With the Pulitzer prizes announced and no award given for fiction in 2012, we thought this may be a fine time to catch you up on some English cannon essentials. The following is by no means a complete or all-encompassing list; it is not intended to be. But it is a starter’s guide to get you through the decades, each inclusion offering something that will inevitably make you a better man.
Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
There is no getting around it; Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential coming-of-age story we’d be remiss to exclude. Censored, banned and burned for two decades after its release, no novel captures the complexity of “teenage angst” more carefully than Catcher; Salinger brings all the profane, boner-inducing problems of mid-to-late adolescence to life through Holden Caulfield.
Call of the Wild – Jack London
Who better to define man than its best friend. Jack London’s 1903 novella centers around Buck, a domesticated Californian dog captured and sold to sledders in the Great White North. A story of struggle, change and acclimatization, London speaks to stepping out of one’s comfort zone and into a cold, harsh reality. Does that ring an 18 year old bell?
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Considered by most to be the Great American Novel, Gatsby delves deep into matters of identity in the face of freedom. Who are we if were told we can be anybody?
On The Road – Jack Kerouac
Written on a massive scroll and without too much concern for punctuation, the first book of Kerouac’s stream of consciousness compendium has become manifesto for every escapist with nowhere to go and no ties too tight.
The Beach – Alex Garland
A book that speaks to the naivety of being in one’s twenties with the world ahead and ambitions still burning, The Beach is the classic search for paradise on earth and complications that come when envisioned ideals meet reality. Described as half Lord of the Flies, half Heart of Darkness, Garland’s trek across Thailand fuses the moral of two timeless stories together into one lesson learned.
Why Are We in Vietnam? – Norman Mailer
Masked as a 244 page Mailerian polemic, Why Are We In Vietnam not only challenges the authority of America at war but the ethics and morals that shape us. Told from the perspective of a child prodigy dragged bear hunting with a father who seeks to kill one at any cost, Mailer confirms the complexity of living in a world in which we will not all always agree.
Bitter Fruit – Achmat Dangor
Set in a time when a rapid redefinition of values was occurring in post-Apartheid South Africa, Bitter Fruit weighs the external pressures of society on a man and questions what good, if any, can come from silence.
A River Runs Through It – Norman MacLean
A story of brothers, one settled, one still running ragged. MacLean’s poignant novel explores the relationship of those closest to us, who by this time have come to define us and how tenuous a relationship that can be. But perhaps he said it best: “for it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us.”
This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald
It might take you the decade to read; Fitzgerald’s debut novel is as dense as it is descriptive, but no other work so accurately depicts the repeated shedding of youth we must all endure.
Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
The coming-of-age novel for the full-fledged adult. Wolfe’s noted and uncanny attention to detail bring forth the daunting realization that we are never truly grown, that the passions and pitfalls that plague our youth are only ever dormant and never dismissed.
The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A deeply introspective reflection on life and the characters in it, characters that by this time we’ve all known, met, respected and despised. Dostoyevsky, considered even by his critics to be a master of literary psychology gives words to the strongest emotions many can never describe.
Fifth Business – Robertson Davies
There is no better catalogue of a character’s journey than that of Ramsay’s in Davies’ Deptford trilogy. Fifth Business particularly examines the psychological blocks that have shaped a man who has never seen himself as more than a tertiary character in his own story.
Barney’s Version – Mordecai Richler
Perhaps the most well told tale of getting on in years, Richler’s unhinged lead, Barney Panofsky seeks to set the record of his own life straight. The definition of an unreliable narrator and hardly an empathetic character, what we're left with is one side of a story we can never be sure is true and leads us to question the validity of our own self-scribed narrative.
Rabbit at Rest – John Updike
The fourth and final chapter in Updike’s Rabbit series wraps up the saga of Harry Angstrom, a hometown, high school basketball hero whose life by all accounts turned out decidedly average in every way. We never really know how we feel about Harry but that’s probably because he never changes, giving the reader the unique ability to view the world with all its problems through the eyes of one man with all of his.
The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion
Though it is not a particularly uplifting read, Didion’s semi-autobiographical novel is a reeling look into how our mindset must shift with age, how our experience has taught us to think differently, react rationally, act patiently and what happens when we can’t.
...After 60 you're on your own. Who are we to tell you what to read.