Some time ago I was asked to put together a list of book recommendations, which I finally got around to this week.
These exercises always end up trying to satisfy various different goals - do you recommend a book because it is notable, even if it sucks? How about a book you loved reading but it is never going to change history?
Obviously books which are (a) important, (b) widely recognised as great literature, and (c) you actually enjoyed reading are easy to choose, but that's a pretty small Venn diagram.
So this list has ended up being a mixture of all three categories. For what it is worth I am largely unmoved by whether something is "great literature", and these only make this list if they tick the important or enjoyable boxes too. Recommending something on the grounds it is great literature alone is like recommending a remarkable 1950s mathematics paper. Sure it is constantly referred to and people in the field reckon it's great, but do you really want to spend a week plodding through it? Not personally, no. If you do then all power to you, but I'm not recommending it purely on that basis.
Along with that I am quite sceptical of the "literature vs genre" split anyway. "Literature" is itself is a genre, with common themes and interests. Is this about a middle aged white guy having an affair? It's literature!
Finally this is entirely a personal list and whether I have read something or not is in itself pretty random.
I love Conrad, but I completely understand people who don't. I'd recommend:
- Lord Jim (1899)
- Heart of Darkness (1899)
- Nostromo (1904)
Heart of Darkness is obviously the famous one, since it is the book on which the movie Apocalypse Now is loosely based, but I think Lord Jim and Nostromo are better.
These books are weird and timeless. I'd suggest:
- The Metamorphosis (1915)
- The Trial (1925)
- A Farewell to Arms (1929)
- For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) - a great book set during the Spanish Civil War
- The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
- Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) - my personal favourite
- The Glass Bead Game (1943) - genuinely quite weird
Jorge Luis Borges
Another personal favourite, actually quite hard to get hold of some English versions of these books. All of them are great, but particularly:
- The Library of Babel (1941)
- Fictions (1944)
- Labyrinths (1962)
- Homage to Catalonia (1938) - more Spanish civil war (and endlessly fascinating conflict)
- 1984 (1948) - so miserable and depressing, but so good
- A Clockwork Orange (1962) - highly notable and brilliantly written
- Earthly Powers (1980) - I loved this, and it contains one of the best opening sentences in all of literature
John Le Carre
I cannot recommend Le Carre highly enough. I don't really get on with his most recent books, but the Smiley series is genuinely a high point of 20th Century literature and A Perfect Spy ought to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) - the third book of the Smiley series, but probably the best one to start with. Once you've read them all, Audible have the fantastic The Complete George Smiley Radio Dramas.
- A Perfect Spy (1986) - genuinely one of the best books of the 20th Century. Criminally under-rated.
- The Name of the Rose (1980)
- Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
- The Black Dahlia (1987) - first of the LA Quartet
- American Tabloid (1995) - first of the Underworld USA series
- Under the Frog (1993)
- The Thought Gang (1994)
- The Collector Collector (1997)
Really embodies the spirit of Generation X in my view. I loved everything he wrote. He wrote under two names, Iain Banks for his "proper" books and Iain M Banks for his science fiction, because they didn't want readers being confused.
- The Wasp Factory (1984)
- Consider Phlebas (1987) - the first of the Culture novels. Worth reading all of them, very important in science fiction and genuinely great.
- The Crow Road (1992)
- Snow Crash (1992) - seminal cyberpunk. Invented the Metaverse (the good one, not the Facebook one).
- Quicksilver (2003) - the first book of the Baroque cycle, a huge sprawling meander through the enlightenment.
- Anathem (2008) - mind-blowing and also huge and sprawling.
- Seveneves (2015)
One of my favourite authors, you should read everything he has written, but particularly:
- Perdido Street Station (2000) - his first book, and you can tell. The first of a series of science fiction stories, but the themes he develops are common across all his work.
- Embassytown (2011)
- The City & the city (2009)
Subjects and genres
On or about the counterculture movement
- Junkie, William Burroughs (1953)
- On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)
- Naked Lunch, William Burroughs (1959)
- Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein (1961) - Generally considered science fiction, but this is a unique book in the Heinlein canon. Heinlein mostly wrote right-wing wish fulfilment nonsense which dated terribly. This book is very different (although there is still a bunch of male wish fulfilment) and is genuinely worth reading.
- The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe (1968)
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson (1971) - his masterpiece, but everything he has written is worth reading
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values, Robert Pirsig (1974) - a great introduction to eastern philosophy, blew my mind when I read it. Possibly less mind-blowing if you are already au fait with the subject matter.
- The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin (1974) - again normally considered science fiction, but it is really about anarchism
- The Illuminatus! Trilogy, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (1975+) - hilarious and chaotic. Hail Eris!
Science Fiction and Fantasy
Books from the so called "Golden Age" and "New Wave" periods of Science Fiction often get recommended, which I think is pretty dumb personally. Many of us read those books as kids and so nostalgically remember them really positively but honestly try reading them now. They've dated awfully.
So just like all that dreadful Victorian literature (I'm looking at you Dickens) that nobody would even publish today, all that stuff can stay in the past unless you have a personal interest.
