Many of these novels are classics and presumably should need no comments by me, Yet, many readers will never read a classic, preferring yet another Stephen King or John Sandford. I can understand liking these authors, since they are incredibly popular, and I like about half of King’s novels myself. But many of these selections have the potential to change lives; not necessarily all of them–I have a few sentimental favorites that are simply great fun. But above all I like to rattle my own cage, shake myself out of my dreary complacency. Something like that. Comments and suggested titles are welcome.
George Orwell: 1984
If you haven’t read this classic, you almost certainly know some terms from it that have become standard English: Big Brother, the memory hole, Newspeak, double-think. It is, frankly, a rather grim book, as living in the world of Big Brother would be. Bad things happen to good people, the plot is nothing much, and even the characters are only average. What’s important here is the imaginary future that retains the power to make one value the freedom one has.
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
How much can be done with the education toward remaking human nature? Is it desirable to engineer a society toward maximum productivity and minimum conflict? This entertaining novel provokes many challenging thoughts.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov
Perhaps nobody’s idea of a good time, but also probably the most spiritually challenging and thought-provoking novel of all. Full of memorable characters. Not a love story in sight. Please, just read it! I can’t sell you on it, but it will do you good if you’re old enough to hear its lessons.
Albert Camus: The Stranger
Perhaps the one essential existentialist novel, with a true antihero, and with the greatest closing line among all the classics. A portrait of alienation and quiet rebellion. I first read this as a teen, and thirteen more times since then, with greatly varying opinions of it throughout. At first, it seemed strangely compelling, later quite horrible; now I see it as a masterful expression of–I don’t know, let’s say, the weirdness of modern man in modern society. If you do read this in translation, above all get Matthew Ward’s. For my lengthy consideration of this novel and some published criticism, follow this link.
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five
I loved this book for decades, but the last time I read it I was shocked by its threadbare crudity, or something. At any rate I wondered what I ever saw in it. Yet it is considered a modern classic, and is surely the most praised of Vonnegut’s novels, and I’ll probably read it again to see what I missed the last time. It’s pretty weird and rather bitter towards the end, a wild ride through one man’s World War II and into outer space. Perhaps it’s a young man’s/woman’s novel, whatever that means. It stars Billy Pilgrim, who has come “unstuck in time.”
Kurt Vonnegut: Timequake
When I read this a few years ago I thought it very profound and beautiful. but now I can remember nothing but those emotions. I’ll read it again and get back to you.
Robert Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
Michael Valentine Smith grew up on Mars; he returns to Earth and becomes something more than human, you might say. Sort of a “cult classic,” this is surely one of the most passionately-beloved of novels, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t also love it. It’s not just for teenagers struggling with their hormones. A somewhat strange and inspiring story with a weird and disturbing ending. Really, not to be missed.
Virginia Woolf: Orlando
In my intro I said something about “sentimental favorites,” and this is the book I had in mind. We’ve been told that this is Ms. Woolf’s fictional biography of her friend Vita Sackville-West, and some editions include a few photographs of Ms. West. I don’t know what to make of this claim, given that the book is a fantasy, without unicorns. I find it perhaps the most purely entertaining novel I’ve read as an adult, and also the basis of a delightful movie with a purely charming Tilda Swinton in the title role. I must admit, however, that this bonbon lacks most of the gravitas and wonder that “great books” are supposed to possess; it’s here because I love it, and that’s that.
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
The Joad family is dispossessed from their Oklahoma farm, so they decide to drive to California in hopes of finding work. It’s all about class war as seen by the losing side, which naturally means that it has a pretty grim story to tell. But there is beauty in these characters (notably Ma Joad) and scenes and prose, and the final scene is astonishing. Don’t deprive yourself of this experience if you like to really get into the heart of life itself, through reading.
William Shakespeare: Complete Works
I have spent more time with the works of Shakespeare through reading and experiencing performances than with any other author. Certainly the most praised of poets, and rightfully so. Without Shakespeare, English would lose half its beauty and richness, and a lot of its words. If you want to express some subtle, heartfelt thought in the most perfect language, know that Shakespeare beat you to it. The most quotable author of all. The tragedies offer a half dozen of the greatest of all productions of the human mind and heart. I read the histories when I’ve momentarily exhausted my appetite for the tragedies. I read the comedies only because I have to, because they seem to me resoundingly NOT FUNNY; but even here there are brilliant speeches and beautiful sentiments beautifully expressed. You’ve surely been exposed to Shakespeare; if you don’t like him, I feel sorry for you.
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver’s Travels
Social criticism in four satirical stories. Everyone knows about the little people; there are also giants, and weird societies, and horses that are superior to humans. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, though not enough so for modern tastes; but also biting satire that might have come from Monty Python. So, in a word, it’s entertaining and thought-provoking. Okay, three words.
Betty Smith: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
I suppose that this novel is another “sentimental favorite.” A young girl grows up, finding tragedy and love and happiness in depression-era Brooklyn. In the vein of Little Women, perhaps, but more grown up, in a rather genteel way.
