Words are powerful things. Words can transport you through time. They can create and manipulate ideas. They can convey thoughts that, until very recently in human history, could only exist in our mind. They’re completely arbitrary symbols that can make you emote in ways that nothing else can. That’s why books are so amazing. They’re tiny (sometimes not so tiny) collections of meaningless things that come together to make you feel.
I used to hate reading in school. I loathed it. But then, in my junior year of high school, a switch flipped. It all changed for me, and I was finally able to enjoy reading. So today, on Book Lover’s Day, I thought I’d share with you my five favorite books. This was a tough list to make, keep in mind. As I’m going through it again, I think to myself “Ehhhh maybe I should change this to this.” The list’ll probably change tomorrow, but let’s just jump right in and see what comes to mind.
5) The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka
Remember when I said I hated reading as a kid? That was a lie. The truth is that I hated reading everything except this book. It’s a collection of new, interesting takes on old, boring fairy tales, like the Really Ugly Duckling or The Princess and the Bowling Ball. The art style is something that every 7-year-old boy will love: it’s ridiculous, stupid, and creepy looking. The whole book is just great. I’m sure if I went back and actually read it today, I would say ‘What the fuck is this on about?’ and throw it in a corner, but let’s leave my good memories alone.
Everything’s always better in hindsight, isn’t it? Like how video games from 20 years ago are always the best video games. Then you go back to play them and you think “What was I thinking?” Except for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater II. And Ocarina of Time. And Super Mario Brothers. Well… Shit. I might need to do a post on that, too.
Runners up: The entire Captain Underpants Series.
4) Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick
I’ve been on a huge science fiction kick lately. Well, maybe not a sci-fi kick… more of a Philip K. Dick kick. I’ve purchased about 15 of his books in the last year alone, including three out of the five collections. Everything about his style has captivated me and won’t let go. He taught me a lot about the science fiction genre, sure, but also a lot about writing in general.
Flow My Tears was the first PKD book I read. I know, I know. “Why wasn’t it Androids or Man in the High Castle?” Shush. Those were the second and third books I read. But Flow My Tears is still the one that sticks out in my mind as an amazing, original, captivating story. And it’s a perfect introduction to Dick’s writing style: the big twist, the fact that none of it makes sense up until the last three pages, how he just picks you up and tosses you into this amazingly immersive world that he crafted… This book was a gateway drug for me. I mean, I’ve always loved sci-fi, but as soon as I finished this book, I was hooked in the deep, dark world of sci-fi literature, and there’s no going back.
3) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Again I’ll return back to my comment of ‘hating reading when I was younger’. The Hobbit, along with The Stinky Cheese Man, was a book that I didn’t hate when I was a kid. Granted, I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on (it was a little bit above an 8-year-old’s reading level), but I loved it all the same. Writing, reading, and books in general are all about taking you to another place. Whether it’s to the past, to the future, or to a world that only exists in the author’s (and in turn, your) imagination.
That’s what I learned when I read Tolkien. My dad made me read constantly every summer from the time I was 8 to the time I was about 12. I hated doing it – hated it. There were so many other things to do outside, so many video games to play, and he made me sit there and read? How dare he. At first, he made me read the newspaper every morning. Which, for a child, is a terrible experience.
But as the years rolled on, he started giving me his old books to read. I can’t remember a majority of them, but the ones I do remember are all Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. This was the first time I can remember going outside of my mind and being transported to a brand new world. It was beautiful, interesting, and strange, but It made me feel good. Tolkien’s world building is so perfect, so detailed, that you didn’t even have to think about it. You’d be reading and there you were, next to Bilbo and Gandalf helping the dwarves get to their ancestral homeland. It was a great experience, and when I went back and read Tolkien early on in high school, I felt the same way about them then as I did when I was a kid. Tolkien created the epics of modern times. I think these books will go down in history along with The Illiad and The Odyssey. That means a lot coming from a classicist.
