[estimated reading time 3 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

So this is probably a bit surprising to anyone who knows me well here in some ways. I have always been very open (and quite outspoken) as to my deep love for Japanese graphic art, be it decorative or literary. So it is unexpected that the only graphic work on my list is not Japanese or even close to it. It’s Persian-French. Marjane Satrapi is an author/graphic artist from Iran who publishes in French (in France) and this is the story of a girl coming of age during the Iranian Islamic Revolution. The plot is what you’d expect of a revolutionary memoir. It’s the story of the revolution followed by her escape from (among other things) Iran as things become more and more extreme and problematic. It includes stories of personal rebellion, love, sexuality and it’s surprisingly light-hearted for a commentary on death and destruction, both of individuals and of what was a very culturally diverse and advanced society.

The beauty of language is an interesting one in this work. The dialogue is impressively personal and the characters are hugely identifiable by their speaking patterns but, unlike a book in only text, this is represented in their visual presentation. The words fit the pictures and that is no mean feat (read some comics from the major American production houses and see if you can say the same thing — I assure you, differentiating between characters without the pictures would be mostly impossible in the overwhelming majority of popular graphic fiction). The language is also contemporary and colloquial without being incomprehensible. You don’t have to be Persian or French to get the references and note the tonal variation. It’s culturally-specific but not culturally-exclusive.

The ethical question that is posed and addressed in depth is mostly one about seeing more than one side of an issue. A revolution is a wonderful backdrop for exploring the nature of perspective. If a government is doing horrible things, is it right to fight against it, to revolt, to rebel? And does that make the rebels good people with good ideals or, more importantly, good results? If the rebels are causing vast amounts of damage and suffering for the people, does the government suddenly become a force for good by fighting against the rebels? In this book, there is a fight between a few good and many evil people on both sides of a conflict where everyone has a vested interest — with the possible exception of the narrator, whose interest is definitely in neither side winning and simply being free to live.

Educationally, of course, the fact that this is a book specifically set during a historical revolution means that it can’t help but be insightful (especially as it is written both by someone who experienced the revolution and from a narrator who lives through it) about the events. It’s more generalized than that, though, the lesson that can be taken from it about how revolutions may start being about freedom and fighting tyranny and oppression but never end that way, how governments go from bad to worse and how nobody can ever be trusted. It’s a historical study but the future is destined to endlessly repeat the history even if it knows the score before the game is played.

There are many beautiful and worthwhile graphic novels out there. To mention just a few, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, Ichigo Takano’s Orange, Yeon-sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily, Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth and Carole Maurel Ingrid Chabbert’s Waves. This one, I believe, is in a league all its own and rises not just to the level of excellent graphic novel but one of the most important and significant books ever produced. Of course, I teach several different levels of courses focused completely on graphic novels and my love for literary art is profound but, if you’re only going to read one, make it this one. You’ll thank yourself for getting outside the realm of only-words for a little while.

[Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi on Amazon]

Red Storm Rising

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

As a hardcore pacifist and anti-military activist, this book might surprise all of you by appearing in this list. Not to mention, it’s old (as old as me, in fact, dating from the early 80s as do I) and it’s popular fiction, all things that most people would use as excuses not to put such a book on a list of best things ever written. But I assure you, it deserves its place here and its military-ness is more an example of why we shouldn’t have them in the first place than a glorified exploration of heroism. The point of the book is to show just how badly things can go wrong if people start fighting. And it succeeds. Tom Clancy is a serious military historian in many ways but his frequent argument (in this and other work, particular The Sum of All Fears) about the danger of a divided world and the presence of military forces is staggeringly and overwhelmingly pacifist.

The plot goes through a huge amount of twists and turns, technically speaking, but it’s quite a simple premise. There’s an energy crisis in the Soviet Union and instead of asking for help, it engages in a war that is designed to overwhelm the west and colonize the middle east. This is the story of how that plays out, much to everyone’s surprise.

Yes, the idea of the Soviet Union is a bit outdated, since it hasn’t existed in a number of decades but that doesn’t make the premise any less significant — in fact, in this time the notion of an energy shortage is far more realistic than people in the 80s would have thought possible and this book is a painfully clear reminder of what we might all have to face the day certain countries start to see their energy market dominance start to shift, not least the new Russian Empire.

But why is this book so important? Firstly, it’s incredibly popular and that from a time when culture was very much focused on audio and video media. This book took the world by storm, a technical and slow-burning contemplation of future warfare was not what most people would have imagined being a top best-seller. But it was and, unsurprisingly to me, still is. Of course, being popular doesn’t necessarily make something worthwhile to read. In fact, it usually means the opposite. But in this case, it’s definitely a reason to look at it more deeply. If this were another murder mystery or bitchy diatribe of sexually-unfulfilled bitterness, that would explain its popularity and likely consign it to mediocrity. Being an unusual topic and still highly popular means there’s probably something to look more deeply into there.

There is something to be said for name recognition and many people now read books by Clancy because they’re, you know, by Clancy. But that wasn’t the case then because this was an early book and he wasn’t particularly well-known. So why is this worth including in your reading and why should you list it in your course and recommend it to your students? Well, to put it simply, it’s beautiful — the technical language doesn’t descend to the level of banality or complaining about life. It is clear and concise but has a poetic quality to it that tastes like it’s been refined over many modifications but hasn’t lost its meaning. It’s pleasurable mostly because it tells an excellent story. Not all good stories are pleasurable and not all pleasurable experiences make good stories but this story, you will want to keep reading it. It doesn’t end quickly and with each new piece, we ask another question and want to know the answer. And it’s educational but that’s somewhat unsurprising.

On the first criteria, it teaches an interesting lesson about language. This is a study in how different types of people interact. Varied cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, there are many (and I really do mean many, even taking into consideration that this is an exceptionally long book for popular fiction) characters. They don’t get confusing because each has their own particular way of speaking, choice of words, approach to problems and distinct internal character. This doesn’t falter, not even once. In all those hundreds of pages, even my first time reading it, I felt as if I could have told you who acted or spoke a certain way without there being descriptive cues interspersed. Thankfully, many of those cues that drive me crazy in other books are left out in this and it is clear without them. One more “he said” in a lot of books and I’m ready to toss them out the window. The use of language also demonstrates that technical language doesn’t have to give up its beauty and that day-to-day experiences don’t have to be talked about as if you were sharing your daily complaints in a locker room. They can be discussed with flair and philosophical detachment and in this book that’s how nearly everything is approached.

The human lesson is very obvious. The moral question of whether war is ever justifiable is a constant throughout every chapter and the ethical dilemma of whether fighting for your people is more important than helping achieve a more generalized peace is what the war that’s described in it is about — the Soviets fighting for personal goals and the western world seeking peace but going about it all the wrong way. It’s far more complex than that, though, which makes it worth reading — with most of the Soviet characters being against fighting and most of the Americans being far more aggressive in general, it is a frequent question over ways and means. Is it more important to seek world peace but to do so aggressively or to be forced to fight for your country but be emotionally conflicted and try to stop it? Who is really the bad or good actor in these cases? There is no simple answer, not ever, and this is well reflected in the book.

The third lesson, that of how the world works, is showed in the vast individual character details but perhaps more significantly in the descriptions of how warfare works on a technical, individual basis. Most people truly have no idea how combat functions and those who do understand it are generally either very experienced military leaders or those who have been victims of war. Those who are in the military have a good grasp of their particular small piece of combat but, until they become responsible for a large group of forces, usually across multiple services, which would imply until they get to the level of a general officer, they likely have little comprehension of what others do in case of war. This is a beautiful demonstration of how the pieces fit together, even the civilian ones and while its accuracy is not always 100% and some is quite outdated now, the concept is one that can be held onto and will be valid well into the future.

Anyway, this is probably the most academically-interesting work of popular fiction I have ever encountered and whether you have an interest in the military, in history or just are interested in human nature and how cultures interact when things get more difficult, this is a beautiful example of how writing can inform and entertain at the same time — and all without having to resort to sounds and images.

[Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy on Amazon]

Sophie’s World

[estimated reading time 3 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

This is the book that I always answer with when someone asks me what I think is, without question, the best book in the history of literature. I have a few reasons for that but perhaps the most significant of them is that it is, of all literature, the book that I most would love to have written. If I had only ever written one book in my life and it was this, I would be far beyond satisfied. Sadly, it was already written before I published my first book and it’s one of those things that, once it’s done well, and in this case exceptionally well, it really doesn’t need to be done again. It’s inspired a lot of my writing both stylistally and thematically and I suspect it has had that impact on a whole generation of young authors.

Sophie is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in suburban Norway. But she’s every fourteen-year-old girl in every place. Not to mention she’s also the embodiment of knowledge growing up. So it’s a coming-of-age story with the protagonist being Sofia, the goddess of wisdom. As the book opens, she is coming home from school, bored by its useless and meaningless rote learning and irrelevance to life, to find a letter from a philosopher who changes her whole understanding of the world. Through the book she reads and hears the history of western thought (and some eastern thought, although not enough for me but we have to remember it was written at a time when western knowledge of eastern thoughts was far less developed and there was no Wikipedia to fall back on) and experiences the questions of reality and existence on a deep and metaphysical level. Without getting overwhelmed by them and confusing everyone.

It’s a history book and a novel. Actually, it’s a novel with a novel inside it and that makes the whole thing far more interesting. As for the style, the language is relatively simple. It’s not particularly written for young adults but it’s perfectly accessible to even young teens. But the poetic descriptions and the use of striking images and harsh contrasts for people, for concepts and for the floating and fluctuating experience of life, reality and time, not to mention an exploration of the nature of gods and fate, all come together to be the literary equivalent of the perfect cup of hot chocolate on a winter night in front of a fire (which I believe might have been my reality when I first read this, having been given a copy from its first English-language version the Christmas it was released).

The entire book is an exploration of ethics and morality. Is controling someone ever justified? What about if they’re just in your imagination? And once someone else has imagined them, too, are they still just your creation or do they take on a life of their own? What is life? What is the relationship between fate and expectation and self-fulfilling prophecies? Is western knowledge correct and, given that it’s obviously not, to what degree are we required to explore the world outside our own history? Do we really exist? How can we know one way or the other or does it even matter? These are just the beginning, of course, but it is a whirlwind ride through existential introspection without getting mired in self-wallowing and self-denial (which can be beautiful, just ask Camus, but is not quite so pleasant as approaching the topic with the energy of young life exploring the world).

As for practical world knowledge, the book functions as a textbook on the history of western thought and a critique, at times a very harsh one, of being focused on generalized thought to the point of forgetting the world around us or having too narrow a vision — not understanding the other side of questions like immigration, racial prejudice, religious freedom or even things as apparently simple as what’s beautiful or what’s for dinner. In the first ten pages, you will likely experience more new knowledge than in most of the courses you’ve taken in your life.

There you have it. My favorite book, one I read probably once or twice every year since I first encountered it. But beyond being my favorite, it’s a tour-de-force of literary exploration. It’s an existentialist romp through history, a philosophical debate between thoughts inside a mind that doesn’t know whether it exists and a story of a girl waking up to adulthood only to discover that childhood might have just been an illusion to begin with. If you’re going to read one book, just one, for the rest of your life, this is the book. The other works that I discuss here are often things that are generally suggested to think about. This one, though? It will change the way you think about the world and about what literature can do.

[Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder on Amazon]

Snow Country

[estimated reading time 4 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

There are many books by Yasunari Kawabata floating around in discussions of “best books” over the last few decades but I would suggest that this, probably his best-known work, is the most stellar example of contemporary self-exploratory fiction out there. I will actually begin with the plot for this one because, much like the type of books I read for enjoyment, there isn’t much of one and that’s quite significant. The story is about a man from the city who escapes his life from time to time by heading into the mountains of the north and enjoying the services of entertaining women (no, in this case that doesn’t necessarily mean prostitutes). He gradually reveals a character that simply wants to be removed from experience of the everyday world. He loves dance but becomes an expert in traditional forms and when people start to interact with him about it, he shifts his focus to western dance so he can be in touch with it without ever having to be present. His life is a reflection of that same target. He escapes his real life in the city by visiting a world locked in the past in the mountains but when he starts to experience more depth of feeling for a woman and gets closer and closer to her there, he tries various tactics to remove himself from his own life, most of which obviously fail. There’s drinking and singing and even a fire but the point is that the plot is somewhat insignificant compared to the internal investigation. There’s also a beautiful scene on a train that I’m not going to describe here because only the poetic language of self-reflection and looking through other people’s transparent eyes does it justice.

