Michael Rock

Graphic Designer / United States / 2x4

Michael Rock’s Book List

My list is comprised of books I admire for diverse reasons: the structure of the sentences, narrative complexity, the relationship to other books, the use of genre, the singular voice of the author. I draw from them differently. Some I use as models for argument, others I read to refresh my ear when I have been stuck on something, still others remind me to be more daring or fearless. My list is heavily weighted toward novels as they are the most important to me.

10 books
John McPhee

My favorite essayist, after Joan Didion. I draw so much from McPhee’s extremely human approach to his subjects and the structural elegance of his essays. His movement from subject to subject, in absolutely fluid transitions, is remarkable.

Edward St. Aubyn

At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels (also by St. Aubyn) together represent the most crystalline prose and concise observation I have read in a contemporary novelist. St. Aubyn has an alchemic ability to, in a single sentence, engage humor, pathos, and shockingly bad behavior: absolutely compelling and often hair-raising.

Jonathan Franzen

At once hilarious and pathetic. I prefer The Corrections slightly over Franzen’s Freedom. What both books accomplish is the superimposition of socioeconomic and familial politics, in that they are both highly political novels that take on and critique the dominant cultural logic of the moment. The trope of the large writ small is expertly handled and entirely woven into the plotting, which is complex and multivalent.

Rem Koolhaas

The only architecture book on my list and one that I admire immensely, along with S, M, L, XL. Koolhaas is a brilliant prose stylist and one of the funniest, most insightful of theorists. I aspire to his ability to encompass counterintuitive thinking in surprising, wildly entertaining sentences. The premise of Delirious New York is utterly unique and relentlessly rigorous. Everyone else pales by comparison.

Janet Malcolm

An elegant essayist from the pages of The New Yorker, Malcolm is a fascinating analyst and intricate structuralist. While this book-length essay encompasses all her techniques, my favorite essay is her magazine profile of the artist David Salle composed entirely of possible first paragraphs from a potential profile.

Vladimir Nabokov

The author I most turn to when in need of reinvigorating my sentences. No one composes better ones in English (nor in Russian, I suspect). In addition, Nabokov masters contemporary forms and vernaculars. Lolita combines, in an almost painful way, the hilarious and the unconscionable. I have read it five times over the years and each time I find more in it. His love of language is unequaled. (Also see Nabokov’s other novels, including Pnin, Pale Fire, and Ada.)

Herman Melville

Another benchmark book I reread once every ten years or so and it never disappoints. I love Melville’s thoroughly modern assemblage of genres: jumping from adventure narrative to travelogue to anthropological treatise to natural history text. Plus it speaks to the New Englander in me.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion is another brilliant sentence composer with a clear, unflinching approach to her subjects. The essays are almost perfectly structured and I often attempt her stirring combination of the autobiographical and the cultural. Didion is able to capture the essence of a specific moment in subtle but precise ways.

Jennifer Egan

The most contemporary book on my list included primarily because I admire the complex structure of the narrative. Egan moves so deftly between time periods and genres that the intricacy of the interrelationships is almost not apparent at first. An extremely designed novel. (I had my students at Yale attempt to diagram it.)

Haruki Murakami

An absolutely compelling combination of the blank and the fantastical. Murakami is a phenomenal plotter, but what I admire most in his books is the ability to generate affect—a very specific, almost palpable, atmosphere or mood. Plus his use of musical reference is fascinating.

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