a hundred books (part 1)

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

one of the most frequent questions i get as a teacher is “what should i read?” and i always have an answer. that might be why they ask me. i’m always reading at least a dozen books at any time (yes, simultaneously), usually closer to thirty or forty. while this isn’t a strategy i recommend for everyone, it works for me and i read a vast quantity of literature every year and get so much pleasure from books. if i don’t spend at least two or three hours every day reading, it’s an unusual day. if you’re spending a half-hour a day reading, reading thirty books at a time will just mean you never get anything done so don’t do that. probably no more than three or four. either way, though, you need stuff to read. and as 99% of literature is slightly less pleasant than inspecting excrement, finding the 1% (and i’m being generous) isn’t the easiest of tasks.

there’s no real way to figure out if a book is worth reading. but i can give you a few strategies before i get to the recommendations. and i’ll tell you how i’ll go about that, too. i’m going to break this list of a hundred books you should read right now in ten sections. there’s overlap — i know. they’re just loose categories and you’ll see why in a moment.

  1. new books
  2. asian books
  3. european books
  4. mysteries & crime books
  5. high literature
  6. ancient books
  7. nonfiction
  8. books for young people
  9. graphic novels
  10. afterthoughts

you might expect something to appear in one category or another and they won’t necessarily all have exactly ten books. for that matter, by the time you read this, the total might not actually be limited to a hundred — spoiler, it’s more than a hundred and i’m not just winging it. but they’ll all fit the category they’re assigned to.

but i promised you some strategies for finding good writing. there are a few techniques i find for sorting books worth reading from those that aren’t. these are going to be extremely controversial. i’m not looking for a debate. this is what works for me. it might not work for you and, in that case, don’t use it. don’t whine about it. if you agree with me, share this post with your friends. if you don’t agree, you’re welcome to stop reading. i’m not asking your opinion and i don’t want it. if you don’t know me, believe me when i say this — i’m rarely interested in what others think of my methods and opinions and if i am i’ll specifically ask. when someone starts sharing an unrequested opinion, i simply walk away and ignore them. if you have ever found yourself in arguments and debates you don’t want to be part of, i highly recommend this strategy — i have no academic conflicts in my life. it takes two to fight. i never want to fight. so fights don’t happen. if you’re reading this, it’s because you’re looking for my opinion. doesn’t fit you very well? read something else. end of rant.

