I can’t help but imagine that thousands of people made their New Years Resolution to read more in 2017. As someone who does read a lot, I think that goal is a great one. I want to see as many people as possible succeed in that goal, and so I’ve put together a list of the best books I read last year.
Not all will be thrilling page turners, but I can assure that if you read deeply into them you’ll find that the lessons and themes of the book will help you to live in a much more fulfilling way.
I hope you enjoy!
(note: these are in no particular order)
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
A classic tale of vengeance, I have no doubt that if you haven’t read the book you know the premise, and probably the first line: “Call me Ishmael”. The story is told by Ishmael, a sailor who in a bout of depression decides to try his hand at whaling. Sailing out of Nantucket on a savage looking vessel, Ishmael soon meets the strange Captain Ahab who recently lost his leg in an incident with a sperm whale and has vowed to get revenge on that whale in a chase that leads him and his crew into dangerous waters.
This novel has great appeal to those enticed by a story of epic proportions, and it’s written with suspense woven into each line that makes it a non-stop page turner.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
This book opens by dropping the reader right into the heart of its reminiscent-of-Orwellian dystopian society by showing how the State augments embryos to sort their citizens into one of five castes (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, or epsilon) that determine a persons role in society. This opens the door to finding out about all the other aspects of how this government controls its citizens and society. Their citizens are phased into a stupor by various state created tools, making them too drugged up to care about anything real.
One man decides to ignore all of these stupefying means, and to live his life authentically to himself, which slowly reveals the many atrocities of his society and state.
This novel contains a representation of a consumer society that, truthfully, is an exaggeration of the world Huxley lived in and the one we live in today. It also explores the themes of using technology to control society, too much state control, and most importantly, the incompatibility of happiness and truth.
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway
A haunting novel depicting Ernest Hemingway’s experience in World War One as an ambulance driver on the Italian front. After being injured in shelling, he awakens in a hospital and falls in love with a nurse, Catherine Barkley, who is with him the entire time he’s in recovery until he is shipped back out to the front again.
One could read it as a tale of unrequited love or heartbreaking romance, but it’s more of a story about the absolute grimness of war, and how even though one can bid a farewell to arms, one can never fully leave war behind.
If you enjoyed this book, consider reading The Sun Also Rises by the same author, which is (almost) a continuation of this story in a post-war setting.
Walden – Henry David Thoreau
Lovers of nature and the outdoors will absolutely adore Thoreau’s story of moving out of Bostonian society and to a small wooden cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, MA. Through the first section, he details how the entire cabin was built using tools and supplies he scavenged from other sites around the area, showing no ownership of property; even the land he squats on isn’t his, it belongs to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Thoreau’s story of his time in ‘isolation’ showcases the values of austerity, simplicity, and solitude, while emphasizing minimalism and his contentment with his new lifestyle. I highly recommend this book for those looking to separate themselves from modern society and find a different perspective of how life can be lived.
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis
I was not raised as a religious person, nor was I brought up into any kind of faith, and by the time I was 16 I was fairly convinced that atheism was the correct answer to the world. A friend recommended Mere Christianity to me, and after reading it, I had my eyes opened to a totally new possibility of reality.
The book is actually a collection of speeches that Lewis gave over the radio in Britain during World War Two, a time when there seemed to be no hope or Godliness left in the nation. His speeches played an important role in returning those values to the terrified people of the country, while immorality was prevalent around the world.
Candide, ou l’optimism – Voltaire
Reading this story is sometimes difficult to do, especially when it goes into detail of rape, pillaging, and disembowelment, but underneath the brutality of the characters travels lies a very satirical message about enlightment philosophy and God’s plan.
Wilhelm Gotfried Von Leibniz’s idea of “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” is exemplified in this masterpiece of enlightenment philosophy critique as it takes the idea that God is perfect, thus the world he created is perfect, and contrasts it with disheartening and depressing events.
