Recently, some friends and I were talking about books that made a significant impact on our lives. These included all the books that changed the way we saw the world, taught us something about ourselves, and/or inspired us to action! I really liked this exercise because it made me think of the literature that has stuck with me over the years.
Personally, what I consider to be my favorite novel changes on a semi-annual basis. But whenever I give it some serious thought, I can’t deny that there are only a handful of reads that have really stood the test of time. Using those, I submitted a must-read list there, which I also wanted to share here. These are the works of non-fiction and assorted fiction that I read, would gladly read again, and would highly recommend.
1. Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) by Jared Diamond
Diamond is a geographer, historian, and anthropologist who has written many works that deal with the natural environment and the way they have shaped human societies. Guns, Germs, and Steel, was his attempt to tackle a very difficult and surprisingly underappreciated question pertaining to history.
That question is, why did civilization as we know it emerge in certain parts of the world and not others? How did Europeans overtake their counterparts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East after lagging behind them for so long? And how did this contribute to the “Age of Imperialism” (ca. 16th to 19th century), where Europe expanded and conquered most of the world – effectively ushering in the modern era.
In the past, answers to this question have been very simplistic and have ranged from blatant racism to the idiosyncratic and cultural. Diamond presents a new theory based on an assessment of environmental factors, including animal and plant biology, as well as climatology and geographical factors. His summary is brilliant, immense in terms of its breadth and detail, but still simple and straightforward.
2. A Short History of Progress (2004) by Ronald Wright
Here is a book that felt like a companion read to Guns, Germs, and Steel, mainly because it tackled a lot of the same subject matter. However, its focus was on the question of how civilizations collapse and how the process is evident based on environmental factors – similar to what we are seeing today.
You might say this book is a cautionary tale, warning against the kinds of self-destructive behaviors humans engage in when they sense that the “good old days” are gone. Here too, Wright presents an argument about how European civilization shot ahead of its counterparts by the 19th century when it lagged behind them for thousands of years.
In short, it was their passage to and colonization of the New World, which led to genocide, slavery, and massive amounts of mineral and agricultural wealth being plundered and sent back to Europe. This is what allowed for a population explosion in Europe, the subsequent Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Age of Imperialism, the Industrial Revolution, and the foundations of the modern world.
3. 1984 (1948) by George Orwell
I know, I know, EVERYBODY lists this book as one of their favorite and most-influential reads, regardless of whether or not they’ve read it. In fact, a 2013 article in the Guardian indicated that 1984 is the #1 book that people pretend to have read, owing to its enduring popularity and influence. Other lists have been compiled that put it lower, but it easily makes the Top 10 or Top 20.
However, I can proudly say that I’ve read this novel three times over the years and my appreciation of it has only deepened with each reading. Not only does Orwell present an indictment against totalitarianism and dissect how such regimes are governed and endure. He also offers a rather breathtaking assessment of history and how totalitarianism emerged in the 20th century not as a result of modernity, but in response to it!
As Orwell puts it, dictatorship and the rule by the few over the many was a necessary (even preferable) consequence of the fact that for most of recorded history, the majority of humans were forced to live and work in squalor. But with the beginning of the modern era, that began to change. The introduction of automation and the sudden presence of material abundance meant that for the first time in history, the majority of people could be well-off, literate, and politically involved.
This represented a threat to the totalitarian schools of thought which were already emerging by the mid-to-late 19th century and attained power in the 20th in the form of fascism, Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, and all variants thereof. In so many ways, this book served as both a cautionary tale – warning about a future where totalitarianism would become permanent – and a manual on how to recognize the warning signs.
4. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe
This novel takes place in 19th century West Africa, at a time when Europeans were only beginning to make inroads into Nigeria. The main character is an Igbo man named Okonkwo, a strong, proud, and abusive man who is desperately afraid of looking weak. In this respect, he embodies the darker aspects of the patriarchal Igbo culture he comes from.
Over time, we see how the actions of Okonkwo’s community, and those of the increasingly hostile missionaries and imperialists, lead to an inextricable situation. The story is quite brilliant in that it manages to show the humanity of the Igbo people, gives a detailed picture of their traditions, mythology, and spiritual beliefs before colonization. It also examines how some of the weaknesses of Achebe’s ancestral culture made the job of the missionaries and colonists that much easier.
This book was part of Post-Colonial Literature course I took during my senior year in high school and was the brainchild of one of the best teachers I have ever had (thank you, Mr. Gamble!) It was eye-opening to say the least and taught me a great deal about African history, culture, literature, and how these things are so very underappreciated and misrepresented in our corner of the world.
5. The Joys of Motherhood (1979) by Buchi Emechita
This book was also part of my Post-Colonial Literature course, and it felt very much like a companion read to Things Fall Apart. In addition to being a writer of Nigerian and Igbo descent, Buchi Emechita also writes extensively on the subject of challenge and change in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria. However, Emichita conveys the experience from the point of view of women in this story, who suffered rather heavily under the effects of deeply-entrenched patriarchy and colonial oppression.
