Depressing books: wallow in them or avoid? I tend to avoid, although every now and then I’ll take one on. Then I have to read happier stuff for a while. I have read 50% of this list–I agree that they are all very depressing–and do not intend to read the other half: AbeBooks: Bleak Books – the Top 10 Most Depressing Books.
February 27, 2013
September 1, 2012
I spent all morning researching and writing this answer to the Quora question: What 20th-century novel has been most influential in shaping mindsets and changing lives? So I thought I’d share my answer here as well.
It is hard to pick just one novel, but I think that 1984 by George Orwell is the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s not the first dystopian novel, but it defined for most people what a dystopian government is and influenced every dystopian novel that followed. It introduced many terms and concepts into our language: Orwellian, Big Brother, groupthink, thought police. It describes the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression, and persuades citizens to be vigilant against government corruption in order to safeguard democracy. Even today, it influences political figures, judges and ordinary citizens in guarding against government over-reach when it comes to mass surveillance, loss of individual rights and personal freedoms, and manipulation of public opinion.
To round out my top 10 (because I can’t pick just one book):
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which caused many readers to question their own prejudices and has one of the most enduring heroic characters in literature.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the defining novel of the Great Depression and one of the most widely read works of American literature. It exposes the plight of the poor in a capitalist, profit-driven system.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quintessential critique of the idea of the American dream.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which introduced a new phrase to the English language and exposes the absurdities of war and of bureaucracies like the military.
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, which captured the coming-of-age experience and has become synonymous with teenage rebellion.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which portrays how easily human beings can regress to savagery and influenced our perception of human nature.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which depicted the dangers of censorship.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the counterpoint to 1984, which exposes the dangers of loss of individuality and societal control via mass entertainment and consumerism.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson, which introduced the term “cyberspace” and influenced — or at least, predicted — the way the Internet developed.
There are so many other 20th-century novels that were highly influential in describing the human condition, bringing about political reform, establishing philosophies of thought, or exposing societal problems that it is really hard to limit this list. For example, it’s difficult to omit The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Native Son by Richard Wright; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Roots by Alex Haley; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Trial by Franz Kafka; and The Stranger by Albert Camus. And then there are books that are just so widely read and highly beloved that they are bound to be personally influential, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
It just goes to show the power of literature! Never stop reading.
January 8, 2012
While pondering this question on Quora — What is your list of must-read fiction books? – I came up with a list of 10 books that I consider must-reads from both contemporary and classic literature. To my surprise, the books sorted naturally into themed pairs, and of course, that suggested further books that should be on the list. So, here is my revised and expanded list of
10 20 must-read novels covering 5 7 essential themes.
Theme 1: The Great American Novel
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Extra credit: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Theme 2: Enduring Female Character
- Emma by Jane Austen
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Extra credit: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Theme 3: Dystopian Visions
- Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Extra credit: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Theme 4: Experiments with Narrative Structure
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
- Extra credit: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Theme 5: Comic Satires
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
- Extra credit: reread Catch-22
Theme 6: Other Worlds
- Dune by Frank Herbert
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Extra credit: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Theme 7: The Unreliable Narrator
- The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
- Extra credit: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
September 24, 2011
I enjoy reading alternate history, although not the most common kind, which posits alternate endings to battles or wars. This has been a good reference for me to find reading material: Uchronia: The Alternate History List. It’s a massive list of 3100 works of alternate history. That should keep me busy reading for a while!
June 16, 2011
Summer is the perfect time to wade into a really big book. You know the books I mean, the kind that can double as a door stopper for a recalcitrant screen door or a small table to hold your drink on the beach.
Most of the time, I’m afraid to commit to such books. But in the summer, I have much more reading time available. All I want to do during the long, lazy days is escape into another world, and just stay there a while.
If you don’t mind the extra weight in your suitcase, consider carrying along one of these big books on your summer vacation. There’s something for everyone on this list, ranging from post-apocalyptic horror to epic historical fiction to parallel worlds.
The Passage by Justin Cronin: Last summer’s blockbuster is newly out in paperback. If vampires are your thing, don’t miss it. But be warned, these vampires are real monsters. They glow in the dark, have mouths full of sword-like teeth, leap out of the darkness, and are possessed by an overwhelming desire to rip your head off. The book spans 800 pages and 100 years, but you won’t be able to put it down.
Under the Dome by Stephen King: The master of horror is known for big books, and his latest novel is no exception. Spend your vacation trapped with the residents of Chester’s Mill, Maine, under a mysterious glass dome. In a very short time, all the rules of civilized society are thrown out the window. What ensues is murder, mayhem, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Dive into the enormously complex world of Arbre, complete with a 3,000-year history and even its own languages. Anathem has it all: big ideas in physics, mathematics, and philosophy melded with chases, fight scenes, explosions, mysterious space ships, conspiracies, and even a romance. Be prepared by the end to travel across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space. But it’s all great fun.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: Maybe you never got around to reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. It has been re-released in a beautiful anniversary edition, so now is the perfect time to pick it up. Follow a huge cast of characters led by two legendary former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus (Gus) McCrae, who embark on one last folly: the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana.
