“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.”
― Ernest Hemingway
It’s no secret around here that I am a fan of books. I believe in the bastards—hardbound, paperback, eBook, etc.—I don’t discriminate. I want ’em all. I wish I could vote them into office. Four more years of books! I am a veritable book-harlot.
While I enjoy books of all sorts, I have a particular frenzied love for the kind that take me deep into alternate universes, unknown possibilities, new lives and minds. That is, I love stories, usually the fictional kind.
I’ve written previously on the published cognitive benefits of reading fiction, but there’s more to the affair than empirical findings. Frankly, to suggest that any reductive scientific study could adequately measure the gifts bestowed by great fiction would be to insult the age-old, intimate magic of the story. Hemingway says it well in the above quote: “[A]nd afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow . . .”
The best stories fracture us and nestle into the cracks. They puncture our stale, fiber-thin worldviews, creating space for depth and insight. Through them we live and die many times, see through many eyes, and glimpse a reality beyond self-interest and hereditary prejudice. Through them we sample more of the fat plum of the world.
So, in honor of Fiction is F***ing Awesome Day (a daily holiday I just invented), and in hopes of encouraging a few schlubs like me to read more excellent fiction, here are 10 novels that wrenched me open in some way and live inside me now:
1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
““What I mean is that if you were successful in persuading a man that there was nothing for him to cry about, he’d stop crying, wouldn’t he? That’s obvious. You think he wouldn’t?”
“Life would be much too easy then,” replied Raskolnikov.”
It’s difficult to explain the way in which I was so completely swept up in the torrent of psychological desolation that characterizes Crime and Punishment. Utterly torturous in its suffocating examination of the deterioration of the protagonist, demoralizingly tragic in its fearless portrayal of the unnecessary suffering of righteous individuals, and unapologetically depressing in its vision of despair and hopelessness, the book is hardly for the faint of heart. Truthfully it haunted me. I couldn’t put it down, and I became so attached to the protagonist, Raskolnikov—a murderer suffering the terrible wrath of his own conscience—that I literally began to experience his confusion, anxiety, and guilt as if they were my own. This novel is the work of a master and possibly my favorite book of all time.
2. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
“She leaves behind a damp pillow, wet with her tears. You touch the warmth with your hand and watch the sky outside gradually lighten. Far away a crow caws. The Earth slowly keeps on turning. But beyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone’s living in them.”
This novel is a beautiful example of the surrealistic, infinitely imaginative style and engrossing storytelling that had led to Haruki Murakami’s acclaim. Kafka on the Shore feels like a dream and leaves one with the same sort of “What just happened?” feeling as when one awakens from a vivid sleep-space. Murakami’s signature blend of magic realism and metaphysical mischief abound in these pages. A novel I could never forget.
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This quirky novel combines phenomenal storytelling, Dominican-American history, and an eye-opening vision of the contemporary American experience into one heartbreaking and terribly important book. It’s difficult not to empathize deeply with the protagonist, Oscar—a tragic hero, overweight sci-fi geek from the ghetto, and desperate seeker of love—as his romantic spirit collides time and time again into the unsexy realities of his life. Junot Diaz writes in such an accessible and conversational way as he unfurls the gripping tale of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Just, read this book.
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.
You forget some things, dont you?
Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”
The Road is at once a beautiful story of perseverance in the name of love and an unsettling meditation on the worst that man is capable of. Set in a grim, post-apocalyptic world, a man and his son struggle to stay alive as they search for any remaining vestige of hope in a dark and frightening world. I don’t think any book has ever had me crying harder at the end.
5. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
Doubtless most of you are well-aware of this classic whose mythology has traveled far beyond the original tale. But have you read Frankenstein? Most modern portrayals stay true to the basic concept—story of a scientist who gives life to a monster—but deviate wildly from the original plot. The Frankenstein daemon is in fact not a dumb beast but a highly sensitive and intelligent being who is met with only fear and hatred due to his hideous exterior. Tragic, chilling, deeply moving, and difficult to put down, this novel is one of my favorite classics. Extraordinary fact: Mary Shelley was just 19 years old when she penned it.
6. The Story of B by Daniel Quinn
“It has happened that a species has tried to live in violation of the Law of Limited Competition. Or rather it has happened one time, in one human culture—ours. That’s what our agricultural revolution is all about. That’s the whole point of totalitarian agriculture: We hunt our competitors down, we destroy their food, and we deny them access to food. That’s what makes it totalitarian.”
A philosophically driven novel, The Story of B packs an idea-punch capable of utterly reassembling the way you understand history, ourselves, and our relationship to the planet. The book tells the tale of a prophet, B, who is spreading a new kind of gospel: a secular gospel about historical events that have been swept under the proverbial rug. Essentially, the book argues that the modern world’s overpopulation, endless consumption, and the corresponding environmental crises are the result of mankind having once forgotten that it is not exempt from ecological laws. I literally tore through this book, and it was like one colossal moment of clarity. A tremendously important work.
7. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
100 Years of Solitude is written with such tenderness and humanity. It is a book deserving of Hemingway’s description in the opening quote: “truer than if [it] had really happened.” Marquez’s fiction often uses magical realism, and this novel is no exception, yet the magical events seem somehow to heighten rather than diminish the sense of truth one finds in these pages. On the surface, it is a story of the rise and fall of a mythical town, but far more than that, it is a story of time and human existence. Truly marvelous. Gabriel Garcia Marquez recently passed away at the age of 87. May his magnanimous soul rest in peace.
8. Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
“People don’t want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.”
Chuck Palahniuk has made a name for himself with mordant humor and morbid subject matter, and those two trademarks are certainly present in this satire. Survivor unravels the outrageous story of Tender Branson, the last surviving member of the Creedish Death Cult. Dictating his story from a hijacked airplane that will soon crash-land in Australia, Branson tells of his transformation from obedient servant to rogue suicide hotline operator to international celebrity spiritual guru. This book is hilarious and twisted and about so many things: media, celebrity, and religion, to name a few. Scathing commentary on the absurdity and inhumanity of the modern world.
9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
A work of philosophical fiction, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an American classic that has affected countless lives. The title is a bit misleading. The book isn’t really about zen or motorcycles. It’s a story of a former professor’s inquiry into the metaphysical concept of Quality and his relationship with his son. It’s a rather controversial book (most popular books are), as a lot of people get hung up on assessing the rigor of Pirsig’s philosophical work or write the book off as “populist”. Personally, I would advise that the book should not be read as an academic work of philosophy, but purely as a personal account of one man’s quest for understanding and a “good” life. Read this way, the novel is captivating, stirring, and instructive.
10. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
Let me start by saying that I love Kurt Vonnegut and everything he stood for. The Sirens of Titan, a satire bursting with black humor, social commentary, and Kurt’s unmistakable voice, is quintessentially Vonnegutian (if I may use such an adjective). It’s an uproarious jaunt through time and space that follows the richest man on Earth as he hurtles toward a prophesied fate. It’s wonderful. It’s Vonnegut. It’s worth it.
P.S. You can find most of these books and others that I love in the Refine The Mind Library.