2) The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
I got into Hunter S. Thompson when I was doing a lot of drugs. I bought every one of his books, each one of his collections, and read them multiple times. His diction, writing style, and subjects really appealed to me at that time, and I really appreciated the way he approached his surroundings. It’s like he was looking at the world the same way I was: as a disgruntled, drug-addled college student. He made fun of politicians, hippies, druggies, straights, bikers, punks, hipsters, and everything else under the sun. He was just pissed off at the world and the way it was being run. He’s a damn genius, and HST is still my favorite author of all time.
I love going back and reading some of the things I wrote during this time in my life. I took a lot of what I saw working for HST and tried to make it my own. Of course, the only person that can really do Gonzo is the man himself, but still. I tried and that’s all that matters.
Out of all the HST books that I ended up reading over, and over again, The Rum Diary is by far my favorite. It’s his first novel, though it wasn’t released until after he died, but it’s an absolute masterpiece. If you’re looking for another Fear and Loathing, then go somewhere else. This is a fiction. A novel about a writer in a foreign land. All he has is himself and the stupid shit he gets dragged into. And, coolest of all, when I read it, I actually feel like I’m in early ’60s Puerto Rico. I can see it all in my head, because it’s real, it’s human, it’s Hunter Thompson. It’s nothing like any of his other books. He’s still trying to find his voice, but you can see little bits and pieces of Gonzo peppered throughout Rum Diary.
1) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This last one may be a disappointment for you (or not, I don’t know your life), but it’s not for me. I have a particular attachment to this book, and it’s my number one for a very good reason.
I’ve said this a few times by now, but I hated reading with a passion for quite some time. The more I look back on it and the more I think about why I read now, I’ve realize that I hated reading because I was being forced to read what I didn’t want to. It wasn’t that the stories were bad; they were fantastic. It wasn’t that the authors sucked; they were giants of their time. I hated reading because someone told me to read X, Y, or Z, not what I wanted to read. Not anything that actually captivated me or grabbed my attention.
That is, until my junior year of high school. We had just finished reading The Crucible by Arthur Miller, and our teacher pulled out a transparency of The Great Gatsby‘s cover. “So this is what we’re going to be reading next. I wanted to talk about the original cover art and how it pertains to the story as a whole.” Then she started going into all this about the giant eyes, the green light, the lines on the page, etc. I was awestruck that someone could think that deeply about something and put it onto a piece of paper.
Right then and there, I’m hooked. But then we actually start reading the damn thing. Holy crap this book had it all. Love, death, hate, money laundering, giant pool parties where everybody gets drunk but one dude who just stands around waiting for the love of his life to walk in the door, a guy who wears teeth for fucking cuff-links. “Hey!” I thought. “My friends and I have giant pool parties where we all get drunk and wait for the loves of our lives to walk in the door.”
It’s not that the plot spoke to me that much, because hey, I’m not a convict with a giant house in New York, but The Great Gatsby did teach me something: that not all books are boring and stupid. Some of them can be really, really cool. Some of them can make you feel things. Some of them can even make you cry. You’ve just got to find out which ones you actually care about, and avoid the ones you don’t.
So today, on Book Lover’s Day, I want to leave you with a little word of advice:
The above mentioned books are books that I love. They’re books that mean something to me. I highly suggest that if you’re going to go out and get a book, to judge it by its cover. Flip it over and read the back. See if the cover art looks cool. Do some research. Especially if you’re a kid. If you’re young, you need to find something that’s going to keep your attention, not something that you’re going to throw down after reading for a minute and never come back to. Find something you’ll actually be interested in, and your world will never be the same.
Reading a good book is an amazing thing, and it’s an experience that I wish everyone in the world could take part in. But sadly, some people can’t. Some people aren’t allowed to. So go find something good to read, sit down, and read it.
Or, if you’re more inclined, let me know your five favorite books in the comments.