A few months ago, one of our clients made a special request for a list of ten novels that we believe everyone should read at least once in their lives. The question piqued our interest, and we instantly got into a heated dispute. Should the Bible be included? No text has had a greater impact on Western civilization, yet reading the Koran or the Torah for a more enlightened outlook could be just as significant. Shakespeare seemed a foregone conclusion, but how to pick between Hamlet and The Sonnets, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear? What about lesser-known works such as Saturn’s Rings, Bluets, No-No Boy, or The Book of Disquiet? How might we narrow down our options to just a few?
We couldn’t, as it turns out. We presented the question to our book-loving coworkers, and after receiving 1,400 nominations (!) and a vote, we came up with a list of 10 titles. Rather than stressing over what had to be included, we chose to showcase a collection of books that can affect the way you think and feel, as well as works that reflect our broad interests at Powell’s. We hope you find our recommendations to be helpful.
All About Love: by bell hooks
We’ve been conditioned to believe that love is something that happens to us. It’s a magical but entirely passive encounter. Bell hooks, a renowned social activist and feminist, maintains in her profoundly personal and impassioned All About Love that love is a decision we must all make and that it isn’t quite as abstract or elusive as many of us have come to believe. The book not only examines the significance of love in our lives and the ways in which our culture has perverted its meaning but also directs us toward a better knowledge of how to grow it through simple definitions and examples. If you’ve ever wondered why some relationships last a lifetime while others fail, this book is for you. Renee P., Renee P., Renee P., Renee
Desert Solitaire: by Edward Abbey
Edward Abbey, the iconoclast, and raconteur embodied and adored the American Southwest like no other novelist. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, published over 50 years ago, is an environmental classic. Abbey describes his time as a park ranger in this autobiographical book, reflecting on nature, culture, politics, tourism, environmental disrespect, and deterioration with a unique blend of ornery charm and stunning description. Desert Solitaire, although being situated in his native Southwest, brilliantly and brashly depicts the essence of the American outdoors, replete with hatred for people who would wish to despoil its natural splendor. Jeremy G., Jeremy G., Jeremy G., Jeremy G.
Disgrace: by J. M. Coetzee
I was pondering how to best explain my experience reading Disgrace with a buddy one afternoon when we were chatting about books, and this is what I came up with: it’s like a well-constructed, very sharp dagger laying gently against your skin. The unease and suspense are present from the start, heightened by Coetzee’s mastery of and sparse use of language, and you don’t truly take a deep breath until it’s all finished. The novel is set in modern-day South Africa and explores what it’s like to face entrenched prejudices on a personal level. Gender, sexuality, class, and racial prejudices. This story, far from being a politically correct polemic, is about how we cope, how we live as people, and it compels the reader to consider what appears to be a very twisted world at first. Each of the characters in this incredible tale finds salvation through a process that reshapes their very souls. Rebecca –
Geek Love: by Katherine Dunn
This is the book I suggest the most, and I can barely keep a copy of it since I’m continually giving it away to people I think need something to blow the top off their heads. On one level, it’s the fascinating, disturbing, and remarkable story of a family of circus freaks, as related by the hunchback albino dwarf sister. It’s also a story about identity and belonging on another level: In terms of your family, how do you describe yourself? What is the culture of your country? What about your body? What is your faith? How do you know who you are or what you are? Lizzy A. is a writer who lives in the United States.
Gilead: by Marilynne Robinson
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a letter from the old Reverend John Ames to his young son, set in 1956. Ames has spent his whole life in Gilead, Iowa, and the novel explores the area’s history via the characters of Ames’ father and grandfather, both pastors who are severely divided on issues like pacifism, duty, and the abolitionist struggle. When Ames’ godson and namesake, John Ames Boughton, arrives in Gilead, he reawakens ancient tensions and sets events in motion that disrupt Ames’ formerly calm final days. Gilead is one of the most beautifully written works of the twenty-first century so far, and Robinson’s tremendously astute struggle with faith, mortality, and what constitutes a meaningful existence will appeal to readers from all walks of life. – Jill O. is a freelance writer.
Giovanni’s Room: by James Baldwin
It’s difficult to discuss James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room without mentioning that this tiny novel, published in 1956, is primarily a love story between two men. It seems unfathomable that something like this could have been written before Stonewall, yet such is Baldwin’s creativity and the way he depicts the complexity of desire, love, and the sad cost of not following one’s heart. “Someone should have warned us that love kills just a small percentage of people. However, many people have died as a result of a lack of it.” It all comes down to two things in this emotional marvel of a novel: love and death. What else is there in life, after all? Kate F. says:
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories: by Flannery O’Connor
Flannery O’Connor’s first collection of short stories, published in 1955, will astound you. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories was ruthless, penetrating, and laden with subtext in its day, and it still feels relevant today. O’Connor crafts characters who are misguided, stunted curiosities, but she manages to capture what’s human in even the nastiest of people, making their inevitable trajectories all the more devastating. Despite the horrible events that develop, the stories are enjoyable to read, filled with tension, dark humor, and some of the most vivid imagery you’ll find in literature.
The Handmaid’s Tale: by Margaret Atwood
I’ve definitely read it 30 times by now; Atwood’s famous dystopian tale about a scary (and terrifyingly plausible) future America has rewarded rereading like no other book. The narrator’s world is scary, but she is a brilliant survivor and chronicler, and the intricacies of everything from normal everyday life to ritualized sex and violence to her reminiscences of the time before (our modern reality as viewed in the ’80s) are utterly genuine. The novel is as pertinent today as it was then; feminist backlash ebbs and flows, but women’s rights remain a hot topic. And despite its scenarios of great despair, The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately a hopeful book — Offred, and others, simply cannot be human without the possibility of hope, and therein lies the strength of the resistance. Although all of Atwood’s writing is worthwhile, this novel finest shows the societal and psychological impact that fiction may have. Jill O. is a writer who lives in the United States.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: by Italo Calvino
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is the ultimate love letter to the reader for those who have a love affair with books. Calvino’s novel is a wonderfully crafted piece of fiction that is breathtakingly original. The book is a fascinating investigation of the relationship between the author and the reader, told alternatively in second-and third-person narratives, weaving together seemingly unrelated events, all of which link directly to you, the reader. At the heart of it lies a brilliant vision that could only have emerged from Calvino’s unrivaled imagination. By the time you get to the thrilling end, you’ll wish you could go back and read it for the first time. Jeremy G., Jeremy G., Jeremy G., Jeremy G.
The Left Hand of Darkness: by Ursula K. Le Guin0
Not only is 00The Left Hand of Darkness a work of genius in terms of ideas, inventiveness, and language, but it also crushes down gender stereotypes into a fine powder. The novel won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards when it was first published in 1969, and it went on to become one of science fiction’s most important works. The Left Hand of Darkness narrates the story of an ethnologist sent to another world, but it is Le Guin’s imagination that elevates it to something genuinely transcendent. — Mary Jo S.