Reading, though as a function may appear simple and straightforward, it is a peculiar and complicated act. I asked myself, what seemed at the beginning a simple question, what the reason is, what that mysterious force is, that pushes me to read.
Is it a need of escaping everyday problems and challenges? Are we all imprinted with longing for escapism? Or, perhaps this feeling of the urgency is a result of lack of excitement and adventure in life? Or, maybe with some pieces of literary fiction, it is a need of experiencing someone else’s tragedies and miseries to prove myself that I’m in a better position? Those questions sound terribly depressing, yet I believe literature for many people became a way to escape their reality. On the other hand, I wonder how much of our intellectual and emotional development results from, as one may think, this simple act of reading someone else’s words. To what extent those stories shape my views and my personality? To what degree I am the product of writers and their protagonists? It is my belief that there is no simple answer to any of those questions. Perhaps, we – the readers – could relate with each of them to some extent. Whenever I try to find the correct explanation, regarding myself, I discover how complex indeed the act of reading and the relationship between the reader and literature are. Yet for whatever reason, we participate in this act it is undeniable that it never leaves us unchanged or at least unmoved with stories we’ve read. Perhaps, I’m wrong, and there is a part of literature and a group of readers that by just defining the act of reading as escapism, by closing the book they separate their reality from the book’s one.
This separation is an unknown skill for me. Not only I sink entirely into the narrative of the book, nor I can forget, emotionally, about its story by closing the last chapter. There are so many outstanding novels, short stories, pieces of poetry that I always fear I won’t have enough time to read. Yet I never even thought of rushing my rendezvous with a book. The time and all emotions slowly awakening and evolving as the story moves forward are those moments that I find most precious and magic. The bond, of different forms and shapes that arises between the reader and protagonists and how it evolves, is and always will be a mysterious spirit. The other bewildering issue is the relationship with words as they play a role of enormous importance. On the one hand, how they represent ideas, emotions, plots, characters and how they portray them. On the other, the style and language create all the atmosphere and set the reader in the right mood. It never stops impressing me how authors by perfect and precise selection of words their ambivalent or contradict meanings play with our minds. However, I find the most impressive when the writers delicately and subtly yet craftily and emphatically confront the readers with the dilemmas they want us to face. Thus, you suddenly realize the author played you from the very beginning.
For this reason only that I’m asking all those questions, I find literature the most astonishing piece of art. A fellow literature lover inspired me to ask myself all those questions. Further, he made me think about the books that I value for how they influenced me as a reader as well as a human being. For I believe the literature never leaves us untouched. The moment I looked at the list of authors and their books scribbled in a notebook, I realized what that force that pushes me to read is. It is the magic of words, the vast and boundless ability to play a human’s mind and emotions. The way the author can portray both beautiful, joyful and horrible, terrifying scenes, thoughts, ideas. It is like a dance – free and lively on the on hand, and on the other precise and choreographed. Great minds of literature theory contemplated the question – who the author is and what part he plays. The way I see it, his role is to be forgotten in the act of reading thus allowing the reader to transgress the line between reality and the words of the story. I find it most satisfying when, while reading, I can live the story myself, walk the streets, laugh and cry with the characters, feel their emotions as if they were my own.
Those great pieces of literature had and, perhaps still have a significant influence on the kind of a reader I’m today. Probably, they similarly had an impact on values and sensibility I have thus shaping me a bit as a human being. Since I could not agree on any particular order of the list without involving an inner feud, I decided to leave it as I scribbled it in a notebook.
1. Black Boy, Richard Wright
Wright’s novel was my first encounter with black American writing. I fell in love with the book instantly, and it opened an entirely new world of literature. The fantastic thing about the novel was the fact that besides the miseries and challenges that black community had to face at that time, Wright craftily introduces another issue of great importance, namely how significant words and ability to properly use them is in our life.
2. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison and her skill to tell the story in this pure and beautiful way as only children can is incomparable. The Bluest Eye is the book that aroused all possible emotions from joyful laugh to desperate cry and sorrow. There is, from some moment in the story, an obvious villain – the father who raped his daughter. Yet Morrison was able, as the story moves forward, to make you empathic for him, pity him and feel his pain as well. She is, without any doubts, a master of storytelling and playing with reader’s emotions as she pleases.
You can find a full article I wrote about this novel: Is It Right not to Be White.
3. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
I believed it is impossible to portray on the pages of a book the jumble and chaotic life of human’s mind. Virginia Woolf effortlessly proved how wrong I had been. From the very beginning, I adored the narrative style. This book made me wonder whether there are any boundaries that writers could not cross.
4. Franny & Zooey, J.D. Salinger
Among other things I could mention about the book, there are two scenes that caught my attention to the point where I felt being present there with the characters. One is when Franny meets her boyfriend in a restaurant. The conversation and astounding changes in narrative between their discussion and Franny’s inner growing haterade and disgust with her interlocutor. The whole situation unfolds on many pages. However, the dynamics of the story makes so quick sucking the reader directly into the feud. The second is Zooey’s conversation with his mother in the bathroom.
5. Another Country, James Baldwin
It is a brilliant novel. James Baldwin was a protégé of at that time more experienced Richard Wright who helped him in his career and education. Baldwin developed his distinct style that is clear and mature in “Another Country.” What I appreciated about the novel was both the language and the manner he dealt with topics of race, sex, gender, and love. He made his characters so humane so vulnerable and in a way simple. Yet very eloquent and humanistic.
6. Lost in the Funhouse, John Barth
My encounter with John Barth was one of those that probably (hopefully) we all have sometimes. It just with no sensitivity demonstrated me how little I know and how little I can imagine about literature and writers abilities. Lost in Funhouse is a collection of short stories. Each completely different from the others. What Barth did with Greek Myths in one of his narratives by taking the Myth and creating his own picture was astonishing.
7. The One Inside, Sam Shepard
When a man of the theater with great mind and talent takes on writing a book, the result is astonishing. Even though the novel takes place in different sets, there is this overwhelming feeling as if all of this were happening on a small stage of a theatre. There is this part that I can’t, or I’m not capable of explaining. Shepard made me feel while reading the novel, as though I was sitting in a theatre watching a great play.
8. Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer
There are plenty of books out there that one can say “well, you could tell the same story on 200 pages instead of 600.” In many cases, I would agree with this opinion. However, “Here I Am” beside its merits would lose a lot of its beauty and unique style. Foer is one of those contemporary writers who unquestionably mastered to the perfection the talent to play with words, metaphors, comparisons, descriptions. It is unbelievable how simple situations of life he can put into a playful set of words.
Here’s my review of Here I Am
9. Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
I believe that was one of the first books of American literature that I’ve read as a conscious reader. It was a beginning of my exploration and adventure with Roth’s writing. I can’t say much about the novel as it was quite a time ago. However, introducing Philip Roth to my reading was an important moment.