This is the week that we celebrate books that have been banned or challenged. Usually, the books are banned from school libraries or from being taught in school. The reasons given seem valid–sexual content, dirty language, racism–but dig a little deeper and you’ll generally find that the true reason is that these books seem dangerous. Often the ideas they contain are challenging–to authority, to established institutions, to the status quo. Perhaps this is why so much effort is made to keep these books out of the hands of children. Yet, the very act of challenging these books brings them to our attention and creates a handy reading list full of dangerous ideas. Here is my recommended reading list of banned or challenged books, one for each month in the year. Share them with a child you know.
In a recent post, I discussed trying to read books written by women. This led me to consider which women authors I would recommend, and I came up with a list of books by women that I think are entertaining and enlightening reads. Of course, I am not the only person to have come up with such a list, and if you are so inclined, you can find 50, 100, or even 500 more books by women to fill up your “to read” shelf.
Here is my list (my absolute favorite books are starred and my favorite women authors are bolded):
- Kate Atkinson: Life After Life: A Novel
- Margaret Atwood: Cat’s Eye; The Handmaid’s Tale*; Oryx and Crake*
- Jane Austen: Emma; Persuasion; Pride and Prejudice*
- Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre*
- Octavia Butler: Lilith’s Brood*; Parable of the Sower*; Parable of the Talents
- Kate Chopin: The Awakening
- Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca*
- Jean Hegland: Into the Forest: A Novel
- Patricia Highsmith: The Talented Mr. Ripley
- Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House (Penguin Classics)*; The Sundial*; We Have Always Lived in the Castle*
- P.D. James: The Children of Men*
- Nancy Kress: Beggars in Spain: The Original Hugo & Nebula Winning Novella
- Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet)
- Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home*; The Dispossessed; The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel; The Left Hand of Darkness*; The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories; The Word for World is Forest
- Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird*
- Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus*
- Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler’s Wife
- Flannery O’Connor: A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories*
- Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
- E. Annie Proulx: The Shipping News
- Mary Doria Russell: Children of God (Ballantine Reader’s Circle); The Sparrow: A Novel (Ballantine Reader’s Circle)*
- Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery with Harriet Vane*
- Sheri S. Tepper: Grass
- Jo Walton: Among Others
- Kate Wilhelm: Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang: A Novel
- Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog*
- M.K. Wren: A Gift Upon the Shore*
Settle into your summer reading with one of these epic novels.
Summer is the perfect time to wade into a really big book. You know the books I mean, the kind that can double as a door stopper for a recalcitrant screen door or a small table to hold your drink on the beach.
Most of the time, I’m afraid to commit to such books. But in the summer, I have much more reading time available. All I want to do during the long, lazy days is escape into another world, and just stay there a while.
If you don’t mind the extra weight in your suitcase, consider carrying along one of these big books on your summer vacation. There’s something for everyone on this list, ranging from post-apocalyptic horror to epic historical fiction to parallel worlds.
The Passage: A Novel (Book One of The Passage Trilogy) by Justin Cronin: Last summer’s blockbuster is newly out in paperback. If vampires are your thing, don’t miss it. But be warned, these vampires are real monsters. They glow in the dark, have mouths full of sword-like teeth, leap out of the darkness, and are possessed by an overwhelming desire to rip your head off. The book spans 800 pages and 100 years, but you won’t be able to put it down.
Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King: The master of horror is known for big books, and his latest novel is no exception. Spend your vacation trapped with the residents of Chester’s Mill, Maine, under a mysterious glass dome. In a very short time, all the rules of civilized society are thrown out the window. What ensues is murder, mayhem, and edge-of-your-seat suspense.
Anathem by Neal Stephenson: Dive into the enormously complex world of Arbre, complete with a 3,000-year history and even its own languages. Anathem has it all: big ideas in physics, mathematics, and philosophy melded with chases, fight scenes, explosions, mysterious space ships, conspiracies, and even a romance. Be prepared by the end to travel across cosmoses and following multiple conflicting story lines through quantum space. But it’s all great fun.
Lonesome Dove: A Novel by Larry McMurtry: Maybe you never got around to reading this Pulitzer Prize-winning classic. It has been re-released in a beautiful anniversary edition, so now is the perfect time to pick it up. Follow a huge cast of characters led by two legendary former Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus (Gus) McCrae, who embark on one last folly: the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana.
Sea of Poppies: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh: Travel back to India at the height of British colonialism in this magnificently sprawling book. Each character in the large cast has a secret to hide; each one is in some way living as someone they are not. They are brought together by the intertwined strands of fate that direct their lives. Sea of Poppies is often funny, but it is also suspenseful, epic, and evocative of a long-ago time and place. The first installment in a trilogy, its cliffhanger ending will leave you wanting more.
I spent all morning researching and writing this answer to the Quora question: What 20th-century novel has been most influential in shaping mindsets and changing lives? So I thought I’d share my answer here as well.
It is hard to pick just one novel, but I think that 1984 by George Orwell is the most influential novel of the 20th century. It’s not the first dystopian novel, but it defined for most people what a dystopian government is and influenced every dystopian novel that followed. It introduced many terms and concepts into our language: Orwellian, Big Brother, groupthink, thought police. It describes the dangers of totalitarianism and oppression, and persuades citizens to be vigilant against government corruption in order to safeguard democracy. Even today, it influences political figures, judges and ordinary citizens in guarding against government over-reach when it comes to mass surveillance, loss of individual rights and personal freedoms, and manipulation of public opinion.
