I’m not normally one for categorical statements like the title of this post, but I feel extremely strongly about the excellence of the 10 books I’m about to share.
I should say that I took a long, long, looooong time to compile this list because, well, to quote Flaubert:
“Me and my books, in the same apartment: like a gherkin in its vinegar.”
But I thought I’d share some of the most important books I’ve encountered in my life so far.
(Spoiler alert: it includes Persuasion.)
Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. I’m nearly at a loss as to what to say about this taut, brilliant memoir on grief. Didion’s writing is breath-taking, challenging, laser-sharp. She has an exquisite way with words intensified by the heft of her intellect (quite frankly, she’s the smartest writer I’ve ever encountered–you can see it in the way she writes, always 10 steps ahead and 20 leagues deeper than the rest of us) and the poignancy of the topic (losing her beloved husband). I read the entire book with a lump in my throat while flying out to Stanford University for a weeklong executive MBA program in social entrepreneurship. I arrived a bit ragged emotionally, but intellectually piqued, hungry to read and think and learn. A good book whets your appetite for sustained intellectual engagement. This does just does that, while also, ever-so-quietly, breaking your heart.
I remember reading Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things as an undergraduate and feeling like it was one of the most important pieces of literature that had come out in recent history. I continue to view it as a massively important contribution to the (now expanded) canon: at a time when a certain post-modern, “gritty,” decidedly un-pretty style (think Junot Diaz…more on him later) was en vogue, Roy set out to find beauty in even the darkest and dingiest of plotlines. She is said to have once written that her goal in writing was:
“To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try to understand. To never look away. And never, never, forget.”
This novel is just that: the pursuit of beauty in a mangy, suffocating lair. Despite the disturbing, traumatic events that take place in the novel (and, btw, the novel’s structure is fascinating in and of itself, almost unfolding like concentric circles), her soaring, poetic prose elevates and sparkles and enlightens.
I’m likely biased because high modernist literature was my focus as a graduate student, but Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse might be the most technically perfect book I’ve ever read. And by technically perfect, I don’t mean “cute” and “tied up with a bow.” On the contrary, Woolf always evades tidy interpretations and handy reductions. Her work is sprawling, complex, full of movement, defiant. Her treatment of time is mind-boggling in this work: much of the novel takes place over the course of one night, and then we zoom out and see an enormous expanse of time in the last few pages. Don’t be intimidated by this, or any other of the books on this list: all are legible and beautiful without a lit classroom discussion wrapped around it. (In other words, it’s not Proust.)
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: you must read this. I have a gnawing feeling that Hemingway will “go out of vogue” at some point in the next 50 years, that he’ll suddenly fall out of literary favor because his style is so deliberate. It’s stubbornly simple, under-decorated, un-adorned. Its terse sinewy texture could be (and has been) easily parodied. But this book–this book!–taught me so much about how emotion can be filtered through language in powerfully unexpected ways. And, it is one of the most gut-wrenching love stories you’ll ever come across. And, Lady Brett may be the most fascinating anti-heroine you’ll find. And, the last line of the book…sigh. Epic mic drop.
Also interesting to note: I am confident that this book would make the top 10 list for Mr. Magpie, my father, and one of my sisters–and we all have incredibly diverse tastes in literature. It is that good.
An unusual pick, perhaps, but this book of essays by Roxane Gay really made me think. Her crisp analyses of contemporary culture (everything from 50 Shades of Gray to The Hunger Games) pushed me to think more critically about the media-steeped world in which we live, and the (often problematic) representations of gender, race, and difference in it. I didn’t agree with everything she had to say; in fact, some of her chapters left me angry. But it always felt like one long intellectual conversation with someone I deeply respect.
My dad has been a Cormac McCarthy enthusiast for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until two summers ago, while on vacation in Aspen (perhaps the perfect backdrop for this book), that I finally read All the Pretty Horses. The narrative technique is stimulating–written in plain, loosely parsed language that mirrors the thick Texan drawl of its protagonist and often falls into Spanish without translation, its simplicity is deceptive. It reads monotone but there is such depth and complexity beneath the surface. The plot is gorgeous, cinematic, sweeping.
WHAT. ANOTHER HEMINGWAY PICK. Yes, I’m doubling down on the old chap. But I personally think that Hemingway is at his best in the short fiction format. In fact, Hemingway is (potentially apocryphally) credited with having written the following powerful six-word short story:
I’ll let you soak that in.
