The best books that care not a whit about traditional plotting

Gregory Hill Author Of Zebra Skin Shirt
By Gregory Hill

The Books I Picked & Why

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

By Laurence Sterne

Book cover of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Why this book?

This book is brilliant. I have never finished reading it. Not because I disliked it, but because, by the time I'd reached the halfway mark, I'd fallen so in love with Sterne's plotless, digressive discourse that I had to quit reading and immediately begin writing Zebra Skin Shirt, a novel whose meandering nature owes a great debt to Sterne's 18th-century yarn. What's so special about Shandy? Here's a clue: it's so caught up in its own sub-sub-sub plots that our hero--the awkwardly-named Tristram Shandy--does not exit his mother's birth canal until the third volume. 

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Gravity's Rainbow

By Thomas Pynchon

Book cover of Gravity's Rainbow

Why this book?

In the books-that-take-half-a-year-to-read category, I had to choose between this and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. While Gravity's Rainbow gets docked a point because its plot is marginally more coherent than that of Infinite Jest--by the time I finished GR, I actually had a vague idea of what had happened--it ultimately wins out because it contains:

A) A multi-page, lovingly-described journey of a solitary man's journey down a toilet drain.

B) A multi-page, lovingly-described history of an immortal light bulb.

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha

By Michael Coogan, Marc Brettler, Carol Newsom, Pheme Perkins

Book cover of The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha

Why this book?

Another book that takes forever to read, and another book that I haven't yet finished. Why this particular edition? Because, in addition to the fragmentation that is inherent to all versions of The Bible, the NOABWA has footnotes. Enough footnotes to make the previously-mentioned Infinite Jest look like a half-assed high school research paper. Those footnotes ensure that, even when a plot threatens to show itself, the reader will be immediately distracted by a reminder that nobody actually knows how long a cubit is. If a book that hasn't even defined the value of its base units can become a bestseller, then, by gum, I can write a novel in which the concept of time is stretched and folded like the crust of a croissant. And so can you!

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Masters of Atlantis

By Charles Portis

Book cover of Masters of Atlantis

Why this book?

Remember how disappointed you were when you first tried to read Tolkien's The Silmarillion? You'd just devoured The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and you needed more Middle Earth, and you asked for The Silmarillian for your birthday and you received it!  And it was just a bunch of half-baked fleshless ideas! Well, there's nothing half-baked about Masters of Atlantis! Masters of Atlantis is my least favorite book by my most favorite author! Why did I choose it for this list over Portis's other four novels? Because, for the vast majority of its 300-plus pages, it reads like a hurried summary of a tangled web of bizarro characters negotiating an interwoven freak-o-system of conspiratorial cults!

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of The Road

Why this book?

Cormac McCarthy is pretty good at describing decay. One could argue that he's just a touch too good.  After reading three of his novels, I'd had my fill of fetid ponds, gangrenous characters, and all other manners of entropy-in-natural-as-metaphor-for-human-fecundity. But then someone gave me The Road. I finished it in one sitting. Don't get me wrong, the book has its share of rot and evil--there's a cannibalistic barbeque scene!--but what it doesn't have is a plot. Well, there is a plot: a man and a boy walk from point A to point B, and then the man dies. Thereby did The Road inspire my first novel, East of Denver, wherein a man and a boy walk around in circles, and then the man flies.  

When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists