I present this list in the hope of directing certain eager readers towards novels that can enlighten them in a brief period of time. As a people, we Americans tend to overschedule ourselves, and thus we believe that we have little time for enlightening reading. The following hopes to remedy this misconception.
These texts pack cognitive or spiritual punches, sometimes at the same time; they answer the question posed in Job 21:12: “But where can wisdom be found?” These short novels teach us, in a most secular fashion, what the most wise sages have been teaching for millennia: the natural boundaries that confine our mortal existences, and the beauty and terror that can found therein.
*Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Lewis Carroll)
I need only four words to describe this book: We are all Alice.
*Animal Farm (George Orwell)
“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Napoleon’s “modified” slogan sounds farcical in theory, but it’s unsettlingly accurate upon closer inspection. And funny.
Writing in the “reasonable” 18th century, Voltaire depicts with acerbic wit humanity’s inhumanity towards itself in this, the “best of all possible worlds.” There’s also more enlightened philosophy than you can shake a stick at.
But hey, it’s fun!
*Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
This text comprises a long rant by a bratty, hormonal teenager; it sounds like it should be mind-numbing, but amazingly, Holden ladens us with enough [unwitting] wisdom and pathos than you could fill even a Tolstoy novel with. This is also one of the most frequently banned books in the world: that itself should be enough of a reason for you to read it.
*The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)
Oedipa Maas steps out of her hum-drum married life and stumbles into a world of intense, often overbearing meaning. Or not. I don’t know: I’m not sure even Pynchon knows what he’s writing about half the time. But by the novel’s end, we can be sure that we just experienced the complete human experience via the symbolically-named (or perhaps just oddly-named) Oedipa. Stick with this one — it will please again and again.
*Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Not nearly as long or as tedious as Bram Stoker’s evangelical Dracula, Mary Shelley’s novel remains the best of the so-called “horror” genre. I actually find this to be not so terrifying as tragic: both Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster are tragic heroes in their own right. This famous novel is nothing at all like pop culture’s silly impression of it: observe, for instance, the furious, primitive chase scene in the Arctic wastes that we see at the novel’s opening, wherein the Yahwistic Dr. is hunting down his unholy — though wholly innocent — creation. Avoid the movie versions and just jump headlong into the book. (NOTE: Don’t avoid all of the movies: enjoy Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, though for reasons completely apart from reading the book.)
*The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Jay Gatsby is one of the first authentically American creations to show us that to achieve the American Dream is to be alone: you will simultaneously have it all and have nothing. Astonishingly, Fitzgerald also manages to transcend a mere study of America to give us the universal notion that, try as we might, we will never cease being haunted by the past: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
*Grendel (John Gardner)
What if Beowulf’s monster was in fact an angst-ridden existentialist who just wanted a solution to his insufferable loneliness? John Gardener brilliantly explores this scenario in what amounts to a less formal — but exceedingly more humorous and faster-paced — work than the original text. The concept alone ought to be enough to make you go out and get this book. You will find, I think, that you have much more in common with this lonely, alienated monster than you’d first believe.
*Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)
It is this text in which Conrad stares into the human soul and discovers only “the horror.” Marlowe gives us an archetypal hero, and Kurtz gives us an archetypal fallen angel. Oh, and the trip up-river is an archetypal descent into hell. This sounds like it should occupy the space of an epic poem, and yet it neatly confines itself to just around 100 pages.
*Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)
Speaking different languages, young Marco Polo and the fabled Kublai Khan discuss cities of all kinds, and in so doing, they explore the very nature of the human imagination.
*Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
This book is perennially assigned to students for a reason: its symbolism is clear and unsettling, and the characters bear uncanny resemblances to real people in our lives. But here’s the question: are you a Ralph or a Jack? Be honest, and do feel free to vomit, if necessary.
*Nausea (Jean-Paul Sartre)
What is the difference between the real and the perceived? Between existence and imagination? Sartre explores this basic concept of existentialist philosophy in a novel that blends heavy ideas with a unique character study.
*Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Dostoevsky’s uncharacteristically-brief novel gives us the Underground Man, the direct predecessor of Ellison’s Invisible Man, Heller’s Yossarian, and Seinfeld’s George Costanza (among others). Through a great deal of ironic grumbling and neurotic first-person narration, the Underground Man gives us a study of existence, and thus gives us the world’s first existential novel.
*The Stranger (Albert Camus)
What’s the meaning of it all, anyway? Nothing and everything, if you’re Mersault. Open this book, and open yourself “to the benign indifference of the world.” Cheer up: as Mersault learns, it is defining yourself in spite of this indifference that truly signifies your humanity.
*The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)
Along with his Nick Adams stories, this novel comprises the best that Hemingway could deliver: he gives us lost love, symbolic war wounds, drunkenness in Paris, and bull fights, not to mention the novel that gave rise to the term the “Lost Generation.”