One thing we noticed when putting together these lists is that Vanessa’s had seven women writers. Mine only has two. Cleopatra’s and Eden’s lists had three. Now, we’re working with a small sample size, but looking at the rough draft I did – where I listed about 20 books, I still only had three women (Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife just missing my top 10).
I didn’t actively avoid women writers. I just didn’t give it a second thought when I grew up reading so many books written by men. It’s worth considering how this trained me at a young age to look at art – even the best male writer will include different perspectives and prioritize different themes than women writers.
It’s very easy to limit our viewpoints without ever realizing it, especially when we’re young and haven’t even had our own viewpoint challenged. That’s one reason why, as readers and viewers, it’s crucial to always be expanding, challenging, and communicating about the way we look at art.
Here’s my top 10:
by Richard Adams
Even today, if I see the cover, I’ll feel chills up my spine, the urge to go hide under blankets. There’s nothing else like reading this so young as I did. The tale of a group of rabbits who set out to find a new home after their old one is destroyed, Watership Down joined White Fang and The Secret of NIMH as challenging works that introduced me to political and philosophical strife. Rabbits and wolves and mice taught me about conquest and military industrialism and social experimentation, that it wasn’t always us vs. them but that it was very often us vs. our government, and them vs. their government, and that we’re often thrust in the middle of false wars to keep administrations running.
Congo/Sphere/Eaters of the Dead
by Michael Crichton
All right, this is cheating, but everything I learned about pulp genre fiction came in a compilation my parents got me for Christmas one year. I didn’t really look at Eaters of the Dead, but Congo – about an adventurous archaeological expedition in Africa – was an action movie in a book. It even found an inexplicable reason to have a gorilla go along for the ride, though for the life of me I can’t remember why.
Sphere, on the other hand, regarding the exploration of a mysterious alien artifact under the ocean, was the most complex science-fiction novel I’d read up to that point. They were gateway novels – Congo led me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pulp writers, while Sphere led me to start reading Golden Age science-fiction – the big idea stuff from the 60s and 70s.
Chronicles of a Death Foretold
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At a point, I realized I should read something written by the author I was named after. To fully define the effect Gabriel Garcia Marquez has had on my life, I’d need a full article. Luckily, I already wrote one.
The Golden Compass
by Philip Pullman
The entire His Dark Materials trilogy is stunning, but it was the first – The Golden Compass – that captured me so completely. Known as Northern Lights outside North America, it was the beauty of Pullman’s prose, describing in all of its detail a Victorianesque fantasy world, that made me change the way I wrote. I realized it wasn’t just the words themselves, but some magical atmosphere that resulted from their rhythm, from the intersection of their sounds, that made the kind of writer I wanted to be.
The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
And so I sought out the master of that rhythm, the man who wrote about sacrificing accuracy in your description for the tone of the sentence as a whole, the one who came up with alliterative phrases that overpowered your senses. I read everything he wrote – his famous horror stories, his comedies, his detective stories, his poems, his essays on writing, and with this came an awareness of other writers of dark fantasy – Sharon Shinn, Clive Barker, Graham Joyce, Neil Gaiman – and how they’d used the lessons Poe taught in their own work.
by William Gibson
My introduction to cyberpunk, an 80s science-fiction genre that posed a world dominated by disturbing attachment to technology, racial divides, military-industrial oligarchies, and aristocratic corporation-states. The work of William Gibson has continued to pose an eerily accurate portrayal of the direction our world is taking, less in its action scenes but more in its mortifying concepts of corporate personhood and human inconsequence. Neuromancer is the definitive introduction to cyberpunk, an enigmatic head trip of mood, tone, and international corporate politics.
The Word for World is Forest
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The 1972 novel with which James Cameron’s Avatar holds a strange number of similarities. I’d read Le Guin before, but never had she written a tale so brutal, stark, and unforgiving. The tale of an indigenous race of aliens who are ghettoized and exterminated in order to retrieve a valuable resource, I would later find it was a direct response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Even without that context, you could tell it was housed squarely in the United States’ historical genocide of indigenous Americans.
I hadn’t expected three of us this week to include an Ursula K. Le Guin novel on our lists, yet alone three different ones (Vanessa chose The Dispossessed, and Eden chose The Left Hand of Darkness). If you’re at all a fan of science-fiction, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her novels and dive in.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein
Heinlein wrote some good novels and Heinlein wrote some great novels. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is his best novel. The story of a penal colony on the moon that revolts against Earth and declares itself a nation, it forced me to look at how cultures develop alternative lifestyles to those typically found in Western nations, and why terrorism, revolution, and rebellion are sometimes interchangeable concepts.
by Juan Rulfo
During an independent study in college, I was directed toward Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. This was the novel that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez toward magical realism. I started with one translation, not liking it much, before I switched to my girlfriend’s translation, which maintained a more Spanish attitude of thought. It was yet another novel that communicated its messages more in tone than in finite detail.
The Shock Doctrine
by Naomi Klein
I’m a little surprised that all four of us chose a Naomi Klein book. We didn’t communicate about it beforehand, but while Vanessa, Cleopatra, and Eden all went with her seminal expose on manufactured identity and brand loyalty No Logo, it was her history of how administrations use disaster and war to overhaul governments that most haunted me.
She compares these restructurings to torture – the idea of torture is not so much to punish or to elicit information. It is instead to force a reset in perceived reality on the part of the victim. You don’t change the victim, you just retrain them to look at the world the way you want them to see it. From early American experiment in torture MK-Ultra, she follows a line of conservative academic thought that posed that torture and overhauling the reality of victims can actually be performed not just on individual victims, but on nations.
She follows the journalist thread from how the CIA practiced social experiments in third-world countries to small-scale implementations up to the seizure of African-American property and the overhaul of New Orleans’ school system after Hurricane Katrina. She finally introduces the ultimate experiment in disaster capitalism – the Bush-Cheney administration and its wholesale overhaul of American government and military structures after 9/11.
The Shock Doctrine is the most revealing look at 21st Century Western government you’ll ever find, and Noami Klein is the single most important non-fiction writer working today. If you take nothing else away from our book lists this week, please remember her name, and look up what she’s written.
– Gabriel Valdez