I read a lot of fiction. Reading fiction seems to have fallen out of favor in some circles, and I know many people who are skeptical of the value of reading it.
I read fiction for a lot of reasons. For one thing, I think it’s the best way to learn empathy. You can know someone for years, especially when you’re kids, and never get inside their heads the way you can get into characters’ heads in novels, and fiction can expose you to characters in situations and from environments that you will never come into contact with in your usual life. That’s why it’s important that you read good fiction, though – good fiction, quality fiction, can here be distinguished from not very good fiction by how believable and deep the characterizations are. It doesn’t mean the novel has to be realistic; science fiction and fantasy novels still have characters that act in ways we find believable, or not, and the characterizations in them can be quite profound.
I also read fiction because sometimes it’s the best vehicle for philosophical argumentation of one sort or another. Fiction can present a distinct point of view that can serve as commentary in a way that nonfiction authors often shy away from in the name of objectivity and fact.
And, of course, quite often I read it just because I enjoy it. I read a lot of murder mysteries, for example, not expecting to learn much about anything (although I still look for believable characterization), simply wanting a tight plot to keep me guessing.
So, I’m going to be writing about books, including fiction, on this blog more, and I wanted to start here, with 10 novels that made some difference to me. I’m going to try to explain why each was so influential for me, but – ah, but! –
- I haven’t read most of them for years. So I’m writing about them now only from memory. - Some of them just came, as books sometimes do, at the right moment in my life to hit me a certain way. - The interpretations are, at any rate, subjective, of course. - These are all great novels, with one possible exception. Thus most of them are layered and the themes that struck me are not necessarily the most important or meaningful themes of the books.
I do not care about the potential for spoilers, so beware if that’s important to you. At any rate, I tried to keep the plot summaries brief. And, finally, this post is going to be unfinished for now because I have another post I want to write tonight, too.
The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti
The Borribles is a trilogy for young readers. I cannot overstate how much impact the first two books had on me when I first read them, when I was about 8 or 9.
The Borribles are a group of runaway kids in London who live in the sewers. They have pointed ears and are constantly trying to avoid interactions with the police because if the police catch them – and they steal a lot in order to survive and are sometimes engaged in wars with rival gangs of sewer kids – the police will clip their ears and then the kids will be returned to normal society where they will have to grow up. The grown up world is consumerist, antagonistic (instead of cooperative, like the Borribles lifestyle), and authoritarian. There is hierarchy within the Borrible tribe, but authority is based on achievement and trust and is still more cooperative than antagonistic.
The themes that resonated with me were the intense anti-materialism and anti-authoritarianism and the ways that these kids formed and enforced their own codes of ethics. This is the book that got me started thinking of ethics in an analytical way. That’s no small thing for a book aimed at young readers.
I didn’t get the third book until I was an adult. I think it was banned for a while due to the violence. They are violent books. Kids fight for their lives and for what they believe in, and there are deaths, some memorably horrific. My older son has read them, though. It’s a heartwarming feeling, getting him started on anarchy at such a young age.
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards
Yes, that Julie Andrews.
This is another children’s novel, and I believe I’ve read it more than 20 times over the years. For a long time, I would read it every time I got sick and got to stay home from school. But what a book!
Three children live next door to a nutty professor who visits a land in which fantastic creatures such as the Oily Prock and the Whangdoodle live. He teaches the children to go with him, using these things called “scrappy caps.” Each time they go, there are adventures, and the eventual goal is to get to the palace to meet the last Whangdoodle who rules over the fantasy land. It turns out the Whangdoodle is in want of a female Whangdoodle (it is a truth universally acknowledged, you know), and fantastic and amazing things happen. The descriptions of all the creatures and features of Whangdoodleland are glorious, and for the young reader, it’s all enchanting.
But you must know, as an adult, what’s coming. The children lose their scrappy caps or something like that, and they are saddened that they can’t go to Whangdoodleland anymore (or perhaps they lose them in that world and then can’t go home?). But of course they can. The important thing wasn’t the caps. The caps were only something to believe in. The real power to go to Whangdoodleland existed within the children the whole time.
This was the first book I ever remember reading where, after each time I read it, the world itself seemed more elegant and enchanted than it had before I read it. It was as if it improved my actual vision, and I saw more beauty and with greater clarity than I had before.
But, of course, the book is just a scrappy cap, something to believe in. That power of seeing beauty and being enchanted was already within me, wasn’t it?
Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
After I outgrew The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, this was the book I read and re-read every time I needed cheering up. It’s a funny novel, although the ending is not happy, and . I do not know if the humor translates well to people who did not grow up in New Mexico, as that is where most of the novel takes place, and much of the humor is in the “local color” category, it seems to me. Still. It is one of those books that can make me laugh out loud just thinking about certain scenes.
I just finished re-reading this book and
The Plague by Albert Camus
Well, let me start by saying this: The Plague is not my favorite of Camus’s works. It’s also not the first I read. The Fall is my favorite of his books, followed closely by The Exile and the Kingdom, and of course the first of his books I read was The Stranger. So many people start with The Stranger and think Camus’s message is LOL NOTHING MATTERS and never read anything else he wrote, and that’s a damn shame. He’s a more interesting thinker than that. I usually tell people, if they ask, that they should start with The Plague if they want to understand Camus because, yes, the world is absurd and existence is absurd and yet he makes the case that we should still act morally, caring for one another. (The Fall is a more complex book and please do not start your Camus with that one because, while I think it’s brilliant, it’s also difficult, even more so if you’re not already familiar with Camus’s themes. I could be wrong, though, I don’t know.)
A Night of Serious Drinking by Rene Daumal
My God, I only read this book once but it stuck with me. Voltairean.
A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin
This book is sprawling and, in places, a somewhat pedantic. Maybe didactic is the better word for it. The premise is an old man, a professor of aesthetics, must walk some distance with a young man, a man who knows nothing of philosophy and little of recent history, and the older man tells his life story, from his relatively privileged childhood in Rome to his study of aesthetics to his times – absurd and horrifying – as an Italian soldier in World War I. The interweaving of questions of aesthetics with his life as a soldier brings up, as all aesthetics should, in my opinion, questions of ethics. Surely an ethics, meant to tell us how to live a good life, should be informed by an aesthetics, a sense of what is beautiful and why.
Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado
There is so much I want to say here. I found, when I was younger, that I didn’t really like myself very much. I was sort of angry and bitter and depressed all the time. Very misanthropic, really judgmental in a way that I didn’t really like being around myself. And I wanted to make myself a better person – less judgmental, more forgiving and patient, more tolerant, happier.
Oddly enough, the thing that helped most was reading a lot of South American literature, especially Jorge Amado and Gabriel García Márquez. I think it’s because they tend not to write characters who are good or evil; they tend to write characters who are complicated and flawed and often good and sometimes bad and human in a way that I used to be judgmental about. Their characters are passionate and often behave dramatically and commit a lot of adultery, and yet they are not bad people and it’s nearly impossible to feel that they are. So these books finally gave me the humility to make myself a more bearable person.
And Gabriela is the queen of all those characters for me, she and her husband, Nacib. They are not characters who will dazzle with intelligence, which is what I was mostly attracted to when I was an unpleasant person. They are so fully drawn as characters, so rich in their passions, and their actions are so comprehensible. I don’t really care to share with you the plot of the story. It is good and interesting, and the ending is good. What I want is for you to know these two people, and for that, you have to read the book.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth
I don’t think I’ve ever met another woman who liked this book, and I can understand why, I think. Well, in fact, Roth doesn’t seem to be much of a hit with the ladies. No matter.