Recommended Reading List
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So here we are. My recommended reading list.
I get asked about books and reading constantly (probably because I bang on about the importance of reading and autodidactism constantly) so it’s high time I lay out something comprehensive and concrete.
Now, reading lists have a strange way of somehow both constantly changing and yet also maintaining a perennial core. Great books can transform you. Masterpieces deserve to be re-read multiple times as they have a way of evolving as you yourself evolve with age, experience and wisdom.
Yet, hopefully as we grow in discernment and experience as readers we can still be moved and surprised by new books- both new to the world and new to us. To be passed surprise is in a sense to be passed hope.
So let’s get to it. By a selection of topics, themes, genres and styles here is a list of books from my own personal library that I think are worth investing both your time and your money in…
Short Fiction/ Novellas
A Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The title says it all. This is a novella about a day in the life of a man in a Gulag, the first such story to be openly distributed in the Soviet Union. This is lean, powerful, humane and arguably features some of Solzhenitsyn’s tightest and most controlled prose. You can read it in a few hours. And you should.
Rock, Paper, Scissors- Maxim Osipov
Another Russian, this time the contemporary cardiologist by day, writer by night Osipov. This is his only work available in English and the prose in translation is magnificent. Everything that is released by the NYRB imprint is fantastic though. All of the stories in this collection stay with you and they feature the kind of sharp observations, biting humour, and felt sense of irony and tragedy that you would expect from a Russian doctor. The successor then of Chekhov and Bulgakov.
Momo- Michael Ende
A children’s book that every adult needs to read. This is the story of the Men in Grey, villains who infiltrate a Mediterranean city in order to con the unwitting citizens out of their time. The Men in a Grey dupe then into working harder and living joyless lives so that they might ‘save’time for the future while in reality they embezzle their time away. A powerful allegory about mortality and what truly makes for a good and meaningful life.
Mezzanine- Nicholson Baker
A novel about a man on his lunch break. That’s it. But the observations, the humour and the voice will make you see the ordinary anew. Which is exactly what great fiction is supposed to do. In my mind this is one of the all time great debut novels. There is nothing quite like it.
Over To You- Roald Dahl
There are many more ‘worthier’ novellas and story collections I could mention here. But I simply think that Roald Dahl’s works for adults gets massively overlooked as it must live under the giant shadow of his books for children. Which are of course iconic and brilliant and essential. This collection deals with tales from Dahl’s experience as a fighter pilot. Bracing, pulse-quickening and extremely readable.
Novels and Classics
The Assassination of Jesse James by Ron Hansen
This remains possibly my favourite novel. And I would argue that the excellent film adaptation was one of the best films of the noughties. Hansen is one of the greatest writers alive. A supreme stylist who is able to transform low history (Jesse James, The Dalton Gang, Ruth Snyder, The shipwreck of SS Deutschland) into the highest of art. This might be hist masterpiece though. Evocative, poetic description; rhythmic and compelling dialogue; resonant and masterful thematic control. A breathtaking work.
David Copperfield- Charles Dickens
All Dickens is great. Dickens on an off day is better than most and worth reading. Everything you could ever want is here: wit, satire, humanity, tragedy, sentimentality, beauty, joy, wisdom. A powerhouse who has influenced everyone from Tolstoy to Hollywood. And his canny business model of publishing his novel in instalments to his magazine subscribers is one that I suspect will be increasingly adapted in our modern digital world.
Musashi- Eiji Yoshikawa
This epic was also published via periodical instalments. As was Doestoevsky. In fact many of the greatest and most successful novels were (both artistically and financially). Anyway. This is the epic tale of the life of the legendary samurai Musashi. This is better than the best streaming box set. And always will be. Action, thrills, wisdom, war, self-mastery, love, death, sake-drinking, gardening- this has everything you could ever want in a story.
Nightmare Alley- William Lindsay Gresham
Like Jesse James, this is a great novel that also has a great cinematic adaptation. (From 1947, starring Tyrone Powers). Nightmare Alley is the ultimate noir about a carnival magician turned spiritualist con man. It’s dark, compelling, tremendously written and features one of the great villains in the femme fatale psychiatrist Lilith Ritter. This has Dostoevskian themes but is a genuine page-turner. Apparently, they are remaking the film. I can’t see how it could hold a candle to the original novel and screen adaptation combo.
House of God- Samuel Shem
The year in the life of a medical intern at a fictional East coast hospital based on the authors real life experience. Cynical, hilarious and beautifully observed. The Fat Man with his sprezzatura, skin in the game, mastery of his craft is one of the patron saints of this newsletter.
The Good Life
Rest- Alex Soojung-Kim Ping
The most resonant newsletters I have written so far seem to share the theme of encouraging people to slow down, savour life and let go of the hectic hustle driven mentality. It’s amazing the guilt people feel towards rest, even though- as this book explains- rest is vital and it is actually what all top performers in all manner of fields actually do. I don’t usually recommend anything to do with standard ‘self improvement’ but I believe this book may prove to be a much needed gateway drug to the good life.
