TEN GREAT BOOKS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
This list, much like this blog, is not specific to one genre. I happily rank 1000-page non-fiction history tomes and war stories right next to sci-fi fantasy tales and half-fiction/half-memoirs from retired spies. I do not believe in genre-ing myself or you out of what is worth reading. There is something in here for everyone. Really.
1. Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August: If there is any war that is worth studying in detail with the aim of preventing war from happening again, World War One is that war. The Guns of August is the most interesting, comprehensive, and insightful study of World War One I have ever read. Tuchman, a Pulizter Prize-winning author, manages to convey the complexity of international (and human) relations without sacrificing her narrative or her attention to the more technical aspects of world and military history.
2. John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: This is how the game was really played. Forget Jason Bourne, Le Carre is the real deal, and this book is his masterpiece. Two of his other books – Smiley’s People and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – are excellent as well, but the BBC productions of the books are even better than the books themselves. If you want to read Le Carre, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: is my first pick.
3. Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People: I have blogged about the value of this book before. Written by a Brit, it offers an outsider’s review of American history and the American people with a wry wit and sense of perspective that only an Englishman could pull off. It is mind-bogglingly comprehensive, starting with the colonization of America and ending in the 1990s.
4. Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems: Though a collection of poetry may seem as far from the harsh and complicated histories of war and peace as it is possible to go, the two fields are actually quite related. While I do not care for all of Plath’s work, her collected poems are riveting and powerful. There is a drama to her writing that feels sincere, and not overacted. Just as people in the 1700 and 1800s wrote with no shame over the sentimentality of their world, Plath writes with no embarrassment over the struggles in hers.
5. Duong Mai Van Elliott’s The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family: There are far too many Vietnam War books out there, and if you are at all interested in the subject, it is hard to know where to even begin. I suggest you skip the books that focus exclusively on the war, and instead pick up this one. Written in a beautiful, almost lyrical writing style, the tale of this author’s family spans four generations and helps put the Vietnam War in the larger context of Vietnam’s complicated and confusing history and culture. You can read only this book, and consider yourself informed and educated about historical and modern Vietnam. It is that good.
6. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon: This book lights the imagination in ways that only really good fantasy can. Bradley’s rethinking of the Arthurian and Camelot legends is so good I reread it every few years just to enjoy the experience of being totally transported in time and place by mere words on a page. There is a whole series based on this book, so if you find you like it, keep reading. The other books are enchanting as well.
7. Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism: A socialist French philosopher redefines liberalism? You have to read it to believe it. I found this book amazing. No matter what your political views, there is something here to learn and connect with.
8. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia Another work of fantasy that is packed with action and is still thought-provoking at the same time. I love Harry Potter, don’t get me wrong, but Narnia is an even more magical world of imagination.
9. David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident This historical fiction novel explores the underground railroad of the 1850s and 1860s in a way that is moving, exciting, confusing, and extremely powerful. I read this book in high school, and have kept it on my reread list ever since.
10. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels While many people find historical fiction frustrating or inauthentic, I am not ashamed to say that I absolutely love it. If you can handle the fact that an author made up much of the dialogue in this book about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, but based the events on facts and the characters on their letters and biographies, you will enjoy this. Killer Angels reveals the magnitude of sacrifice that the Civil War involved, as well as the people behind the war. It is a fascinating book.