Literary columns, blogs and periodicals seem to be full of articles espousing the “50 books to change your life”. While I often very much enjoy the books listed, it seems like my life isn’t as easily changed as some people might think. Here is a rather more conservative kind of list – books that, for one reason or another, I wish could change my life as a writer, reader or day-to-day grumbling self-centred avoider of work. There is an order to this list but it is not in decreasing importance, it corresponds exactly to the order in which I found the books I’m talking about.
- Go tell it to the mountain – my current read (and therefore the easiest to find) one that I have luckily been able to dedicate a four-hour commute to despite its short length. James Baldwin has written a book wholly deserving of its position in the Penguin Classics, without falling into the trap of high-brow overstated messages. His story centres mainly around a black family of a preacher in 1930s Harlem and its themes of redemption and sin, self-righteousness, secrecy and human failing are played out with perfect subtlety. Baldwin exemplifies writing simply about something known as opposed to forcing deeper issues. I hope that I somehow hold on to the sense he gives of forgivable human imperfection as well as his nuance as a writer.
- Catch–22 – I probably found this second purely because of its size but Joseph Heller’s five hundred and forty page tome somehow wouldn’t be the same if any of its all-important irrelevance was dropped. Catch-22 is more often ridiculous than anything else which, surprisingly often, is one of the best ways to represent war. Heller simultaneously belittles and highlights the importance of lives and his narrator, Yossarian, provides suspense and a perspective just removed enough to throw everything around him into stark relief. Catch should be viewed as the equivalent of an impressionist painting of the war and it’s dark optimism and insight are something I would have liked to hold on to for more than a few days.
- The reluctant fundamentalist – considerably shorter than Catch but no less accomplished for it. Moshin Hamid creates a multi-layered story which interests you in events of its protagonist’s life, large and small, while describing the post 9-11 world. The politics and fear of the times are mirrored and magnified by personal loves and trials and this main tale is framed in a structure that, while short and intermittent, possesses a permanent sense of tension and importance. Hamid’s writing describes both the virtues and pitfalls of complete commitment to a cause, whether it be an ideal or ideal partner, in a way that makes you feel that his message cannot be ignored.
- High Fidelity – Nick Hornby is almost always a sure-fire bet when it comes to studying life. While his male characters can have slightly repetitive flaws and story arks, high fidelity is a tale of redemption that doesn’t take itself, or anything else, too seriously. Just as Heller’s Catch- 22 shows the truth of the war through topical application of the ridiculous, Hornby highlights a coming-of-age using his terminally childish main: Rob Flemming. There are certainly portions of the book in which Rob’s mistakes can elicit groans of despair but his position is always relatable to some extent and the lessons Hornby takes us through are important and everyday.
- Noughties was printed by the “Hamish Hamilton” wing of Penguin which, to those knowledgeable of the company, focuses more on the literary accomplishment of their novels than mainstream success. In many ways, Noughties can be compared to High Fidelity in respect of its depiction of young life as well as its dedication to a form of creative expression (here literature over music, although there is no shortage of appreciation for other art forms). Noughties is steeped in past and present culture, Masters picks up on phrases and habits that somehow speak volumes and he splits the novel into the chapters of a night out in a way that is surprisingly entertaining (as entertaining as you can find chapter headings). As with many of these books, Noughties tracks the personal growth of its focal group over a chaotic time in their lives and without forcing a particular message down the reader’s throat, the Masters knows where he wants to go and makes it there successfully.
- It’s raining in maya – a book that I have already reviewed in this blog. It’s raining captures small-town hopelessness and lack of momentum in a network of spirituality and magic-realism. I find it hard to believe that it was author Raam Reddy’s first published novel but I’ve already said my piece here and if anyone wants to read more, I’ve hyperlinked to the original review above.
- Light Boxes – I became interested in Shane Jones magic realism book hot on the heels of finishing Reddy’s. It’s difficult to define exactly what part of the contradictory, allusive and spiritual novella makes it so great but Jones’ loose and accommodating reality allows him to touch on war, prejudice, family ties and personal strength in a story that takes only a couple of hours to read.
- The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ – from Philip Pullman, a great new take on one of the most widely-known stories in the world. Pullman has taken the New Testament and pried it apart in a genuine attempt to make sense of the story. Some may see the retelling as blasphemous but it can be best read as a tale all of its own, something highly referential of the religious text that was apparently central to Pullman’s early life and all the more enjoyable when read in the context of a knowledge of the original.
- Steal like an artist – Austin Kleon’s short bestseller isn’t comprised of narrative at all, it’s simply an exploration of creativity, a return to roots and the wisdom of experience passed on (in a pleasant break from the norm) without judgement, superiority or dogmatism. Two of the best messages concern not being afraid to use others work as a springboard for your own and the benefits of returning to tactile materials
- Mahabharata – packed with family politics, power, war, love and much else besides, the Mahabharata is the longest on this list (far longer than Catch-22) but by no means boring, one thing it is, is near-immune to being described in a four-page blurb.
- The Collector – John Fowles’ The Collector is mentioned in some form in most every literary degree I have come across. Apart from the superb tension running throughout and the ability to basically recount the same events twice without making them seem in any way rehashed, Fowles introduces us to two, very conflicting, points of view and, for the most part, leaves us unsure of our ultimate position.
- Of mice and men – John Steinbeck’s novel was not set for me as I was making my way through government education – a fact that I am very conflicted about. On the one hand, the book’s understated yet inexorable movement towards tragedy is something I found far more effective than the heavy symbolism of Lord of the flies (the text I was set instead). On the other, it could just be that I read Steinbeck’s work later in life than Golding’s and with far less belaboured analysis. Either way, Of mice and men is a fantastic example of a light touch communicating volumes about relationships, tension and class politics in a complicated time.
Of course this list bears adding to – there are likely thousands of books that deserve attention and so I could well be updating this periodically (or creating parts 2, 3, 4, n). If you have books that you think should be added or even if you think I’ve missed something in the books I did look at (or misinterpreted them entirely) – sound off in the comments below.