1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Okay, so placing Infinite Jest here reeks of pseudo-intellectual pretension. I don’t care. David Foster Wallace’s 1,000+ page sprawling opus, ostensibly about a few weeks at an eccentric tennis academy, unquestionably changed my life. After all, said life had generally seemed perplexing and unfulfilling, and I get the impression DFW felt the same. But instead of dismissing it with a shoulder shrug (like I too often did), he made this genuine and courageous attempt to chronicle it in all of its horrifying madness. An unapologetic deconstruction of that ultimate American mirage – happiness – Infinite Jest helped me realize how I had deluded myself, choosing to escape life rather than live it. The book’s notorious idiosyncrasies (its length, excessive footnotes, confusing chronology, etc.) are off-putting to many, but there is magic here for those who persist. A must for anyone who has ever struggled with depression or addiction, who feels alone or afraid, who has lived or would like to in the near future.
2. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Although my lifelong fascination with horror started with R.L. Stine’s benign Goosebumps series, a rather harmless gateway drug, it developed into a full-blown, tweaked-out addiction upon finding Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stine’s world was one of PG scares where that cold hand reaching for your shoulder was usually just your little brother, and where mysteries were wrapped up with the speed and precision of a Scooby Doo episode. But with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, my God – scarecrows skin people and hang them out dry, the family’s new dog is actually a Mexican rat with rabies, and what looks like a pimple are spider’s eggs waiting to hatch. Even more terrifying were the illustrations: Stephen Gammell’s ghoulish black and white pictures haunted my adolescent mind like grisly autopsy photos from a lurid afterworld.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a pretty daunting work. First, it has a reputation for dense trickery, employing lots of puns and allusions and cryptic references. Second, and perhaps more notably, it’s the exhaustively detailed account of a pedophile’s abuse of a 12-year-old girl. So, uh, yeah. But it’s also one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous books ever written, lyrically beautiful, composed with an unrivaled grace and style (See: “And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears”). And Nabokov wrote it in English, which wasn’t even his native tongue! I often find myself drawn to art that humanizes demons, that holds empathy for the darkest of souls: Lolita is the ultimate example.
4. Various Collections: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson and The Far Side by Gary Larson
My father did not read books. Though he tore through newspapers with an unceasing curiosity, he claimed (bragged, even) to have not read a work of fiction since 3rd grade. We were essentially total opposites: he was a blue collar carpenter who loved cars, and I’m the kind of person who needs to consciously remember, “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” every time I use a screwdriver. Fortunately, we found a common ground with comic strips, or, as he called them, “the funnies.” Many a Saturday and Sunday morning (ooh, color!) were spent with the bittersweet, nostalgia-tinged adventures of Calvin and Hobbes and the bizarre wit of The Far Side – reading together, laughing, sharing something that seemed old-fashioned even by my 90s childhood.
5. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
An avid reader as a child, I lost my passion for anything school-related around the time I discovered easier methods of distraction, like the internet and marijuana. That love of reading didn’t really come back until my freshman year of college (the breadth of classics I skimmed in high school is lengthy and embarrassing), when a professor assigned me Catch-22, and, for whatever reason, I made a real stab at reading it instead of running in panic to SparkNotes. Fortunately, it reminded me that literature could be both hilariously funny and wildly entertaining.
6. The Shining by Stephen King
Under a policy of rather lax parental supervision, I read The Shining as a 9-year-old, after an incredibly traumatizing experience with Stanley Kubrick’s film version. In retrospect, The Shining has all of the frustrating hallmarks of King’s writing: a captivating premise; rampant nihilism eventually veering into unintentional self-parody; and, ultimately, 400+ pages of effective psychological horror blown to bits by an explosion of overwrought prose and supernatural silliness. But for all its flaws, this is still a legitimately terrifying book (a snarling, “drunken dogman” has always stuck with me) and one that provided a defining insight for my young mind: adults are really, really freaking miserable. The Shining was a frightening awakening to adulthood, to alcoholism and broken families and domestic violence.
7. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
I read American Psycho long after seeing the movie, fully prepared for one of the most controversial and hated books ever written. Consequently, I was shocked to find the first third of the novel turgid and boring. However, that dull opening was a crucial act of literary ambush, lowering my guard and leaving me completely vulnerable to a second act that filled me with contempt. I’m not easily disturbed, but I found this book so completely unsettling that I wasn’t sure it was even worth enduring. But it was also nightmarishly hilarious, creating a tonal schizophrenia that often left me laughing out loud and squirming with discomfort on the very same page. Ultimately, the final section overpowered me, forcing me to see my complicity in a society every bit as nihilistic and hateful as Patrick Bateman himself. For me, Bret Easton Ellis’ questionable means justified a very necessary end.
8. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater
Daniel Pinkwater’s novels have a quality rarely found in children’s entertainment: they are cool. In fact, they’re unquestionably and definitively cool, like The Velvet Underground or Pulp Fiction. Pinkwater wrote about geeks and social pariahs, yet his characters were clearly way cooler than everyone around them: he articulated that ultimate adolescent question, “I am clearly very awesome, so why does no one like me?” Walter Galt, the main character of Snarkout Boys, is a bored teenager who sneaks out of his house nightly to catch B-movies at the local grindhouse with his friend Winston Bongo. Ultimately, they get caught up in a criminal plot involving avocadoes and orangutans; more importantly, they find acceptance in a badass urban underworld that appealed to me as a kid (and, duh, still does now).
9. Tenth of December by George Saunders
George Saunders’ collection of short stories, released last year to great acclaim, is the most recent addition on this list. I started reading it just a week ago, in the throes of (yet another) personal crisis, at a point where I had seemingly lost what was gained from those previous books, at a time where things once again appeared inexplicable and meaningless. That is to say, I was in a dreadful mood when I picked it up. The addictive prose immediately pulled me in – hysterically funny and deceptively nuanced, his stories are accessible, emotionally resonant, and almost painfully true to modern life. Saunders has a stunning insight into contemporary existential dilemmas (i.e., “My Chivalric Fiasco,” a hilarious piece on the fleeting transcendence of pharmaceuticals), but, more importantly, an incredible empathy and love for humanity, even (especially!) for characters who seem odd and unlovable. Tenth of December reminded me of the ultimate role of literature: escape into a parallel world that illuminates and clarifies our own. Yes, books are a temporary refuge from ourselves, but a refuge that eventually return us to reality with insights and perspectives that give us the strength to keep on going.