The power of concision, people.
At any rate, many believe that his “Hills Like White Elephants” short story (not in the collection below, heads up) is the best short story ever written. And it is perfection. But I say that if you’re going to read any collection of his, you should pick up The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Dutifully-crafted, incisive, haunting stuff, especially “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macomber.”
OK, this one’s going to be controversial: Nabokov’s Lolita. I taught this book when I was a graduate teaching assistant and all of my Georgetown undergrads grappled with the famously disturbing subject matter. There’s no two ways around it: it’s about a pedophile. But it is massively important as a piece of fiction–breathtakingly written in Nabokov’s signature playful, exquisite style, and powerfully manipulative in terms of how he approaches the relationship between audience and author. Very provoking stuff. I actually think his Pale Fire may be even better, but it’s esoteric (aka, might be better off for a classroom setting), and I wouldn’t exactly recommend it for casual nighttime reading. (The format: a 999-line poem couched in fictional footnotes and front matter. Basically, Nabokov is challenging the conventions of a work of art: where does it end? What is the reader’s relationship to it? And it begs the question: what is the act of reading and interpretation, anyway?!) If you’re up for an intellectual challenge, check it out. His autobiography is also INCREDIBLE.
I couldn’t in good faith make a list of epic books without including some Austen. Don’t get me started on her. She’s so often written off as “chick lit,” but she is insanely brilliant at capturing human nature. So observant, so mindful, so true. Though Pride + Prejudice tends to get top billing (and I do absolutely adore that book), I read Persuasion relatively recently for the first time ever and it caught me off guard. For starters, Anne Elliot is my favorite heroine ever (scroll down to my answer to the question about my favorite heroine to see why). But it’s also just such a beautiful, quiet, quotidian life story–there’s something modest and demure about it. Nothing flashy or over the top. Just a woman living her life honestly and with feeling.
My sister C. is grinning smugly across the pond with this final pick, because we went to battle over this book at some point. (She is an exceptionally well-read lady and a very strong (insightful!) reader — and we duke it out over books all the time.) I reacted very strongly to Junot Diaz when I first read him. His books read almost as if in dialect, often mirroring the spoken word of its characters but occasionally soaring into unexpected moments of beauty. His is a gritty world, full of darkness and toughness and brittle relationships. There’s a slashing, bravado masculinity to the narrative voice (intentional and performative, for sure, but it can be tough to stomach), but it’s all shot through with a profound sadness. In other words, it’s tough and emotional reading. What C. and I both love about him, though, is that he works hard to capture the “under-narratives” of the world–the stories so often not told, the lives not captured, the anti-heroic, everyday tales of poverty and domestic violence and illness and heartbreak from recent immigrants to the U.S. He once said something like: “I write the stories that fall in between the cracks.” We were both moved by this. And I will say that though I reacted viscerally the first few times I read his work, I’ve returned to it, both in re-reading and in allusion, many times. It’s required reading for our generation. Start with This Is How You Lose Her.
I felt I had to keep the list above focused on some formative classics, but will now add a few important runners-up from the more recent canon:
+The weirdest but most amazing contemporary work of art I’ve read. It reads like it was written centuries ago, but it was released in the last 20 years. So rich and so full of provocation around the interwoven themes of gender, voice, and art.
+I’ve talked about her dozens of times, but Molly Wizenberg and her A Homemade Life make me want to be a better writer. It’s an easy read and so much more than a food memoir.
+The best autobiography I’ve read in recent years. Which may be surprising to you because it’s by an athlete. But the level of introspection and quality of the writing (heavily ghost-written) were superb.
+My book club strongly disagreed with me on this one, but H Is for Hawk was one of the better works of literature I’ve read in the last few years. Part memoir, it’s a fascinating and candid exploration of the stages of grief.
+I loved Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. It’s a border-crossing mutt of a work in that it’s part lit crit, part memoir, part fiction–but intensely well-written and just damn smart.
Finally, I have to say this post in general is giving me major heart palpitations because I’m sure I’m omitting dozens of great works that deserve to be in this list. So let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page: that these are 10 great books, but the list is non-exhaustive…
Next on my “serious reading” wish list: Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (strongly endorsed by my brother, a professor of literature, and loved by nearly every member of my family), Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, and Didion’s South and West.
What are your favorite books?!?!