Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell
Animal Farm was one of the books I would sneak into church and read in the balcony when I was supposed to be operating the sound equipment for the choir. I read this book and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea hiding underneath the sound board. I was about ten and didn’t get the satire thing, but I thought it was wild that adults could get away with writing books for other adults where absurd and fantastic things happened. This would prove to be formative, though I never did go back to the book.
Trout Fishing in America (1967), by Richard Brautigan
How wild to find Trout Fishing in America on the big bookshelf. In my memory this happened almost right after I read Animal Farm. I’ve always liked the way he used the phrase “my woman” in the book: “My woman trailed silently behind, carrying the rods and the fish.”
Candide (1759), by Voltaire
Throw another satire on the list. I love Candide for the journey, the way the red sheep are lost on their way out of El Dorado. Dan Rhodes says, and I think this sounds about right, “Reading a book as hilarious and intelligent as this, it’s baffling to think that even now the use of humour in fiction is routinely mistaken for a lack of seriousness.”
The Awakening (1899), by Kate Chopin
Teenage years are the perfect time to read about discovering the wild and terrible world, particularly if all that discovery is set at the beach and one can daydream about owning a seaside manor even though one lives in the desert. Sure, The Awakening dates itself; it’s romantic and a little goofy. But I’d love to see anyone write the melodrama of the last paragraph simply and evenly, and without at least considering either a hum of bees or a musky odor of pinks. Chopin did it best.
Heart of Darkness (1902), by Joseph Conrad
When it comes to teaching literature, Heart of Darkness is simultaneously perfect and terrible as a text. It’s such a beautiful book, but since teachers can’t just sit around and point out the sublime like metaphorical tour guides, it becomes an example of a frame story and an unreliable narrator and the whole thing just deflates. I wish teachers—particularly teachers of literature—felt comfortable acting like tour guides. If they did, people might read as much as they went to Disneyland.
The Metamorphosis (1915), by Franz Kafka & The Breast (1972), by Philip Roth
Though they’re each singular achievements, of course, I have to mention these two on the same line because I will never be able to talk about one without the other. Even Roth gives a shout-out to Kafka in his novella about a man who, over the course of some weeks, transforms into a 155-pound breast. Roth is a recommended read for anyone who wants to read or write erotica or absurdist literature, or anyone who enjoys breasts and wants to simultaneously revel in and challenge the idea of that enjoyment.
The Dead (1914), by James Joyce
I’m pretty sure that the last paragraph of The Dead is the most perfect paragraph in the English language. I once copied the text by hand just to see how it felt to write it. It felt really good.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (1997), by Jean-Dominique Bauby
This is the last novella I’ve read and also one of my favorites, if only to consider the effort that went into every letter and word on every page. The act of writing it (Bauby had locked-in syndrome after a stroke, which meant that “writing” the book required a complicated process involving a nurse and his left eyelid) resulted in a breathtaking spare and careful prose.
Amelia Gray is a lives in Austin, Texas and teaches at Austin Community College. Her writing has appeared in The Onion, American Short Fiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, and Caketrain, among others. Her work has been chosen as the finalist for McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Contest and the DIAGRAM Innovative Fiction Contest. Her book AM/PM was just released by Featherproof Books. Find her HERE.