In the age of social media, getting lost in endless scrolling and meaningless content is easy, but reading is the perfect alternative. Books are filled with meaning and creativity and are much better for mental health than doom-scrolling on social media. If you're looking to read more this year, here are my top ten recommendations from my reading list last year.
The Secret History- Donna Tartt
The Secret History is an inverted detective story narrated by one of the six students, Richard Papen, who reflects years later upon the situation that led to the murder of their friend Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran – wherein the events leading up to the murder are revealed sequentially.
Tartt wrote the book over nine years, and this effort and dedication shines through the dialogue and development of the plot and characters. It is a book written for lovers of literature, and it explores a deeply damaged psyche through the motifs of Ancient literature and Greek mythology.
It features bacchanalian rituals, eccentric professors, and charming prodigies- the perfect book for lovers of the dark side of academia. Tartt uses the murder mystery to navigate the line between beauty and horror, good and evil, and how far evil can be justified. Aside from its splendidly written text, the plot will have you on edge.
The Picture of Dorian Gray- Oscar Wilde
This philosophical novel explores how a young man, Dorian Gray, falls into corruption at the hands of his friend Lord Henry. Henry instils a fear of death into him and advises him to make the most of his youth. In turn, Dorian sells his soul for eternal youth, and the novel sees his downward spiral into evil and greed.
Oscar Wilde comments on the corruption of Victorian society and the obsession with beauty and youth. Wilde also explores the first principle of aestheticism, that art serves no purpose other than to offer beauty. He deals with the shadows between appearance and reality and the surfaces people present to keep their sins and tragedies hidden.
It is very fast-paced and not very long, so it’s an easy read for anyone looking to get into classical literature. The plot is full of suspense and will keep you on your toes with the turns of events.
The Importance of Being Earnest- Oscar Wilde
Another of Wilde’s works, but this time, a play.~ “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” the play is set in Victorian London and sees two bachelors, Jack and Algernon, who create alter egos named Ernest to escape the responsibilities of regular life. They both attempt to win the hearts of two women who conveniently claim only to love men with the name ‘Ernest.’
It explores the idea of performance, specifically, how the main characters' personalities both change and remain unchanged within these performances. The first goal is to establish Algernon and Jack as opposite characters who are both artificial because they both perform or pretend to be Ernest. Again, Wilde is commenting on the superficiality of upper-class Victorian society.
It uses comedy and slap-stick humour with whimsical events and unusual characters. It is a feel-good play, something lighter than The Picture of Dorian Gray if horror and darkness don’t appeal to you.
A Fort of Nine Towers- Qais Akbar Omar
A true-life account of growing up in Afghanistan, Qais Akbar Omar recounts his happy childhood in Kabul, his journeys with his family across Afghanistan in search of a haven, and life under Taliban rule as a young man.
The events turn out rapidly, and the change of circumstances in Afghanistan will have readers gripped, waiting to see how Qais and his family reunite against the horrors of Taliban rule. Since it is rooted in realism, the encounters and scope are hard-hitting and breathtaking.
It explores the importance of family in Pashtun culture and the unity of Afghanistan during a period of hardship. Against a backdrop of uncertainty, violence, and absurdity, young Qais Omar weaves together a story and a self that is complex, colourful, and profound.
Eileen- Ottessa Moshfegh
The novel was set in 1964. It follows the story of Eileen, a woman planning to escape her life in the New England town of X-Ville. Eileen is characterised by self-loathing, depression, and body dysmorphia due to her abusive and neglectful childhood.
Moshfegh is recognized for her dark satirical work, notably My Year of rest. Eileen has similar undertones in the first-person narrative and the brooding, lonely female protagonists looking to escape their mental prisons.
While reading this, I recalled Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, as both feature a peculiar woman facing difficulties in her mental well-being and a tragic and doomed life. It is a dull read, but it is insightful on the isolation of womanhood and the aftermath of childhood trauma.
Animal- Lisa Taddeo
Joan has spent her life enduring acts of violence and sexual perversion at the hands of men. But when one of these men shoots himself in front of her, she escapes to California in search of a woman named Alice, the only person who can help her make sense of her past. Joan unravels her history in the sweltering hills of Los Angeles and finds the power to take back her life.
Animal was a fantastic read; it profoundly explores the interactions between men and women and the subtle eve acts women endure. It comments on how sexual violence can destroy a woman’s sense of self and how women find solidarity in these times.
A Thousand Ships- Natalie Haynes
If you’re a lover of Greek mythology, this is the perfect read for you. In A Thousand Ships, Classical historian Natalie Haynes retells the stories of the women involved in the Trojan War. From Aphrodite to Cassandra, Haynes tells the story of the women who didn’t have a voice in the classic telling of Homer’s Iliad.
Haynes writes with a powerful voice and orchestrates a sense of awe in the stories of these women. She explores their pain and suffering in a way often overlooked in Greek mythology.
It is written extraordinarily well, and Haynes intertwines each woman's stories in a way you wouldn’t expect. While the stories of the Trojan War have been told and retold many times, Haynes rejuvenates our common understandings by taking a point-of-view that is more than just the “heroes” of the war.
The Catcher in the Rye- J.D. Salinger
The novel details two days in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield after he has been expelled from prep school. Confused and disillusioned, Holden searches for truth and rails against the “phoniness” of the adult world. He ends up exhausted and emotionally unstable.
The dominating theme is the protection of innocence and children as Holden struggles with growing up. While it is initially intended for adults looking back on childhood nostalgia, it is also an excellent read for adolescents and young adults as it explores themes of angst and alienation as a critique of superficiality in society.
One of the reasons that I loved reading The Catcher in the Rye is because of Holden's outsider status. He doesn't belong anywhere. He's in the no-man's land–between teenhood and adulthood. Many people can resonate with this feeling of not belonging, and this book is an excellent way to explore and unravel those feelings.
Norwegian Wood- Haruki Murakami
37-year-old Toru Watanabe is landing in Hamburg, West Germany, when he hears an orchestral cover of the Beatles' song "Norwegian Wood," the favourite song of an old lover. He is suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of loss and nostalgia. He thinks back to the 1960s when so much happened that touched his life.
The novel unravels throughout Watanabe’s college life and the romance between him and the girlfriend of his dead best friend. They bond over the shared experience of loss and loneliness growing up and the impacts the events had on their mental health.
Wonderfully written, Murakami paints a vibrant image of Tokyo in the ‘60s and the depth of seemingly simple encounters in Watanabe’s life. It is a book that appreciates the mundane and makes something romantic out of the small touches and long conversations.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase- Joan Aiken
Timid orphan Sylvia goes to live with her cousin Bonnie on the estate Bonnie’s wealthy father owns. When Bonnie’s parents go on a long sea voyage, a cruel governess (Miss Slighcarp) comes to look after the two girls. Miss Slighcarp, and her equally brutal friends, hatch a devious plan that will plunge everyone into despair, causing the girls to walk by foot for two months to London.
It is fast-paced and exciting and has a refreshing curiosity as it is told through children's eyes. It was initially intended for a younger age group, but I think it is a classic masterpiece that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Set in the winter on the estate, it is cosy and wholesome, making it the perfect read for a cold evening with a warm drink.
So, maybe this year, you can have a better go at putting down your phone and getting lost in a book. Whether it's a dark satire or a cosy classic, this list has something for you. Books aren’t just a form of entertainment but also full of lessons and meaning, separating them from the short-form content we have grown used to consuming.
In the words of N.H. Kleinbaum, in his film Dead Poets Society, “Medicine, law, business, engineering- these are all noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
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