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh: Travel back to India at the height of British colonialism in this magnificently sprawling book. Each character in the large cast has a secret to hide; each one is in some way living as someone they are not. They are brought together by the intertwined strands of fate that direct their lives. Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic, and evocative of a long-ago time and place. The first installment in a trilogy, its cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more.
January 16, 2011
Currently, I am reading Neal Stephenson‘s Anathem. This is a big, absorbing read that requires slow going, as there is new vocabulary to learn and lots of metaphysical discussion. It is set in another world similar to, but also very different, from our own. The plot also concerns alternate universes, as a spaceship containing visitors from another cosmos begins orbiting the planet.
I have always been fascinated by stories that take us to other worlds. Not just to other planets via the traditional spaceship method of locomotion, although I like those too, but to worlds that exist parallel to our own, perhaps in an adjoining universe or dimension. Some of my earliest favorite novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, did precisely that, and I recall how fascinated I was as a child imagining the wood between the worlds depicted in The Magician’s Nephew, with all those pools that led to Narnia, other very different worlds and back home.
Here are some of my favorite books that take us, via magic or physics wizardry, to parallel worlds and back again. I would love to hear your suggestions for further reading in this area.
- Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
- The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
- The Talisman and Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub
- Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
- Rose Madder by Stephen King
- Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper
- Wicked by Gregory Maguire
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
- The Sandman series of comic books by Neil Gaiman
- The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
November 15, 2010
I have this little project going to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. This is not by any means my only goal in life at the moment. I’m reading the books in dribs and drabs, as I manage to get my hands on a copy through BookMooch or the used bookstore. But I fully intend to read as many of them as I can.
I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction, mainly because a good deal of it doesn’t hold my interest. Not much seems to happen in contemporary literary fiction, I’ve found. But I’ve noticed that the Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve read have all been very readable stories. I’m mainly using the list as a guide to well-written novels that will hold my attention.
Another thing I’ve noticed about the Pulitzer Prize winners is that they tend to be very American stories. These novels are very much grounded in the time and place where they are set. Since America is such a diverse country, the stories are also diverse. But I like the sense of connection I feel to them all as essentially American stories.
Here are the Pulitzer Prize winners I’ve finished so far:
- The Caine Mutiny
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Killer Angels
- The Color Purple
- Breathing Lessons
- A Thousand Acres
- The Hours
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
- The Road
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
- Lonesome Dove — reading now
I have a ways to go, but it’s the journey that counts, not the destination.
October 22, 2010
I enjoy reading science fiction about dystopian futures as much as I enjoy post-apocalyptic science fiction, and for similar reasons. These are both great “what if?” questions that many good writers have tackled at some point. They also serve as useful warnings, imagining what our own society can turn into if we don’t remain vigilant.
A dystopian society, according to Wikipedia, is one that is repressive and controlling of its citizenry. Unlike a post-apocalyptic setting, which is characterized by the total collapse of civilization, in a dystopia society has not gone away, but merely become a whole lot worse for almost everyone. In that way, the dystopia is an anti-utopia (although some might argue that utopias are inherently dystopian because they’re so damn boring).
Despite what some people may think, we are not currently living in a dystopia, and I doubt we ever will. That’s because the fictional dystopia is, by necessity, a lot less complex than real life. But it is useful to read a good dystopian novel every now and then, if only to remind ourselves of our own freedoms that we can all too easily take for granted.
Here are a few of my favorite dystopian novels. Please add your own suggestions in the comments, as I am always looking for recommendations. Note that I have purposefully omitted post-apocalyptic novels, unless the society before the collapse had already become dystopian. (Warning: There are some mild spoilers in the book descriptions.)
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: A theocratic dystopia, in which women are enslaved and forced to bear children for the less fertile ruling class.
- Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood: These novels are both set in the same dystopian future, characterized by rampant consumerism, a huge poverty gap and out-of-control technology, culminating in an apocalyptic event.
- The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: This dystopian vision of a future Thailand is brought about by food scarcity, global warming and widespread plagues.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: A classic of the genre imagines a future in which everyone is forced to watch TV all the time and all books are burned.
- The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner: This cyberpunk prototype posits a future in which technology has fundamentally disconnected people from one another.
- A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: Another classic depicts a near-future London where gangs commit random acts of violence and prisoners are subjected to brainwashing.
- Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents and Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler: In all three of these novels, Butler imagines a future that has given way to lawlessness, poverty and rampant violence.
- Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham: The third section of this novel is set in a future in which New York is overwhelmed by extraterrestrial refugees.
- The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist: In this extreme socialist vision of the future, citizens who are no longer considered productive are confined to a special unit and their organs harvested for transplant.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: Here’s another classic dystopian society; in this one, citizens are controlled by consumerism, population control and mood-altering drugs.
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: This is an alternate history dystopia (rather than a futuristic one), in which cloning has been developed to provide a supply of organs for rich citizens.
- The Children of Men by P.D. James: No one can have babies anymore, and society collapses in anticipation of the end of the human race.
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin: Two dystopias are on display here, one masking as a utopia; one is an anarchic society that still isn’t truly free, the other a rabidly consumeristic society.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry: This is another utopia that turns out to be a dystopia in disguise, one in which emotions and even colors are suppressed.
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: In one of the interlinking stories, Mitchell presents an overcrowded future in which clones rebel against their exploiters.
- Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan: In this cyberpunk dystopia, only the wealthy can afford immortality by downloading their personalities into replacement bodies.
- 1984 by George Orwell: Orwell’s classic portrays a totalitarian society in which Big Brother is always watching.
- The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer: This alternate universe depicts a 20th century in which magic has been replaced by machines.
- The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson: The future Southern California is rampant with development, overcrowded by people and cars, and a horrible place to live (much like present-day Southern California).
- CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders: This collection of stories includes a novella depicting a decimated America in which genetic mutants are forced to work in surreal theme parks.
September 15, 2010
With summer’s end and the long, cold days ahead of us, I think now is a good time to get cerebral.
There is a certain type of fiction that is more concerned with the mental and emotional lives of the characters than with the mechanics of plot. This category of novel could be termed psychological fiction, as it explores the infinite landscapes of the human mind. Some authors (Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro) are particularly well known for this type of novel, with William Shakespeare’s Hamlet perhaps the earliest dramatic example.
If you like to delve deeply into a character’s head, here is an extended reading list of some good examples of psychological fiction, organized by author. Add your suggestions to the comments.
Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace; The Blind Assassin; Cat’s Eye
Jane Austen: Persuasion
Russell Banks: The Sweet Hereafter
Robert Clark: Mr. White’s Confession
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Michael Cunningham: The Hours
Stephen Dobyns: The Church of Dead Girls
Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
E.M. Forster: Howard’s End
John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
William Gibson: Idoru
William Golding: Lord of the Flies
Joe Haldeman: Forever Peace
Michelle Huneven: Jamesland
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World; Never Let Me Go; When We Were Orphans
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Stephen King: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; Lisey’s Story; Rose Madder
Wally Lamb: She’s Come Undone
John Lanchester: Mr. Phillips
Dennis Lehane: Mystic River; Shutter Island
Yann Martel: Life of Pi
Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men
Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Ian McEwan: Atonement
Patrick McGrath: Asylum
Herman Melville: Moby Dick
Tim O’Brien: July, July; The Things They Carried
Stewart O’Nan: A Prayer for the Dying
Chuck Palahniuk: Survivor
Ann Patchett: Bel Canto
Tom Perrotta: Little Children
Lisa See: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Bram Stoker: Dracula
Peter Straub: Koko
Amy Tan: The Joy Luck Club
Donna Tartt: The Secret History
Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist
July 9, 2010
Everybody’s doing ‘em. Here’s what I’ve observed.
The most buzzed about book is obviously Justin Cronin‘s The Passage. It certainly asks for a commitment. Not only does it weigh in at almost 800 pages, it is the first in a trilogy. But it seems to have it all: the apocalypse, vampires, the endorsement of everybody except God (maybe Him, too, but I haven’t checked in on His blog lately). And you know what? It actually looks like a pretty good read. I still might wait for the paperback. Speaking as someone who only just today acquired a copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (borrowed from a friend), I am not one to jump on the trend bus.
Personally, I’m excited about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, after reading this review in the NYT Book Review. This sounds like a novel I can get lost in, and I loved Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At only 489 pages, it’s “light” reading.
Here is Flavorwire’s required summer reading list. With the exception of The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel (which sounds pretty interesting), I’d already picked up some buzz about all of these books. Of course, The Passage makes the list. Also Light Boxes, which I saw in the bookstore but did not buy — I have to admit, it’s a beautifully designed book.
The Millions provides a list of five apocalypses to get you through your summer, once you’ve finished The Passage. Two of the suggestions — The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway and Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steve Amsterdam — were new to me and sound particularly interesting.
Everybody from Oprah to Stephen King has recommendations for you. I haven’t actually looked through their lists because you have to load a new page for each recommendation and quite frankly, who has the time? I’m too busy reading.
What are you reading this summer?
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- What We’re Reading: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (observer.com)
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