This story mirrors her own life in many ways, which involved being married to a very abusive man for many years before she became an independent writer. The story is poignant and sad, but also uplifting and very informative. We get a detailed look at how the women of Nigeria lived traditionally, what life is like in the big city, and how the treatment of women is riddled with contradictions and hypocrisy.
As Emechita wrote on the dedication page, the Joys of Motherhood is dedicated “To all mothers.” And let me tell you, it taught me never to make my mother for granted! Not only do our mothers give us life, they routinely go through hell and make huge sacrifices in order to raise us and keep us safe!
6. Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) by Tomson Highway
This is the first and only novel by Canadian author, playwright, and activist, Tompson Highway, a Cree man from northern Manitoba. The story is largely autobiographical and tells the story of two Cree brothers who are forced to go to residential school, suffer sexual abuse at the hands of the head priest, then moved to the big city, and found themselves respectively through art.
Over time, the two brothers struggle terribly with their trauma and the sense of cultural dislocation and conflict that comes from being a First Nation person in Canada. It tells of people who grew up in a rural area, were ripped from their homes and sent to an abusive environment designed to teach them to be ashamed of their identity, and then had to make it in a hostile and alien world.
The book is heartbreaking, inspiring, and incredibly eye-opening. It not only captures the experience of Highway and his brother (may he rest in peace), but the experience of so many Indigenous People who had had to find their way back from violence, abuse, cultural genocide, and the suffering inflicted by a colonial system.
7. Captains of Consciousness (1976) by Stuart Ewen
Like 1984, this book was recommended to me by one of the most influential teachers in my life (props to Mr. Gamble!). Neither of these books was on the school curriculum, so I took his advice and read it for myself. It wasn’t until I was in University, but it appeared on a list of independent reads for one of my favorite history courses and I chose to do a presentation on it. Let me tell you, Mr. Gamble knows what he’s talking about!
Ewen’s 1977 study on the origins of the advertising industry and consumer culture in America was groundbreaking for its time. Contrary to traditional theories, Ewen showed how the development of mass production, mass consumption, and mass advertising (from the 1920s onward) was not part of a natural pattern, but a calculated move by industrialists to expand their enterprises while simultaneously buying the loyalty of their workforce.
This insightful study effectively summarizes how consumer culture is political in nature and previewed much of what Chomsky would say about “manufacturing consent.”
8. The God that Failed (1949) by Richard Crossman (ed)
This collection is a must-read for students of history and those looking to understand the “age of extremes” that was the 20th century. Throughout the book, we get biographical essays from noted authors and scholars like Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, and other prominent 20th century intellectuals who flirted with communism during the interwar period.
All the stories provide an insider’s view of the interwar years, a time of great strife where positivism and liberal-democracy were largely discredited thanks to World War I and the Great Depression. Into the vacuum this created, fascism or communism emerged as the new secular faiths and intellectuals all over the world began looking to the Soviet Union for hope and something to believe in.
Inevitably, these hopes and the faith they spawned were dashed by the horrors of Stalin’s Great Purge, the Great Terror, the Spanish Civil War, and other atrocities committed in the name of “building socialism.” Alongside the horrors perpetrated by fascists, who claimed to seek “purity”, an entire generation learned that secular faiths (like religions) that promise salvation are doomed to fail.
9. Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
Yet another book that makes it into far too many must-read lists, and often insincerely! But like 1984, I’ve read Dune three times now, and its five sequels at least twice! And the reason I have is precisely why this book and the series it spawned remains so popular six decades later – it is the story that taught people to take science fiction seriously!
Not only that, but Dune is also the book that convinced me that I should write science fiction myself! Since I was 19, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. Unfortunately, I worried that many of my ideas wouldn’t be taken seriously, at least not in the form of a novel. Those ideas were something I considered to be a fallback, perhaps in the form of a series for television.
But after reading how Herbert wove genuine social commentary, historical parallels, religious and philosophical insights, ecology, and temporal paradoxes into a single narrative, I was convinced. I could be a serious writer and a science fiction writer without missing a beat!
10. Accelerando (2005) by Charles Stross
A collection of related short stories that Stross published in the early 2000s, this story paints a psychedelic picture of humanity before, during, and after the major historical event known as the “Technological Singularity.” In the course of it all, Stross delves into the effects accelerating technology will have on humans and society, culminating in the age of the posthuman.
Stross’ genius comes not only from the cutting-edge nature of his stories, but the way he’s able to do so with humor and irony. It’s also very impressive how he manages to extrapolate his predictions about the near-future into visions of the indefinite future. In the early 2000s, he was speculating about the impact radically-new technologies would have – everything from 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and display glasses, to advanced AI, commercial space exploration, and nanotechnology.
