The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Dark and foreboding yet and soulful and uplifting. This post-apocalyptic novel won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. The prose is stark and tight and the phraseology is a thing of beauty. Ostensibly, the book is about a father and son’s struggle to survive in a world gone wrong. But I would argue that the real protagonist of this story is the deep resolve inside all of us. Even in a blackened world, McCarthy shows that people can still yearn; still worry and love even after cities crumble and hope is all but lost. The book shows that the inner drama of what it means to be human cannot be atomized. It isn’t our societies or our cultures that make us what we are; the answer is more profound than that. The Road is a showcase of fine writing as well as a blistering exaltation of the human spirt.
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (1961)
This book is set in 1950s suburbia and follows the destruction of a young married couple’s relationship. Yates has a knack for surfacing the unseemly truths of life in his writing and this book is no exception. Most people, most of the time, bury life’s little tragedies into the dark recesses of their unconscious, but Yates drags them out into the open for his readers to confront. His stories tend to disregard mirth and zero in on sadness and despondency. So why read something so depressing, you ask? One answer could be that the without the having gone through a brutal winter, spring cannot feel as sweet as it does when it arrives. Much more can be said as to why people should deliberately choose to examine the bitterness of life, but the real reason to read this book is that Yates is a talented and gifted writer who, like most great artists, can beautifully depict the not so beautiful parts of life.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
Have there been better stories? Sure. Have there been more memorable characters? Definitely. But I’m sure if there has ever been a better written novel. Poetry is what sets Gatsby apart from everything that came before and has come after. Every line is fresh and dances off the page. Fitzgerald takes a mundane drive from New York City to Long Island and imbues it with style and sexual energy. It’s clear in his writings that he relishes flexing his literary muscle, but, with Gatsby, he is rarely pretentious when doing it–always charming and debonair. In his early works, he tried too hard for the metaphor, stretched too much to prove his greatness every chance he got. Here, he writes without insecurity. Once the genius can relax and settle into his chosen form of expression, beauty occurs as easily as the lightning bug’s flash.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
The first third of this classic was like medicine. I had to force it down. But once Holden heads to NYC and begins traversing the city and interacting with its inhabitants, it become clear what Salinger’s point is. Some lines are infuriating, others are utterly enlightening. Is it clear why this book became an written anthem for the socially distressed and alienated? Yes. Should it be remembered as simply a youthful protest against the social pressures of conformity? Absolutely not. It is far too complex a work of art for such a conventional label.
Symposium, Plato (385-370 BCE)