Now we get to my three criteria for books on this list, the three lessons. I have already aluded to the first, the language. This book is not quite prose and definitely not poetry but the poetic language floats in and out as we are taken through the protagonist’s thoughts (his name is Shimamura but that’s rather irrelevant to anything). The opening scene is mesmerizing and that kind of self-reflective quality is present throughout this book (and, you may find, in most of Kawabata’s others). I would suggest that this is the first work of fiction that takes this middle ground between self-examination and self-detachment and turns that into the whole definition of the character. But it goes beyond that and makes detachment and poetic reflection the whole style of the narration and I think that’s absolutely beautiful both as an idea and in its application here. The second lesson is actually in two pieces. There’s an ethical lesson about using people and a moral lesson about escape (and likely one about division and separation, too). The first, the ethical lesson, comes from a simple question. Is he using the services of a woman who has devoted her life to performance and pleasure or is she using him as a conduit out of that life, into one perhaps of marriage and family or even just to get to the city and fulfill other dreams? The question has various ambiuous answers that get explored through the work and the fact that there’s no simple one — especially not one that can be discovered by either of them or the bystanders in the town — is a definite nod to the complexity of the ethical dilemma they both face and gradually realize is there.

The moral issue of escape is probably the dominant theme. He is leaving his “city family” and feels like it’s his right but there’s no perspective from outside his mind on how the city life he’s leaving behind reflects on whether they need him, want him, rely on him or anything else. It’s left to the reader to wonder and decide what his frequent escapes from a life that he’s obviously chosen to build for himself mean for everyone around him. Then he looks to escape from himself, from the town in the mountain, from his responsibilities and then to escape from the pleasure and connection that he feels to everything he experiences. It’s not simply a book about escapism. It’s an investigation of the nature of escaping from escapism and whether that means returning to real life (hint, it’s not but he feels like trying it anyway).

There’s a moral dimension that explores the nature of separation, too. Does distance make the heart grow fonder or is that just obsession? Are we separate from our actions or their consequences? Can we truly ever escape ourselves and is there anything else worth running from? These are all explored in some depth but the real issue of separation is one of presence of mind compared to presence of body. He’s always present in mind, obsessively so, compulsively repeating the same things over, over and over again. His patterns are unchanging and he tries to escape them and falls into the same patterns with different people, returning to the problems he was running away from in the first place but pretending not to understand it’s a Sisyphian dilemma. Is he separate from himself or his past? Is she? Is the town? Does the past even exist if we forget it and does that matter, since we can’t ever forget the past, especially when it is staring us in the face with every ritualized repetitive action we undertake and pretend is a choice?

The third criteria for me is a lesson about the world. Where this book shines is in making the assumption that we already know what’s going on even if we are far outside the culture. We are immersed in the very ritualized and specific actions of a small town in the north where traditions have been sculpted over centuries and there is a history to everything. We’re not explicitly educated about it but we are given a demonstration of how daily life (and visiting life) works in such a society, not judgmentally or from an orientalist perspective but simply and matter-of-factly. We’re given a gimpse into the art of the geisha outside the pleasure quarters of major cities, the nature of complex relationships in a place where secrecy isn’t even pretended to exist and how tenuous survival is in a place where the world has mostly passed by but comes to visit sometimes.

So it’s a simple story with beautiful poetic language but the depth of character exploration and the nature of questions about escape and separation and relationships make this a revolutionary combination of styles and an unmatched work of self-reflective fiction.

[Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata on Amazon]


[estimated reading time 3 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

Divergent, the first of the series by the same name from Veronica Roth, is a clear demonstration not only of what youth-focused literature can be but what it should be. Really, most of the other writers in this genre should simply be ashamed of what they’ve been producing all this time. This is a continuation of my assertion that to be a good book it has to teach three different lessons — one about language and how it can be used to shape and create and be creative, one about morality, ethics, spirituality and the like and one about humanity, the world around us, our existence. And this book comes through with absolute flying colors.

The book boldly teaches us a language lesson that books written for young people and in language that is not all that complex can be beautiful expressions of language, not simply everyday words but insightful ways of creating characters out of meaningful patterns of them strung together like music.

I shall be completely clear on this. I believe that this book (and its series) is the best piece of young-adult-focused literature yet produced in any language, be it fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry.

So, as to the lessons it teaches, the first is moral. It clearly demonstrates that those who are different are not to be feared and those who are at the top of the existing structure may not indeed deserve to be seen as better than those at the bottom, that outsiders are the future of society and that integration is the only way to save us.

