Anytime someone starts talking about books I get excited. So when the brother-in-law on the other side of the pond posted his “just read it, dammit” list, I was inspired (and I stole his title - thanks Steve).
Now normally on these “Books You Should Read Before You Die” lists, the Bible makes it to the top three. Well, it won’t make mine. Not only because I’m not a religious person but because it’s dreadful reading. The language is antiquated and rambling and the stories are downright silly. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fantasy novel, just as long as it's tasteful and has a plot that makes sense.
You also won’t see any Shakespeare on this list, even tho I do like Shakespeare (Macbeth is my favorite). Once again we’re talking about antiquated language that, unless you’re a professor on the subject or just a junkie for old drama, is difficult to stay with.
Then there’s the good old ‘required reading’ (forced reading more like) from high school and college. Very few of those remain on my bookshelves. The majority of the drudgery we had to read drained my soul and destroyed my will to live (Hemingway, Dickens, Knowles...).
I’ve also read some notoriously scandalous books in recent years, more or less to just be able to say I’ve read them. And a lot of them were dreadful: Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller, J.D. Salinger... Awful! Gah! I wanted to like them, really. I hung in there till the very last page but man, did they ever suck.
But anyway, onto my list. I don’t expect these books to change anyone’s life (altho a couple of them did it for me). In fact, I expect at least one or two people to shout, “What the hell? You liked THAT?!” That’s ok. I’m here to debate... once you’ve read the book(s) in question.
So here goes. Get busy:
A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking: I’ve read this one twice and I need to pick it up again. Whether or not you’re a Big Bang Theory fan, Hawking’s other points are enlightening. He’s the only person (author or instructor) who explained quantum physics in a way I could understand. I remember finishing the chapter and thinking, “Wow, that makes perfect sense.” I couldn’t explain it to you now, but when I saw it in print, it was an epiphany.
The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer: Yes, I can hear the collective whine from some of you. And yes, the language it a little difficult to pick up. Go for the modern translation. I loved this book for simply showing how greedy, crude, pompous and perverted people in the Middle Ages really were. Where else but a present day sitcom can you find such wonderful dirty jokes and slamming insults.
A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess: Forget you saw the Kubrick movie (altho it is a classic). And make sure when you read this you A) have a copy that has the Russian/slang dictionary and B) the missing 21st chapter. The first time I read this it only had 20 chapters and ends pretty much like the film. The second time I read it I happened upon a new edition with the 21st chapter. That last chapter changes the whole perspective of the book. As disturbing as the rest of the novel is, this last chapter helps you understand Alex’s mental workings and, dare I say it, offers a little optimism.
The Crucible - Arthur Miller: Every time I read this one or see it performed on stage it chills my very soul. In all honestly, it has nothing to do with witchcraft. Just drop in any fringe-of-society behavior in its place and see where this takes society.
Frankenstein - Mary Shelly and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep - Philip K. Dick: Why do I place these two together? Because basically they’re the same story (especially if you’re familiar with the film version of ‘Android’ - Blade Runner); Man creates Wonderful Thing. Wonderful Thing becomes a monster in society’s eyes. Wonderful Thing wishes to know its Creator. Wonderful Thing never asked to be created, but now wants respect/life/partner. Creator/Man must destroy Wonderful Thing before it destroys Him.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Harriet Jacobs: I only discovered this book recently. Forget Tess of the Dubervilles. THIS should be required reading. A real eye-opening personal account of being a female slave trying to survive and eventually find freedom.
The Skeptical Feminist: Discovering the Virgin, Mother and Crane - Barbara Walker: Here’s one that definitely changed my life. Altho my opinions on the whole ‘Goddess’ thing aren’t the same as they were after finishing this book back in the early 90s, her account of growing up in a church-going family and on how women are treated and perceived in general was eye-opening. Every woman (and a few men) should read this, regardless of their religious affiliation, if only to open a few more minds and empower a few more women to stop following the tired, old crap they’ve been spoon fed since birth.
The Talisman - Stephen King and Peter Straub: So many people classify King as a horror writer. What he truly succeeds at is showing the susceptibility of human nature and our vulnerability to blindly follow the crowd, no matter how batshit crazy they are (see The Stand, The Mist, Needful Things, Insomnia...) He is also a master at character development. The people he writes about become living, breathing human beings. And when one of them dies it’s devastating.
I’ve read this fantasy (not horror - a unbeaten path for both authors) 3 times and plan on reading it a few more. And every time I get to the point where a certain character dies, I’m a blubbery mess. The last time I read The Talisman was about 5 years ago. I just happen to be in the company breakroom during lunch when I got to the dreaded point when this wonderful character dies. And I was petrified someone was going to see the tears sneaking out of my eyes and ask what was wrong. And then I would have to explain that it was just a book...
And see? I DIDN't mention Beowulf! So nyeh. But I still like it.