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Published on February 28, 2023
“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” -Franz Kafka
Oftentimes, literature is seen as a mirror. A mirror through which we see society. A mirror through which we see what is around us. A mirror through which we see the world. In this blog I shall briefly discuss my own plans for a reading list this year, but also recommend 5 books I have already read that have shaped my own understanding and developed my reading, writing and analytical skills.
The sad truth is that many of us are put off by books. By the sheer length, by the attention we’ll inevitably have to pay, by the time it will take to finish it. By whether or not we’ll even be able to understand what is going on in it. But lingering beneath this rather morbid feeling is yet another truth. Anything and everything can be terrifying if you think about it. The fact of the matter is that books help you. They don’t just help you in saying, “magnanimous”, “asunder”, “ague” or “titillating” in your day-to-day life…
They help you explore the different ways one can write. The way the same themes of maybe struggle or power or defiance can be explored in starkly different styles and contexts, with distinct settings and characters. How ideas and stories move through time and space, waiting for no one, yet lasting forever. How the fictitiousness of an Orwellian world sends shivers down our spines because maybe it’s not all that fictitious. And how no matter if you’re reading Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) or The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) or Normal People (Sally Rooney), you will inevitably feel the same emotion- that of lack of fulfilment, until you realise life isn’t really about getting something you think you need to feel fulfilled, but instead being fulfilled with what you already have.
This year, I want to grow with books. Inevitably, I will, as I enter a three-year-long course just to study literature. But it’s not just that, I will read classics and modern tales alike. I will read old Russian literature, Mesopotamian legends, Greek plays, and Irish ghost tales. I will also read tales of today- tales riddled with technology, heartbreak, glee, love and despair. A few books I plan to read are as follows: Mansfield Park (Jane Austen), Dr Faustus (Christopher Marlowe), The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka), Aeneid (Virgil), Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami), The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf) and Conversations with Friends (Sally Rooney). These books are from different times, different worlds.
On the other hand, I also have 5 books to recommend to all passionate readers out there. These books have greatly aided me, as I continue to hone my passion for writing. I will suggest a mixture of classics and modern-day reads which have recently been trending. A mixture of tales from around the world and from around time.
Book 1: Normal People (Sally Rooney, 2018, Irish, Drama/coming of age/romance)
“It’s always easy to think of reasons not to do something”
In a little town in Ireland, we see the story of Marianne and Connell. Marianne is anti-social and indifferent to how people see her. Connell is well-settled with his friends and constantly worried about how people see him. But somehow, they come close together. Until university, where Marianne finds her footing and is at the centre of social life, while Connell (at the same university) struggles because maybe he had all those friends back home because he always just had them. Because maybe he has to think about his own thoughts and opinions and take his own stances now.
As Connell finds his footing and Marianne struggles with her past, Sally Rooney brings forward a beautiful blend of realism, with realistic characterisation and beautiful writing. This is a short book that is easy to read through and is a wonderful way to get back into or start reading again and that too is a high-quality book, which was even nominated for a Booker prize. An award-winning tv show adaptation also exists for this wonderful book, starring Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell, which you may watch before, during or after reading the book!
Book 2: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866, Russian, Bildungsroman/psychological thriller/philosophical fiction)
“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The real men must, I think, have great sadness on earth”
In St. Petersburg, Russia, Raskolnikov, a law student stricken with poverty and mental turmoil carries forward a heinous task, meanwhile thinking he is doing the world a service. After in a lapse of complete mania, he murders an old pawnbroker who he saw as greedy, abusive and miserable, he realises he really isn’t that much better than the others in the world. After a wave of self-righteousness, Raskolnikov drowns in guilt. Commonly regarded as one of the first psychological thrillers, Crime and Punishment beautifully incorporates philosophy and storytelling, as Raskolnikov endures punishment and redeems himself.
You learn, you grow, you realise. That guilt, shame, restlessness, greed and struggle are eternal. That no matter what happens, every problem in the world can never get over. That you have to try your best to solve them nonetheless, though, because perhaps life is what you make out of it. And if your purpose is to make the world a better place, that is indubitably a great purpose to wield.
Book 3: On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong, 2019, Vietnamese-American, Semi-autobiographical/epistolary/philosophical fiction)
“In a world myriad as ours, the gaze is a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly”
In this epistolary novel, written as a letter from a Vietnamese American son, introduced as Little Dog to his mother Rose, we get a story all about struggle, war, and mental health. About difficult times that later manifest themselves as impossible memories that one carries with them forever. In this non-linear novel (where the letters are not in any chronology and are disjointed), the reader has the role to stitch together the structure and meaning of this beautifully raw and insightful novel, brimming with trauma and learnings from life stories and the perils brought forth by the Vietnam war.
Filled with poetic language and beautiful prose, and then interspersed with his own experience, philosophy and knowledge, Ocean Vuong presents a story that makes you both tear up and smile, and realise how it looks to tell a story so nuanced and layered.
Book 4: 1984 (George Orwell, 1949, England, Dystopian/science fiction/philosophical and political fiction)
“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”
We are in a dystopian universe, divided into huge superstates that encompass entire continents. Winston Smith, our protagonist, is in the middle of it all. In a world where there’s thought police to police your thoughts and paradoxical ministries. Winston himself works in the Ministry of Truth, where they re-write historical records to praise the totalitarian regime set up by Big Brother. Big Brother is always watching and monitoring all that you say or do.
A dystopian science-fiction novel with impeccable world-building, 1984 is also a rather chilling cautionary tale that highlights the importance of freedom, truth and love. It takes you on a quest for truth. A journey to thwart your expectations. Prose that is sometimes poetic and free-flowing and other times blunt and frigid. Your skin will inevitably erupt into gooseflesh as you finish this book, as you learn about political ideologies, world-building in literature and how to blend satire and dystopia together.
Book 5: A Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger, 1951, American, Drama/Coming of age/Slice of life/philosophical fiction)
“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything stayed right there where it was […] Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you”
Holden Caulfield hates this world. He constantly needs to change schools due to his poor academic performance in everything but English. His cynicism prompts him to detest everyone and everything. His perception of everyone being, phoney, inauthentic and unoriginal, is rather ironic. Yet, J.D. Salinger writes this book in such a way that one can easily sympathise with Holden and see where he’s coming from.
After losing his brother, Holden is numbed of all emotions. He frequently feels depressed and panicked and also purposeless. Over the course of just 2 days, we see Holden’s life. His love for his little sister Phoebe. His hate for everyone pretending to be someone they’re not. His own need for love and affection and his struggles in communicating with people so as to convey what he really wants. A chilling book with a heartwarming and optimistic ending, The Catcher in the Rye uses unreliable narrators, a distinctive writing style (which I admit takes some time to get used to) and deep characterisation to tell a timeless story of suffering and satisfaction.
Conclusively, these are 5 books that will definitely help you enhance your reading, writing and overall, your love for literature. Keep reading, no matter how fast or slow. No matter the genre or time period or person. Keep reading because as you do, words, like specks of sand will collect within your consciousness, and before you know it, inside you will be a sandcastle, brimming and brewing and spinning and spewing with wisdom, intellect and evolution.