Ah, literature. The great medium whose current stars write about such serious issues as vampire romance, post-apocalyptic human hunting, professors solving religious mysteries, and billionaire sex experts. Now, I’m all for the novels of Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and Dan Brown (as for Ms. E.L. James…), but at some point one wants to read both for entertainment and for deeper understandings, perspective changes, and thoughts so new and foreign you’d never have found them without entering into the beautifully thought-out worlds that your fellow human labored over, brainstormed, outlined, and executed.
Now, good literature isn’t terribly hard to come by. Yet truly classic books, the kind that are actually worth your time, which stir something in you, and that you’ll reflect on for years to come — well those are a bit tougher to find. I’ll admit that the following list is too short, that there are deserving titles that unfortunately had to be omitted; but as far as books that will shift your perspective — be it on love, suburbia, justice, religion, Romanticism, misery, adventure, evil, or dreams — well, these books aren’t a bad place to start:
1. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
Yates’ debut novel deals with loneliness, the emptiness of the American Dream, and, most importantly, the fact that those who look perfect on the outside are sometimes torn to shreds on the inside. The unraveling of Frank and April Wheeler’s dream to move to Paris is one of the most slowly crushing plot arcs in literature, and, under the direction of Sam Mendes, Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet brought all of this sadness and existential emptiness to the screen in 2008. Read the novel first though. After finishing this intense book, the reader finds that a “perfect” life is rarely what we truly desire.
2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
A sort of 1984 for the Amazon.com generation, DFW’s over-a-thousand-pages opus deals with the state of a world that’s entirely steeped in advertising and consumerism. The fact that most of it takes place during The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment might lull one into thinking that it’s a humorous, entirely unrealistic view of the world. But in our modern world, in which nearly everything is mediatized — even the way we connect with others and express love – it’s important to reflect on whether DFW’s semi-satirical extremism is actually all that impossible.
3. Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris
Although Me Talk Pretty One Day usually tops these types of lists when Sedaris is involved, the short essay collection Holidays on Ice is his greatest perspective changer. The collection’s principle story, “SantaLand Diaries,” details Sedaris’ time working as a Macy’s elf at Christmastime. It’s the first story Sedaris read on NPR after Ira Glass discovered him, and it’s the quintessential example of how viewing misery through the right lens can turn it into something absurd, humorous, and, in the end, actually not so bad.
4. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
To view the world with rose-colored glasses is, in most cases, a harmless way to approach life. We’ve all been told to shoot for the stars, to go for what we want, and to be optimistic. Yet, Flaubert, in typical 19th-century-French-man style, severely questions this, putting the aspirational, money- and status-loving Emma Bovary in dire straits after she forsakes simplicity for romantic, unrealistic endeavors. The trouble with blind ambition and unchecked hopefulness is disturbing, and after reading Flaubert’s debut novel, your perspective on your proper place in life may change — for better or worse.
5. The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman
For a child brought up in a religious household, Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) was the first challenge to the beliefs of my family, which, by extension, were also my beliefs. Whether or not Lyra Belacqua’s adventures change your mind about religion, doctrine or dogma of any kind, it nonetheless lends a unique perspective. Veiled in a fantastical story that takes place in a futuristic-but-still-Victorian age, religious power is at odds with freethinking and youthful innocence. Although it’s written for young adults, The Golden Compass is very much a book for everyone, so if you get the evil eye while reading it on the train or at a café, just shake your head and realize how much they’re missing.
6. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
Whether or not evil can be cured, Burgess’ exploration of adolescent atrocities and a dystopian future where violence is rampant makes one wonder whether evil is culturally learned or simply a biological part of a dark psyche. So — is it possible to train people to be good or will some forever epitomize a Hobbesian nature?
7. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
The banality of suburbia is a disquieting phenomenon. The story of five sisters whose family moves in to a pretty house in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, deals with high school, stifling parenting, Catholicism, sexual conservatism, and the trouble with cookie-cutter uniformity and prescribed perfection. As the title lets on, the Lisbon sisters all eventually kill themselves. As for the reason why, the neighborhood boys — narrating in the plural style of a Greek chorus after they’ve grown up — aren’t sure what motivated the suicides. The reader is left a bit clueless too, given only a new perspective on suburbia, innocence, and ostensible flawlessness as clues.
8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho
An old king tells The Alchemist’s protagonist, Santiago, “When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.” A sprawling allegorical adventure that leads Santiago to Egypt is less about the young Andalusian shepherd’s actual movements than what they represent. Having repeatedly dreamed that treasure awaits him in Egypt, Santiago sets out to achieve his dream, fulfill his passion, and live his life how it was meant to be lived. Not bad advice, even if it is easier read than done.
9. Atonement, by Ian McEwan
McEwan offers an answer to why writing is important: it’s a means to rearrange reality. Writing is about picking up the broken parts of our lives and putting them together to create the world we always hope for but which rarely comes to fruition. At the end of it all, McEwan asks us to draw a line between reality and the perfect world that the written word can create. Is there a line? Is one world better than the other? Can writing truly provide reparation for our wrongs?
10. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
Outdoorsman Christopher McCandless eventually takes adventurousness to a far too dangerous extreme, but Krakauer’s expansion of McCandless’ 9,000-word autobiographical article reveals how far some will go to blaze their own trail. To some, McCandless, who eventually dies of poison-induced starvation, is a true pioneer and adventurer, while to others, the man who intentionally didn’t bring maps or adequate supplies on his trek into the Alaskan winter is someone who should be nominated for a Darwin Award. Polarizing as he may be, McCandless shows that a desire for adventure can be insatiable and that it’s ultimately one’s own choice on how to lead a life.
11. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Once the editor-in-chief of French Elle, Bauby wrote this autobiography with the help of a transcriber through a system of blinking his eyes. The magazine superstar, once obsessed with the superficial, suffered a stroke and became paralyzed with “locked-in” syndrome. Unable to move his body save for his left eyelid, Bauby comes to realize – and I promise it’s free of clichés – that glamor and oneself aren’t the most important things in life.
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