Happy World Book Day, everyone! — Book lovers rejoice! Over the years, my love for good old hardcopy paperbacks has but deepened and concretised. There’s nothing like the feel of a well-loved, repeatedly-read paperback growing softer and more familiar in your hands, nothing like the smell of its pages. To celebrate this day, I’m sharing my top five favourite novels of all time (from left to right in the picture). I read a TON, not only during my days as an English major where we had to read up to four or five novels some weeks, but during my own time as well. So these books mean a LOT to me to have made it to my top five. If you’re as much of a book lover, you’ll understand what it means to love your favorites as intensely as I do.
None of these were prescribed reading, but rather books I have read outside of class. I will probably do future posts that will give more in-depth analyses of each book, but for this post, I will be focusing more on why I like them.
How do I know that these books are my favourites?
1) I still love them as intensely as I did the very first time I read them, years later (typically 5 or more years).
2) I have read and re-read them countless times, and have not tired of them. Also, every time I do so, I feel, see or discover something I haven’t before. The book hasn’t changed, but I have, from the last time I read it. In a way, they have grown up with me.
3) They have marked me in some profound way, tangible or otherwise– be it the way I look at the world, my path in life or the way I feel about something.
4) It is not something I often notice, but all five of them deal with a deep horror of some sort, physical, psychological or otherwise, and it is in the darkest that the brightest and best of humanity pulls through, in all its vulnerability, messiness and pain.
My favourites in order:
1) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
When I read it: 2004
I read this book when I was still a kid, at the recommendation of a classmate. This book astounded and confused me– the amount of mathematics! I felt like I was reading not so much a storybook, but a handbook or encyclopaedia of some kind. When I was younger, I wasn’t very good with sticking out a long novel and did a lot better with scientific or discovery books, so I found Curious Incident a pleasantly easy read. At that age, following such a postmodern narrative style was quite confusing, but somehow, I fell in love with the book, and to this day it remains my number one. I think it is because of the humanness in it.
Christopher, the protagonist, has Asperger’s syndrome, and the formatting of the book mirrors his disjointed, obsessive thought patterns. He is a stickler for details, jotting down stream-of-consciousness style, just about anything and everything that catches his attention. As a kid, all I saw was a simple story of a boy trying to solve a murder then finding out about his mother. As I grew up, I began to notice the incredible sadness and beauty of his story. I began to realise that his father wasn’t a villain, but rather an average man trying to do his best with what he had. Just like the rest of us. As I grew older than Christopher, whose age is forever 15, I realised what a strange, lost, but charming kid he was.
I identify a lot with Christopher. When I was younger, I was kinda the same: unable to focus on anything for an extended period of time (hence why encyclopaedias worked better for me), and I had the weirdest hobbies and likes. For example, collecting a bunch of bugs and putting them all together in a giant tank (once I accidentally took home a leech thinking it was a slug, to the horror of my family). Or pretending that the headlights of cars were their eyes looking at me. I also loved puzzles, science, geography, outer space. I was the worst hyperactive kid, attempting to climb any climbable tree, because I decided Tarzan was my role model. I nearly poked my eye out with a ruler once, was never without a bruise or scrape and lost my first tooth running face-first into a brick wall. Also, I think rats are cool. So I guess I love this book so much because it resonates with a side of me too different for normalcy. The side of me I had to learn to hide as I grew up, the side of me I was conditioned to hate and be ashamed of, then finally, after a long journey, am only starting to embrace. Throughout this journey, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time remains the same, reminding me of the child that read it for the first time, and how being different, seeing different, is okay. Maybe even better.
2) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
When I read it: somewhere between 2011-2013
This is one of the two most beautifully written novels I have ever read, the other being The Lovely Bones, which is next on my list. This novel follows the story of nine-year-old Oskar as he tries to make sense of things after his father dies in 9-11.
This book is about tragedy from a child’s perspective, a vulnerable, powerful angle to make readers sympathise with what I see as the book’s message: that mindless acts of terror, even if they are political, deeply scar a person’s everyday life and character. When I first read it, I thought that Oskar was just an incredibly nervous boy that lost his dad. Now I’m reading it again, and I realise that a lot of his fears and motivations are hallmarks of PTSD. Although this book deals with unspeakable horror, it also reveals so much strength. It speaks of a community who love each other through tragedy and how in their own ways, rally around a boy dealing with the loss of the most important figure in his life: his father.
