#HipsterBooks was trending on Twitter last week thanks to a flurry of riffs on classic book titles: Remembrance of Things Pabst, A Farewell to Non-Inked Arms, He's Just Not That Into Your Vinyl Collection.
All puns aside, we got to thinking about which books are commonly enjoyed by the younger, trendier counterculture. It's easy to make jokes about hipsters, which is exactly why we will. But it's also interesting to examine the commonalities these stories share, and why these books resonate so strongly with contemporary readers.
"Hipster" has a nebulous definition, maybe intentionally so. A quick skim through the index of the n+1 book, What Was the Hipster?, which highlights words and phrases such as Bike: fixed gear, Midwestern sensibilities, ironic, gentrification, twee, and cafe, can help to piece together a semi-lucid image.
The book also mentions Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class, a 10-year-old sociological study that predicted a flocking of talented, creative types to more urban areas, leading to a culture that greatly values diversity and sustainability. Sound familiar?
So if a hipster is a talented, socially conscientious creative type who sometimes struggles with sincerity, what's a hipster book? Some common elements include:
- Pastiche. It's been argued that hipsterdom is the end of original culture, and that our current subculture borrows from various elements of preexisting ones. Whether or not this has any truth to it is debatable, but it's not uncommon for hip books to borrow titles and themes from celebrated classics.
- Inaccessibility. Lengthy novels with equally lengthy footnotes.
- Experimentation. A counterculture is tasked with challenging the norm, so it makes sense that books popular among hipsters would be about bizarre or fantastical topics.
- Existential crisis. The titles that tend toward the realistic rather than the postmodern are generally about a disgruntled protagonist in his or her late 20s, wandering aimlessly and thinking about said aimless wanderings.
Without further ado, we present to you our very definitive list of the 18 most hipster books of all time. These books are so hipster, you probably haven't even heard of them yet!! But actually, you probably have, and you've probably loved them, and they've probably even made you weep, and you've probably carried them with you on the train so as to seem on-trend.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers:
Eggers's memoir about the death of his parents is a tragic story with peppered-in elements of fantasy. It's a remarkably smart book, but is sometimes dismissed as maudlin. Eggers is also the founder of McSweeney's, a fantastic publisher and site that's designed to look antiquated. Kind of like those suspenders you bought from American Apparel.
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July:
Like Eggers's above mentioned book, July's short story collection is an incredible exploration of the fantasies we use to cope with pain and tragedy. But, in July's case, said pain and tragedy is moreso the result of a youthful existential crisis spurred by things like breakups or less-than-ideal jobs. It's as inventive as her films and her performance art, but something about seeing her philosophies written out imbues them with tenderness. The most powerful story in the collection, "Something That Needs Nothing," begins, humorously: "In an ideal world, we would have been orphans. We felt like orphans and we felt deserving of the pity that orphans get, but embarrassingly enough, we had parents." The characters proceed to wander around, and Lena Dunham-like circumstances ensue.
Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel by Tao Lin:
When it comes to selecting one of Tao Lin's novels as "definitively the most hipsterish," we're spoiled for choice. If we could, we'd pick his series of hamster drawings, but unfortunately they've yet to be compiled into a book. His most recent novel, Taipei, follows protagonist Paul around Brooklyn and through a number of botched almost-relationships, so it was a clear contender. However, the fact that it was published by industry juggernaut Penguin Random House and not Lin's previous, independent publisher makes it slightly less "definitively the most hipsterish" than, say, Eeeee Eee Eeee: A Novel, which is mostly about dolphins, Elijah Wood, and Domino's Pizza.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace:
The most notoriously unapproachable of Wallace's books (it's heavy, literally and figuratively), Jest has an entire movement dedicated to reading it: Infinite Summer. It's been called a book for "endurance bibliophiles," so it's not exactly accessible, especially considering that much of it is comprised of long, convoluted footnotes. In case you're aware of the book but haven't gotten around to finishing it, it mostly involves a corporate-fuddled super state and Wallace's token wordplay.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti:
Rather than a memoir sprinkled with fictional elements, Heti penned a "novel from life": a fictionalized account of her meandering thoughts, most of them related to the question posed in the title. Most of her thoughts are hinged upon whether a person should partake in what's been defined as socially normal (go to parties), or live with more emotional honesty (create art). Upper-middle-class dilemmas as "I bought the same dress as my friend, and now she's mad at me because we'll both be wearing it in Facebook pictures" are chronicled with self-awareness and wit. Her book is also somewhat of a contemporary feminist manifesto, as she promotes not smiling if you don't feel like smiling, and never attempting to be a feminine ideal for the sake of your significant other. Yay, Sheila!
Open City by Teju Cole:
A young grad student, Julius, roams around New York City's streets, cinemas and museums, contemplating his recent breakup and life in general. Julius's life seems a little plotless, so the story does as well, but that's not a bad thing. Like in Heti's book, the philosophical wonderings of the main character take the place of a clear narrative arc. Cole is also an active Twitter fiction writer, and recently composed an entire story from retweets.