Unsurprisingly, the French born Voltaire was often at odds with authorities due to the nature of his work, and spent two years in prison and many in exile over his life.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
If you’re over twenty this book may be difficult to relate to, and if you’re between fifteen and seventeen you may not be able to appreciate it for what it really is. The Catcher in the Rye is often cited as one of the greatest coming of age stories ever written. Following the sixteen year old Holden Caulfield’s story told through the eyes of the seventeen year old Holden, details of the events leading him to ending up in a mental hospital are slowly revealed.
After being expelled from prep school for the third time, Holden decides to return to New York (where his parents live) a few days earlier than expected, and spends this free time bumming around the city looking for someone to listen to him about his concerns of growing old.
I try to read this book once a year, as Holden’s hardships and what happens to him over the novel provide a basis on which the reader can ground himself in reality.
The Crucible – Arthur Miller
A play written in 1953 by the author of “The Death of a Salesman” about the infamous Salem Witch Trials is actually an allegorical play about McCarthyism in the United States when Senator Joseph McCarthy called for the expulsion of Communist spies supposedly living in our midst.
This work is a terrifyingly intense tale of betrayal, intolerance, and hysteria set in a theocratic society of Puritans. As the story unfolds, the reader can watch a few powerful characters essentially tear apart the town it’s set in, stopping at nothing to enforce their strict religious belief, and condemning the wrongfully accused to their death.
The play has been performed for many years in theaters across America, and an adaptation recently opened on broadway. Fans of the play should also check out the movie “The VVitch: A New England Folktale” (2015) which is available on (Canadian) Netflix.
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A real story of unrequited love, this novel follows the life of Florentino Ariza, starting in his twilight where he professes his love to Fermina Daza for the second time in his life, and then telling the story of the lovers from age sixteen throughout the rest of their lives. After Ariza’s second prenounciation of his love for Daza, she is forced to embrace the drama she started at age eighteen by writing foolish, childish lover letters to Ariza.
After being caught by Mother Superior, she is expelled from her Catholic boarding school and sent home, where her father is enraged by her actions and sends her out on exile to live with her cousins in the countryside.
After their forced seperation, Ariza decides to make something of himself in hopes that Daza will notice his success, and the two will be able to live happily together. Over the years, Daza marries a highly respected doctor, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and Ariza takes many lovers but insists that his love for Daza never faltered.
This story discusses love as a literal plague of both physicality and mentality, and that’s made crystal clear by the abundance of death and wrongness done in the name of love. Coupled with that idea is that suffering in the name of love is not only a good thing, but wildly welcomed. Ariza is persecuted and suffers much throughout the lover’s years apart as a result of his love, but his suffering gives him a satisfaction, a sense that a martyr would have. Finally, a theme common throughout literature and especially in this novel is the intolerance and fear of aging and death. The book opens by detailing the suicide of a talented chess player and photographer out of fear of growing old, which leads Urbino to realize that death isn’t just a “prolonged possibility”, but an ireversible process. In his old age, his physical condition is very poor, and that is shown as a huge handicap.
Now, I haven’t spoiled the book for you (although it may seem like I have), but I assure you that reading this novel will give you a better understanding of real true love, and likewise, real true death.
All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
Before the writing and publication of All Quiet on the Western Front, novels about war tended to glorify and romanticize war and fighting. Remarque ended that trend, and ushered in an era of a new kind of grim writing, really exploring the brutality and horror in war.
Paul Baumer is a nineteen year old German soldier fighting in World War One on the French front. The theme of the effect of war on the soldier is explored through Paul as he sees awfulness all around him and adapts and reacts to what he sees.
The novel also explores nationalism and political power as a creator of conflict in a way that became available to plenty of people outside of the few who critizised it verbally. The book was banned in Germany for some time because of it’s anti-war, anti-nationalism rhetoric that governments were very afraid of spreading to their people.
Although these books are not held in as high regard to some people as I hold them, each has their own merit and lessons to teach. Some may be difficult to pick out, but the only advice I can give for reading difficult literature is to read and read again. Every time you go through, you’ll find something you missed previously.
Literature broadens your view of the world, and allows you to think more empathetically and deeply about everyday life. I hope these books serve as a strong introduction to reading for you, and help to make it a permanent practice of your life.