Listed below, in no particular order, are books that I’ve found to be profound, important, or just very enjoyable. The list is diverse and tends to overlook the common classics in favor of much more eclectic, and certainly iconoclastic, fare.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole – This Pulitzer Prize-winning picaresque novel is funny in its plot, its commentary, and even its sentence rhythm. It’s a difficult book to read without laughing out loud.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – There’s a certain amount of depravity here–but Nabokov’s stylistic writing makes it all very palatable. And English was not his first language…
Candide by Voltaire – The ruthless, relentless satire of this timeless piece is a welcome antidote to a world that seems to be becoming increasingly more unreasonable. It’s difficult to take contemporary life seriously after reading Voltaire’s masterpiece.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy – This book could be classified as a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel or a work of unparalleled inspiration. Read it and decide. (But do note how McCarthy’s fragmented language mirrors the breakdown of civilization.)
Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud – Freud was wrong about a lot of things; people who quote Freud are wrong about even more things. This is the Viennese doctor’s most accessible and compact work. Read him yourself and consider his propositions.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig – Part philosophical treatise and part travelogue, this laborious read is well worth the effort–if you’re the thinking type.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – It’s hard to pick just one work by Garcia Marquez, but Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the best entry point into Gabo’s oeuvre. It’s a tight, well constructed tale about how social judgment can go badly awry.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq – This seeming critique of hedonism is paradoxically filled with graphic depictions of sex and the travails of a jaded libertines. Houellebecq became a French literary sensation because of these cultural denunciations (and his enfant terrible behavior), but the message of his novel presents an even more dire verdict for the future of humanity than the lingering mores of the 60’s.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair – The Jungle is not only an expose of the early twentieth century meatpacking industry, it’s also an indictment of the whole US political economy. While the story centers around the travails of a recent immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, anyone subject to the vagaries of contemporary American capitalism can relate to the brutality of the labor market and the political system that supports it.
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace – While it may be hip to be seen lugging around Foster Wallace’s 15.5 ounce Infinite Jest–and even more hip to comment substantively on that novel’s storyline–Foster Wallace’s debut novel, The Broom of the System, is infinitely more accessible and enjoyable. The Broom of the System is a fun, quirky novel that showcases many of Foster Wallace’s narrative markers while introducing a most endearing protagonist, Lenore Beadsman.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Dashiell Hammett described this brief noir novella as “A good, swift, violent story.” He was spot on.
Do you have a candidate for this list? Feel free to make suggestions in a post below!