My Favourite Books
And what each of them means to me.
What’s the difference between a collection of your ‘favourite’ art, and the art you consider to be the ‘greatest’ in any medium?
I don’t quite know - there’s a pretty fine line between the two, and I’m pretty sure someone out there has thought deeply about this.
But as far as books are concerned, the two lists for me look exactly the same.
So here are the four greatest books I have ever read, and why I love them so much. The number four isn’t significant - these are simply the books that impacted and stayed with me the most.
Interestingly, all four are works of fiction.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The most affecting story I’ve ever come across, Perks explores what it means to be an outsider, an observer, and a human being. It’s about adolescence, friendship, discovery, love, and loneliness. It’s about that feeling of being young and free, like you truly belong in a time and a place, no matter how messed up your life may be. I enter a completely different world whenever I read it, so much so that even looking at the book on my bookshelf makes me nostalgic for a life I’ve never lived. In that life, I feel younger and much more excited about being alive, and people are much more interesting.
Tender, timeless, and actually quite infinite in its sense of possibility, Chbosky touched my soul with this YA novel. I have never cared about a fictional character as much as I have about its protagonist, Charlie. If I see a Charlie in you, you’re my friend. Perks is my safe space, my shelter from all of life’s storms. I feel most like myself when I’m reading it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.
"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
A disorienting work of unfiltered, unrestrained brilliance, Catch-22 hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read it during college. Set during the second World War, it follows the lives of a group of US soldiers as they try to survive various war missions on an island near Italy, and navigate the general insanity around them. It mostly centers around Yossarian, a bombardier and the only seemingly normal guy in the entire book.
Written over the course of seven years and published in 1961, this is a novel that breaks every single rule that the medium seems to follow and still comes out on top. It is unrelenting, unapologetic, and quite possibly offensive when read through the lens of today’s woke culture, which alone is an indication that you should read it. I’m warning you, though: this is one of the most abandoned books of all time. But if you give it a shot, it will cut through your mind like a knife. (What?!)
The way Heller writes is beyond anyone’s imagination. I’ve never seen an author fly in the face of structure, restraint, or subtlety the way he does here. But it works. Catch-22 is the only book out of the four mentioned here that could mark a paradigm shift in your worldview, especially with regards to bureaucracies, governments, patriotism, authority, mental illness, and insanity.
It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
Catch-22 also redefined what a work of art could be for me. Heller’s writing is full of debauchery, gore, political incorrectness, dark humour, and an almost hopeless sense of cynicism, but at its core is a very much moral and human argument about the nature of war. It’s just surrounded by layers and layers of satire. He especially seems to have a disdain for authority, and hammers home the point that the people in positions of highest power are usually the ones least qualified to wield it.
But don’t get me wrong - this is not a five hundred page polemic about the evils of humanity or something like that. It’s an exceptionally enjoyable read. There are about twenty different characters in the story, and every single one of them behaves and talks like he’s high on coke. Nothing about this book seems to make any sense, and yet everything does.
I’ll go even further and say that this is the funniest book I’ve ever read. If you’re wondering how a war novel could possibly be hilarious, well, that’s pretty much the absurdist genius and originality of Heller’s writing.
I’m positive that this is the only ‘anti-war’ work of pop culture you need to consume in any medium. But read at your own risk - Catch-22 is borderline insane and very much aware of it. I could easily compile another book just out of the best quotes from this one.
Morale was deteriorating and it was all Yossarian's fault. The country was in peril; he was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them.
One Day by David Nicholls
15th July 1988: Emma and Dexter meet for the first time on the night of their graduation. Tomorrow they must go their separate ways.
So where will they be on this one day next year? And the year after that?
And every year that follows?
I purchased One Day on a whim at the Crossword in Aundh, also during college, knowing nothing about it beforehand, just because I loved the back cover summary I’ve mentioned above. I never do this, but it paid off so well here. This is probably the best spontaneous purchase I’ve ever made.
