10 Authors that Will Give Your Brain a Workout

This is one of those articles that requires a few notes before it gets going. The first thing you should know is that I decided to leave academic writers out of it because most people don't normally buy academic texts to read at the beach (shout out to my boy Jean Baudrillard because he comes to mind every day, and Gloria Anzaldúa because she helped shape my barrio noir!). Also, because after more than a decade in academia, I know that each branch of knowledge takes the work of certain thinkers and interprets it differently. (The one thing I can tell you about Foucault is that every department at every university uses his work, and none of them know what he was talking about.) Also, it should be noted that the authors on this list can be read without effort. You don't need a buff brain to understand them. Just reading them is an option, although it's an option that might make you feel like you're reading random words too quickly. Finally, I decided to focus mostly on authors who are still around because those are the ones we can still ask about their books at some point...maybe. All clear? Perfect, let's do this:

10. David James Keaton

Keaton is one of those authors who mixes crime, weirdness, horror, and humor, but he does it in strange, challenging ways. All of his books demand that you engage with your brain. Even when writing about zombies, Keaton is hiding jokes in his prose and making constant references that are easy to miss. Perhaps the most challenging of his books is also his best so far; The Last Projector. This massive tome sports a few interwoven narratives and enough ideas and cohesive elements (what's up with all the dogs?) to keep your intellect feeling like it's running uphill with a sack of cement in its arms.

Buy The Last Projector from Amazon here.


9. Umberto Eco

Eco is one of those thinkers who weaves in and out of fiction and academic writing and carries the same depth into both fields. Obsession with culture, history, narrative, discourse, and language permeate his work, and for anyone paying attention, there is enough in each of his books to keep the brain flexing for a while.

Buy Foucault's Pendulum from Amazon here.


8. Cody Goodfellow

When I get in a funky mood, I divide the world into two kinds of people: those who have read and loved Goodfellow, and those who have no business talking to me about books. It doesn't matter if he's doing crime, Lovecraftian short stories, strange literary fiction disguised as madman narratives, horror, or something in between, you always get an explosive mixture of ideas and superb use of language when reading Goodfellow. He is the embodiment of that archetypal mad scientist who also happens to possess a lot of arcane knowledge.

Buy Strategies Against Nature from Amazon here.


7. Violet LeVoit

Imagine a brilliant film critic who's able to contextualize everything and provide historical hyperlinks to tangential themes and works of art while also deconstructing whatever is being discussed and you get LeVoit. Smart, funny, and capable of writing in a way that lures the reader into an inescapable universe of layers upon layers of meaning and history, LeVoit is also a funny author who dips into hardcore horror and crime with the same ease she slides into film criticism.

Buy I Miss The World from Amazon here.


6. Thomas Pynchon

Up until now, every author on this list has brought me pure joy when I read them. Not Pynchon. What, you want to fight me about it? I refuse to be one of those literary assholes who claim to enjoy his work "on a deep level." This is a list about authors who give your brain a workout, and for me, Pynchon is like leg day with a hangover. I remember finishing Against the Day, all 1,104 pages of it, and thinking "Fuck, that was hard! Someone needs to give me a medal for getting through that." But yeah, need a brain workout? This guy will give it to you.

Buy Against the Day from Amazon here.


5. Jeremy Robert Johnson

Johnson is a freak, and I mean that in the best way possible. He becomes obsessed with strange things and then puts in the hours of research until he's an expert on those things. Then he writes about those things in a wild voice, mixing elements that no other author could bring together the way he does, and making readers and fellow authors scratch their heads while wondering "How the hell did he pull that off?" Crime, horror, bizarro, and everything in between; Johnson can do it and blow your mind in the process.

Buy Skullcrack City from Amazon here.


4. Michael Cisco

Johnson and Cisco belong to a very small group of authors whose imaginations are out of this world but have the writing chops to bring all of it to the page in award-winning fashion. I hate the term "writer's writer," but if you're into weird fiction, chances are your favorite author digs the hell out of Cisco's work. The barrage of ideas he brings to the page is staggering, and reading him makes your brain stronger. It's a scientific fact.

Buy Animal Money from Amazon here.


3. Brian Evenson

Evenson is one of the best living authors, one whose work always make my brain spin. Sometimes the spinning comes from the way he manages to convey creepy feelings. Other times it comes from how he twists a short story in on itself to defy everything you thought you knew about short stories. The point is that you can't read his work and not exercise your brain. Plus, he's a fan of uncertainty, of keeping you guessing. If you haven't done so yet, read Immobility and The Warren, two books in which reality, identity, and memory are played with the same way M.C. Escher played with perspective. 

Buy A Collapse of Horses from Amazon here.


2. D. Foy

D. Foy's Patricide was the closest thing to a philosophical text that I've read outside of a classroom. Besides playing with time and points of view, the novel is a superb examination of the cyclic nature of some aspects of masculinity/fatherhood/violence and a deconstruction of The Father with a sprinkling of Oedipus complex thrown in for good measure. Just...go read it.

Buy Patricide from Amazon here.


1. D. Harlan Wilson

Wilson is scary brilliant. Think madman with a word shotgun in a hyperviolent alien Sam Peckinpah movie quoting Deleuze and Guattari and you'll begin to approximate his work. He makes fun of academia and genre fiction, sometimes in the same paragraph, and takes metafiction for a wild ride while laughing and pointing at all others who try to do the same. When it comes to brain workouts, Wilson is the kind of workout that makes you puke and see stars floating in front of you.

Buy Battle without Honor or Humanity: Vol 1 from Amazon here.

Who do you read to workout your head muscle? Let us know in the comments.

Gabino Iglesias

Column by Gabino Iglesias

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. 

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words March 6, 2017 - 9:24am

It'd be hard to ask Umberto Eco about his work, as he died last year.

Also, one woman and no people of colour? Academia hasn't changed much since I was last there.

Not to say I'm going to eschew anyone on the list, but a little diversity would be welcome.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine March 6, 2017 - 10:36am

Obviously he hasn't read any of your other lists.

"Don't mind me, just stopped by to criticize!"

rosshickers's picture
rosshickers from Missouri March 19, 2018 - 2:38am

I love this writer since my studies at the university. He can napsiat so as to start thinking about whether I did the right thing in this or that life situation. His knowledge of the cultural heritage and historical facts can not fail to impress. I even wrote a custom coursework on his vision of human perception. It was difficult but very interesting.