I have a hard time recommending books to people, because everyone’s tastes are so vastly different — if you like Nicholas Sparks’s Nights in Rodanthe, you probably won’t like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or anything else that’s good — but I just wouldn’t feel legitimate if I didn’t make a self-gratifying page listing some of the books that have either motivated me to write, influenced me, or shed light on the world in some way. And so that’s what I’ve done.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The classic dystopian novel about a society that self-medicates its way to happiness and doesn’t read books. I fail to see how that could possibly reflect modern times.
I learned: That I wanted to write novels for a living.
Five year later I learned: That I had made the entirely wrong decision.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Having already read one of the greatest, but bleakest, dystopian books of all time, I wanted something that was not only good, but hilarious (this is much rarer in fiction than it should be). Catch-22 more than filled this void.
I learned: That a novel could be genuinely funny, not just “Oh look, that happened” funny, which is what most “funny” novels are.
Plus: Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major Major
I learned: That a violence-laden story about an American mercenary joining a group of guerrilla insurgents and blowing up a bridge all while dealing with corruption and betrayal can be cool. I’m sorry if I startled you with this new information.
Also: Absinthe. Yeah, absinthe.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. I’ve come to find that a lot of people, especially literary snobs who haven’t moved past 1943, have big problems with this book. These people know where they can go, and where they can stick it, and what act they can commit, and off of which type of land mass they can jump. This book is awesome.
I learned: That novels can be genuinely funny (again).
As well as: Where the world’s oldest meme came from.
Pretty much anything by this man. Kurt Vonnegut, for the uninitiated. He wrote Slaughterhouse Five, that book everyone in your English class tried to get for their assigned reading because it had the word “slaughterhouse” in it. He also wrote Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, The Sirens of Titan, and about a dozen other books that are worth reading for one reason or another. He was one of the most influential writers of the past century, and he did things with words that would have gotten him lynched in the 1800s. On top of that, he strolled into World War II and verbally bitch-slapped people like he owned the place. I like this man.
I learned: It’s totally cool that most of the crap I write doesn’t fit into a category.
Plus: I think Mark Twain might have been reincarnated.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is the least bizarre book by a Japanese person I’ve read — probably because he was raised mainly in Britain and his writing reflects that — but what it lacks in weirdness it makes up for in depressing you for the next week.
I learned: That modern fiction doesn’t always deserve the shit people give it.
Also: That beneath all my Ponzi schemes and Christmas-stealing I may actually have something that comes sickeningly close to resembling a heart.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Yes, you all read this in high school. I didn’t. I read it for the first time not very long ago, and because of this I probably enjoyed it more than you ever could. Suckers!
I learned: That there are some first novels that my first novel, no matter what it was or how much time I spent on it, could ever hope to rival. This allowed me to suck it up and finish mine, which features a librarian as an antagonist.
Also: Children are monsters, and they all must be exterminated.
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. The only non-fiction on this list so far. This book totally eclipses the quaint concept of “kicking ass.” It sends ass into black holes and spaghettifies it. It sinks it to the bottom of the Mariana trench and flattens it. The reason this book is so cool is that not only are the laws of science represented, the stories of the scientists who discovered them are also included. It’s interesting to read about the personalities of people like Charles Darwin (modest and reserved) and Isaac Newton (so far out of his mind that he once stuck a needle into his eye socket “just to see what would happen”).
I learned: A short history of nearly everything.
For example: About a hundred lightning bolts hit the Earth’s surface every second, Richard Owen was a douchebag, and there used to be sloths the size of friggin’ cars.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. A poignant work about a boy and how much his life sucks. As bad things happen to Alexander we really get a sense of the coldness of the universe, and we learn that bad things will happen to us no matter where we are and that the only answer is (I’m assuming) drug-fueled marathon orgies.
I learned: A little about myself, and making the most out of a world in which the odds are stacked against me.
Also: I think that kid might have Down Syndrome.
I learned: I’m actually still not sure what message the author is trying to convey in this ambiguous work. At first I thought it was an allegory, perhaps a parallel of the fallacies of American society and its impact on the global economy (“The elephant makes a big poop”), but when the rhetorical question “What does whale poop look like?” was posed, that hypothesis was nullified. Still, very entertaining and thought-provoking. A real generational tale that will be passed down through the ages.