One Day is a beautiful, beautiful book, a pure joy to read. It was published in 2009, and is actually the most recent book on this list - even Perks came out much earlier, in 1999. The story quite literally covers the same day every year, July 15th, in two people’s lives over the course of two decades. (Most of the story takes place in England in the 90’s.) What you get as a result is a series of snapshots, like a photo album of randomly selected pictures, from two lives that seem more real than the lives of most real people.
This gimmick of covering just a single day each year does something brilliant: it intentionally misses out the so-called ‘important’ events that we think of as bookmarks in our stories: graduations, weddings, funerals, first-days, promotions, childbirths, etc. It instead shows you how life flows, through a series of planned and unplanned decisions, luck, and choices both smart and dumb, until we end up where we are, for better and for worse.
(A fascinating thought experiment: if you picked any one date from the calendar and looked at the last five years of your life on that date, how would you feel about it?)
Basically, the book works because Nicholls is a fantastic writer. His strength is in the details - he can flesh out a person in just a few lines of dialogue; he can describe a room, a mood, or a situation with such depth, accuracy, and wit, you will relate to it immediately. Often in a Nicholls book, when a character expresses an opinion on something, it says more about them than the thing they’re talking about, mirroring reality. Nicholls also always seems to be writing as if he’s slyly winking at you through the lines.
Unlike my previous entry, the genius of this book is subtle, subdued - it’s in the boring everyday details, although the details themselves are never boring. The pacing of the story is flawless. And the ending - ooh! It’s just so tender, so poignant, the author’s use of the English language. Not a single sentence in the entire book feels unnecessary. Nicholls seems to know and have lived every aspect of the human experience. I savoured this book from the very first paragraph, and I remember often hoping that I wouldn’t run out of pages.
It is a love story, but that would be underselling it. Love is only a part of this book, just like it is only a part of each person’s life, however important. The reason One Day stuck with me was that I’d never read an account of a life - two in this case - fictional or real, that felt so complete. You get to witness Emma’s and Dexter’s innermost thoughts - their failures, insecurities, accomplishments, hopes, tragedies, desires, and joys. You get to watch them grow not just to the outside world, but in the way they think and talk to themselves too. It’s engrossing.
Also engrossing: reading about two seemingly mismatched people, who, while life takes them in very different directions, somehow just can’t seem to completely let go of each other.
Our protagonists experience some universal highs and lows in their twenties and thirties: relationship struggles, ageing parents, fading friendships, career disappointments, missed connections, weddings, successes, marriage, death, affairs, becoming a parent, and so on. (None of these are spoilers, I promise.) But the magic of One Day lies in the fact that in spite of the many small tragedies scattered throughout the story, it doesn’t make you feel anxious about your own future, or cynical towards life itself, but just wistful for both Emma and Dexter, as if you’d known them all along.
Perhaps the quote that best grabs the essence of this book is not from the book itself, but from an unrelated TV series:
I’ve just turned eighteen, and I think I understand what people mean to each other.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Written originally in Spanish and published in 1967, One Hundred Years is a book that seems to teach you how to read it as you read it. Not to sound like a pompous ass, but do not pick this up unless you’re used to heavy reading. You cannot give this book something like ‘twenty minutes every day’ and expect to enjoy it. You have to give it some time, and really sink your teeth into the pages to find out what it’s about.
And then it comes alive.
The story of this novel takes place sometime in the 19th century, in the fictional town of Mocando, Colombia. It revolves around multiple generations of the Buendia family, as they deal with war, love, poverty, loss, pain, loneliness, and the general struggles of existence.
Every single review or essay about this book categorizes it into the genre of ‘magical realism.’ (That’s a genre in which magical or impossible events coincide with ordinary life and no one bats an eye.) But to me, that seems inadequate: Márquez’s writing is a genre in and of itself. Magical realism is only a part of it.
As you read Solitude, you begin to see that it’s a really strange book - there's no real protagonist whose journey you follow, the ‘plot’ is shapeless, haphazard at best, and certain sentences keep running for literally multiple pages. Even weirder, there are at least a dozen or so characters who have the exact same name. (It’s best to have a family tree printed out for reference.) But there is an enigmatic sense of poetry to its prose - the book’s famous opening line itself being an example - which keeps you going as a reader through these uncharted territories, despite the strangeness of it all. As I said, it teaches you how to read it.
