All righty, folks. I’m turning 25 in a week. Yes, yes, somehow I managed to make it this long. I’ve promised myself not to sulk this year and moan and groan about how I haven’t met all the high expectations I’ve set for myself. Instead, I am choosing to enjoy every, single moment. I’m going to be grateful for all my blessings and pat myself on the back for all the progress I have made. After all, it’s a celebration ain’t it?
Because my birthday is coming up, I can think of no better present to give myself than a really great book. Not a good book, not an average book, but a great book. I’ve had to come to terms that there is no way I can read every book ever published but I do believe it is possible to read every GREAT book ever published. That’s why I am asking you to weigh in on the next GREAT book you think I should read. The criterion is that the book has to be a fiction novel. Sorry, non-fiction, short stories and poetry do not qualify at this time. (If people are interested, I’ll certainly do a post where we address these types of books as well.)
Also, you are only allowed to recommend 5 books. Why only 5? Because I want you to really narrow it down to your absolute all-time favorites. I’m talking about if someone you knew only had ONE YEAR to live these would be THE 5 books you would tell them to read. So make your choices count, and state your case for each one.
Before I get your recommendations, here is my list of THE 5 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE (in no particular order):
1984 by George Orwell
Good books challenge you when you read them. Great books challenge you when you read them–and keep challenging you years after you’ve read them. Orwell’s classic remains, to this day, very controversial, which means that the novel is still doing something right. It’s been said that this novel is a cautionary tale against the pervasiveness of government in our lives. But as the story became fermented in my brain over the years, I realize the novel has a lot to say about the individual. It’s a cautionary tale less against government per se, and more about individuals allowing themselves to be easily manipulated and controlled by others. The novel is the author’s rallying cry for us to always keep our guard up and protect our individual freedoms.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
When Atticus Finch, the protagonist of the novel, loses the case defending a local African-American man accused of rape, somehow, he still manages to win. Out of this moment, the author illustrates one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about justice and morality. The lesson? Standing up for what is right and just always makes you a winner, even if you’ve lost your ability to secure that justice or right. Lee taught me that the best heroes in novels (and in life) don’t have to be superhuman and most certainly don’t have to win in the end. They just have to be courageous enough to keep fighting, even if they know they’re licked from the start.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
I guess I’m sort of cheating here, because this is not necessarily a novel, it’s a poem. But come on, you can hardly call this epic tale a book of poetry. I’ve avoided this book for a long time, before I finally read it post-college. I avoided it precisely because it was always presented as THE English text written by THE English author. You can’t get anymore “Dead Straight White Man” then John Milton. My post-colonial, third wave feminist, gender-neutral, non-heteronormative college mind was instantly averse to the text. But the truth is, this mega-poem is a tremendously beautiful, powerful, staggering work of art. When an author makes you start to identify with Satan, the greatest evil in all the universe, then you are dealing with one bad-ass, visionary author.
If you managed to skip this in your required reading for college, you have to read it before you die, if only for the cosmic battle sequence between Satan and God’s angels. Eat your heart out, ever-major-battle-sequence-in-every-movie-ever-made-put-together.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Ok, I cheated again. This is a play, not a novel. But how could I leave out what is, in my opinion, the best American play ever written? I say this not only because Hansberry manged to pull of a successful writing career during a racially insensitive time (she became the first African-American female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize in pre-Civil Rights Era America) but she also managed to pull off one THE most challenging feats for any writer. She wrote a play that was at once very timely, very local, very specific, but at the same time was very timeless, very global, and very universal. That is a LOT to juggle for any writer. Writers often hope that if they are specific, the universal nature of their story will just come through on its own. There are other writers who avoid colloquial language and current events all together, for fear that their work will become antiquated before the book even hits the shelves. It is a rare author that can be true to a specific point in time and space without losing touch with the common heart of humanity that passes through the generations. I think Hansberry’s simple story of an African-American family at the verge of losing every hope they ever had is often overlooked because it seems so limited in time and space. But I promise, this play reaches far deeper and wider then it will ever let on.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
It’s nice to know that there are writers as good as Hosseni living and breathing as we speak. It gives me hope that our generation won’t disappear without leaving some timeless works of art. Some leave this book and complain that the subject matter was far too depressing. When I hear that, I honestly have to ask myself: Really? What book did they read?
Is the book dark? Yes. Is it challenging to read at times because of the painful images and stories Hosseni attempts to depict? Yes. But, I hate to break it to you, this is the world we live in. You can be delusional and pretend this kind of stuff doesn’t happen, but then you would be–uh–delusional. Or you can face the absolute worst of humanity, look at that demon straight in the eye, and still smile in its presence. Yes, you will smile. Maybe even cry tears of joy. Heck, you might even be inspired. Hosseini reveals that even in the deepest of ruins, in the absolute worst of torture, blood, war, death, and destruction, there is still courage. There is still hope. There is still the future. There’s nothing gimmicky, or cheap, or cliché about Hosseni’s assertion that we still can move forward even after the worst of catastrophes. No, Hosseni’s message is very real and he proves his argument with every turn of the page.
Now it’s your turn. What are the 5 books you think everyone should read before they die? Then tell us why.
>>> Novel Update: Finished Ch. 10. On Ch. 11.