  1. look at where and when the book was published. this isn’t a guarantee of quality and you might be (and most certainly are) excluding some seriously-good books. but if you’re working in the dark and you want a starting point, look at books published after 1980 in the united states, preferably after 2000. the english language has gone through significant grammatical and vocabulary changes in the last forty years and anything before 1980 is going to be using an older structure and wordset — yes, it’s really this significant. my view is that almost nothing worth reading was written in english before 1980 and there are very, very few exceptions to this. if you want to find something worth reading, cast a net spanning the last ten years of american publications. you can always expand your search later and closely-inspect those things others recommend — not everything on my list will fit this basic filter. but it’s a great starting point.
  2. apply the “which test”. i’ve talked about this before but here’s the simple version. older grammatical forms in english were self-referential and reflexive. modern english has eliminated these crude, cumbersome structures. take any five-page section of a book at random (or even ten pages if you’re feeling generous). count the number of times the word “which” appears (“which” is the standard transitive reflexive marker in english) and divide by the number of pages to get the average. if it’s more than 1 per page, walk away. the book uses arcane structure and isn’t worth your time. again, this isn’t always foolproof. but it’s a great way to quickly determine what’s written in modern english and what’s an outdated grammatical throwback to a time of cumbersome and meaningless wordiness.
  3. do a quick skim through the book and see if there are common arcane words and grammatical structures. here’s a quick list.
    1. whom — if a book uses “whom”, you’re asking for trouble. just don’t go there.
    2. subjunctive — the subjunctive case has been deprecated in english for at least a generation and if it shows up you’re reading something written either in or pretending to be in another time, whether the author has realized it or not. the subjunctive case uses plural verbs with singular subjects to imply potentiality. i’ve written a few articles and made some videos on it and how to get away from these awful, outdated habits. if you see the subjunctive, save yourself the pain and effort.
    3. arcane spelling — if a book insists on using outdated spellings for words, the author’s probably stuck in a mindset of traditional language and that’s just going to waste your time and annoy you. don’t bother. sometimes you’ll find a book where the publisher (from sheer stupidity as there’s no other reason to use outdated nonphonetic spelling in english) insisted on it and the author isn’t at fault. and you can ignore it. if it’s not a sign of arcane language and grammar, it’s not the end of the world. but it usually is.
    4. subject duplication — if a sentence uses a pronoun then defines the pronoun, this is arcane structure. if you see this, it’s a bad sign for things to come in the book unless you’re completely impervious to grammar and structure, which is unlikely if you’re a serious reader or language student. if you love reading, you probably do it for the beauty of the language and this will annoy. if you’re a student, you’re looking for good examples to learn and this is a bad one — “it’s great to think about this topic” is just a cumbersome version of “thinking about this topic is great” — english has an unwavering subject-verb-object structure. people who break that structure are not worth reading. they need to upgrade their language to modern english. this isn’t modern english. it’s arcane grammatical silliness and nothing more than games played at the reader’s expense.
  4. see if the book is popular. if it’s on bestseller lists, this is a bad sign. as in most things, popular is usually a determiner of poor quality. you’re not looking to read the literary equivalent of walmart and target. you want something more like your local neighborhood organic produce store and that’s not likely to end up on the bestseller lists. it might. there are some awesome books on bestseller lists. but the vast majority of what shows up there is highly-promoted, content-deficient, grammatically-awkward detritus. unless it’s been seriously recommended by someone you trust, the fact that it’s popular is likely a good enough reason to look elsewhere. you want a boutique literary experience, not a mass-market one.

with that out of the way, though, let’s begin — and you’ll notice many of these books actually break some of those basic filtering rules. they’re not meant to be solid and unbroken. they’re good guidelines for finding your next enjoyable read without having to resort to friends and the internet. in this case, you have a guide. of course, you’ll like some of these books and won’t like others. that’s the case of everything in the arts. but i hope you’ll find more hits than misses here.

by the way, this isn’t a list of the hundred best books ever written. it’s a list of the hundred books i think you’ll enjoy if you read them right now. this list would change if i wrote it last year, next year, even tomorrow. it’s a set of recommendations, not a list of judgments of quality. some of these books aren’t even all that well-written. but you’ll enjoy them. at least, i did and think others will.

new books

  1. the historians by cecilia ekbäck (2021)
  2. the nightingale by kristin hannah (2017)
  3. citadel by kate mosse (2011)
  4. the accomplice by joseph kanon (2019)
  5. pachinko by lee min jin (2017)
  6. the passenger by lisa lutz (2016)
  7. tangerine by christine mangan (2018)
  8. daughters of the dragon by william andrews (2014)
  9. infidels by abdellah taïa (2012)
  10. the buddha in the attic by julie otsuka (2011)
  11. trust exercise by susan choi (2019)
  12. want by lynn strong (2020)

1 – the historians

this is a novel that springs from sweden’s unique connection to nazi germany — both its shameful side and the darkness that swept through the country long before and since in the form of racial exceptionalism. laura dahlgren, an almost-student who’s managed to fall into a job negotiating steel rights with germany, is shaken from her already-tenuous existence when her best-friend, britta, is suddenly murdered, a crime that is dismissed by the authorities as undesirable to look into and even her father as a consequence of things best left untouched at a time when many painful truths were evident but secret and taboo. as she searches for answers, she uncovers layer after layer of racial purification, planned genocide and human-genetic transformation and cultural hatred that she (and readers) never imagined possible. with each new revelation, we descend into another ring of conspiracy and societal segregation, closer to a northern-european holocaust that never happened but was all-too-possible until the last minute when hitler’s forces were defeated.

