Looking for something to read?

The author over at The Reading Ape posted a list of what he calls The Swiss Army Ten. These are ten books which he would recommend to someone without knowing their reading preferences.  He lays out a few basic assumptions about readers who would solicit reading recommendations from him in the first place and then lists his choices.  The full post can be found here.

This is a fun mental exercise, and one that would have practical value as well.  The Reading Ape’s assumptions about his readers are a pretty good starting point for a list like this:

…the Swiss Army Recommendation also assumes a few basic things about someone asking the Ape for reading guidance, including a desire to read literary fiction (ie no Grisham or Meyer or Patterson or Sparks and so forth), a willingness for books from all over the world and from many different social and political perspectives, and at least some tolerance for difficulty.

On points two and three, I have no objections.  On the first point, however, I find that it can be hard to distinguish literary and popular fiction by author alone.  John Grisham and Stephen King both make appearances on my lists in works that I find to have genuine literary value.

Also, fiction and non-fiction are two completely different beasts with very different sets of criteria.  So, taking a cue from Rachael at A Home Between The Pages, I’ve come up with two separate lists.

With both lists, I’ve taken a more holistic approach – assuming that not everyone is going to like every book, the lists operate as whole entities, providing a variety of choices which contain works with the widest appeal.  Bear in mind that these books are not necessarily my favorites (although some of my favorite books do appear on both lists).  This is especially true on the non-fiction list:  my favorite non-fiction reading tends to have a very narrow focus and, thus, a very narrow appeal.

And, on to the lists.

Fiction

  1. 1984 by George Orwell
  2. A Time to Kill by John Grisham
  3. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  5. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  6. Youth in Revolt by C.D. Payne
  7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  8. Blindness by Jose Saramago
  9. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  10. The Stand by Stephen King

Non-Fiction

  1. The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman
  2. Fast Food Nation by Eric Scholsser
  3. The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
  4. How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
  5. On Writing by Stephen King
  6. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  7. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
  8. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  9. Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick
  10. Naked by David Sedaris
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9 comments

  1. Great lists. I take your point about the difficulty in distinguishing between genre/literary fiction, and I readily admit some bias in this regard.

    I went back and forth on The Road for my own list. One the one hand, it is a singular reading experience. On the other hand, I also know several people that were genuinely disturbed and found it quite unpleasant. So it’s a book I would recommend, but would need a sense of the person to do so.

    Youth in Revolt is the only one on your fiction list that I haven’t read, so I will be picking that up post-haste.

    Cheers,
    Skip

    1. Hi Skip, thanks for the comments. I understand your point about The Road. It’s certainly not a feel-good reading experience. That being said, it’s one of those few books that I literally couldn’t put down. I started reading it one morning on vacation and didn’t leave my bed until it was done. I love reading, but I usually can stop for meals. Not that time. Also, it was just so well-written and affecting that I feel it deserves to be read by any serious reader.

      I had more concerns about including Youth in Revolt on this list. I loved it – it was uproariously hilarious. However, the subject material would probably be off-putting to certain people, and reasonably so. Still, it was such a funny book and I think that a good majority of people would be able to appreciate it.

      -Pete

  2. I wonder are you aware that not a single woman appears on your list – (forgive me, C.D.Payne, if your name is Carol, not Christopher). I am certainly not saying that this is wrong or disappointing in any way – each man reads the things he loves – but I would be interested to hear your reasons why you think this may be.

    1. I appreciate the observation. Honestly, I didn’t even notice when I made my list that there were no women on it. I’m not at all certain what this says about my reading habits. There’s a discussion going on here where I acknowledged that my fiction reading list tends to be male dominated. I certainly don’t have a conscious aversion to women fiction writers – I’ve read and appreciate Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ayn Rand, Annie Proulx. Still, I do readily admit that I probably don’t read enough fiction written by women. Any good suggestions?

      As for my non-fiction list, it’s a bit different. As I mentioned in my post, my favorite books didn’t necessarily make the list because they were too narrowly focused. This happened with a number of women-authored works. Caroline Humphrey wrote a fascinating book on shamanism and the Daur Mongol culture of Northeastern China. I loved it because I live in that area, but I can’t imagine a casual reader getting out of the first chapter. Same with Barbara Tuchman’s biography of Gen. Joseph Stillwell. Great book, but just not that broad of an appeal. I could list a number of others. One book that I didn’t think of at the time but might add to the list now is Jan Wong’s Red China Blues. Great book that I think could have a wider appeal.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments and the food for thought!

  3. Wow, Pete, I like your blog a lot. It is very cultured. It looks like the Ken Follett books were your “light” reading while they were my heavy reading. 🙂
    I agree with you about The Road. I sped through it, couldn’t put it down, but I was one of those people who felt so sad at the end. I suppose I’m more into books that entertain me and don’t make me think. At the end of the day, I guess I’m looking for the cheap thrills of escapism, not enlightenment. Maybe that will change…we’ll see.

    1. Thanks for the comments! From a reader who counts Stephen King as his one of his favorite author’s, I’m all about the thrills of escapism. I’m very interested in the perceived differences between so-called ‘genre’ and ‘literary’ fiction. The differences aren’t as big as some would like to believe.
      Totally agree with you on the ending of The Road. Sad, sad book. But, McCarthy did end with a glimmer, however faint, of hope, and that’s what stood out for me.

  4. I agree, he did end with a glimmer of hope. That was somewhat uplifting. I just can’t get the image of the part where the father and son left that man standing in the road without his clothes. That was so sad. For some reason, that part of the book has really stuck with me.

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