Between 600,000 to 1,000,000 books are published each year in the United States alone. To say, there are more books in existence than we could read in a lifetime is a definitive statement — which means that many good, and sometimes great books are drowned in the endless river of literary creations. So we, as readers and writers, are at the mercy of opinions; to discover books and to be discovered requires social proof, a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of visibility.
I say the above to pay respects to the great books that I haven’t read or that slipped between the cracks of our collective consciousness. The 15 titles included on this list are books that deeply affected me as a writer just as they have millions of readers. Each of these works offers a lesson for creators; in some, it’s technical; in others, the lesson is a masterclass in storytelling; and in others, it might be a lesson of mental and emotional endurance.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s anti-war novel infuses science fiction and unreliable narration as we follow Billy Pilgrim, who is captured by German forces and survives the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war — an experience Vonnegut lived through as an American serviceman.
“So it goes” is a refrain used throughout Slaughterhouse-Five whenever death, mortality, or dying are mentioned to segue into another topic, lending itself to a sense of resigned, zen-like peace with tragedy. He also writes that Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time,” making use of non-linear storytelling and offering the reader vignettes. The story is also written in simple, declarative sentences as if it is a reporting of real events despite Pilgrim coming in contact with Tramalfadorians, an alien race that tells him that time simply is and that only earthlings have this concept of free will. As we shift back and forth from “reality,” whatever it truly is in this post-modernist work, to his dialogue with the aliens, we can see that Pilgrim is coming to terms with the death and destruction around him through the Tramalfadorians passive view of fate.
Perhaps, what’s most impressive about Slaughterhouse-Five is the magic of seemingly contradictory ingredients Vonnegut through into his writing cauldron. It’s funny, sad, compassionate, historical, sci-fi, and so many things all at once.
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda
Hardly the last poetry title you’ll see on this list, but arguably the best, 100 Love Sonnets is a surrealist masterpiece. The Chilean poet dedicated this collection to his wife, and the work is divided into four parts: morning, afternoon, evening, and night. The main lesson I take away from his work is how to structure your sentences to increase the potency as they go on.
I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off.
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved,
in secret, between the shadow and the soul.
I love you as the plant that never blooms
but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers;
thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance,
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride;
so I love you because I know no other way than this:
where I does not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep. ”
― Pablo Neruda
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
You’ve probably seen the Disney animated version of the title, but if you haven’t read the book (which is wildly different) do yourself a favor and prepare yourself for a literary feast. Hugo was the first author to capture the history of a group of people using the cathedral as a sort of protagonist or silent witness to the events that transpire in the Epic Theater.
One of the challenges I face as a writer is how to end my novels. While it has a tragic ending fitting of gothic fiction, The Hunchback of Notre Dame feels complete.
“Love is like a tree: it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin. The inexplicable fact is that the blinder it is, the more tenacious it is. It is never stronger than when it is completely unreasonable.”
― Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
One more thing: Hugo was the first to use beggars as protagonists. He understood that the real world is composed of myriad characters.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
There’s a reason or two why the Guy Fawkes masks of V for Vendetta became a symbol for Anonymous, Occupy Wallstreet, and other movements of change across the globe.
As oligarchies and totalitarianism are on the rise once more, V for Vendetta is as relevant now as it ever was. Moore’s dialogue and understanding of how governments establish absolute power, makes this graphic novel a must-read.
“People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
― Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Piedra de Sol by Octavio Paz
Read any of Paz’ writing. In fact, read all of it. His words dance across the page until they settle into your soul.
“At first I couldn’t see anything. I fumbled along the cobblestone street. I lit a cigarette. Suddenly the moon appeared from behind a black cloud, lighting a white wall that was crumbled in places. I stopped, blinded by such whiteness. Wind whistled slightly. I breathed the air of the tamarinds. The night hummed, full of leaves and insects. Crickets bivouacked in the tall grass. I raised my head: up there the stars too had set up camp. I thought that the universe was a vast system of signs, a conversation between giant beings. My actions, the cricket’s saw, the star’s blink, were nothing but pauses and syllables, scattered phrases from that dialogue. What word could it be, of which I was only a syllable? Who speaks the word? To whom is it spoken? I threw my cigarette down on the sidewalk. Falling, it drew a shining curve, shooting out brief sparks like a tiny comet.
I walked a long time, slowly. I felt free, secure between the lips that were at that moment speaking me with such happiness. The night was a garden of eyes.”
― Octavio Paz, The Blue Bouquet
The Glass Castle By Jeannette Walls
The Glass Castle is the only autobiography on my list. Walls is one of the few writers I’ve ever seen that can scale her language and perspective up or down to fit the age of the narrator. The Glass Castle is an incredibly loving and compassionate book, which manages to humanize and dignify all of its characters even at their lowest points. Walls is truly a master of writing with empathy.
Gypsy Ballads by Federico Garcia Lorca
Unfortunately for the world, Lorca was assassinated by Nationalist forces at the onset of The Spanish Civil War. Had he lived beyond 38-years old, we would have continued to see an avalanche of masterpieces from the prolific poet, playwright, and author. He once said that great art “depends upon a vivid awareness of death, connection with a nation’s soil, and an acknowledgement of the limitations of reason.” His perception of life as ephemeral shines through in his work. Every single word is treated as precious.
“A light which lives on what the flames devour,
a grey landscape surrounding me with scorch,
a crucifixion by a single wound,
a sky and earth that darken by each hour,
a sob of blood whose red ribbon adorns
a lyre without a pulse, and oils the torch,
a tide which stuns and strands me on the reef,
a scorpion scrambling, stinging in my chest–
this is the wreath of love, this bed of thorns
is where I dream of you stealing my rest,
haunting these sunken ribs cargoed with grief.
I sought the peak of prudence, but I found
the hemlock-brimming valley of your heart,
and my own thirst for bitter truth and art.
– Stigmata of Love”
― Federico Garcia Lorca
Originally appeared on connorjudsongarrett.com