2 – the nightingale

in the depths of the early war in france, vianne is left by her husband as he goes off to die with almost the entire young-male population of france. left behind, though, doesn’t mean she’s not fighting the nazis as they overrun the country. with her house conscripted, with her and her daughter, to house a german officer, she is up-close-and-personal with the enemy, discovering just how much can be done and how little is possible to escape from a war that has consumed everyone and everything it touches. her sister isabelle is a partisan fighting in the shadows to overcome the german invasion and her story is superimposed on her sister’s more immediate interaction with the face of the war. this book is the far-less-frequently-told story of female strength in the face of male stupidity and aggression in an avoidable war of pigheaded willingness to sacrifice everything and everyone they pretended to care about for nothing more than the experience of proving their strength.

3 – citadel

while actually the third novel in a series (which i highly-recommend), this book functions as a standalone work whose characters just happen to exist in other fiction you may someday encounter if you enjoy it. while some of the action here takes place in the twentieth century, much is far earlier, in the sixth. sandrine, a rebellious and gradually-awakening woman, partners with an elderly man (whose age is something of a mystery, possibly a much larger question than a simple number) searching for a secret religious document with untold power hidden in the mountains of the languedoc, the power to end a war but not to stop its inevitable death. it tells the story of persecution through the ages and hatred along religious lines, jewish, christian and internecine among others. while the story borders on fantasy, its hard reality grounds everything in a meaningful and relatable narrative.

4 – the accomplice

in the depths of the cold war, max weill suddenly sees the nazi doctor who tortured him in the camps of his adolescence and has been trying to forget for decades, immediately having a heart attack in front of his nephew. the book is the story of the nephew aaron, first disbelievingly but gradually committed to the task, tracking down the last remaining architect of the holocaust from the tranquil german south to a distant and vibrant south america seething with nazi pride and secret antisemitism. he is forced to confront a world he imagined belonged to and died with the last generation but is still alive-and-well, propagated by those he thought he could trust and criticized only by those he imagined enemies. while historical fiction, the work contains far too many essential truths not only of the long-departed sixties but of the twentyfirst century’s hatred and racist norms.

5 – pachinko

pachinko is the story of four generations of koreans shifted from the poverty of the land to occupation to a new life in a japan open to their presence but hostile to their identities. from the beginning of the twentieth century and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy to the only safety possible in world-war-two korea, exile, this is a story told through the actions of generations of women fighting not just for survival but happiness in a world that attempted to stamp out the first without even contemplating the existence of the second. while not expressly existentialist, this work is an exploration of what it means to be forced to live in a circumstance far from what we desire yet find acceptance and thrive despite its oppressive reality — a skill taught from mother to daughter as the timeline moves from isolated farm to busy immigrant community.

6 – the passenger

this is a modern book about modern deception and self-creation. the passenger is a woman with plentiful names and selves shedding identities as she travels across america to escape a past that is always no more than one step behind. it begins as she declares herself innocent of her husband’s murder, running and hiding but not secretly — she instead chooses to inhabit others’ identities as she looks for a way to rebuild a life until the next fire catches up with her to burn what she has built in another name. the question that continues to ask itself in the back of the mind as you read is whether this is a case of a narrator lying to us or if we see her through her own eyes — perhaps, even, whether she is lying to herself and telling us what she has made herself belief. having read it, though, you will have another question — would life be better if you could simply disappear and start again? the dark truth is it almost always would but those escapes always come with countdowns.

7 – tangerine

while we are all aware of the small fruit, a tangerine is also the fruit’s namesake, an inhabitant or native of tangiers in north africa — in this case, the thriving metropolis of the mid-fifties as europe struggles to rebuild, america is ascendent, asia in revolution and race relations and politics in constant flux. alice, a breakable woman with a government-functionary husband posted to tangiers, suddenly acquires a houseguest, her former schoolmate and proximate lucy, a familyless girl she is in awe of without knowing why, who wants to take her away from her miserable marriage and give her a life of globetrotting excitement and, possibly, lesbian happiness, though it’s never quite clear how much of this is false promises and how much teen lust left latent and unexplored reimagined through the haze of international intrigue and fighting rampant testosterone. the real question in this book, told through the eyes of both women, is which to trust. you can’t trust them both. they lie constantly, at least one, contradicting each other at every turn. but are they lying to us, themselves or not at all? their memories are shared as are their thoughts but how manipulative are they being in their choice of thoughts? how much does alice want to escape and how much does lucy want to take her — or simply take her identity?

