With the ever-increasing popularity of television and the internet it seems that my favourite form of entertainment, books, are subsequently declining. When people do pick up a novel these days they seem to be drawn towards drivel like the Twilight Saga (seriously I hate the series so much they don't even get a customary link), and wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them. Yes, reading is meant as a form of escapism from the everyday, but is it impossible to have fun and learn something at the same time? True literature has the ability to entertain and to educate its readers, but most people hear that a book is deemed to be “literary” by the critics, and they run screaming for their easy reads. I’m here to inform you that this is mere cowardice in the face of learning something, and to give you some suggestions of novels that are not only highly enjoyable to read, but will also give you a new perspective on the world. I’ve been known to discard books that are dubbed classics (can’t stand Charles Dickens in any way, shape, or form), but I’ve found some surprising gems among the classics, as well as been surprised at what I have learned from bestsellers.
One of the first places I look for books with a message is with writers from other nations. Not only do their cultural perspectives differ from mine (obviously, they’re from a different country…), but there are things that it’s just not possible to experience (in some cases thankfully so) in a first world nation like Canada. Many of these works are obviously in other languages (which can be problematic due to availability and poorly crafted translations that are highly unreadable), but if you can find a good translator then you’re set. A good place to start is with the Russian author, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, who was considered a literary genius even by his contemporaries. During his time in Russia, Solzenitsyn was imprisoned within the gulag system for dissing Stalin (not a good idea obviously), which provided him with insight into the lives of prisoners, and became the premise for many of his novels. His novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the shortest of his novels that discuss the Russian penal system, so it’s a good place to start if you have any interest in 20th century Russian history, but don’t know where to start (his Gulag Archipelago sequence is a bit more daunting). Ivan is easily available in English (I read the translation by Max Howard and Ronald Hingley), and the compact plotline (confined to 24 hours in Ivan’s life) keeps the book from being too daunting to new readers. It took me about 2 days to read, because once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. It may not be a happy book, but it sure as hell is informative and interesting.
When I mention my favourite author, Charles de Lint, most people give me a blank look. Even those who read within his genre (fantasy) usually have no idea who he is. Which is a damned shame, because he’s one of the most talented fantasy authors of all time (in my not so humble opinion). The fact that he’s Canadian is an obvious factor working against him with mass popularity (stupid publishers not giving him enough press!), but he’s very well known within fantasy writers’ circles. He’s worked closely with such famous names as Terri Windling, and Charles Vess (both incredible talents in their own right), so why the heck isn’t he super famous? Whatever, I can keep him my awesome little not-so-secret! Except that now I’m going to tell you all to go and read one of his books, because he’s amazing, and if you don’t like his books, then there’s something wrong with you. His novel The Onion Girl, which won the World Fantasy Award, is probably his most well known book, and it’s definitely a good place to dive into his work. It’s technically in the middle of his set of stories set in the fictional city of Newford, but you don’t really need to know the backstory to understand the book. It’s classified as a piece of “urban fantasy,” since it’s set in a very realistic setting, but still has magical elements that play a large role alongside normal life. Just as a warning: there are some dark themes in The Onion Girl, but that’s what makes the story so capitvating, and what transforms the story into a literary commentary on humanity.
If your heart is set on reading about vampires, then so be it. But for the love of books and not being a moron, please avoid anything penned by Stephanie Meyer (aka Twilight). There are plenty of much better vampire books out there, so go pick up one of them instead. I’m not going to recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula, since I found it dry as dust, but I would highly suggest picking up one of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. It’s pretty clear that these novels aren’t just escapist fiction, since they cover some of literature’s “big themes” (family, religion, politics, love/desire/loss, and obviously the balance between life and death). The characters, though dead, are the driving force behind her narratives, and each provides a different perspective for her to explore. Lestat is the most famous of her vampires, but as the series progresses her focus shifts to others who are equally captivating. My favourites are Armand/Amadeo and Marius, the Renaissance- and Classical-era vampires who’s stories give us glimpses into their historical periods before entwining with the life of Lestat in the modern world.
Being the literary rockstar that he is, this post would be incomplete without a mention of Neil Gaiman. You can learn something new from any of his writing (seriously even his blog is amazing), but if you want something amazing then read The Graveyard Book. NOW. Seriously. There’s a reason why it won the Newberry Award (for Best Children’s Book). I love everything that Neil has published, but The Graveyard Book will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s such a delightful book. It tells the story of the murder of the protagonist’s parents when he’s an infant, and his adoption by a graveyard of ghosts. Growing up in a graveyard gives Bod (short for Nobody ß clever name for a missing baby right?) a life that is anything but ordinary, and every mundanity of his life is something fascinating for the reader to experience. Seriously, go read it already, or we’re going to have to have words…
*all images from Amazon