, and gives an alternative history of black culture in America. A really amazing novel that totally deserves its reputation, and then some.

The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada (New Directions)

Tawada represents a really fascinating fusion of Asian literature and European contemporary fiction (she writes in both German and Japanese, and her English is not bad either), and just about everything she has written is of great interest (I like The Bridegroom Was a Dog too), especially in the way it merges its cultural interests.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)

Persian literature in exile is urgently important to world literature, like Tibetan literature, or literature of the African diaspora. And there’s a lot of contemporary Persian literature, because Persia has always had a rich literary history. I could make a long list of Iranian contemporary writing that I like a lot. But Persepolis would always be at the top of that list. Persepolis depicts all the horror of the Iranian revolution and makes it accessible by virtue of its graphic novel orientation. But don’t forget this part: the literary novel, right now, needsthe graphic novel, and they are consubstantial. The graphic novel wouldn’t exist without the literary antecedent. Satrapi is writing a bildungsroman, and as such she is working inside the novel, even as she also has a fever to bear witness to all that she and her family lost during the revolution. It’s exceedingly hard to forget her story.


Rick Moody is the author of numerous novels, including Garden State, The Ice Storm, The Four Fingers of Death, The Diviners, and Purple America. His latest novel, Hotels of North America was published in October 2015. Right Livelihoods, a book of three novellas, was published in 2007. His collections of short fiction include The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven and Demonology. The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions was a winner of the NAMI/Ken Book Award and the PEN Martha Albrand prize for excellence in the memoir. His collection of essays, On Celestial Music, was published in 2012. Moody is the recipient of the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim fellowship.