He even offers some insight on the Fermi Paradox in the process! Basically, he speculates that all intelligent life is “doomed” to experience the Singularity, where they will shed their physical bodies and transform their physical environment to maximize memory storage and live indefinitely as uploads in a computer simulation. The reason they don’t wander away from their star systems to find other life? The bandwidth is crappy!
11. Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson
This novel is considered one of the most influential science fiction reads, and canon by fans of the cyberpunk subgenre. I myself came to it during a period of prolonged “research”, where I made it my business to read the SF classics in order to better myself as a writer. Needless to say, reading this book was an educational experience.
In Neuromancer, Gibson managed to capture the spirit of a literary and aesthetic movement that characterized much of the 1980s. The very term “cyberpunk” refers to a type of social commentary that is concerned with the effects of advanced technology on society, but with the nihilistic sensibilities of punk. What results is a dystopian vision of the future that’s essentially a “combination of low-life and high tech.”
The book was also prophetic in many ways, predicting the rise of the internet (Gibson coined the term “cyberspace”), the monopolization of wealth, the decline of governments, the rise of megacorporations, artificial intelligence, and the monetization/weaponization of information. The way he wove all this into the text so matter-of-factly also gave it a very genuine feel.
12. The Diamond Age (1995) by Neil Stephenson
Here we have a classic example of a post-cyberpunk novel (nowadays often referred to as nanopunk), and one which helped establish the subgenre. Like most works that fit this mold, the book addresses the impact advanced technology has on society, but in a way that views the effects as ambiguous rather than dystopian. In particular, Stephenson tackles how the development of nanotechnology will revolutionize the world.
Stephenson manages to do this with the technical knowledge of an engineer and the insight of a social scientist, with some psychology and epistemology thrown in for good measure. What he presents is a world where traditional nation-states no longer exist, “phyles” have taken their place, and the social norms have largely regressed to what they were in the 19th century – a swing of the pendulum after the nihilism of the previous century.
The alternative title, “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer,” conveys the story’s focus: how a young girl’s coming of age story parallels a massive historical shift. In the end, we are told that culture and technology are linked, that some values are better than others when it comes to development, and that both individuals and entire cultures are the result of their environment and experiences.
13. Left Hand of Darkness/The Dispossessed (1969/1974) by Ursula K. LeGuin
Here, I’ve opted for a twofer because I seriously can’t decide which of these books I like better. Both were revolutionary, both showcase the genius of LeGuin, and both are considered science fiction classics. So I figured I would present them as one to acknowledge their value as literary works and the effect they had on me.
The Left Hand of Darkness is considered by many to be LeGuin’s greatest work. The story is told from the point of view of an ambassador who is visiting a planet called Winter. On this world, the indigenous people consider gender to be fluid, mainly because they can assume either gender during their mating cycle (known as “kemer”). To them, the idea of fixed genders is both fascinating and perverse. Published in 1969, this novel was as timely as it was thought-provoking and cutting-edge.
The Dispossessed, in contrast, involves an esteemed scientist who travels from his home – a world of exiles who live by a code of democratic anarchy – to the world that exiled them. His goal in travelling to this planet is to share his scientific accomplishments with the receptive local population. But he himself hopes to learn something too in the process, mainly about the people he was been taught to view as the enemy, and perhaps find a more perfect society than the one he’s used to.
In time, his exposure to the largely authoritarian, capitalistic, and superficial society leads him to conclude that there is no such thing as perfection or utopia and that people are people, regardless of what kind of political arrangements they live by. Like Left Hand of Darkness, this book is true to LeGuin’s layered style of writing, which presents speculative ideas, political commentary, and reflections on the human condition, all in one!
14. Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
This book is not the first one I read by Alastair Reynolds, but it was the most influential. This book was Reynolds first novel, and it established him as a writer of hard science fiction writer, someone who combined his expertise in astrophysics with a gritty, noire, cyberpunk-like aesthetic and feel. As the first of five books that established the series, it set up how centuries from now, humanity would stumble across a resolution to the Fermi Paradox, one that would make them crap their pants!
I can’t tell you how much of an influence this had over my writing. For one, it raised my awareness to nanopunk and the importance of nanotechnology in hard sci-fi. Second, the way he combined a genuine knowledge of astronomy and cutting-edge technology is something I would go on to emulate. This was not intentional, just something that I was able to do eventually and realized the value of.
15. Future: Tense (2004) by Gwynne Dyer
This was my introduction to Canadian author, military historian, and political commentator Gwynne Dyer. Since reading this book, I’ve read just about everything he’s written because his style, understanding, and knowledge are absolutely incredible. He manages to take what seem like complex and bewildering issues and boils them down with the concise yet detailed insight of a foreign policy analyst.
Specifically, this book tackled US foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the neoconservative movement in the US. It predicted how the path the US was on – responding to decline by attempting to augment its power abroad and regressive policies at home – was foolhardy and would lead to even more problems down the road. Given the state of the world and the US sixteen years later, I would say that people should have listened!
Okay, that’s me done! What’s your reading list?