Friendship: A Novel by Emily Gould: Gould's novel, out this summer, features two thirty-something women who wouldn't seem out of place on the cast of "Girls." One's a Midwesterner who has outgrown her Bohemian lifestyle, and another's a little too accustomed to privilege. In addition to writing books about aging millennials, Gould runs an ebook store and subscription service called Emily Books, "an indi(e) bookstore."
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer's novel resulted from him cutting out words and pages from his favorite book, The Street of Crocodiles, to form a new story in his own voice. The book is not only a rewriting, but a physical reshaping, as the removed words have been punched out of the pages rather than edited and reprinted. The final product is part sculpture, part story. Basically, Foer is a classic upcycler. How very Etsy of him.
As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem: Part philosophy, part pop science, Lethem's book likely resonated with fans of "Her" (see: hipsters). Protagonist Alice is a particle physicist who leaves her boyfriend because she's fallen in love with a black hole. The basis of her infatuation is the black hole's tastes, demonstrated by what it does and doesn't absorb. Lethem is as clever as ever, and, as always, adds sci-fi elements to his literary fiction.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: Shteyngart is a master of irony, as evidenced by a short piece he wrote for The New Yorker, where he officially resigns from endorsing books -- while making a large handful of exceptions. His fiction has a similar tone. In his most recent novel, protagonist Lenny falls for a girl who studied Images and Assertiveness in school, and who gawks at anyone who still uses an iPhone. Shteyngart creates a disturbing dystopia, but makes light of its bleak reality by discussing it through the eyes of a snarky narrator. He also promotes his books with appropriate irony, as with this book trailer(starring THE hipster, James Franco) where he notes that, in spite of being an acclaimed writer, he is, in fact, illiterate.
The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen:
Franzen gives new life to Austrian cultural critic Karl Kraus's essays, which he claims are as relevant today as they were when they were originally published in the early 1900s. He uses Kraus's satirical writings to frame his disapproval of, well, just about everything: Google, Twitter, Macs, AOL. While Macs might be a staple of hipsterdom, his commitment to his PC is retro, and, some might argue, normcore.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby:
A mopey music store owner recounts his many failed relationships, and also finds various ways to rank his favorite bands. As if that weren't enough to deal with, he's also very busy reorganizing his record collection and ranting about what does and doesn't belong on a romantic mix-tape. In addition to his novels, Hornby writes a column for The Believer called "Stuff I've Been Reading."
Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton:
Shapton is by trade a visual storyteller -- she's a graphic designer whose work has appeared in a number of New York Times columns -- so it makes sense that most of her books use a visual element to explain the lives of their characters. Important Artifacts is formatted like an auction catalogue. The items for sale aren't works of art per se, but the residue of a failed relationship. Shapton's experiment with form is clever, and the story holds up, too. Aside from creating books with cutesy, hipsterish flair and a deep exploration of esoteric topics, Shapton runs an indie art book publisher, J&L Books.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Long and experimental (and therefore less accessible than the rest of his titles), Murakami's opus has all of the qualities of a definitively hipster book. The title alone speaks to Murakami's cleverness -- it's a nod to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, and when spoken in Japanese, the letter "Q" is phonetically similar to the number "9." Like the author's other novels, 1Q84 involves a lot of kickass women and scenes tying classical music in with a character's surroundings. Plus, there are more dream sequences than you can shake a stick at, and as Carrie Bradshaw once observed, there's nothing twenty-somethings enjoy more than discussing their dreams.
Can't and Won't by Lydia Davis: Speaking of dream sequences: Lydia Davis sure seems to enjoy discussing her dreams in her short and poignant stories, weaving recurring ones together in her collections. Her experiments with form are compelling, and her ability to pack meaning into page-long (or shorter!) stories is often lauded. Plus, so long as we're defining hipster literature as somewhat inaccessible, it's worth noting that she did translate Proust.
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus:
Pehaps better known for his award-winning short stories, Marcus is also the author of a novel about children whose language causes physical harm to their parents. It's delightfully playful, wicked smart, and has an adorably twee cover. Also, Marcus was born in Austin, Texas, and edits the fiction section of The American Reader, a fab magazine with a youngish staff and a nostalgic appeal.
Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman:
Klosterman's book is a molotov cocktail of pop culture references and reflections, some more thoughtful than others. Kittens, "The Real World," Star Wars, pornography, The Sims: He discusses just about everything that has ever mattered to young people today. He might gloss over his subjects rather than deeply examining them at times -- a very Tumblr-like approach.
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell:
Russell was cool before she was a Pulitzer nominee. The stories in her first collection are both charming and whip-smart, and, like all of the above mentioned authors, she enjoys turning the conventional on its head. She's been called a magical realist, but humbly rejects the moniker. Still, her fable-like tales are both precious and bizarre. What's more twee than talking animals?