Top Shelf: ‘Census’ by Jesse Ball

Every month, we choose a new book to really get behind and display on our metaphorical Top Shelf. Our hope is that you’ll read this title and encourage others to do the same, creating a sort of ripple effect. Join us on our mission to build a community bound by books!


Census begins with a diagnosis. A bad one. A widowed doctor is given a short window of time left to live and he’s forced make a choice: to lay in wait for his dying day or finally do something that’s worthwhile. He opts for the latter in the form of accepting the position of census-taker for a mysterious government-like entity. His mission will take him across his native land, from decaying urban centers to the sparsely populated wilderness. But, of course, this decision comes as a result of much more than an interest in mind-numbing facts and figures.

The census-taking itself becomes a means for the doctor to rectify a long-broken promise to his now deceased wife of taking a cross country journey with their small family and, ultimately, as a way to say a final goodbye to his former life. As the family of three has whittled down to two, all that remains is the doctor and his son, a grown man with Down syndrome. Together they set out, encountering compassion and cruelty, cataloging life in a near-future dystopia (where entire cities and towns are clustered into regions identified by single letter characters and those who participate in the census are branded by a tattoo), finding bits of themselves at every doorstep.

Dystopian visions aside, we find an effortless and gracefully told meditation on memory, grief and the familial ties that bind at the heart of Jesse Ball’s latest endeavor. Census is informed by Ball’s own experience of growing up alongside his older brother with Down syndrome, of coming to terms with his untimely demise and a desire to write down “what it is like to know and love a Down syndrome boy or girl.” The novel avoids an overly sentimental tone and instead engages readers in what Jesse Ball describes as a “hollow” story, a story that is not glossed over with a flowery and deceptive coating of memories, but rather, an honest portrayal of the moments that have stuck with him now for over twenty years. Ball writes with those feelings of shame and anger that came with the sidelong glances his brother drew from complete strangers as well as the tremendous outpouring of love between brothers. Inspired by this moving and complex history, the portrayal of this father-son pair is affecting and, at times, seems all too real.

I am, admittedly, a latecomer to the Jesse Ball craze, but I was so taken with the fascinating blend of minimal and philosophical prose found in Census. It is rooted in the absurd and experimental, giving it this quality of the ethereal, which is not to say that the book is entirely niche, but more of a welcome break from conventional fiction. There are glimpses in here of The Road and of the zany travels in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but in a style that is Ball’s very own. Census is the phantasmagoric road trip that breaks your heart in more ways than one and leaves you all the better for it.


— Uriel, Master Bookseller

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