The simple pleasure of reading has been a pastime I’ve enjoyed since I was a young child. The physical act of turning the pages, feeling the smooth paper against my fingertips, taking in all the action and beauty of the words, the pacing and rhythm, and the ebb and flow of brief sentences versus lengthy ones.
A good book can do more than entertain. Writers inform the world and communicate ideas; it’s no surprise revolution and innovation has often begun with the written word.
My apologies here, though: in racking my brain to pick five that had the most impact on me, I realized my bookshelf is severely lacking when it comes to gender equality. I couldn’t think of a single entry that a woman wrote. So this list is by default flawed and unfair. I apologize for that again.
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Collected Poems by Arthur Rimbaud
We’ll begin with the one that’s influenced me the most, in my work as well as my life. When I first read this rather hefty (for an anthology of poems) title, I was at a milestone in both areas. I was a huge fan of Bob Dylan, the Doors, and Patti Smith (still am in fact), all artists who found inspiration and a kindred spirit in the teenage poet.
An example of the French Symbolist style of poetry, his poems have a hallucinatory feel – not unlike lucid dreaming. Instead of having a real plot, most of the pieces here utilize dreamy imagery to express feelings and themes.
Upon delving into the poems and soaking them in, my writing was never the same. I’ve gravitated away from it in recent years toward a more literal, realistic style, but vivid imagery is still central to my work.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
This seminal work from one of the Beat Generation’s most notorious writers is vulgar, gritty – but, more importantly, required reading for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of what “literature” can be.
This is what attracted me to Naked Lunch, and Burroughs in general. I’m a very curious person, by nature, and when I first heard about this book in high school (a friend told me I should read it) I scrambled to get my hands on a copy.
But it’s not for the faint of heart. With its graphic depictions of sex and hard drug use, it’s far from Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson.
A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Another collection of poetry as well as an equally great example of the Beat Generation’s contributions to literature, this thin volume flows like a jazz tune. You can almost smell the smoke in the club pouring out from between the lines of every stanza.
This book showed me how to shut off my mind and just let the honesty and directness flow. Much like a jazz musician, Ferlinghetti lends a natural, improvisational feel to his poems. Nothing feels forced; the lines cut off where they should and carry on where they should. It’s a crash course for any poet hoping to learn how to let the lines decide their length.
Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Had to put a work of Russian literature here; wouldn’t feel complete without it. While it may not be War and Peace or Crime and Punishment, this novella is nonetheless a wonderful starter choice for anyone looking to get into this style of writing. It’s short and sweet, something I don’t feel is appreciated enough.
If you wanna talk about realism, this book has it. With some to spare, I might add. The bleak Russian landscape is described with deadly precision, and it’s a marvellous beginner’s class in “show don’t tell.”
The reader is right there with the cast of characters, something I’m still working on improving. And it’s this that attracts me still to Russian literature. I highly recommend.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
You might wanna skip this one if the current political landscape of the world is too much to handle; this isn’t a light read.
The novel’s protagonist (simply named “K”) is a humble banker on trial for an offence he is completely unaware of having committed. The theme of the novel is that we are always on trial for something, no matter how upstanding or moral we may be.
Kafka’s detached, paranoid style evokes a ghostly feeling, like an apparition standing in the doorway, just out of reach. This is a must-read for anyone looking for something a bit deeper than the usual fare.
If you haven’t read any of these selections, I urge you to pick one of them up. They will change your life for the better!