It’s like being punched in the gut. You come across that novel that just floors you, where you see something very special going on, that “something” that you know will stick with you for the rest of your life and have a major impact on how you think about writing or maybe even see the world after you finish reading it. Something that is timeless. Something you sense is important in some way. This will differ for most people. Sometimes we may all agree. Over the course of my life I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of novels but very few have had the impact that I am speaking of. There are a lot of great books out there, well written with wonderful stories but they still don’t rise to that special level. They don’t have that ability of knocking you off your feet. Here is my personal list of those very books that have done that for me; those books that will always remain with me, those I feel are “great literature”:
“Hopscotch” by Julio Cortázar: It was recommended to me by this woman in a writing chat room I was a part of many many years ago. I was struggling through my first novel and she said to me that what I was trying to do reminded her of this book. I remember seeing it around in my travels but never thought of picking it up to read for some reason. Well, that afternoon, I did just that, and reading the first few pages on the subway home, I knew immediately that I came across something very special. Not only is it extremely well written but the idea behind the book is nothing short of genius. It is written in such a way that you can literally read the chapters in any order you wish to and you get the same story each and every time, in a unique way, each and every time. I can say without a doubt this is probably my all time favorite novel. It opened the doors other great writers and novels over the course of time, especially those Latin American novelists that most North Americans ignore. A truly special book.
“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller: Another life changing book. The prose is amazing, the story is amazing and the whole feeling of the novel had such an impact on me that it literally changed the way I thought about things and saw the world at large. It opened many doors and windows not only to other literature but to art as well. It was if my eyes were suddenly opened to all the wonderful things this world had to offer, all the great experiences one wishes to have if they only had the incentive to get up off their ass and actually do something about it. The book is full of life and ideas. Nothing was the same after reading this.
“The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway: A great story and a great example of ‘less is more’. The bare bones, stripped down nature of this novel had a major impact on me. It showed that writing didn’t have to be infused with ‘thousand dollar words’ in order to have an impact. There is a lot going on here under the surface, that ‘something’ that makes you think about it long after you finish reading it. I am a major Hemingway fan and loved pretty much all his books but this one in particular I always felt was his strongest work. The writing is simple and precise and gets right to the point without taking a page and a half to describe a simple action, which I really love. It “gets down to it” right away. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who don’t care for Hemingway’s novels (they prefer is short stories, which are also amazing to me) but I suggested that they read this one again and give it some more thought. Again, another example of how subjective all this can be.
“Desolation Angels” by Jack Kerouac: Not the first novel I read from him but clearly my favorite. The first half of the book is a beautiful study of solitude which contrasts nicely with the second half of the book which is infused with movement, Jazz, life. Kerouac is considered an important American writer now but there was a time when he wasn’t viewed as such. Truman Capote once said, referring to Kerouac’s classic “On The Road” that his book “wasn’t writing it was typing.” Couldn’t disagree more. Just two writers with two distinctly differing styles. Kerouac’s free form prose is what I love the most about him and for me this particular book shows him at the top of his game. It’s another fine example of how there is no “rule” to what a novel is “supposed” to be. It reads like a Jazz musician plays: free form, experimental, full of life without going off into outer space.
“Marks of Identity” by Juan Goytisolo: This was a random find, one day while killing the morning at The Strand in downtown New York. It just sort of leapt out at me and when I removed it from the shelf and read the first five pages I had that “punch in the gut” that I refer to earlier in this post. It was something truly special. Goytisolo has a very unique style and it is very clearly his own. This book seemed to be where he found his ‘voice’. It is a wonderful book about identity, culture and the impact of language on a culture and how language holds the key to that culture, even if one’s identity and past is often buried within it. It is a very dense book with a hell of a lot going on which almost dictates repeated readings in order to get the full impact. It’s not an easy read, that’s for sure, but man, what a read! I first read this book about eight years ago and I’m still grappling with it---and probably will read it again.
“I’ll Steal You Away” by Niccolò Ammaniti: A contemporary Italian novelist. The book is very straightforward, a very “commercial” novel but reading it caused me to have an epiphany about my own writing and approach. What I found very special about this novel was that it reminded me why I loved to write in the first place, the joy and love I have of writing and creating stories without having to bang my head against the wall with all the literary theory one is eventually exposed to over the course of time. Here is a stripped down book with a great story with great characterization and the sense of being taken for a ride. Not a “heavy” book by any means but a wonderfully written one that does make you think about things and only serves as a reminder that a great book doesn’t necessarily have to be a “difficult” one in order to have an impact.
“V” by Thomas Pynchon: A recent recommendation to me (Thank you Michael Haugh!) This is me finally getting around to reading Pynchon. I knew from the first few pages that there was something very special going on here. An incredibly written novel with so much going on it boggles the mind. It was clear to me after reading this why Pynchon is considered a national treasure. There were similarities to Georges Perec’s “A Void” (although Perec’s book came after this one.) It’s got everything going for it: the prose, the style, the “voice”, the infinite “layers”, the satire, the humor, and a host of incredibly obscure historical references that excite a history buff like myself. This book was a “game changer” for me as well, revealing again how there really isn’t any one set “rule” of what a novel is supposed to be. A truly original work and to think that Pynchon was only in his mid-20s when he wrote this boggles the mind. A true talent, a writer in a class by himself, one in which many aspire to but doubtful they’ll ever equal.
I can’t think of any more at the moment but I’m sure there are some I’m missing. These are the one’s I can think of right off the top of my head. For anyone reading this out there, if you write and/or are just an avid reader, I’d love to know which books had this kind of impact on you and why. Feel free to comment or drop me a line. I’d really love to know.