Monday, August 18, 2008

Read and Boast I: Great Fiction

"There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." --Bertrand Russell

(Ironically enough, I think just invoking Bertrand Russell's name is pompous enough to be a boast in and of itself)

While I have occasionally brushed over the topic of "good" reading, a careful observer will notice that it has always been in a vague we could argue about this all day kind of way without ever actually saying anything in particular. In fact, though I've received requests that I put together a list of recommended reading, I generally hesitate to even approach the topic of which books one must read before one can be considered an intelligent, well-educated person because there are many books that would belong on this list that I haven't read yet. I suspect that it would be hypocritical of me to judge others for not having been exposed books that I've been lucky enough to have read. Part of my hesitation is due to the fact that, though I know I can't judge others for not having read books, other readers will have a slightly different take on whatever books I choose to include or not include, and there is always the implicit threat of judgment by those far better read than I. (Oops, my inferiority complex is showing.)

Today, however, I will take what is for me a large step and will post the first of what will eventually be three "recommended reading" lists, and I reserve the right to change the contents of these lists whenever I damn well please. One of the lists will be comprised of fictional works, one of non-fictional works, and one of fun, fast reads. These lists are in no way representative of all good books--instead, they should be viewed as mere suggestions of books I've read in the past that I think others might enjoy or get something out of; they are skewed towards American and British literature, partly because that is where most of my experience with modern fiction lies and also partly because some people have problems reading translations of texts. The lists are in alphabetical order by author's last name and are not intended to be used as a ranking system.

I've also put together these lists with the intention of them being useful for those who weren't English majors or don't have particular experience with or interest in reading difficult works. For example, I would say that one of the most monumental works I've read is Paradise Lost by John Milton, if only because it is a shining example of genius that changed my own relationship both with Christianity and with literature as a whole. However, I also feel that most people might not get very much out of it due to language challenges, so it would be a waste to tell everyone that he or she should read it. Would I say it's good? Yes. Would I say it is "required reading"? Not in a million years.

Finally, without further ado, the first of the lists:


Byron, Lord George Gordon. Don Juan. (Pronounced, for those of you who don't know, "Don Jew-an," not "Don Wuan.")

I was a bit hesitant at first as to whether to include this on my list, as it is poetry and not the prose most people are used to reading, but I enjoy it so much that I finally decided I had to keep it on here. Plus, Byron was the first literary celebrity, and today it seems people don't care about anything but celebrity, so it makes sense to include it. It's very clever and witty, and the entire thing is a work of genius. Honestly, it really is.

For those of you who want to try it without buying it or making a trip to the library, here's a link to its google book site:,M1

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.

I know that most people read this book in high school, but I think that everyone should read this book, not just those with the traditionalists for teachers. The characters are just so perfect--Jay Gatsby and Daisy can basically stand for the types of characters they are. I find it hard to describe just what I mean by this, but I feel like you'll understand if you've read the book. Plus, the eyes on the billboard are just too perfect--they're perhaps the best metaphor for the eyes of God I've come across. ("Anyone think this should be paired with the Monkey Wrench Gang? Ha, ha!" That was a bad literary joke that no one got. It was, obviously, followed by the echoing sound of crickets and silent pity.)

Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native.
While I enjoy this book's characters and storyline (it has a femme fatal to die for--literally), what fascinates me most is one of the characters in particular, the Redding Man. Hardy originally intended this character to be a Satan figure, his skin stained red by the dye he sells, but Hardy ended up liking the figure so much that he changed his role completely. It just goes to show that books exist--at least a little bit--independently of the writer's intentions. For years, the Redding Man was my favorite literary character of all time, for just that reason.

Anyway, if you like Victorian novels, you'll like this book, since Hardy is, in my opinion, the Victorian author. You could even pair this with the afore-blogged-about The French Leutenant's Woman by John Fowles.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.
Just read it. It's a fairly easy read, and it explores the idea of morality behind science--that is, just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should. It also shows just what people mean when they say "totalitarian," and a figure who stands for men today--John "Savage"--runs around the plot as your personal representative, completely overwhelmed by what the world has become. Plus, there's drugs and sex. Why wouldn't you want to read it?

Here's a link to a text-only version of the book:

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Nurse Ratched. Enough said.

Oh, and also: no, you can't claim that seeing the movie is the same as reading the book--the book is just as good as the movie, if not better because it's the original. (Kesey actually thought the movie butchered his story line, but all authors believe that, don't they?)

