I have been an avid reader for all my living memory. I can recall reading books outside on the playground instead of joining the other children for teether-ball or double dutch. As I grew older, my appetite for meatier books emerged, and so a few years ago, I embarked upon a challenge to read every book on Radcliffe's 100 Greatest Novels of the 20th Century. I have now read 60 of the 100 books on the list. I have read some mind-numbingly boring books that made me question the committee's sanity like The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, or O Pioneer! by Willa Cather. Though bored, I still appreciated the fact I had read such classic titles. While not every book on the list was stellar, I have found some gems, and would like to share a short list of some amazing books on my list.
1. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess - While Ulysses still holds the record for most difficult book to read in the English language, A Clockwork Orange surely was in the running. While Ulysses' difficulty lies in the stream of conscious method of writing where it is hard to tell which character is offering the story and if they are doing so in speech or thought, A Clockwork Orange is instead ladened with an entire vernacular particular to the book. This experiment in language makes it hard to keep track of the story until one has learned an entire new vocabulary list. Beneath the lexicon is a haunting look at youth and violence, but it is the way Burgess immerses you in a completely new and foreign culture that is so different than your own with the shear usage of words that makes this book a classic.
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov - Lascivious and erogenous does not usually turn readers away, unless the subject of such lust is a 12-year-old nubile young girl. For a book that sounds by overview to be a field-guide to pedophilia, the beauty in Nabokov's words so overtake the dark subject matter that it elevates the entire text to the level of art. While "Lolita" is lauded to be a metaphor of European versus American culture, the theme pales in the power of the language. Reading his proses makes me want to wring ever shadowy meaning, shade of beauty, and drop of imagery out of my own words. Oh, if I could write like this:
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
"She was musical and apple-sweet ... Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice ... and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty--between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock."
"All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because the frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other's soul and flesh."3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell - While all of Orwell's writing is political by nature, Nineteen Eighty-Four's themes of utopianism, totalitarianism, bureaucracy, and the classic dichotomy of security vs freedom, all serve to discuss the more personal theme of individuality. It is a story that tells how an oppressive government can quash all traces of an individual and humanity by eradicating all freedom from every aspect of the populace's lives. The Party does so by removing words for the language to restrict logic, vilifying sex and sexuality, installing television in every home that cannot be turned off, turning the eye of Big Brother on you at all times, and even making it illegal to commit a "thought crime" which is nothing more than thinking individual thoughts. The book has become the quintessential example of dystopia, and the classic illustration of the danger a totalitarian government poses to an independent mental existence.
4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - While Hemingway is often considered Picasso's literary equivalent, I rather think Vonnegut is a more apt fit. Where Picasso found the rigid rules of art stifling and bucked all established rules to the point this his art is instantly recognizable, the same goes for Vonnegut's writing. Any time one picks up his work, you can instantly detect his thumbprints all over the page. Cat's Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, or Timequake all are time capsules that hold the ghost of their creator's hand, but none more so than Slaughterhouse-Five. While you may have never read it, it's influence is spread through modern media like spider-web cracks on a windshield. The idea of being unstuck in time was one of the basis for Lost's Seasons 4,5, and 6, the fact it is still banned in many school libraries, and the pervasive catch- phrase, "So it goes" all stem for this absurdist classic.
5. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand - While many self proclaimed book worms will waffle when asked what their favorite piece of fiction is, I suffer no such indecision. Unquestionable my choice would be Atlas Shrugged. Widely acknowledged as her magnum opus, Rand found a way to weave dry, political theory into perfect artistic form. Her politics could not be more askew with my own, but every time I am enveloped within her pages, I give her theory real consideration. While you may think the again a book that champions a man's mind as his own domain in a dystopian society is redundant after Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it is not. Atlas Shrugged instead explores what happens when we let those minds elevate to their utmost potential in a purely capitalist society. A subtle difference, but one that I think makes both books worthy of the list. Admittedly it takes a few reads to truly answer "Who is John Galt?", but once you do, I think you will be able to understand my love for all things Rand.
6. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - Another satire made the short list, but unlike Slaughterhouse Five with the real pain of war bubbling just below the surface, Catch 22 examines
how the bureaucratic nature of the modern military hampers any true hope of success. Even the title hints at the theme of the military rule is embroiled in self-contractory logic. The story is told in a non-sequential manner with different characters narrating each section, but each telling how the bureaucracy they toiled under marginalized them as individuals.
7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - What more can be said about The Catcher in the Rye? The novel captures the existential teenage angst that used to boil beneath all of us. Despite the story being so part of our literary culture that it is almost trite, I still find myself breezing through it every couple of years to enjoy it like a conversation with an old friend.
8. Orlando by Virginia Woolf - Admittedly I had to start this novel several times, and I blame Woolf for that mostly. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? I am. All her books are considered "difficult reads" due to her adding a third layer to her characters, the unconscious mind, how she writes her character's narrative, her loose adherence to standard story telling techniques and feeling no need to ever end a sentence. Despite all of this, once I got into Orlando, I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the gender and what commentary it said about inequality the of the sexes in her times. Orlando spends the first half of the book a male, pursuing stereotypical masculine endeavors, and the second part of the book trying to bring a male mind to terms with the absurdities present in a female's world.
9. White Noise by Don DeLillo - While all the other books on this list were familiar to me by title or author, White Noise was a gem just waiting to be found. DeLillo is paints pictures to vivid I can almost feel myself standing in the grocery store beneath the florescent lights or running beside him as ash rains down upon us. His writing is the very pinnacle of active writing. He could be writing about the chemical spill, the Hitler studies class, or the main character drinking in his wife as they lay in bed and all are just as engaging. I read this book at a snail's pace to capture ever last sentence structure and word combination. His art is to young and impulsive and makes each page a new adventure. Trying to explain is like trying to tell you what a sunset looks like when all you have to do is turn to see it. So, I will leave you with a quote:
"How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn't they paralyze us? How is it we can survive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it?"