(In no particular order…)
All the Light We Cannot See | Anthony Doerr
When I think about the books of our time that will be remembered in the same breath as the classics, I think of All the Light We Cannot See. The first time I read it, I had that dreadful combination of envy and awe that only other writers will understand. It’s a unique form of story telling, a collection of vignettes that can at times be a bit jarring, but it’s easy to see why this book took ten years for Doerr to write.
Whereas The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (another tome that took ten years to complete), left me questioning her productivity (hurry up Tartt!), Doerr’s novel delivers decadent storytelling, and exquisite language. It reads almost like poetry, and you can feel how deliberate each word is as you read. This book won the Pulitzer Prize, so I’m not exactly alone in my opinions. If you are looking for more of Doerr’s work, I would definitely check out The Shell Collector, it’s a wonderful short story collection.
A Confederacy of Dunces | John Kennedy Toole
When I get into reading slumps, which lately is more often than not, I always go back to Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. A slight disclaimer before I continue, I actually hate the ending of this book—it feels like a cop out, which honestly if you know Toole’s back-story is probably not too far from the truth. That being said, it is a perfect piece of satire—a brilliant representation of the self-righteous, and incomparably witty.
His main character is so completely defined that you begin to feel something akin to love for him. He is a dope, an offish, disgusting, arrogant fool, but Toole’s writing is so honest that despite all of that you learn to care for Ignatius J Reilly. There are iconic scenes in this book of Ignatius sucking down hot dogs in the street, of belching while reciting Boethius, or scooting around on a tiny stool.
It’s an easy read, and probably the best representation of contemporary satire.
On the Road | Jack Kerouac
I am restless by nature. When I stay in one place for too long I have a nagging sensation to run away, to travel long dusty roads with the windows down, and music playing. Because real life rarely allows for existential crisis-related breaks, I turn to Kerouac for the same sensation.
When I was a bookseller, I used to sell On the Road as the “Oh the Places You’ll Go,” for adults. There is that sense of bewilderment on every page, and the true conviction that if you cross state lines, if you jump in the backs of trucks, and kiss pretty people who don’t speak your language, life will work out.
You can feel the sense of frenzy that went into writing On the Road. The battering of the typewriter as Kerouac smoked cigarettes to the butt, and taped pages together to churn out this book in just three weeks. I like the reckless, youthful disregard that saturates each page. It’s a book that reminds you to be young and stupid while you have the chance. Not to mention the fact that it’s filled with great lines. We are all, after all, mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved.
Wuthering Heights | Emily Bronte
I have a proclivity for atmospheric books. Books that paint such a vivid depiction of time and place that you feel cold from the descriptions of icy banks, or windy moors. The Brontë sisters I’m sure grace many a top five lists, and Wuthering Heights often battles Jane Eyre for top billing. For me, Wuthering Heights has always been the book I return to when I want to fall back in love with reading.
There’s something haunting about this book that stays with you well after the last page. There’s the tragic romance, the landscape, and the idea that like in life, the ending will always be a little unsatisfactory. Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is destructive, and imperfect, and feels messy like real romance.
Suttree | Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy is probably the greatest living writing of our time, and Suttree is his Magnum Opus. Suttree is moderately autobiographical, and infinitely brilliant. The story is challenging, no way around it. He often forgoes plot for a dripping, sensual devotion to language. My God the words in this book are phenomenal. Lines like the opening line:
“Peering down into the water where the morning sun fashioned wheels of light, coronets fanwise in which lay trapped each twig, each grain sediment, long flakes and blades of light in the dusty water sliding away like optic strobes where motes sifted and spun,”
Are not only why the comma was invented, but prove why no one well ever be as good a writer as Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read this book close to ten times; I struggle with it every time, but I always learn from it. I’m always in awe of his effortless talent as a writer, and his mastery over the English language. If you do read this, keep a notepad handy to write down words you don’t know. If you’re like me you’ll find your paper quite full by the end.