GQ has just come out with a list of “21 Books You Don’t Have To Read,” and, as one might expect, it’s about as good as their style advice. Even besides the inanity of sticking the Bible on the list (a hackneyed take that hasn’t scandalized anyone since Voltaire), the list often reads as self-parody.
Some of the send-ups are clearly ideologically motivated. Western fiction as a genre is dismissed for perpetuating gun culture and misogynistic gender roles, and Ernest Hemingway takes a hit for his “masculine bluster.” But an embarrassing number are simply dismissed for being too hard.
In the send-up of Lord of the Rings, for example, the author makes a point that he appreciated “The Hobbit,” a children’s work, but found J.R.R. Tolkien’s other works rather difficult and recommends a young adult fiction writer instead. Mark Twain is “tedious,” David McCullough is “dry” (the author suggests some “kick-*ss history” to replace him), and Cormac McCarthy is “impenetrable.”
If GQ’s point had simply been that difficult prose does not necessarily make a book great, or that it is acceptable to read lighter or lesser-known works before tackling “War and Peace,” then I’d agree. There are plenty of excellent, well-written books that haven’t made the canon and don’t feel like a chore to read. So in that spirit, here are a few great books (little “g”) well worth adding to your reading list.
‘The Power and the Glory,’ by Graham Greene
During his life, Graham Greene might just have been the most interesting man in the world. After a scathing movie review prompted a libel lawsuit by Shirley Temple, he left England for Mexico, arriving just a few years after the revolution. While away from England, he was recruited by MI6 and spent World War II in Sierra Leone.
After the war, he travelled to Haiti, Cuba, and the Congo, each of which formed settings for later works. He was involved in Castro’s revolution in Cuba, embroiled with a crime ring in Nice, and wrote screenplays and spy fiction in addition to his religious works.
A self-proclaimed “catholic atheist,” “The Power and the Glory,” which follows a “whisky priest” on his wanderings through revolutionary Mexico, was condemned by the Holy Office for disparaging the priesthood, although Pope Paul VI told him not to worry about his critics.
‘Ender’s Game,’ by Orson Scott Card
“Ender’s Game” has long been considered a sci-fi classic and is a fantastic introduction to the genre. The book features a young boy, Ender Wiggin, who is being ruthlessly conditioned for command at a battle school to prepare him for conflict with an alien race.
The book is fast-paced and action-packed, but with a penchant for tackling deeper questions. It dives into questions of political philosophy, education, ethics, and geopolitics, and its contributions to military tactics (“the enemy’s gate is down”) landed it on the U.S. Marine Corps’s reading list. Although the book can be read on its own, prepare to be drawn into the rest of the series.
‘Gilead,’ by Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson has the soul of the American plains, and her writing has single-handedly brought the Midwestern imagination into the literary spotlight. Her novel “Gilead” consists of a series of letters from the ailing minister John Ames to his young son shortly before his death. The ethereal spirit of Robinson’s protagonist mirrors the expansive prairie sky as he treads lightly through the memories of his life in Iowa.
Whether in its depiction of children attempting to baptize barn cats, the breaking of bread following a church fire, or the mystical alignment of the prairie sun and moon during Ames’ journey to Kansas, the entire book is drenched in grace, elevating the most mundane aspects of prairie life as a window into the sacred.
‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ by Madeleine L’Engle
If there was a canon for children’s literature, this work would make the list. The fantastic whimsy and scientific curiosity of L’Engle’s work belies its true weight. The book can be read again and again at different stages of life, acquiring a new layer of meaning each time.
Although the recent film reignited interest in L’Engle’s book, it wasn’t quite able to capture the mythopoeic heart of the work—the Christian ethic of love that constantly works on the characters and reader alike throughout their journey. By following each of Meg and Charles Wallace’s cross-dimensional travels in search of their father, the reader finds their perennial doubts, questions, and temptations recast in new and exotic locations, with a steadfast call to continue practicing selfless love at every turn.
‘Cat’s Cradle,’ by Kurt Vonnegut
Any author as irreverent, sardonic, and dark as Vonnegut is sure to inspire controversy, and both the political left and right have found plenty of reasons to avoid grappling with his works. GQ’s target, “Slaughterhouse-Five,” is obviously a difficult and jarring book, given that it is narrated by a survivor of the bombing of Dresden who is slowly losing touch with reality.
“Slaughterhouse-Five” is well worth grappling with, especially given its autobiographical nature, but “Cat’s Cradle” might be an easier entry point into Vonnegut’s thought. The book moves more briskly, treats similar topics with less intensity, and maintains all of Vonnegut’s legendary wit and style. Be warned: Vonnegut is an equal-opportunity satirist, with religion and science forming popular targets.