Larry McMurtry: Lonesome Dove
If you like the miniseries, you’ll love the book. To my mind the best of western novels, but given that I’ve read very few western novels, I should shut up about that. Certainly, few novels of any type have such brilliantly-drawn characters in such profusion. There is some action, but that’s not the focus here. The focus is life itself: love and death and human emotion writ large. I seem to be stuck in a cliché mode here. It’s a great book, and the Pulitzer Prize committee agrees.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Wonderful, just wonderful. Beautiful. Depression-era deep south, as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Captures the essence of childhood more than any other book I know, and the basis of a much-loved movie. And of course, this is a much-loved book. You’ve probably already read it–“everybody” has–so if you haven’t, go do so at once. Go Set a Watchman is also worth a try, I think, though most readers apparently don’t like “what Lee did to Atticus Finch.” I find the “new” Atticus to be less of a saint and more of a human being, and I think that this is a good thing. If you want your heroes to remain untarnished, just stick with the original.
Edmond Rostand: Cyrano de Bergerac
My favorite play outside of Shakespeare; I cannot compare the two. The swordsman with “the nose,” Rostand called this a “heroic comedy.” That can serve as a description, but that’s not how I see it. To me, it’s the ultimate outsider’s love story. Since I see myself as an outsider and have always felt so, for me the play is a dream come true of sorts. The “man unacceptable to women” finds a woman to love who, ultimately, loves him back. Also has some of the kind of great speeches that I love in Shakespeare.
Herman Melville: Moby-Dick
It has some very tedious chapters, I know. And it has its preposterous side. But did you know that it’s also very funny at times? And it’s touching and exciting, occasionally? You already know that it’s a Very Long Book. What can I say? The first time I read it, it took a year. I set myself the task of reading it, and it took dedication. This was twenty years ago. Since then I’ve read it another two or three times, and learned to appreciate its subtle riches. There are authors, like Walt Whitman, that you have to learn how to read as you read them. I think the strongest aspect of this maddening book is the author’s voice: it’s the voice of James Earl Jones, or Orson Welles, or God. It has the rolling rhythms of the King James Bible, and of Shakespeare, and of almost nobody else. It’s prose poetry, and so, “caviare to the general,” by which I mean, it perhaps takes a poet to appreciate it. If you want to give it a try, you might keep in mind that you don’t have to read every word. The chapter titled “Cetology” has nothing to recommend it, to my eye.
Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
A clever and entertaining structure, a cast of beautiful characters, full of surprises and wonderful touches, with plenty of laughs and heartbreak along the way. I love this book. It starts with the heroine shooting Adolf Hitler. So, you see, it’s an “alternative history.” It’s also a fantasy, because the heroine dies in the first chapter, at birth or before, and in the second chapter, and in many other chapters along the way. I didn’t give you a “spoiler alert” because I haven’t spoiled anything–you learn right off the bat that the heroine dies and dies and dies. Aside from all these peculiarities, there are excellent characters, an excellent prose style, and excellences all around. I wish I could find another “Atkinson” that I could like even half as well.
John Ajvide Lindqvist: Little Star
Stephen King is a master of horror, that’s beyond dispute. But compared to Lindqvist, he lacks imagination. When I first read this novel I called it “overwhelming” and “profound.” I immediately read it a second time, to savor it, to wallow in its horrors and its wonderful riches, and although it was less overwhelming and less profound, it still mesmerized me and impressed the hell out of me. I can’t tell you anything about it beyond saying that it involves a young girl of exceptional vocal talent, and her growing up. I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you take my advice and give it a try. Many readers hate it, or find it too boring to finish (it shifts into a higher gear after about a hundred pages). It is a horror story without supernatural elements (this is disputable), but with unique imagination. I’ve read a number of other Lindqvists, and each one is unique, taking standard sub-genres like vampires or zombies and making them fresh and startling. Give Lindqvist a try if you like horror stories.
William Golding: Lord of the Flies
A weird and disturbing story of a group of young boys trapped on a “desert island.” At times preposterous or contrived, with generally thin, hard-to-tell-apart characters, I have to wonder why I include this little book. Perhaps there’s just something compelling about this melodrama, something appealing about the wild freedom and primitive savagery, something exhilarating about the struggle for dominance, and something underneath it all that’s too chilling to contemplate for long. If you like getting your settled little life shaken up in hopes of making it better somehow, this might be the book for you.
J. R. R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings
If you like fantasy of the wizard and dragon variety, this surely is the granddaddy of them all. A world full of “wonders beyond counting,” a book full of fantastic riches of the imagination. The book that made stories about elves respectable. If you haven’t read this book, you’ve certainly heard of it. Now, it’s not perfect. The poetry is of the driest and most tedious sort (no doubt there are readers who treasure the poetry above all), and there’s a lot of it. There are pages and pages of “up this hill and down the next, make camp,” ad nauseam. But these things are necessary to make the journeys real, to make your feet ache as you imagine walking and walking, and they are necessary to make the exciting parts yet more exciting. This is simply an astonishing feat of imagination and labor, in its way as perfect and serious as Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. If you like the Peter Jackson movies, you’ll like the books as well, and maybe love them to distraction.