This collection of books speak to the part of many of us that calls out, “What is this?!?”
If you struggle at times in the world, these books can relate.
Catcher in the Rye AND Franny and Zooey, JD Salinger
These two books are paired together because I believe as follows: Catcher in the Rye is the question and Franny and Zooey is the answer. While the former is a reaction to this world’s heartbreaking, soul crushing circumstances, the latter is a “and now here is what it all means” type of book. I taught, discussed and argued about Catcher for years with my students and my fellow junior English teacher Sam. It will always have a special place for the many hours I have spent with the text. This being said, Franny and Zooey helped me to see something new in the book; it holds its own.
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
– Catcher in the Rye
“Franny took in her breath slightly but continued to hold the phone to her ear. A dial tone, of course, followed the formal break in the connection. She appeared to find it extraordinarily beautiful to listen to, rather as it were the best possible substitute for the primordial silence itself. But she seemed to know, too, when to stop listening to it, as if all of what little wisdom there is in the world were suddenly hers. When she replaced the phone, she seemed to know just what to do next, too. She cleared away the smoking things, then drew back the cotton bedspread from the bed she had been sitting on, took off her slippers, and got into bed. For some minutes, before she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, she just lay quiet, smiling at the ceiling.”
– Franny and Zooey
Lit, Mary Karr
A raw memoir of poet Mary Karr’s struggles with depression, alcoholism and a failing marriage, this book articulates both what it means to be a writer and a survivor with artistry and eloquence. Lit is a book I loved for its language. The story is engaging and relevant, but man… those sentences- easy to tell Karr is a poet.
“Don’t approach your history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruit… Tell your stories and your story will be revealed… Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating or anything else. Take no care for your dignity. Those were hard things for me to come by, and I offer them to you for whatever they may be worth.”
Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse
This novel describes one man’s surreal journey from hellish disillusionment to a reckoning with his own soul. Another book recommendation from my friend Sam. This book wrecked me with personal relevance at the time. It is a “why and how is life like this?” kind of book.
“You will have to multiply many times your two-fold being and complicate your complicated soul still further. Instead of narrowing your world and simplifying your soul, you will have to absorb more and more of the world and at last take all of it up in your painfully expanded soul, if you are ever to find peace.”
“Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing which has not already its being within yourself… I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.”
East of Eden, John Steinbeck
This story of two families takes place in the Salinas Valley, California and covers time frames ranging from the Civil War to the end of Word War I. Steinbeck described this book as his “magnum opus.” I don’t know if this book should go in this category, but I do love it. It is my favorite Steinbeck and he deserves a place on any book list.
“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?”
“There’s more beauty in truth, even if it is dreadful beauty.”
Howl, Allen Ginsberg
This book of poetry is dark and maddening. It is a swirl of industrialized modern images conveyed in stream of consciousness. I was given Howl in college by my friend and fellow poet Joe, and have been a lover of Ginsberg and the Beats ever since.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated”
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Obviously, Kerouac and Ginsberg were kindred souls of their time. This novel is based upon the real-life travels of Kerouac and his friends as they explored a new America based upon counter-culture ideals. Also a recommendation from Joe, the quote below is one of my favorites. It graced the wall of my classroom (and later the walls of my office) as a reminder of what I love about literature.
“The only people for me are the mad ones. Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything and nothing at the same time. The ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the sky.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
Set in a psychiatric hospital, this novel was before its time when it comes to questioning the treatment of mental illness- and even what mental illness really is in our society. The main character is an admirable rebel amid a world of oppression. I actually read this book later in life than I should have, and when I did, I connected to the idea that, in the words of Tolkien, “not all those who wander are lost.”
“I don’t think I can give you an answer. Oh, I could give you Freudian reasons with fancy talk, and that would be right as far as it went. But what you want are the reasons for the reasons, and I’m not able to give you those. Not for the others, anyway. For myself? Guilt. Shame. Fear. Self-belittlement. I discovered at an early age that I was– shall we be kind and say different? It’s a better, more general world than the other one. I indulged in certain practices that our society regards as shameful. And I got sick. It wasn’t the practices, I don’t think, it was the feeling that the great, deadly, pointing forefinger of society was pointing at me–and the great voice of millions chanting, ‘Shame. Shame. Shame.’ It’s society’s way of dealing with someone different.”