I don’t usually post recommendations here, but I’ve been thinking a lot about what books have influenced the way I think and write, so I thought I would share a few. I was an English major after all. This list could have easily sprawled to a hundred books, so I decided to limit myself to five fiction books from the last fifty years or so, in no particular order. Maybe I’ll gain motivation to do this again in the not-so-distant future. I tried to pick books that most people haven’t already read to keep things interesting. So, buckle up, folks, it’s going to be a long one.
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989): This book will break your heart in so many ways, but one of the main reasons this book makes the cut is the structure and planning of the narrative. From the very beginning, Irving lays the groundwork for the ending, down to every detail. Some people say they guessed the ending part way through, but there’s no way to guess how everything ties together until you get to the end. It really is masterful. Also, if you’re interested in literary theory at all, I would suggest reading Owen Meany through a Bakhtinian lens. Irving seems to have written the whole book with the dialogic nature and unfinalizability of literature in mind. The one downfall to this book is that it could possibly be about fifty pages shorter, but I’m willing to forgive. Even with the fifty-page surplus, though, Owen Meany will change the way to think about structure in novels.
- Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961): While most people read Catcher in the Rye, I think this book is much better and more interesting. Not only does it give Salinger the chance to play with voice as there are two storylines, but it also is another example of compelling structure. The book is divided into two sections, each named after its primary character. Although the two intersect at certain points, they tell of decidedly different struggles. There’s a great amount of pathos in both stories, but Franny and Zooey have unique voices. One of the most interesting things in this book, from a style standpoint, is Salinger’s use of italics. While most modern writing guides advise that you stay clear of italics because they can be overused and become cliché, Salinger uses them to denote tone and vocal inflections which differ between characters. No two characters use italics the same way. There’s really no one who writes dialogue like Salinger, in my opinion, and Franny and Zooey is easily his most intriguing work.
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985): I’ll be honest, I don’t actually like this book. I do, however, think it’s important for anyone who wants to write well. Though he’s known for The Road and No Country for Old Men, I found both books a bit lackluster in style. In this book, though, McCarthy really gets to show off his language ability combined with his storytelling ability. The language in this book literally sings from the page, even while describing more violent atrocities than you can even imagine. There’s a jarring quality to the novel because the beauty of the language is juxtaposed against the horrors it describes, which plays into all manner of post-modern conversations. Honestly, I only ever read the novel once because it is very difficult when you spend all your time thinking about words and their meaning to then be in an environment where the beauty of the words so greatly contrasts with their meanings. Eventually, I will probably revisit Blood Meridian because I think it can teach me a lot about writing, but for now, once is enough. You should at least read it once.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952): This book will change the way you think about race riots, personhood, discrimination, and manipulation. Besides telling a compelling story about a man’s descent into invisibility, this book tackles a lot of huge questions that everyone should wrestle with at some point. Even if you ignore the racial side of the equation (which you really shouldn’t), Ellison has a lot to say about how people treat each other and how that affects one’s personhood. Unlink the H.G. Wells novel of a similar name, Ellison’s sense of invisibility is a construct of societal treatment of personhood and importance. The novel opens up with the invisible man – who’s significantly never named – being treated as an animal. It then traces a whole manner of ways in which he is treated as non-human. Eventually, he is brought to complete invisibility. Invisible Man is both a masterpiece of literary fiction because of its style and intricacies and an important lesson in humanity.
- Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (2004): I’ve saved my favorite for last. I first heard of this book several years before actually reading it because I didn’t know what to expect. I’m including it here because you shouldn’t have that excuse. It will change your life. Robinson’s ability to understand a character’s voice and personality is unparalleled. The narrator, John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist pastor with a younger wife and son, is truly a treasure. While there’s a lot of humorous and witty bits in the novel, there’s also a large amount of sage wisdom, insights into faith and life, and deep emotional resonance. For me, Marilynne Robinson has set the bar for great literature in this century, and it’s a very high bar to reach. Not only has this particular book won the Pulitzer Prize, but Robinson is also an accomplished essayist and novelist, so if you enjoy this novel, there’s more to enjoy. One thing that amazes me about Gilead and her other novels is Robinson’s ability to fully understand a character. When you sit down to read, you will feel like John Ames is sitting down across from you, telling you about his life and beliefs. I would encourage you to have that conversation. It will most likely break your heart, but it will also change you for the better as all great literature should.