It then goes on to teach us a historical and educational lesson about the importance of not straying from a coherent and comprehensive view of reality, that when you focus too hard on only one interpretation of the truth, you lose your humanity.

Plot? Again, not really my area of interest but it’s a story split over three volumes that describes the coming of age of a girl who lives in a society that is segregated not on racial or cultural lines but a decision as to the important moral viewpoint — honesty vs intellectual potential, bravery vs compassion. She is quickly seen to be outside the norm of these divided ideas and must hide that fact to be safe from persecution as an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit the mold of cultural stereotype. The rest of the story is simply an exploration of her hiding, self-discovery and eventual coming to terms with the fact that we are all far more complex, except those who are broken and obsessed with only one perspective — in other words, conservatives.

So it’s a revolutionary book, one about standing out not simply because it’s what young people want to do but because it’s right to fight against a system that is hurting people and putting traditional values and conservative adherence to the status quo ahead of actual progress and development and, in many ways, ahead of caring for other people.

It’s an interesting lesson to talk about with a class or friends. And it’s a beautiful work to read, stylistically, linguistically. Not to mention it’s been turned into movies and they’re not at all bad representations of the books in the series. Hopefully we can all put aside the silly notion that young people can’t have deep thoughts on serious moral and ethical issues or on society and read this, keeping in mind that educated adults are born out of thoughtful and open-minded young people.

[Divergent by Veronica Roth on Amazon]

Angels and Demons

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

(This post is one in a series about the best books ever written. The first post in the series is here.)

I did indeed like Angels and Demons enough to put it on my list of best books ever written. And that may shock some people — actually, that does shock a lot of people and I have heard that particular question many times. Usually a book is either good or popular. And that’s not an unusual differentiation to make about things. Popular music is rarely well written. Popular fiction is usually mindless drivel written by people who are looking for sensational reactions rather than depth of understanding. Popular art is usually something that makes people cringe rather than sit and stare at it. But there are exceptions and those exceptions, things that are able to be both popular and inspirational in a thoughtful sense are worthy of an even higher level of praise.

Truly good books need to teach us a lesson about language, a lesson about ethics, morality and spirituality and a lesson about the world. I’ve talked about this a little in the first post of this series but it’s useful to review sometimes.

Angels and Demons, the first of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series — realistically, popular thrillers set in contemporary time and mostly about an exploration of humanity and history. I should probably mention here that when I talk about a book that is in a series, I’m going to talk about the first book as something you should read and teach and hopefully you’ll enjoy it (and your students will, too) enough to follow that up with others in the series. That’s pretty much something that can be said for most authors’ work but it’s important when there is a continuation from book to book that we not jump into the middle of a set meant to be read in series and just confuse everyone because, perhaps, the fourth book is the best one and we’ve read them all anyway so nothing about it seems to come out of nowhere for us. Our students won’t have read the others already and neither will the friends who suddenly think we’re crazy because we like this particular book that happens to assume myriad pieces of knowledge that have been picked up through hundreds of pages in other volumes.

This book teaches us that you can make everyday language beautiful, make it tell a story that isn’t focused on the everyday and meaningless but a real story, that you can read and taste the beauty of without tripping over arcane words but without sacrificing anything of the experience.

It teaches us a moral and ethical lesson about the importance of balancing faith with understanding but that if you go too far in either direction you lose your humanity. And it teaches us a historical lesson that it is a horrible mistake to forget our past and pretend that dark tragedy is something that is only in the distant history or in other countries.

Of course, we have to be very careful about choosing a work of popular fiction when we are discussing academic literature. Why? Simply because most popular fiction is not written to be literature. It’s not written to be any good. It’s written to be easy to read, easy to understand, to appeal to a mass audience that, not to put too fine a point on it, is pretty stupid. And there is certainly a niche for that — a damned massive one, in fact. And I cannot in any way (nor should you) criticize people for writing for that demand.

There’s something to be said for trying to fix the mediocre education system and cultural degradation that has led to mass-market consumables, not just literature. But that’s a whole other discussion and we’re certainly not going to fix the problem by refusing to read or write books for people who can’t understand depth and symbolism and poetic language.