Fantasy is a genre that probably has more shit in it than any other, with the possible exception of Crime. It is full of sprawling wish-fulfilment epics where a teenager discovers their special power/heritage/god and then goes on to save the world. Often enjoyable, but very easy to find.
I've tried to pick books here that even if you despise SF&F they are worth reading.
- Lord Foul's Bane, Stephen Donaldson (1977)
- The Gunslinger, Stephen King (1982) - King is a genuinely great writer. The gunslinger books (of which this is the first) are flawed and strange and definitely worth trying
- Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984) - the original cyberpunk. Can be kind of hard going, but seminal.
- Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card (1985) - the author is an awful person but this and it's sequels are brilliant
- Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
- A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992)
- Vurt, Jeff Noon (1993)
- Northern Lights, Philip Pullman (1995)
- A Game of Thrones, George R.R Martin (1996)
- Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson (1999) - one of the rare fantasy series to make the list, I love all of these
- Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds (2000) - the first of the Revelation Space books, I loved all of these
- Light, John M Harrison (2002)
- Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan (2002) - the first of the Takeshi Kovacs books
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004) - wonderfully written and realised
- Blindsight, Peter Watts (2006)
- The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (2007)
- Leviathan Wakes, James S.A Corey (2011) - the first of the Expanse series of books. Impossible to put down and wonderfully written and plotted.
- Wool, Hugh Howey (2011) - notable (along with the Martian) for being self-published and then being really good and also hugely popular.
- The Martian, Andy Weir (2011)
- Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (2013)
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (2014) - notable as a good representative of 21st science fiction. Distinctly non-masculine space opera, this reads and feels completely different from SF of the past.
- Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (2014)
- Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)
Last but definitely not least.
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1934)
- I, Claudius Robert Graves (1934) - hugely enjoyable Roman romp about a previously obscure emperor
- Titus Groan, Mervyn Peak (1946) - flawed but unforgettable. The second book in the series, Gormenghast, is even more of the same. The third book is mad.
- East of Eden, John Steinbeck (1952) - moving and grim
- Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961) - hilarious
- Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985)
- Mother London, Michael Moorcock (1988)
- Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey (1988)
- London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)
- Stone Junction, Jim Dodge (1990)
- The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
- Cocaine Nights, J.G. Ballard (1996)
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)
- Any Human Heart, William Boyd (2002)
- The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006) - genuinely disturbing, this gave me actual nightmares
- Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009)
- Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010)
- A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014)
- Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel (2014)
- Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004)
- A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo (1977)
- Godel, Escher, Bach an Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas R Hofstadter (1979) - epic and mind-blowing
- The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks (1985)
- A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (2003)
- The Tiger that Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers, Michael Blastland, Andrew Dilnot (2007)
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby (2008)
- The Life of Thomas More, Peter Ackroyd (2008)
- Soccernomics (also called Why England Lose), Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski (2009)
- David Attenborough Life Stories, David Attenborough (2009)
- The Second World War, Antony Beevor (2012)
- Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman (2013)
- A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo (2014)
- SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (2015)
- The Fate of Rome, Kyle Harper (2017)
- Britain's War: Into Battle (1937-1941) & Britain's War: A New World (1942-1947), Daniel Todman (2016, 2020)
- October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Mieville (2017)
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution, Mike Duncan (2021)
- The Anglo-Saxons A History of the Beginnings of England: 400-1066, Marc Morris (2021)
- The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber & David Wengrow (2021)
A special shout out to Norman Lewis, who wrote some wonderful travel books in the 50's, and a great memoir:
- A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Lous and Vietnam (1951)
- Golden Earth: Travels in Burma (1952)
- In Sicily (2001)
A word of warning about wrong non-fiction
Lots of the non-fiction I read concerns ancient history or pre-history.
Some of these books claim to have insight into the essential nature of humanity: for example Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997) and the acclaimed Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (2015). These two books, for example, have been hugely influential. They are also despised by experts in their fields.
The problem with this entire genre is the scholarship. They rely on tenuous or frankly non-existent evidence, interpreted heavily through the assumptions of the authors. Many of these books become hugely influential but they really do not stand up very well.
Obviously you should remain sceptical in general when reading any non-fiction. If you are not a legitimate expert in the field then it is easy to be led astray. But I think there is a much greater risk of it right now, particularly in this area. In particular, archaeology has made huge strides in the last twenty years with the advent of new techniques, and many of these books are totally out of date.
I can recommend The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber as an antidote to this. I make no claims as to whether it is actually any more accurate (due to not being the aforementioned legitimate expert), but the authors obviously know their stuff and draw very very different conclusions from, for example, Sapiens, by using actual evidence.
Similarly the end of the Roman Empire looks very different when viewed through modern science in The Fate of Rome by Kyle Harper than when you read even slightly older accounts.
The whole field of history/pre-history/anthropology/political science has not caught up with this new evidence.
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it...
- Max Planck, 1950
As suggested by "Planck's Principle" above it will take the eventual retirement of a whole generation of academics before there becomes a more settled general view based on this new evidence.