If you’re the kind of person who thinks reading a fine novel is more of a luxury than a necessity, if in fact you think reading fiction might even be a waste of time, then you’re the worst. Slap yourself for me. But not too hard, I’m just trying to make a point.
The fact is that reading a good book — and I mean a good book, not some Jodi Picoult drivel — is not only a good thing for a person to do, as it makes your mind work and stretch and wonder and yearn (AKA think), but in fact literary fiction can make you a better person. That’s right! Studies have found that reading well-written fiction can make you more empathetic and emotionally developed. So step away from the video games, take a break from binge watching Welcome Back, Kotter, and read a book, dammit.
And say, if you’re looking for a
good goddamned amazing book to read, why not try one of these five that you’ve been avoiding in error? The five novels we’re discussing today are too often seen as daunting, even unapproachable tomes due to their length and/or complexity. But far from bucket list achievements or obstacles to overcome, indeed these five novels are all simply wonderful books that you’ll enjoy reading. Their length is a blessing, not a curse: it means more time to spend with the characters and with the author’s wit, insight, and graceful style. And as for complexity, if you can navigate the ins and outs of your own daily life, you can handle sussing out the lives of Count Pierre Bezukhov or Joe Christmas.
WAR AND PEACE – by Count Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is considered by many to be the best novel ever written. So why the hell do so few people read it these days? It’s not considered “the best novel ever written but don’t read it,” after all, it’s just considered the best. And even if it’s objectively impossible to call any book the best, you should still heed the decades of praise heaped onto this epic masterwork and give it a read. You’ll be shocked (not actually) to find that the book is in fact about much more than war and peace, but is in fact also about love and loathing, about drunken carousing, about deception and faith, courage and fear, humor, passion, emptiness and… let’s just sum it up: the book is about life. It just so happens to be set largely against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in the early 19th Century, but what you’ll glean from the time spent with the cast of characters and all the many subplots is a better window into the essence of human life itself.
LIGHT IN AUGUST – by William Faulkner
Faulkner can be hard to read. Anyone who has given Absalom, Absalom will tell you that, in fact, that’s something of an understatement. His writing can be dense and sinuous, penetrated only by careful, close reading. The full gravity of many of his novels is only felt as their final pages are turned, and you are often forced to make difficult connections with multiple parts of the novel to fully appreciate what you just read. Light In August is rich with that unique Faulknerian prose, but it’s readily accessible. It’s like the author chose to construct this book out of aluminum rather than concrete: it’s a strong and durable book, but one that invites you in rather than challenges you to attack. And goddamn but Joe Christmas is a compelling, mysterious man.
MADAME BOVARY – by Gustave Flaubert
Many critics credit Flaubert as the first writer of the modern novel. Indeed his still prose feels as relevant and vibrant as anything in the New Release section of the book store with the notable difference of his writing being stellar, while most writing is… not (to use less-than-stellar prose myself. Sigh). Flaubert famously spent hours and even days focused on single sentences, working with the language until he had the perfect phrasing, word choice, and imagery. And it shows. The man writes images into your brain. And he created some characters you won’t soon forget. The namesake heroine of this novel manages to be all at once sympathetic, naive, cunning, innocent, and loathsome. Or in other words… she’s real.
ATLAS SHRUGGED – by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand was probably not the kind of person with whom you’d want to grab a beer. And she surely wasn’t the kind of person you’d want writing policy (unless you are very rich, in which case hey, vote her in! Except that you can’t, because death). But love or hate her “Objectivist” philosophy (which can basically be summed up as “watch out for #1”) you have to hand it to the woman for being able to write some damn good fiction. So read Atlas Shrugged as that, as a work of fiction to be enjoyed, not as some manifesto for approaching real world politics. Yes, you will have to soldier through the 70+ page “speech” delivered by the “heroic” John Galt, but just pretend you’re listening to your drunk albeit eloquent (albeit slightly misguided) friend ramble and you’ll be past that little hurdle in no time. The writing is good, the world she created is intriguing and revealing, and once you finish the book, go ahead and slip it into conversation. Especially if you happen to end up chatting with current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. He loves him some Rand.
INFINITE JEST – by David Foster Wallace
Ha ha, just kidding of course! This book should scare the shit out of you. Sure, it’s filled with lyrical passages that will stir your soul, moments that will actually make you laugh out loud (or ROFLCOPTER as the kids say. The stupid kids, anyway), and scenes that will in fact make you experience anguish, but Jesus H. Christ, this is an intense, demanding read. So… yeah, go for it if you’re looking for a challenge and don’t have much planned for the next few weeks. Just don’t expect to find a neat and tidy journey through its pages, because you’re headed into the forest.
And yes, grammar snobs, the title of this article should be “FIVE FANTASTIC BOOKS OF WHICH YOU SHOULD NOT BE AFRAID” to avoid the preposition ending the sentence, but… that title sucks.