To round out my top 10 (because I can’t pick just one book):
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which caused many readers to question their own prejudices and has one of the most enduring heroic characters in literature.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, the defining novel of the Great Depression and one of the most widely read works of American literature. It exposes the plight of the poor in a capitalist, profit-driven system.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the quintessential critique of the idea of the American dream.
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which introduced a new phrase to the English language and exposes the absurdities of war and of bureaucracies like the military.
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, which captured the coming-of-age experience and has become synonymous with teenage rebellion.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which portrays how easily human beings can regress to savagery and influenced our perception of human nature.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, which depicted the dangers of censorship.
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the counterpoint to 1984, which exposes the dangers of loss of individuality and societal control via mass entertainment and consumerism.
- Neuromancer by William Gibson, which introduced the term “cyberspace” and influenced — or at least, predicted — the way the Internet developed.
There are so many other 20th-century novels that were highly influential in describing the human condition, bringing about political reform, establishing philosophies of thought, or exposing societal problems that it is really hard to limit this list. For example, it’s difficult to omit The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; The Jungle by Upton Sinclair; All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey; Native Son by Richard Wright; Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Roots by Alex Haley; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Trial by Franz Kafka; and The Stranger by Albert Camus. And then there are books that are just so widely read and highly beloved that they are bound to be personally influential, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
It just goes to show the power of literature! Never stop reading.
Here’s a list I originally wrote for Flashlight-Worthy Book Recommendations that was recently revamped and republished on the Huffington Post: 11 Zombie-Free Flashlight Worthy Novels to Help You Survive the Apocalypse (PHOTOS). Woohoo! Big time!
I am a great fan of science fiction. I have been reading it all my life, and I read across the spectrum of the genre, from the very soft to the very hard. I enjoy it all, as long as it’s well written. But I realize that science fiction is not for everyone. Some people find it difficult to suspend their disbelief far enough to get into a story about aliens on other planets or traveling between alternate dimensions.
I developed this list as an introduction to science fiction for people who haven’t read a lot of it and don’t think they’ll like it (such as my husband). I don’t think anyone (except me, perhaps) will like every book on this list, since there is a lot of variety here, but you may find something you do enjoy as an entry into the genre.
I start each recommendation with an author who isn’t primarily known for writing science fiction but who has contributed to the genre. If you’ve enjoyed some of that author’s books, you may want to try their more science fictional offerings. Or perhaps you’ve read some of these already and didn’t realize that you were reading science fiction. I follow each of these authors with a recommendation of a similar author who does primarily write science fiction and who you may also like. I also provide a suggested title to start with.
Additional suggestions are welcome in the comments.
Mark Twain wrote a satirical time travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I highly enjoyed when I read it as a child.
If you like this, you should try Douglas Adams, who also wrote very funny satire. Start with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Kurt Vonnegut is not typically considered a science fiction author, but Slaughterhouse-Five is a time travel novel with aliens, and Cat’s Cradle is about the end of the world. His novels are satirical, darkly funny and often mind-bending.
If you like Vonnegut, you might also enjoy Ray Bradbury. Start with the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451.
Stephen King is of course classified as a horror writer, the reigning king of the genre, but many of his novels can also be considered science fiction. The Long Walk and The Running Man, both collected in The Bachman Books, are the most straightforwardly SF, but The Dark Tower series has science fiction elements as well. His most recent novel, Under the Dome, is a good example of a blurring of the genres.
King fans might like the Larry Niven-Jerry Pournelle collaborations. These are much harder science fiction than King’s books will ever pretend to be, but they also feature large casts of characters and larger-than-life situations. Start with Lucifer’s Hammer.
Margaret Atwood is well known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and she has recently published two inter-related apocalyptic novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. However, she is still primarily known as a mainstream writer of feminist novels.
If you like Atwood, give Octavia Butler a try, who writes about feminist themes in dystopian settings. Start with The Parable of the Sower.
P.D. James is well known as the author of the Adam Dagliesh series of mysteries, but has contributed an excellent apocalyptic standalone novel, The Children of Men, to the genre.
You might also enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin, who writes about human culture and philosophy but in alien settings. Start with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is probably her best book.
Michael Chabon enjoys playing with genres and wrote an excellent example of the alternate history as well as a good mystery, The Yiddish Policemen’s Detective Union.
If you liked the alternate history elements of Chabon’s novel, give Kim Stanley Robinson a try. His books are dense, detailed and also explore questions of religion and culture. Start with The Years of Rice and Salt.
Kazuo Ishiguro surprised many of his readers with his moving novel Never Let Me Go, about human cloning in a dystopian alternate history.
I’m not going to pretend that Kate Wilhelm is as literary a writer as Ishiguro, but her novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is another compelling exploration of the consequences of human cloning.
Jonathan Lethem is not really considered a science fiction author but has written too many books in the genre to discount. Gun, with Occasional Music is probably his most accessible, but there’s also the post-apocalyptic Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, about alternate dimensions.
If you liked Gun, with Occasional Music, you might try Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, which explores similar themes but in a more straightforwardly science fiction milieu.
Charlie Huston is known for his crime novels, but his new book Sleepless sets the noir thriller in an apocalyptic, tech-obsessed Los Angeles.
William Gibson, the father of cyberpunk, writes noir fiction about technology set in the near-future. A good starting place is Virtual Light, the first book in the Bridge trilogy.
I have been having fun writing and posting themed reading lists on my book review blog, Books Worth Reading, and they have proved to be popular. Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations has reprinted a couple of the lists, which I am now sharing with you: These Books Will Help You Survive After an Apocalypse and I Want to Live Forever: An Immortality Reading List
Also see: The endless quest to live forever