Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you that literature is extremely important to me. I’d go even further. After family and friends, the written word is the most important thing in my life. To be honest, even the preeminence of family and friends is, at times, debatable. Some people might find this sad. Hell, I think it’s pathetic. But it is what it is (I know the phrase doesn’t actually mean anything. I’m okay with that).
So, to share something that’s important to me with anyone who’s interested to know, I offer 25 books that I think kick ass. I’ve limited this list to novels, eliminating poetry collections and memoirs, just because they’d make the list unwieldy (but for poetry check out Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor, and for memoirs read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard). I’ve also removed from consideration books on writing, because I couldn’t be certain they’d interest anyone but me (if they do, check out Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard, On Writing by Steven King (judge all you want, the guy is brilliant and knows his shit, and this book shows it) or Aspects of a Novel by E.M. Forster).
I’m not one of those literati blowhards that expect everyone to read and admire the same canon of literature. Let me throw my credentials out the window right now: Dickens wrote flat characters and Jane Austen was a bore. I’m not going to stuff my list of books down your throats as books you need to read to gain the respect of English majors, or books that you’ll even like.
But these are books I love. Some changed my worldview in significant ways. Some made me reconsider what a book could do, or inspired me to aspire to be a better writer, or just a better person. Some you might consider blasphemous when placed next to traditional lists of accepted “great literature.” I’m fine with that. For me they were extremely poignant in a time and place and that fact won’t change in deference to respectability.
Some of these books made me cry and others just made me laugh. In these last two characteristics you might find a pattern. Books that make you cry are important. Books that make you laugh, more so. Books that do both are holy. They deserve our reverence.
Without further ado (in no particular order…except for the last five, which will be my top five favorites (parentheses within parentheses: side note: I’ve grouped them into fives for your convenience. Thank me later (if you want to tangibly thank me, I like whiskey and bourbon (officially blowing your mind: Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Basil Hayden, Jack Daniels, or Jameson (I’m not picky (actually I am (enough, enough already))))))) (trust me, it’s enough parentheses to close (I counted)) (I’m naughty, I know)…
International Flair: I’ve never traveled outside of the country (Canada doesn’t count). I’m ashamed. The travesty will be rectified in time. Until then, I rely on books to transport me to other places. These are all books that offer insights into cultures outside of America.
25) The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass: The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, as he writes his autobiography from a sanatorium several years after the end of WWII. Born in Poland in the years leading up to the war, Oskar decides at the age of three that adults are dimwits and liars and refuses to become one. He stops growing, and retains the stature of a child through the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Holocaust, the invasion of Normandy, and the postwar years.
24) The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck: I know what you’re thinking: “Buck…that doesn’t sound very international. In fact, it sounds like the name of a woman born in West Virginia.” You’re absolutely right. Pearl Buck was born in 1857 to a Southern Presbyterian missionary and moved with her family to Zhenjiang, China when she was three months old. She was educated by a Confucian scholar, learned Chinese and English, lived through the Boxer Uprising, and eventually became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
The Good Earth follows Wang Lung as he lifts his family out of poverty thanks to hard work and his strong-willed, wise wife, O-lan, sees his fortunes wane due to drought and famine, returns to his roots and rises once again only to become corrupted by wealth, sex and drugs. More than anything else, this book made me realize that simple pleasures are often the most profound.
23) Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children is proof of Rushdie’s genius. There are a few books on this list that weave multiple threads into spellbinding tales so effortlessly that I’m filled with envy by the storyteller’s prowess. Midnight’s Children is one of those. So is the next book on this list, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There will be a few others later on, but I don’t want to divulge them just yet (it would spoil the fun). Instead, I’ll make a deal with you: when I come to a book that I feel is a paragon of storytelling, I’ll identify it as such. See the example in One Hundred Years…
Midnight’s Children weaves together the past, present and future of India’s independence and partition in 1947. The story is told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a child bestowed with special gifts because of his unique birth at the stroke of midnight on India’s Independence Day.
22) One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez: (Paragon of Storytelling) Everyone thinks they have a crazy family. Most of us probably do. But you haven’t seen anything until you’ve met the Buendias. From patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia, who founds the town of Macondo (the setting of most of the story), but goes insane searching for the Philosopher’s Stone to matriarch Ursula Iguaran, convinced her family is cursed to be born with tails because she’s a cousin of Jose Arcadio’s. From revolutionary Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who loses 32 consecutive civil wars to Remedios the Beauty, who is too beautiful for the world and ascends into the sky one morning while folding laundry. From Aureliano Segundo, who goes insane searching for buried treasure to Aureliano Babilonia, who discovers the key to the family’s destiny to Aureliano (III), who is born with a pig’s tail to realize Ursula’s fears. Yeah, these people are nuts. And fascinating.
21) The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being asks the question: is life a circle or a line? Do events keep repeating themselves, so every action, every decision, comes back to us ad infinitum (eternal return)? Don’t these events add up and become unbearably heavy?
Or, conversely, do events occur by random chance? Do our actions one moment have no effect on events in the next? Is life just a series of circumstances that never happened before and will never happen again? If this is the case, aren’t our lives futile, pointless, unbearably light?
Set in Prague in 1968, in the wake of the Prague Spring and the invasion by the USSR, TULOF tells the story of successful, philandering surgeon Tomas, his photographer wife Tereza, his mistress Sabina, and Sabina’s lover Franz. It’s a must read (it just missed my top five).
That’s all for today. Stay tuned for the next five.
Thanks for reading.
Submitted by: Zizzle-Zot