Literarily Speaking: Books You Absolutely Must Read

By BILL BONVIE | Oct 17, 2018

Is it possible that we’re now actually in the midst of a popular rebirth of reading?

I’m talking about a revival of interest in perusing real and actual books. From PBS’s “The Great American Read” to Esquire magazine’s “30 Books Every Man Should Read by 30,” there is mounting evidence that such a literary renaissance is indeed in progress.  

And much of the credit, I believe, belongs not so much to Oprah Winfrey as to President Trump.

The man who reportedly has never read a book all the way through, let alone written the ones with his name attached to them, seems to have inspired us as a nation to seek solace, sagacity and, indeed, sanity by tapping into the thoughts and revelations of wise and witty writers.

As author Will Schwalbe observed, “Books remain one of the few defenses we have against narrowness, domination, and mind control.” In a way, we’re almost like a nation of incarcerated souls, having to rely on the prison library while counting the weeks and months until our release date.

Not that this doesn’t have a personal down side. For despite rarely if ever having been without a book since the age of 10, when I spent my summer vacation perusing the thousand-plus pages of Gone with the Wind, it’s made me realize just how far I have yet to go to be considered truly “well read.”

At the same time, however, I’ve become acutely aware of how many of what I regard as some of the best books on the planet somehow seem to have been left off these “must-read” lists. And I think that’s a situation that cries out for correction.

So here, in no particular order, are some additional works that I would recommend you drop everything and run out and get:

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson. Imagine the destructive fury of a monster hurricane similar to the one that ravaged the Florida Panhandle last week being visited on a thriving barrier-island city of nearly 38,000, only with no one having been evacuated. That’s what happened to Galveston, Texas, in September 1900, as recounted in all its horrific detail by the author of the highly acclaimed The Devil in the White City. At the center of this saga of what is still considered America’s worst natural disaster in terms of lives lost is the one man who might have warned the unsuspecting residents to flee (and saved his own wife and unborn child) – had a lethal combination of hubris, corruption and jingoism not kept him from doing so. 

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. This is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a “whomp.” At least, that’s how this book’s legendary author, a literary prankster with a background in chemical engineering, envisioned the ultimate outcome of a highly eccentric scientist being asked by the military to come up with a solution to a bothersome tactical problem that has nothing whatsoever to do with nuclear weaponry, and passing the resulting discovery on to his children. And science isn’t the only thing satirized here. There’s also a perverse poke at religion, with a totally original and outlandish one irreverently woven into the facetious fabric of this sci-fi fable from the author of  Slaughterhouse Five (which seems to be on everyone’s list).

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. Who knows what turmoil lurks in the hearts of some of our most seemingly placid places? That would be none other than the author of the Harry Potter series. This tragicomic and tangled tale of the ripple effect that the sudden loss of one indispensable individual can have on a town full of ostensibly ordinary people – without any supernatural trappings whatsoever – is one that casts a page-turning spell all on its own.

When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle. In going over those aforementioned lists, I am especially vexed by the absence of one name in particular. Where is T.C. Boyle? The one-time hippie-turned-college professor is by far one of America’s most talented, versatile, funny and literate writers of reality-based fiction. In this novel, he’s skillfully interwoven the tale of how a feud between a naturalist and an animal-rights activist spirals out of control with a fascinating history of California’s Channel Islands and a related secondary drama. The confrontation in which the latter episode culminates and the tragic climax of the main story are sure to be forever etched in your memory.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. While the ending may be a bit of a stretch, this “what-if” novel in which New Jersey’s favorite literary son (who passed away only a few months ago) re-imagined his own childhood against the backdrop of an alternative version of pre-World War II events in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president, is otherwise not only highly plausible, but seems especially prescient in the Age of Trump.

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie. What does an author do when the novel he just had published not only becomes a No. 1 bestseller, but gets him a death sentence? That, of course, is what famously happened to Rushdie following the 1989 publication of his fantasy novel, The Satanic Verses, as recounted in this highly personal memoir of the years he spent in hiding from the resulting fatwah placed on him by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. The title is the alias he was forced to adopt while being schlepped from pillar to post by a phalanx of Scotland Yard bodyguards. Some of the incidents he recounts are utterly horrific, while others, such as his first trip to America during this period, are absolutely hilarious.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. It’s not every writer who would spend a couple years chronicling the lives of the poorest of the poor – let alone one who was having her own health problems. Pulitzer-winning journalist Boo did just that, becoming intimately acquainted with the residents, especially the children, of Annawadi, a makeshift squatters’ slum bordered by a sewage lake on the outskirts of the Mumbai Airport. The resulting saga of families whose survival is sustained by scavenging, and of how the fortunes of one in particular were upended by a neighbor’s deranged behavior, compounded by the corruption of the local authorities, is a remarkable recounting of the suffering, hopes and even heroism of people too often dismissed as the dregs of humanity.

The Outside of a Horse by Ginny Rorby. I would be remiss if I didn’t include something in the “young adult” novel category. This novel of how a teenager’s love of horses helps rescue her father, who returns from serving in Iraq suffering from a severe case of PTSD, actually will appeal to people of all ages. (I should also mention that the author is a friend and former classmate of mine, but that’s not the reason I’m recommending this book. I also happen to consider her one of our best living writers on themes that deal with the conflicts kids face in growing up.)

Well, there they are, my own list of books that I would highly recommend, lest you miss out on some of the most inspired, informative and entertaining writing out there. Just don’t become so immersed in them that you forget to vote.

Bill Bonvie of Little Egg Harbor Township is a co-author of Badditives! The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them and author of the essay collection Repeat Offenders.



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