8 – daughters of the dragon

anna travels from her home in america to search for her birth-mother in korea, finding her dead but her journey just beginning as she is handed a package containing only a comb and an address where she discovers the elderly jaehee who tells her the story of the book — the experience of the comfort women, the two-hundred-thousand forced into sexual labor by the japanese armed forces occupying korea in the second-world-war. beyond the story of jaehee’s survival, the narrative gradually teaches anna the value of connecting to the past and finding her own identity in the strength of her ancestors, something she has spent her life unintentionally escaping in an immigrant life divorced from history, something korea nearly drowns in by comparison.

9 – infidels

late-twentiethcentury-morocco is a conservative and unaccepting place. silma’s mother saadia helps virgin couples have sex for the first time following their weddings, an oddly-frequent requirement in a culture where casual sex is as rare as dogs in the streets. she, unable to shake her public sexual background, is a prostitute, the lowest member of a society where sex is the most fundamental taboo. her son jallal, openly-gay, is the result of two generations of sexual oppression in a place where repression is the norm. as he is forced into the sex trade that has plagued his mother and grandmother, he remains an outcast but fights to discover a way to escape through knowledge of the outside world, a world where sex is treated differently and imagination is possible as morocco struggles against the coming millennium and progress. with his mother’s death, jallal’s reality shifts from morocco to belgium where his queerness is less of a problem but extremism ensnares him to give him the identity he left behind, forgetting it was an identity that suffocated him and tortured his family for generations. this is the story of confused fundamentalism and partly-awakened dreamlike liberalism fighting for survival in a single family, neither clearly winning but both openly destroying each other.

10 – the buddha in the attic

this isn’t a novel as much as a collection of interlinked fragmentary narratives, some extremely short while others span pages. it is formal yet intimate and emotional with each character’s pain being just below the surface but palpable to the reader. each character openly questions the reader and makes observations, sharing their experiences and illusions as if they’re the same things. this is the story of what it means to be faceless, nameless and asian in the america of the early twentieth-century as hatred and fear mingle with racism and exoticism. this is about the americanization of japanese culture without the acceptance that comes with conformity. it’s almost poetry. it’s miserable but there could be hope. the only question is whether it’s hope then or now and whether it’s long gone or not yet achieved.

11 – trust exercise

this book asks three questions — do you trust yourself, can you trust anyone and what happens when you can’t even believe the writing in your hands but have no choice but to believe something or you are lost? it’s the story of 80s teens discovering a willingness to play as adults from horizontal recreation to work without truly inhabiting a world of responsibility or, fundamentally, trust. what does it feel like to be trapped in a world where interaction isn’t just necessary but constant but you’re surrounded by others your own age, day-in-and-day-out, you’re absolutely certain you can’t trust but have to rely on for all your social cues and even your safety? the tiny details of the characters speak volumes more than their words — we know they’re lies but their personalities are the truths they try to hide. we discover we can trust what they don’t say and the book comes into clearer focus as we meet more and more of these lost humans.

12 – want

this is a book of desires left unexplored but latent. it is a description of the misery of western lust mingled with open, visible success in lives that don’t turn out the way they appear. elizabeth has a family, two children, two jobs, a doctorate and no money in a society where success is financial and procreative, demonstrated while nearly never real. she reaches out to her childhood friend sasha and discovers not just shared crises but a new connection, though exploring desires is dangerous and rarely wise — and novel characters and western citizens rarely seem to be able to resist walking those paths. this is the story of what happens when you let yourself not just want but want enough to sacrifice everything and jump.

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.