By John Dolen
To whittle down a lifetime of reading pleasure to just 10 books would be difficult for any lover of literature. Hey, I’m upset some of my favorites didn’t make my own list. But then, my editor asked for 10. That said, here are my most memorable reading experiences (in alphabetical order by author), a few of which substantially altered my worldview at propitious points in my life.
The Stranger by Albert Camus. If you don’t know what’s ahead of you as you open the first page of this classic, all the better. Your world is soon to be turned upside down by the stranger, Muersault. Published in 1942, and set in French-controlled Algiers, it helped propel not only the author but also his philosophy to the world stage. “Why, why?” you’ll be asking after Muersault’s fateful action, longing for an answer that may or may not come. To say it’s a cousin to Crime and Punishment does not
take away from its radical singularity.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This is a monumental literary and psychological masterpiece by arguably Russian’s greatest writer. It’s to be savored not as a college requirement but as a world to enter in one’s prime – willingly. The more life you’ve lived, the more you’ll appreciate the sweep of human striving and despair through the saints and sinners who are the Karamazov brothers.
Justine by Lawrence Durrell. Many argue which volume is best in the Alexandria Quartet, but this is the one I come back to again and again. One of the most alluring and mysterious characters ever drawn will have you aching to go back in time to Alexandria, Egypt, circa 1940, searching for contacts in the British ex-pat class just to get a glimpse of her. The city, in all its sensuality and inscrutability, is main attraction No. 2, as told in prose as lyrical and luxurious as Shakespearean verse.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. As long as there are searchers, this novel will be relevant. In India, circa 500 B.C., a wealthy young Brahmin is looking for more meaning than he finds in his comfortable life. When a group of wandering ascetics comes through his village, he realizes that he must give up everything and go with them. His friend Govinda comes along and so begins a kaleidoscopic odyssey that will take Siddhartha through a series of teachers, loves and life philosophies, even to the foot of the living Buddha.
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. This slender book gently guides you into a world of exquisite natural beauty, as a lonely but wealthy man comes for a visit to a hot-springs resort in the snow-covered mountains of Western Japan. With a kind of mystic stillness you find in other great Japanese artists like Yukio Mishima and filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Kawabata weaves a story of aching desire and existential despair that is hard to forget.
The Beginning and The End by Naguib Mahfouz. The Egyptian Nobel Prize-winning novelist is author of the trilogy Palace Walk, a marvelous world unto itself. But let me get you started with a more compact work, in this unvarnished family portrait straight out of Cairo parlors and alleyways. Western readers get a fly-on-the-wall view of realistic Islamic daily life – as dysfunctional and struggling as any dysfunctional modern American family. Set during a time of transition from British rule, it is both revelatory and haunting.
The Big Fellow by Frank O’Connor. Regime change was not so easy in Ireland. But after centuries of failures, the “Big Fellow” came along, and in his wake, a new republic was born that has its capital today in Dublin. O’Connor is best known for his New Yorker short stories, but this 1937 biography of wily revolutionary leader Michael Collins is story-telling supreme. It is all the more remarkable because the unlikely victory of Collins and compatriots over the world’s mightiest empire is a true story.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. If you ever thought you had things hard, remember everything is relative. Read this unforgettable account of one day in a brutal Soviet labor camp in the 1950s and feel better about your surroundings immediately. Yet even in the direst conditions, spirit can triumph. As the author (who suffered these same privations) says, “You only have power over people so long as you don’t take away everything from them. But when you have robbed a man of everything, he’s no longer in your power– he is free.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Never has such a wickedly satirical look at American society, and particularly racism, come wrapped in such humor and compassion. Son of an abusive drunken father, Huck Finn has to make his own way in the world, and he doesn’t want to do it without his friend Jim, a slave on the run. Their ride along the Mississippi allows Twain to paint a picture of 19th century America through the eyes of innocence. From grifters like the unforgettable “Duke of Bridgewater” (who sometimes mispronounces his supposed title as “Duke of Bilgewater)” to a series of well-meaning hypocrites, Huck and Jim endure and survive them all.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. In the aristocratic circles of Russia in 1806, one only spoke French in society parlors. Napoleon was a distant echo – until he wasn’t, and suddenly it was a new kind of French lesson. How the emperor’s invasion of Russia shakes up a nation’s educated elite is a universal story of courage and carnage, military cunning and folly. From the emperors, counts and countesses down to the maidservants and foot soldiers, this is the book that defines the term “sweeping epic.” Digressions by the author dissecting historical assumptions of heroes and villains in the war, or one count’s foray into Masonic philosophy, are meaty accompaniments to a series of entwining love stories, one of which reaches the heights of desire in Tolstoy’s other masterwork, Anna Karenina.