A friend of mine who is notorious for not sitting still longer than about 30 seconds at a time recently decided she would begin a program of reading books, and I saw the list she was working from. I did not approve of it. Let’s just say these books were not likely to live on in history. I told her to find a different list -- they’re all over the internet.
I use lists to make sure I’m not missing out on something great. But if someone has never been a big reader and is just dipping a toe into literary water, what list would be best? I wouldn’t send anybody to James Joyce like most of the lists do, although when you see where I do send low-frequency readers you may think I’m cruel.
My list is aimed toward people who are bright but just haven’t made time to read. I’ve divided it into categories based on how challenging I think the books are. Because I enjoy most genres, these suggestions are all over the place. If they have one unifying theme it's that they somehow strengthen our understanding of what it means to be human. Actually, a couple of them I stuck in there simply because the writing style is creative or beautiful or tricky.
There are so many wonderful books I've enjoyed but left out, however, I'm going for broadening the mind, rather than having a great time.
Please feel free to comment.
Then We Came To The End, Joshua Ferris – Strange doings in an office. He uses “we” for the narrative voice, as though the entire office clique is telling the story together. So clever, creative, and told with perfect pitch. The newest book on the list.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut – WW2 from a mind that lost its moorings. Imagery that will remain with you forever.
Lord of the Flies, Golding – If you didn’t read this in school, it’s about time you did. The theme is human nature stripped of societal constraints. Pretty heavy stuff for a skinny book about kids.
The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck – Just read a Steinbeck, it doesn’t have to be this one. While you’re at it, marvel at how he managed to use “would of gone” instead of “would have gone” and still became one of the most famous authors of the 20th century. He wrote accessible you-are-there stories that make you feel you learned something.
The Odyssey, Homer – Much of literature is built on the back of Homer for a reason -- these stories are really good.
Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner - Written toward the close of the time when the struggle of man vs. nature still had a sense of freshness, by a great writer.
Rebecca, Daphne DuMaurier – Books with protagonists you want to fix fascinate me. By the way, Mrs. Danvers, you’re fired!
The Shining, Stephen King – The movie was okay, but what blows me away about this book is that it takes ahold of your nerves on the first page and keeps you in a state of simmering anxiety all the way through, even though hardly anything happens. King is a craftsman.
The World According to Garp, John Irving – I don’t even know what to say, except it’s very well written. The next book I read after this seemed like a dud.
Redeeming Love, Francine Rivers - Christian Romance novels are a niche market if ever there was one, but this particular novel has won over men and non-Christians for its beautiful tale of redemption. It has to be good for a man to get past this cover.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hoseinni – Beautifully written, it depicts a part of the world we need to understand better.
Beloved, Toni Morrison – It hurts. You will be a better person for it.
Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, or … ?, Jane Austen – Pick one of the Jane Austens, any one of them. (I’ll give you Choice and Possibility.)
Dune, Frank Herbert – Powerful imagery. It may make a sci-fi lover out of some people who resist the idea. If you encounter anything in this book that seems familiar from movies, the book was the original source (looking at you, George Lucas).
1984, George Orwell – Okay, the title’s sell-by date expired, but the warning should never be forgotten. If we’re not in danger from one totalitarian regime it’s another. Also, we can see the dumbing-down of language all around us, just as he predicted.
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand –This novel lays down the foundation for Libertarianism, which is the exact opposite of the world depicted in 1984. So read them both and broaden your mind.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Love the in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Pick one. His prose is so lush I want to pet it. I’m a hack. I am not worthy.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (annotated), Lewis Carroll – Yes, I put this children’s book in the “moderately challenging” category. You think you know what this is about but unless you’ve read an annotated version you really don’t. It isn’t nonsense. It’s a lot of in-jokes, satire, and puzzles. The Disney version is useless.
Challenging, But Worth It
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann – Okay, it’s long, really long, but there’s a reason it’s one of the most beloved pieces of German literature. Why are we here?
Something by Shakespeare, annotated – You have your choice. You can either read a tragedy (how about Hamlet?) or a comedy (try Twelfth Night, As You Like It, or A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream), but get yourself a copy that has a ton of notes in it and take your time and read them all. Then you’ll get it. Notice how it seems like it’s one cliché after another. He said it first. Also ponder the similarities between spoken poetry and rap music. Or maybe I’ve gone too far.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The author firmly believes in the principal that you should never use 100 words when 1000 will do, but the reader’s reaction to the protagonist is so complicated, from wanting to help him to wanting to ring his neck, that you feel like you have a relationship with the book. It also helps Westerners understand Russians, although The Brothers Karamazov is better for this.
There are a number of books that routinely show up on other people’s must-read lists, but if you ask me you don’t have to read some of them, because the following had a really good movie or series of movies made from them. I mean, I read them, and in the case of all but The Help, I read them repeatedly, but that’s what I do.
The Help (the movie is a bit different but close enough)
Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
To Kill A Mockingbird
Gone With The Wind
I also don’t think anybody should read anything by James Joyce if they don’t want to. Why does he keep showing up on all the lists? Yes, I went there.