There have been few books that have truly impacted me. Sure, there are the usual suspects like “Beloved,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “Lolita;” those are books everyone seems to love and quote from endlessly, but my list is much shorter. I guess I will start in chronological order, with the earliest first. I’ll also separate the list into Fiction/Nonfiction/Poetry.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first read ~1999)
In all honesty, I need to reread this novel. I think I read it at least ten years ago, if not more, and I can hardly remember it. What I do remember is Marquez’ use of magical realism, which I believe to be one of the finest literary modes in use. Magical realism has come to define the way I view writing, and in some ways, the way I view living as well. Marquez was the first writer to challenge and inspire me. Reading this novel was like being taken into a room and battered with ideas for 468 pages.
Blindness – Jose Saramago (first read 2002)
I read this novel six times. I was a senior in high school and Blindness was assigned by our AP Lit teacher. After I read this, my friend B and I had to do a project discussing Saramago’s work through the lens of formalism. For some reason, we wrote our paper in six hours, the day before we were supposed to present it. We ended up getting a D. We had a good laugh about that recently. The novel itself astonished me for its inventive structure and the cast of characters Saramago employs. There’s not much to say about it in terms of plot, except for the fact that everyone in the world suddenly goes blind, with the exception of a woman. Characters are known by descriptive apellations (the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with dark glasses). Some of the most visceral scenes take place in a mental asylum, inside which the blind have been quarantined. The novel is an examination of social breakdown and a possible allegory for the human condition. The ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. I think this novel influenced me most of all through Saramago’s style, which mimics blindness and defies standard literary conventions by avoiding dialogic quotation marks and proper sentence structure.
Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov (first read 2008)
One of my picks for the top ten novels of the 20th century, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is absolutely worth the time spent arduously trying to get through the first half of the book. If you know Nabokov’s style, the novel is full of laughs. Everything is a joke played on the reader. I for one, love this, because it drives me to figure out what is going on. This novel is a perfect example of fantastic structure and slow plot reveals. Kinbote, the “narrator,” if I may call him that, is farcical to the extreme. His notes on specific lines (the novel purports to be an analysis of a poem) become flat-out digressions which have little or nothing to do with the lines they are referencing. I read Pale Fire the night of the final for my Nabokov class, in about six hours. Hell of a ride.
Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee (first read 2009)
Simply stated, this is the best novel I have ever read. Focusing on justice/animal rights/rape/post-apartheid South Africa, Coetzee manages to show one man’s fall from relative grace and his struggle for redemption. This novel is an exercise in understanding and accepting futility. I want to say that, once again, the ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. This is one of the fastest reads you’ll likely encounter, because Coetzee’s language is pared down to almost nothing.
The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (first read 2009)
I’ve already talked about this book at length, so I’ll just say that Atwood is a genius and leave it at that.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami (first read 2009)
In my opinion, this is Murakami’s best novel. A mixture of science fiction, hardboiled noir, romance, and philosophy, Murakami will make you question the meaning of your life. There’s also an amazing statement on immortality, which is encompassed within an eternal subdivision of time.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers (first read 2004)
What else did you think would be on this list? Eggers’ memoir gave me hope for being a writer. I think I unconsciously try to emulate his bold style. With the exception of the MTV scenes, this memoir is incredible. It’s both an examination of Eggers’ life after the death of his parents, and an ironic statement on the art of self-referential writing.
Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson (first read 2004)
This is an updated retelling of the myth of Geryon, a monster slain by Herakles as part of his Ten Labors. This doesn’t really qualify as a pure work of poetry, because it is a novel in verse. It puts Geryon into the modern day body of a young man who falls in love with Herakles, but is later betrayed by him. Geryon loves photography and has red wings and travels to Argentina and sits in cafes watching tango dancers. Highly recommended.