Kesey was one of the few Beatniks who didn't write stream-of-consciousness (Gary Snyder being another), but this novel has the same amount of rebellious indignation as most of the other works in the Beat canon. It also has the added side-effect of wanting to never put anyone you know in a mental institution unless you hate them. Plus, Randle Patrick McMurphy is one of the coolest characters ever written, bar none, and his transformation throughout the novel is one of the most tragic things I've ever read. An excellent, excellent book.

O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.

Let me just say that I love Flannery O'Connor. Her writing style is so smart, her characterizations dead-on, and her climaxes unexpected. I actually modeled my writing after hers for several years, aiming to be the secular Flannery O'Connor, as if that were possible. My favorite of her stories is "Good Country People."

Of course, anyone who has an objection to Christian writings shouldn't bother trying this--she was a Southern Gothic writer with a very strong theological bent, and you probably won't like it.
Here's a link to a website with a text-only version of "Good Country People":

Orwell, George. Animal Farm.

I was torn between including this or 1984, but honestly, I think you should read them both if you haven't already, especially in light of everything that has been happening politically in recent years. I would love to teach a class called "Fascism in Literature," and we could start with Plato and work our way on down.

Anyway, this book makes you think, and it's where the phrase "Some are more equal than others" came from, though, honestly, Orwell had plenty of inspiraition from his post-WWII, Cold War England.

Here's a link to the google books website:,M1

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead.
I know that there is a collective gasp of judgment emanating from all sides right now, but I truly enjoyed this novel when I read it. Atlas Shrugged, not so much. It was just too long, but The Fountainhead proves that I can like a book while disagreeing with its fundamental message. Some people argue that her message is abhorrent and her writing is awful, but I think that the fact that I like this book while being a progressive liberal shows that this might not be the case. Don't read it if you're passionately socialist, however, or you'll want to string me up for recommending it.

More on this book later, I think. I've come across several books and movies that I think pair excellently with Rand, but my favorite reference to her is in Angels in America by Tony Kushner; after Joe and Louis get in a fight, Louis is left bloody and gasping on the floor and says, "It was like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, huh?" Classic!
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
One thing I like about this book is that there are just so many ways to look at it--as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest proto-feminists, she holds a unique place in history. As the wife of Percy Shelley, one of the great Romantic poets, she was also in a unique position to see all of what was going on in literary and poetic circles of the time. (I think it should be noted that Percy Shelley "turned" her, as it was, and after his death the only people with whom she was ever romantically involved were women, another unique position in the 19th century.)

There's man vs. nature, man vs. woman, nature vs. nurture, man vs. monster... you can read this novel with any number of different intepretations, which I think is great. It helps us make up our own minds about these issues.
This was the first book I ever read slowly, like I was sipping something rather than gulping it down as fast as it would go. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, and this is my favorite of his books (although I've read others, as well, and enjoyed them, too). Salinas (the setting for the book) serves as another character, deftly interwoven into the plot. Also, as you know, I've been on a Christian kick for a couple of years, now, and his use of the Cain and Able story is very well done.

(If you want to try something a little shorter, since the book is kind of fat and might be intimidating, Cannery Row is an excellent novel as well that many people haven't read. Mice and Men, too, obviously.)

Finally, I finished this list. It sounded so easy when I first agreed to do it, but now I'm exhausted. It's a lot more work than it sounds.


Chatty Cathy said...

I know you were torn between putting Animal Farm or 1984 for your book recommendation. You should have put 1984. 1984 is such a great book...oh wait, I haven't read it yet. I guess I should go over to Big Brother's house and get me a copy.

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Oh, definitely, I just came from Big Brother's house, and his library is quite extensive.

I TOTALLY just laughed out loud, and someone gave me a strange look.

Daniele said...

I remember in Ms. Jones class, we were so excited that things turned out well for the Redding Man, especially after we had just read Tess of the D'Urbervilles. I think we had a discussion where one of us said that you spend most of the book thinking that everything would be ok if these two character would just die...and then they do! There were four on that list I haven't read yet, I'll get to it eventually!

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I honestly loved that book--I know a lot of people hate reading Thomas Hardy, but the Return of the Native is still one of my all-time favorites. I have Far From the Madding Crowd waiting for me at home right now.

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