Falling bookish

The season’s literary offerings are minor-major events in a dwindling world of readers

Every four years, the publishing industry braces itself for yet another election season—not for the political books, which will sell, but for everything else, which won’t. Nothing but the most tried-and-true writing will move during the hullabaloo of presidential politicking, the thinking goes. And so, not surprisingly, the fall of 2008 brings a host of heavy hitters—Toni Morrison, Philip Roth—whose readers will buy copies, sight unseen, whether a pit bull with lipstick is on television or not.

But there are also a number of books that will probably be minor-major events in the dwindling world of the bookish, such as the publication of the late Roberto Bolaño’s 1,000-page masterpiece, a tiny gem of a book on Naples by Shirley Hazzard and a state-by-state guide that mimics the Works Progress Administration guides of yore.

In that spirit, here, in alphabetical order by author, are a dozen books that, no matter what happens this fall, will make you happy to have access to ’merkan bookstores.

Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany (HarperCollins, October 7). This Egyptian dentist became a literary sensation when his novel about the libidinous (and hilarious) goings-on in a Cairo apartment building was made into the most expensive Arabic film ever. Now he is back with another slice-of-life tale, this time set in Chicago, involving a series of immigrants struggling to make sense of life in America after 9/11.

Collected Poems, 1956-1987 by John Ashbery (Library of America, October 2). He is to poetry what Raymond Carver was to the short story, what Pete Rose was to the bunt. In fact, John Ashbery’s influence is so broad, it’s impossible to imagine contemporary verse without him. This handsome volume gives readers all they’ll ever need of that groundbreaking work, and reminds us that even if imitation is flattery, it rarely surpasses the original.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; November 11). In less than a decade, he has become the most unsecret secret handshake among writers—and this on the basis of work that is considered secondary in his home country of Chile. This mammoth, gouging novel about the unsolved murders of women on the Mexico-Texas border is his masterpiece, and it is the safest bet for literary communion this fall.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; October 14). A deposed raj, a French orphan disguised as a man and several others in disguise join the motley crew of a former slave ship sailing into the heart of the Opium Wars with China in this Man Booker Prize finalist by Calcutta-born Ghosh.

The Ancient Shore by Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller (University of Chicago Press, November 1). In the 1950s, future award-winning novelist Hazzard moved to Naples to take up a job with the United Nations. This small volume collects the best of her writing and journalism about this adopted city, and reprints her husband’s classic New York essay as well.

More Information Than You Require by John Hodgman (Dutton, October 21). We know him now as that PC guy, or the most deadpan face on The Daily Show, but John Hodgman began his life knowing a lot of things. Here, in almanac fashion, are just a few of those facts. Prepare your minds to be blown.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (Little, Brown and Company; September 10). Not long ago, the novelist met someone, fell in love and moved to France, where she was writing a novel and waiting for her baby to be born. And then, in the ninth month of her pregnancy, her son died. This slim, haunting book describes the concussive shockwave of this experience.

Home by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; September 2). It may have taken her more than 20 years to finally publish a second novel, Gilead, but Robinson made do with just a quarter of that time for Home, a stirring parable about a prodigal son which draws upon the characters of her recent Pulitzer Prize winner.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison (Knopf, November 11). An Anglo-Dutch trader takes a young slave for payment in this latest novel by the Nobel Prize winner, setting off a string of consequences that Morrison unveils with her typical mysterious grace.

Indignation by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, September 16). It was the ‘50s. No one had sex, officially. The Korean War was a success, officially. And Marcus Messner, the high-strung, very dead narrator of this odd book, was on his way to discovering the fallacy of both.

State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey (Ecco, September 16). In the ‘30s, the WPA inveigled writers, from Richard Wright to Saul Bellow, to contribute to guidebooks about the American states. This book resurrects that tradition in one volume, with inspired pairings: from William T. Vollmann on California and Ha Jin on Georgia to Louise Erdrich on North Dakota and Dave Eggers on Illinois.

Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, October 7).The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus and grandfather of the current wave of graphic novelists revisits his youth and the crazy ‘60s events that made him the artist he is today.