This book, though, manages to have inherently deep messages as I have said about humanity and its impact on itself, its ability to forget its past and pretend that culture is safe and tradition is good. But it does all of that without sacrificing the plot, the story, the desirability of the book itself for the kind of audience that is browsing airport bookshops. It doesn’t alienate the general public and doesn’t pander to a desire to have nothing but plot and mindless action (or even worse mindless day-to-day experience).

So on all counts, being a spectacular discussion of human nature, of history, of the future, of morality and ethics, not to mention continuing the story into several other books, which I shall likely discuss at another point, without losing either momentum or quality of ideas, this book more than merits a place on my short list of the best books ever written.

I would highly recommend you use this book if you are teaching a class in contemporary fiction, popular fiction or realistically any introductory or creative-writing-study course in literature.

It also has the benefit of being originally written in English, which isn’t necessarily the case for a lot of the other books that I’ve put on my list. Since many departments and schools are rather against books in translation existing outside books-in-translation courses, this is definitely a plus for Angels and Demons. By the way, I have no problem with segregating books based on their original language of composition but I have a massive problem with allowing people to only take courses of books that are originally in English as if books in all other languages are not worth studying unless you’re a foreign-lit specialist. That goes for you, too, high schools who have only English-original texts (sometimes supplemented by ancient Greek silliness that doesn’t deserve to be on anyone’s curriculum) in their courses.

Oh, right, the story. I tend not be nearly as interested in giving a plot summary as other book reviewers but I guess it’s useful in determining whether you or your students might find it sufficiently stimulating in the plot department. I should probably come clean and tell you that I have realistically no concern for plot when I’m reading. If the language is interesting, I’m hooked. But here’s the story.

Robert Langdon, the protagonist, is a liberal arts professor whose interest is in signs and symbols (realistically, in history but they never come out and say it as such). So he’s a scholar (woo!) and a scientist (great) and someone who thinks about things. Which is a great combination and excellent material to start any sort of discussion with students about why such people have a tendency of being seen as less-than in modern society. That aside, the book begins with a murder and a theft of, to leave out all the scientific details, something that will explode — and likely take out a good portion of the city. Not to mention this is all taking place in the Vatican between the death of the Pope and the election of a new one. In addition, the same person has kidnapped a group of the cardinals who are likely to become Pope and there are some obscure and historical symbolic references.

Langdon is tasked with figuring out who is behind all of this and help find the kidnapped cardinals. And yes, indeed, this is quite a task for an academic but that’s the premise of the book. I won’t go into the details of how the solution presents itself so you can read that for yourself (or look it up on Wikipedia) but the story is internally consistent, scientifically somewhat viable (far more than most popular fiction, honestly) and there are sufficiently many misleading trails to turn this into more of a mystery than a book of investigation and action.

There you have it. A story fit for cinema (which it was adapted for rather quickly) in language that is creative and intriguing enough to keep an educated person hoping the book is longer than it really is and with enough thoughts on human progress, history and ethics to make it a worthwhile read. Enjoy.

[Angels and Demons by Dan Brown on Amazon]

Writing a Future?

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

As many of you are no doubt aware, I teach creative writing at the undergraduate and graduate levels, sometimes to high school students, too. I believe that there is a far too significant break between the study of literature and that of writing. We often are forced to pretend that there is reading and there is writing and that these two are only loosely connected. Some of this comes from the ridiculous concentration in literature study on historic rather than contemporary literature. We force students to read books that are both outdated and not all that well-written by modern standards and I have truly no idea why. I have often campaigned against the use of “classic literature” or “the greats” in education but I have had little impact even in my own institutions.

What this comes down to, though, is that I see the teaching of creative writing as something that must be done by example. Taking the best possible contemporary literature and using it as a mirror for students who are trying to become the next generation of writers. We write in a community, in a culture, in a time and place and if we are not aware of that time and place, we can never connect with it in our writing and that makes it pointless to put words on screens and text in the mouths of our characters. In trying to update my existing course materials and create some new ones for the year ahead (yes, the 2020 academic year is closer than we would like to imagine at this point and books need to be ordered, classes scheduled and the like), I have been asking many of the people whose views I respect a simple question.

If you were to select the ten most important books to read, regardless of how they are seen by others, what would they be?

Of course this doesn’t really mean they should restrict themselves to ten or that they need to give me a ranking of those books. But I am deeply interested in their lists. I may not always agree with what they pick but there are some surprising results on those lists. Sometimes something really interesting pops up but what I have noticed is that the same books appear again and again on them from people who live in different places, different cultures and many with no connection at all with the world of creative writing or even literary study in an academic sense. These are all highly-educated people but they vary in discipline from people like me who are professional writers and educators to those who study in science and medicine or liberal arts and humanities.

