Making a list of the ‘best’ books is just as impossible as listing the ‘best’ music or art. The qualities of good and bad are entirely subjective, and for every person who loves a book, there will usually be another who hates it just as much.
Impossibilities aside, this is my own personal list of the seven books that have changed the way I read, and might change the way you do, too.
Desolation Angels by Jack Kerouac
The word ‘genuinely’ is misused a lot nowadays, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is genuinely impossible for me to oversell how beautiful this book is. It isn’t On the Road, and having never understood the hype around that particular piece of Beat lit,’ that’s one of the highest compliments I can give it.
For anyone who loves On the Road, it’s worth a read simply to experience a far better version of what came before. For anyone who, like me, felt they were missing something with Kerouac’s most famous travel epic, don’t give up on him until you’ve read this, because this book is the best reason I can think of for anyone ever learning to read.
However, do proceed with caution because the temptation to hop on a train and disappear into the unknown is a force to contend with once finished.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
If you want to know why Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, Song of Solomon will tell you all you need to know and more. Reportedly, it’s Barack Obama’s favourite novel, which is less of a selling point and more of an interesting factoid, but it could also be another reason to read it.
The book follows Milkman Dead from a troubled, but financially successful, black family in a northern rustbelt American city, all the way to his family’s origins in the southern states. This novel is tied together through songs, storytelling, and the oral history of a race who, until recently, were slaves.
Morrison’s characters are beautifully drawn and hauntingly realised, and this tale of one man’s trip into his past weaves perfectly, with a racial history that couldn’t really have found a more gifted writer to tell it.
The Evadne Mount Trilogy by Gilbert Adair
Strictly speaking, I’m cheating on this list already by including three books in one; but you really shouldn’t read one without the others. Part postmodern parody, part homage to Agatha Christie and the detective genre, this is Adair at his slippery best. Not only are these books satisfyingly compelling mystery tales, but they are also some of the funniest and best parodies of the who-dunnit genre I’ve ever come across.
Super sleuth and novelist Evadne Mount, is a heavy drinking, laconic and experimental bisexual who, like her most famous counterparts Miss Marple and Poirot, never seems to age a day.
Not content with creating sublime detective parodies alone, Adair’s postmodern leanings reveal themselves in the third tale, as he becomes a character in his own story, and Evadne Mount rises out of the pages of his books to berate his lack of imagination.
As a whole, this trilogy is a glorious experiment, as well as a hugely enjoyable test of the lines we draw between fact and fiction.
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
Orwell’s most famous books may be Animal Farm and 1984, but The Road to Wigan Pier is Orwell the journalist in perfect harmony with Orwell the novelist. In 1936, the author was commissioned to visit areas of mass unemployment in the North of England, and what followed was Wigan Pier: a haunting description of the poverty he witnessed, and a socialist call to arms to protect the ‘forgotten North’.
This book is a searing account of working-class life in the mining and industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. As a large portion of this book examines Sheffield, my adopted University city, it holds a special place in my heart, and for those of you who have read the most famous of Orwell’s works, this is where you’ll find the basis for his most dystopian ideas of humanity.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Patti Smith might be best known as a performance poet and singer, but she is also an artist and writer. Just Kids won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2010, and Smith’s account of her relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, is both a love letter and an elegy to the man who defined her life.
Set against the backdrop of 1960s and 70s New York, Smith and Mapplethorpe encounter each other by chance, and what follows is the true story of a friendship that survived fame, illness, poverty, and only ended with Mapplethorpe’s untimely death from the AIDS virus years later.
In the infamous Chelsea Hotel both live and starve together, collaborating with famous figures including Jimi Hendrix, Alan Ginsburg, and William Burroughs along the way. Smith writes like the artist and poet she is, and this book is a thoroughly enjoyable portrait of New York City as it was, when the children of the 60s flocked to it.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
All too often WWII novels become just another one in a long line of similar stories, but this book is different. Narrated by Death as he follows the nine-year-old Liesel during the onset and end of the Second World War, the macabre narrator tells a truly life-affirming story. The Book Thief is a unique and elegantly written tale, peopled by memorable characters who represent the best and worst of humanity, during one of the most bleak periods of our recent history.
Not only is this a wonderful page-turner, but it is also a superbly crafted and important novel, exalting the importance of words and revealing Zusak to be a writer of true talent. A sense of joy and dread pervade the story,and Zusak manages to do what very few writers manage to, and that is to make us care.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Finally, I couldn’t have a top seven without including the master of stripped back writing. With Hemingway you won’t find any compound adjectives, and he doesn’t play with form or break from convention, but what he does do is write clearly and beautifully without recourse to the subordinate clause.
Set against the backdrop of Paris after the end of the First World War, A Moveable Feast is a rare insight into the life of one of literature’s true geniuses. Hemingway details his life in France as a struggling writer, which brings him into contact with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford, as he slowly begins to be recognised.
This is a true story of Hemingway’s infectious enthusiasm and creativity, and a rare and wonderful insight into the lives of some of the greatest writers of the 20th century.
What do you think? Do you agree with this list? Have your say in the comments section below.
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