I came across one of those links on Reddit that was something like “100 Books Every Man Should Read” lists. I’m a sucker for those even if, amongst those 100, the books are pretty much a list of classics that have been listed for decades (they’ll throw a few contemporary Pulitzer winners to make it more current).
I spent eight years as an English teacher attempting to expose teenagers to great literature. I have many thoughts on what English curricula across the country are doing wrong, but I won’t talk about that here. A great book is a book that changes your outlook on the world and that’s at the very least. A great book can inspire and influence.
We spend so much time in classroom making books as little fun as possible: Instead just reading the story, we make our students stop and ask, “So what does the clock mean?” Instead of asking them to simply get to the end of the chapter for homework, we want them to underline six words they don’t understand and share them in block one. English classes are bullshit. I didn’t like reading until college, during which or afterward I read the most important books in my life.
They all inform some part of my thinking or actions or practice as a writer in some way, though they’re not the only influences for those things.
1.) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer: I was first introduced to this book in college, but fell in love with it on an airplane from Boston to San Diego. Since, I’ve read it probably a couple dozen times. I would incorporate it into every class I taught. First, Krakauer’s reporting is remarkable. Second, I think Chris McCandless’s journey is a journey that, as a society, we’re unable to recreate. There are no more blank spots on a map. As a parent, I think we should try to encourage our children to be passionate and brave and search for meaning. McCandless did that. He died. But he died because of enormous bad luck (and his adventure wasn’t a failure). Sometimes the difference between being a great parent and an awful one (or being a great story or a tragic one) is luck.
2.) Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: Taught me to love reading, simple as that. Second sentence of the first essay grabbed me and hasn’t let me go since. “Soft westerlies off the coast … An alien place, haunted by the Mojave … works on the nerves.” I ate up everything Didion has done since.
3.) Consider the Lobster by D.F. Wallace: The way Wallace could do his ethical and linguistic gymnastics still astounds me, and, in this work, it’s better than any of his fiction in my opinion. Someone hit it right on the head when they described his writing as something like being the smartest uncle at the holiday table who’ll end his incredibly intellectual argument with a dick joke.
4.) Sex, Drugs, Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman: In a lot of ways, it’s probably my least favorite of his work, but being the introduction to it makes this book hold a special spot. He wrote about Saved by the Bell and Radiohead and asked bizarre hypothetical questions. I felt a kindredness with Klosterman when I read him because we had (it seemed) similar interests and ways of trying to understand a subject differently from the normal narratives.
5.) Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon: I tend to suffer from bouts of many things: anxiety, frustration, moodiness, and introspection among them. I also read this one on a cross-country flight, from Phoenix back to NH, after hurriedly grabbing the first thing that seemed interesting off the bookshelf at the airport. At the time, I was grappling with some things as a son and a writer and as a person. It was just what I needed. Too often, men are pigeon-holed in a certain way in literature. Reading Chabon’s frustrations and anxieties and failures and triumphs was refreshing to me. After Into the Wild, it’s likely I’ve picked this book up more than any other book since.
You should read all of these. Yes, you.