I recently had a discussion with my best friend – a fellow writer who knows the cultural value of a good book – that led me to construct a list of books that I not only loved, but that have provided me with something valuable outside of entertainment. I would argue that in terms of cultural capital, books provide the greatest return on investment; they can be obtained inexpensively and yet what they provide us is worth more than money can ever buy.
*Disclaimer: Notice that The Great Gatsby is nowhere on this list. I am not impressed if you have read it because frankly, I do not find that fact all that impressive. Look, I am not denying that F. Scott Fitzgerald was brilliant nor am I denying the fact that The Great Gatsby deserves to be recognized as a classic piece of American Literature. But somehow, those who hate reading in high school typically respond to the question of how they felt about English class with something along the lines of, “I hated English and reading but the one book I loved was The Great Gatsby.” Now, ask them why they loved it. Crickets, right? My point exactly. How can something be so universally loved yet so universally misunderstood and still remain on the syllabus? Aren’t we fooling ourselves by accepting that we love this novel without ever really understanding the meaning that it is meant to provide?
1. Commencement, J. Courtney Sullivan
If you are ever looking for a new author and have no idea where to start, I recommend looking on one of two tables at your local Barnes and Noble: Staff Picks or Summer Reading. This is where I stumbled upon one of my favorite novels, Commencement. J. Courtney Sullivan has a knack for writing stories from multiple perspectives and in both this and her novel Maine, she uses four characters to paint a picture of a past and a present shared by all four. The novel traces the lives of four Smith graduates, detailing both their colorful pasts as well as their lives post-grad. Each has a unique story but together, they constitute a separate fifth story that requires each of their presence in order to be considered ‘complete.’ It is rare in my opinion to encounter such a well-constructed flashback novel and the fact that this author is able to do so through the lens of not one or two but four characters is truly remarkable.
2. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Whether you agree or disagree with the death penalty, I can guarantee you that reading Capote’s nonfiction work will in some way alter your perception of capital punishment. Considering the hot-button nature of this issue in our political system today, and our tendency to often allow politics to have the final say, I see it as critical that every person encounter this work. Without giving too much away, In Cold Blood tells the story of a murder that took place in Holcolm, Kansas. Capote uses his impressive journalistic skills to collect and interpret data to create this masterpiece and by delving into the minds of the murderers, he is able to present his audience with a unique interpretation of capital punishment.
3. The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
There is little chance that I can recommend anyone a list of books without throwing in an Edith Wharton novel. While I have consumed all of her works ravenously, The House of Mirth is a longtime favorite that has proved to provide me with new value with each successive read. Through Lily Bart’s story, Wharton pits the merciless system of capitalism against the innate moral qualms of humanity. She paints a picture of New York City in the 1890’s that is arguably one of the most vivid ever presented in a novel; the ruthlessness and exclusivity of high society has never been more aptly captured in my opinion. And let us not forget that Wharton’s brilliance extends far beyond her writing capabilities. Her knowledge of Darwin and capitalism are readily apparent throughout the novel and are incorporated in such a flawless, beautiful way that it is difficult to deny Wharton the title of one of the greatest authors of all time.
4. Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell is a god. Okay, okay, he’s not a god but he knows more about the workings of humanity and life in general than any human being I have ever encountered. His brilliance is undeniable and while I would say go out and read any of his books – all of his books – right this very minute, it would be imprudent to not give some other authors a chance to make the list. So let me narrow it down to Outliers, one of the most insightful books that you will ever read. Gladwell specializes in nonfiction and uses psychology, sociology, statistics, and the like to unravel the mysteries of what makes us ‘successful’ or ‘geniuses’ or ‘prodigies.’ I learned why a person’s IQ is not always a guarantee of success and that birthdays play a big role in who will become an Olympic ice hockey player. That’s right, birthdays. The multitude of other facts that Gladwell presents will blow your mind. Trust me.
5. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
I am a Shakespeare enthusiast and as such, I am painfully aware that my love of this playwright is not shared by most but I will tell you that regardless of how much you hated Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet – little known fact, Romeo and Juliet is considered by a fair share of Shakespeare scholars to be far from a masterpiece – you MUST read Hamlet. I have read all but two of Shakespeare’s plays and still this one reigns supreme. The soliloquys are exquisite and thought provoking and don’t even get me started on the amount of analysis to be done on this play. Just read it, please.
6. The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Pick up any of Cunningham’s novels for a one of a kind reading experience but The Hours is his masterpiece. The film version is superbly done as well but like all lovers of the written word, I am a strong advocate of reading the book before seeing the movie. The story traces the lives of three women: two modern day Mrs. Dalloways (one from the 1950’s and one from the 21st century) and Virginia Wolf herself. All three characters contain some element of the character of Clarissa from Virginia Wolf’s famous piece of modernism – Mrs. Dalloway – and the best part is that you in no way have to be familiar with Wolf’s work to appreciate Cunningham’s. Essentially, the novel traces a day in the life of each of the women, all of who are in some way trapped by their circumstance. Cunningham borrows from Virginia Wolf and utilizes stream of consciousness to present us with a critical look into the internal psychological struggle that the characters face and aims to demonstrate how what we often consider an ‘ordinary’ day can be used to examine and explain the entirety of a person’s life. After you finish this one, get another Cunningham novel and I promise that you will be just as pleased.
7. Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling
If you think that this is cliché or kid stuff, I can respect that. I first picked up a Harry Potter book at the age of sixteen, which for someone of my generation is shocking. My friends grew up on these books and yet I was hesitant to delve into something so fantastical. Boy am I sorry I did not start sooner. The positive thing though is that I read these novels with a more critical perspective. I could appreciate Rowling’s brilliance in a way that a young child cannot. Read all seven novels and tell me that Rowling is not one of the most imaginative, talented, and intelligent human beings living today. She not only created an entire world complete with words, creatures, spells, places, monuments – you name it, she created a new version of it – but she created a world that is appealing and envied by a multitude of readers – children and adults. Just read the series and consider the work that went into its creation. I promise it will be worth it. P.S. It is on the list because I am positive that there are more than a few twenty-somethings that have never picked up a copy.
8. The Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Hated it the first time I read it. Valued it the second time I read it. By the third time, I was hooked. The reason for my varied sentiments towards this book can be directly attributed to the context in which I read the novel. The first time, I read it in a high school level Modern Literature class. I despised it and had no idea why I was reading some stupid book about these stupid boys that are stuck on some stupid island. That is literally what went through my head. The third time I read it was for fun but the second time was in a Political Theory class in college and boy was I blown away. My advice: read a little Thomas Hobbes before you delve into Golding’s masterpiece. Do that, and you will surely see what Golding is trying to get at regarding the human experience.