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 We force students to read books that are both outdated and not all that well-written by modern standards and I have truly no idea why.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.