Reading is an individual experience and the reading process will most likely turn out differently from person to person. There certainly are some basic criteria that will define “good literature”, but what is important is to follow your own instincts and decide for yourself what you like to read.
Bearing this in mind, here are some titles that many people have enjoyed, both classics and contemporary literature. Click on the title and read the short introduction – and if your curiosity is stirred, pick it up, read and enjoy.
The Catcher in the Rye
This novel (by J.D.Salinger) was published in 1945, and was for a period of time banned in the USA. However this tells us more about the moral standards in the USA at the time than about the book. There is direct and rude language, and the protagonist is definitely not a good role model for young people, but in a modern perspective banning the book seems strange. But a ban works as good promotion, and “The Catcher” has been read by millions and is a classic in modern literature. It is the story of 17-year-old school drop-out Holden Caulfield who struggles to come to terms with himself and the adult world. He is bewildered and inconsistent, and his only clear notion is his antagonism towards what he calls the phoney world of grown-ups. He is lonely, and his only companion is his little sister, who adores him, but also puts him straight when that is needed. Holden has many plans and ideas, but never really achieves anything. Don’t let the title confuse you or keep you from reading the book, it will be explained during the story.
The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry is a contemporary Irish writer, whose “The Secret Scripture” was published in 2008. The story is told by old Roseanna McNulty who is nearly 100 years old. She is living in a mental hospital where she was committed as a young woman, and keeps her secret journals as a documentation of her life. She grew up in rural Ireland in the 1930s, a country marked by civil war, poverty and social unrest. She gave birth to a child which disappeared mysteriously. Now the old mental institution is to be knocked down, and her therapist has to decide whether the old lady is fit for a life outside the hospital. So he starts to look for her family or relatives who can take care of her. The book is beautifully written; the fate of this unfortunate girl really grips you. And – as the narrative unfolds you are in for a surprise…
This novel was written by Matthew Kneale and published in 2000. It is a fantastic story about the priest who gets the idea that The Garden of Eden is to be found in Tasmania. The year is 1857, and the reverend collects a team and sets out on a voyage on a smuggling vessel with a crew from Man, fleeing British Customs. In Tasmania the aboriginal people have been fighting a desperate battle against British invaders, and, as the English passengers will discover, the island is far from paradise on earth… The narrative technique is original, as all the characters are presented in a 1st person angle, and relates the events as they see them personally. This also goes for the aboriginal protagonist Peevay, which gives an interesting perspective of how the natives see the white invaders. The book is funny, dramatic and very well written.
Heart of Darkness
Joseph Conrad belongs to the late Victorian writers, and his famous “Heart of Darkness” was first published in 1902. His style, however, is more that of the upcoming modernist tradition. This novel is an example of his somewhat experimental literary technique, as it is told as a story within a story. The frame story is what goes on on the deck of “Nellie”, anchored on the Thames, where Captain Marlowe tells his story of what happened to him on the Congo River some years earlier. On a voyage up the river in search of the mystic Mr Kurtz who is doing dodgy deals with the natives for his own profit, Marlow sees (and Conrad describes) what the British Empire brought on the native populations of its colonies. The novel is the framework of Francis Ford Coppola’s spectacular film about the Vietnam War – “Apocalypse Now”, where we meet Captain Willard who is sent on a mission up the river to assassinate a certain Colonel Kurtz, a renegade green beret, who has set up his own private army in the Cambodian jungle. If you have seen the film, it is a must to read the book, and vice versa.
Always the Sun
“Always the Sun” is written by Neil Cross and published in 2004. It is the story of 13-year-old Jamie and his father, who have moved to a new place after Jamie’s mother died. They are ready for a fresh start in life, Jamie at a new school, and his father at a new job in his old home town. But Jamie is bullied at his new school, and his father wants to protect his son, and takes action. But things turn out rather differently from what he has planned, and gradually it gets out of hand… It is a dramatic and gripping novel about a father’s love and care for his son, and the way he tries to deal with the situation. Read the story – the end will hit you like a punch…
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
This is far more than a boy’s adventure story. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was published in1884 and is a classic in world literature. It is the story of the two escapees, Huck Finn and the run-away slave Jim and their voyage on a raft down the Mississippi river. The book is loosely related to “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876), but has a more profound and universal message. Both the books were banned from libraries when they were published, because the protagonists were not considered as good role models for children. But the realism with which Huck Finn is portrayed is what lifts the narrative and gives him credibility. Huck has moral doubts about what he is doing – helping a Negro slave escape, and stealing to survive, both considered serious crimes. But Huck is struggling with his conscience, which is what gives the novel a moral perspective and adds to its literary value. It is Mark Twain’s masterpiece, and has been enjoyed by generations because it simply is good literature. (Check out the article “Mark Twain” for more information.)
This is a must. If you are going to read one classic – it should be “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Brontë. The novel was published in 1845 and is still acclaimed as one of the best love stories in world literature. The story is set on the windswept moors of Yorkshire in the late 1700s. Heathcliff is brought into the Earnshaw household as an orphan, and is raised as a family member along with Mr Earnshaw’s two other children Catherine and Hindley. Soon Catherine and Heathcliff are inseparable, roaming the moors together, and gradually they fall in love with each other. But the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff is far more than a romantic love story; it is a tale of passion, jealousy, hate and revenge, and a love so absorbing and obsessing that it becomes destructive. The novel has been filmed many times, the ITV-version from 2009 is highly recommended. You may also want to check out the British pop singer Kate Bush’s dramatic song “Wuthering Heights”, particularly the “red dress” video version which you will find on YouTube.
Revolutionary Road is written by Richard Yeates and was published in 1961. It became an immediate success and is today a standard classic in American contemporary literature. It is Yeates most famous novel by far and it was acclaimed by contemporary writers such as Nick Hornby, Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut. The novel tells the story about the young couple Frank and April Wheeler, both talented and good-looking with dreams and hopes for the future. But beneath the surface of suburban America we see failure, alcoholism, adultery and betrayal. One by one their dreams and ideals are broken, what is left are emptiness and despair, and gradually we watch this once promising and seemingly successful family fall apart. The film version, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (2008, Sam Mendes) received good reviews and was nominated to three Academy Awards.
“Pigeon English” is an extraordinary piece of literature. It is written by Stephen Kelman and was published in 2011, and has received more acclaim than what is usual for a debutant novel. It was even short-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2011, the most prestigious literary award in Britain. The story is told through eyes and mind of the 11-year old Harrison Opoku who has moved from Ghana to England with his mother and sister, while his father and baby sister stay back home, but they communicate on Skype. Harrison is trying to adapt to his new life in the rough and often dangerous inner-city London environment. A boy is stabbed one day, and Harrison and a friend starts an investigation on their own, a perilous undertaking… From a cultural aspect the story is very interesting, as it reveals the conflicting sets of values between the immigrants and the local population, but Harrison is observing and eager to learn. His first visit to the London underground is both funny and thought-provoking. The style and language is quite original, dialogues are in 1st person, like a manuscript (Me: “I’m all right.”), and the language is “pigeon” – the somewhat broken English spoken by West Africans. (E.g. “asweh” instead of “I swear”.) But also the real pigeons play an important role in Harrison’s life, and they even communicate with him. The narrative is more a line of episodes than a chronological plot. The book even comes with a reading guide, with topics for discussion and an interview with the author, which also is an original concept. But – a book for adults narrated by an 11-year-old? Well, it really works – check it out and see for yourself.