I believe that all worthwhile literature (and poetry) must do three things. If they don’t do all three well, I would say it’s neither literature nor worth the paper or pixels it’s printed on and shouldn’t be bothered with as someone who has better choices as to what to consume. Those three things are that it must be beautiful, it must be pleasurable and it must be educational. That may sound like a tall order or perhaps a confusing one.

To be beautiful means something is art. If it is not beautiful, it is not art. A painting can be poorly executed but truly beautiful to look at. It can be of an incredibly dark subject, say the crucifixion of Jesus or the slaughter of American native tribes, and still be a beautiful representation. This is not a silly notion of turning the world into something that has no sadness, no pain, no suffering. It is a statement that art must strive to be a beautiful representation of emotion, action, human experience. There is a difference between a display of beauty and a display of happiness. In a similar manner, writing must be beautiful to be worth reading. If it does not relish its playfulness with the language, does not strive to go beyond the everyday meaningless drivel that comes out of the mouths of people as they whine about the weather and talk about lunch plans, there is no reason for it to be considered literature. Literature is something that goes beyond speech and base thought and takes language to a place where it is, in a word, beautiful. The experience of language can be transcendent, an escape from the mundane reality. If it is, it is literature. If it is not, it is nothing more than a shopping list or instruction booklet for the latest in assembly-required furniture.

Pleasurable again is an interesting concept. That doesn’t mean in any way that it must be full of joy, although that’s always a nice experience. It can be pleasurable to wake up to the suffering of others, to be made aware of the darkness in humanity and the experiences of the past and the present. A book of holocaust poetry or a novel told from the prespective of an escaped slave can be a pleasant experience to read because we feel like we have understood the souls of others, touched their essence and breathed through their mouths for just a moment. We have experienced the unsurpassable pleasure of empathy. If we do not feel the pleasure of inhabiting the author’s mind for awhile, they have failed and it is not literature. It is simply a story that has not succeeded in its most basic requirement.

The most important of these three criteria, however, is the last one — to be literature worth experiencing, it must be educational. It must teach us something. That doesn’t mean it has to be about the surface of the moon or a detailed description of the subatomic world. It can teach us something about human experience or how emotions work. It can teach us about our past or our potential for the future. It can teach us about words and language. The best of these teach us about three things at the same time and this is the measuring stick against which I have judged my possible list of “the best books”. First, they must teach us something about language. They must be using language in a creative and beautiful way, not necessarily something novel or even different from what is expected but it must be a pleasure to experience the language, quite apart from the story told. Second, they must teach us something about humanity — an ethical lesson, a moral truth, a spiritual understanding. Finally, they must teach us something about the world, whether that is reality or scientific understanding or history. These three would be nice to see in all books but of course that doesn’t really apply to many varieties of literature and it would be far too harsh to say that something must do more than simply teach a lesson but teach all three types of lesson. However, I would say that the best books do all three of them and only those that qualify on that count make it onto my list.

I believe this will surprise many of you. This is my list and I will, over the next few months, write about why each of them has made its way onto the list, why you should read it and why you should, if you are also a teacher of literature or creative writing, teach it to your students.

And please remember that these are not in any particular order. My vote for the three best books ever written, by the way, goes to “Invisible Cities”, “Sophie’s World” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. By the way, the fact that many of these are actually part of series, I have always selected the first book in the series so it is possible that there are actually “better” books later in the collection but I would suggest beginning at the beginning and if you are to read only one, read the first.

And so, without further delay…

  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  • The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré
  • Remembrance Day by Henry Porter
  • Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Kill Artist by Daniel Silva
  • Labyrinth by Kate Mosse
  • The Ghost by Robert Harris
  • The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling
  • Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
  • Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy
  • Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
  • Malice by Keigo Higashino
  • Murder In Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • Memoirs Of A Geisha by Arthur Golden
  • Frontier by Can Xue
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  • Tomorrow, When The War Began by John Marsden
  • The Interpreter by Suki Kim
  • Seventeen by Hideo Yokoyama
  • Iq84 by Haruki Murakami
  • Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Shocked yet? I thought you might be.

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