3) The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
When I read it: 2011/2012
This book is about a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who is murdered by a neighbour in a small town. In her version of heaven, she pulls apart the story of life before and after her death, trying to make meaning, understand and accept. She keeps a close watch over her family as her death rips them apart, and simultaneously obsesses over her murderer, as she longs for revenge. She watches as her sister and brother grow up and become stronger than ever. She keeps vigil by her father’s side as he waits for her every night, even after she is confirmed dead. She has to wait years before her mother is strong enough to love her again, strong enough to know that it is a love that will not break her to pieces.
This book explores the dark psyche of her murderer, a serial killer of women and girls. As much as Susie wants him dead, she struggles with her growing sympathy for him as she follows the evolution of his life. As she realises that circumstances have made him what he is, forces he himself is victim to, have grown in him such bottomless lust. Have developed in him such depravity.
This story is about inexpressible grief, finding strength in all the wrong and right ways, letting go, holding on, and the legacy of a father’s love. This book contains both beauty and horror of the most powerful kind. It shines a spotlight on the dark underbelly of humanity, and forces us to sympathise with it, learn from it, and find the best and worst of ourselves in it.
Both The Lovely Bones and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close broke my heart wide open.
4) Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, Marya Hornbacher TW: ED, self-harm
When I read it: 2012
This novel was the first ‘thing’ that ever inspired me to be a writer, like, in a serious way. Hornbacher’s writing is really, really good. It is poetic without being too abstract, realist without being dry. It made me decide that if writing, the art of it, can be this good, then I want to be a writer. Reading this was one of those MAJOR moments in my life that altered my course in life.
Wasted is an unflinching portrayal of self-hate so overwhelming it makes the owner of it, or maybe the sufferer of it, inflict bodily harm on her or himself, be it through starvation, compulsive bingeing and purging, verbal abuse, neglect, cutting or burning. Her eating disorder, being too severe for normal treatment, puts her in a madhouse, and then finally, at the edge of death. Instead of focusing on the details of her eating disorder, perhaps her weight, or her rituals, I will focus on why she wrote this novel: to tell her story, to teach others what she has learnt from it. And through this, hopefully motivate someone out there to treat themselves just a little bit better.
At the end of Wasted, as Hornbacher makes the decision to pull herself out of the hellhole of self-harm, she expresses how lonely attempting to love her body is. She argues that self-hatred is a society-wide phenomenon, something most, if not all, women (and men) struggle with, albeit in varying degrees of severity. She writes about how ‘thin’ is a trophy, ‘diet’ a conversation-starter and a competition, obsession with body image a crutch. This book is one woman’s attempt to wake society up from its delusion that our worth lies in our waistlines, with the most valuable thing she has: her story.
5) In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
When I read it: 2009
I first picked up this novel in some corner of the library in my secondary school. It really is a story to make your blood run cold. The narrative describes in hard-boiled prose the story of two ex-convicts who break into the Clutter’s home in the middle of the night with the intention of stealing their money. Realising that the family actually does not have money, the men lose control and go into a frantic, almost trance-like state, where they end up killing every family member, shooting them or slicing their throats. The story then follows the story of the murderers and the community, before and after the murder.
I remember reading it and feeling chilled to the bone. Also, the way one of the murderer’s story is told, readers are compelled to sympathise with him. This sympathy makes this story more realistic and different from other crime fiction I have come across.
In 2012, four years later, I was reading a non-fiction, documentary style book about the most horrific crimes in history and lo and behold, the story from In Cold Blood was in it. What I didn’t realise was that Truman Capote was the journalist that documented the crime, an actual historical event that happened. As if it wasn’t already bad enough when I thought that the story was fictional!
I like this book so much not only because it was the biggest plot twist the literary world has ever pulled on me, but also because of reasons similar to why I love the other books above: the exposure of the better, usually well-hidden side of humanity, brought to life by something that should have destroyed it. The Clutter’s community grow only stronger as time goes on, even as the suspicions raised by the initial lack of answers threaten to sever their ties.
The argument goes that books offer a form of escapism. And of course I agree with this. But to me, the best books expose the reality we have grown numb to, or ignore. The reality that we are worse and better than we think. And that it is in this truth that the most beauty can be found. In this way books really do make the world, and life, a better place.
If you’ve enjoyed this post, don’t forget to check out the rest of my blog, where I do literary reviews, blog and write some poetry. I hope you all have a great World Book Day today. What are some of your favourite books? Leave them in the comments below!:)