Solitude gives you a good sense of how people lived life before the technological advances of the 20th century. (Or how a lot of people still live, actually.) It shows you how much emptiness there is in a life, how much yearning and hoping and hurting and suffering and screwing. (Seriously, so much screwing.) I love this book because it is concerned with things I’ve never lived through, in a way I’ve never thought about them.
Unlike the other books here, it’s a little difficult to articulate what makes this book great. I’ve definitely read it before my age though, that much I’m sure of. This is an adult book, not in a pornographic sense, but in the sense that a forty five year old will relate to it much more than a twenty five year old ever could. But I do think the story is broad enough that the novel, at one point or another, touches upon every single aspect of our existence. It answers the question, ‘What does it feel like to be a human being?’ in a way that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read or seen.
Because this novel takes place in a bygone century and on a distant continent, it is not influenced by the usual western ideas about literature, storytelling, and people. It thus manages to shatter your assumptions about the tiniest of things, and gives you a completely different, often beautiful view of how people live life.
It’s also one of the very few non-English books I’ve read, and it manages to resonate in spite of an absence of almost all of modern technology (and the accompanying cultural shifts) that we take for granted every day. As we become increasingly modernized as a species, I predict that this book will become an important work of art to remind us of our inherent, flawed humanity.
Some common themes that the novel keeps coming back to are the inexplicably mysterious passage of time and the way we experience it, the cyclic repetition of history and our inability to learn from it, and the general toll life takes on a person. No book had quite given me the sense of how a long life truly ages you. A major character in the story, in a flash of lucidity, becomes aware that he ‘was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past.’
But the thing that stood out the most to me is how intensely the characters in the story feel emotions. They don’t just fall in love, they’re willing to literally die for it. They don’t just have sex, they nearly crash-land flying planes to make love in a field of flowers. They aren’t just lonely, they’re suicidal to the point of eating dirt out of isolation. I’ve obviously picked the most extreme instances from the story, but the point stands: I didn’t know humans had such a wide bandwidth for emotions. I’d never even allowed myself to feel so much, maybe out of fear or habit. I didn’t know that I - or anyone, really - was capable of yearning for anything so strongly, and that it might even be so common. I think we have gotten really good at hiding ourselves from the world.
I also think I’m making Solitude sound like an utterly depressing book, which I promise it’s not, even though it is melancholic. It just reflects life back at us. Every other sentence in it seems to contain the wisdom of a lifetime - Márquez casually throws away lines that writers might struggle with their entire careers to write:
He dug so deeply into her sentiments that in search of interest he found love, because by trying to make her love him he ended up falling in love with her. Petra Cotes, for her part, loved him more and more as she felt his love increasing, and that was how in the ripeness of autumn she began to believe once more in the youthful superstition that poverty was the servitude of love. Both looked back then on the wild revelry, the gaudy wealth, and the unbridled fornication as an annoyance and they lamented that it had cost them so much of their lives to find the paradise of shared solitude.
To say that Márquez’s writing is beautiful would be moot. But as opposed to One Day, the beauty in his words seems more ancient, mystical, and outworldly. It’s relatable not in the specifics of our daily life, but in our primitive humanity itself. Like my favourite song goes, ‘I feel it in my bones.’
Of all the books mentioned here, this might not necessarily be my favourite one, but it is the one I’d like to re-read the most someday. This is a book that I feel is just outside of my grasp, and I’m in awe of it. It seems to be written with the auteur-like vision of Perks, has the like-nothing-I’ve-ever-encountered quality of Catch-22, and works as a mirror to our very selves like One Day.
I want to share one last thing about it - and wrap up this essay - with an excerpt from a brilliant answer I came across on Quora, to the question of what the main theme of One Hundred Years of Solitude is:
That no matter how mundane or marvelous the events are that advance the day, week, month, or year—human life proceeds at its own pace toward an indefinable future. The improbable grandiosity of the moment is equalled by its transience. Yet if we pay attention, we can be astonished by everything.