How to be Idle- Tom Hodgkinson
A stone cold classic in my eyes. This hugely resonated when I first read it all those years ago. ‘Finally, someone thinks the same way I do.’ This is a witty, eloquent and wise compendium that offers the reader many many breadcrumb trails to follow on the way to the good life. The bibliography and quotations from idle literature dotted throughout are worth the price of admission alone. This is a big influence on these newsletters.
The Theory and Practice of Lunch- Keith Waterhouse
My newsletter on lunch chimed with a lot of people. This book was on my mind as I write it. In this short volume we get to enjoy a great novelist expound on everything to do with the great (and neglected) institution of lunch. Dipping in to this book instantly has a way of making you realign your priorities in life. Fuel for the Epicurean. Eat, drink and be merry, friends.
The Importance of Living- Lin Yutang
Another idle classic from a truly wise man. Yutang is on this newsletters Mount Rushmore of influences. He has sadly faded from history. We need to bring his mentality back in to the zeitgeist. This is the antidote to the prevalent burned out hustle culture mentality.
Three Men in a Boat/ Idle Thoughts of An Idle Fellow- Jerome K Jerome
Another Mount Rushmore figure. A writer who brings joy whether through his classic Edwardian comic novel of well, three men who ride around in a canal boat, or through his underrated essays. Jerome is as witty as Wilde and as humanely wise as Dr Johnson. So good they named him twice.
The Intellectual Life of British Working Classes- Jonathan Rose
This is a monumental work and every aspiring autodidact on the entire planet should read it. In this incredible feat of scholarship Rose shows us how impoverished 18th- early 20th century miners, weavers and factory workers improved their lives and their communities through reading and being inspired by the great works of poetry and prose. I honestly can’t do this one justice. It’s a long read but immensely rewarding.
The Trivium- Sister Miriam Joseph
A justification of, and explanation for the classical Trivium of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, a rigorous, demanding and essential undertaking. This is what the Liberal Arts used to mean. I believe the future will be built on autodidacts who choose to take up this dropped mantle.
Elements of Eloquence- Mark Forsyth
A compendium of different rhetorical devices and how they work. Insanely useful and I feel cheated by the fact that this wasn’t the cornerstone of my schooling. Internalising and practising the devices in this book is probably the single highest ROI activity a budding writer or speaker could do.
Whichever books from the Western Canon you’ve always meant to read
I’m not going to list more books about learning for yourself. You learn for yourself by going out and learning things yourself. So I’ll say this. Go and read primary resources. Great literature. If you’ve always meant to get around to reading Shakespeare or Dante or Proust or whatever, then actually go and do it. This is what the good life is about. Not putting things off.
Story- Purpose and Technique
Mystery and Manners- Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor was a great writer and this volume collects all of her published thoughts on the craft and how it relates to her faith. Believers, none believers and everyone in between can learn a great deal from what’s on offer here. To be able to tell great stories is a gift. To be able to eloquently explain the process behind it is a second gift that few also receive. O’Connor has both.
The Call of Stories- Robert Coles
A great teacher and doctor offers us examples of how he used fiction and poetry to engage with his students and patients. An honouring of stories ability to shape and effect us. If you are wondering what stories are ‘for’ this does a good job of showing you.
Deceit, Desire and The Novel- Rene Girard
Girard’s mimetic theory has a way of altering your whole way of seeing the world once you discover it. And this now classic piece of scholarship will introduce you to it through the close and groundbreaking analysis of five classic novels. A revelation. (If you really want to go down the Mimetic Theory rabbit hole this may help you)
The Writer’s Journey (3rd Edition)- Christopher Vogler
I simultaneously feel that ‘The Heroes Journey’ story structure is both overused/overrated and also absolutely essential to understand. It is like a raft that, once you use it to get across the river, you should leave behind. Or rather, it should be studied to the point that it is internalised and then no loner consciously mulled over. This book is simply the best guide to the Heroes Journey in storytelling that I have yet to encounter.
On Moral Fiction- John Gardner
Gardner was a great writer, a great teacher and by all accounts a great man. He taught the aforementioned Ron Hansen at Iowa. This book length essay makes a Tolstoyan case for fiction being a vehicle for the telling of eternal truth. For Gardner this is the highest purpose of art. A compelling read and a fit note to end this list on.
This is a fairly small selection of the books that I could recommend. I wanted to keep this at least relatively under control.
Perhaps, I will send out a further list to commemorate the next milestone for this list.
Finally, even though it was Prime Day this week I have not included any Amazon affiliate links. I would much rather you support your local independent book store if any of the above titles catch you eye.
There will be other opportunities to support my work in the future should you wish to do so.
P.S. Have you read any of the above titles? Loved them? Thought they were overrated? Are there any titles I have missed or that you think I should be aware of?
Let me know in the comments…