Photo by Asal Lotfi on Unsplash
It’s been a while, but I feel like writing again. There are several reasons as to why I’m doing this: firstly, I regained my joy in literature and film last year. Secondly, since I’ve read loads of novels and watched even more films, I’ve been wondering about my personal top tens in all sorts of media, so this is a good excuse to figure out my personal favourites and talk about them. Finally, this feels like a nice entry point to get back into writing, as people can get to know me more and maybe we can start some conversations and find new things to enjoy. – Seems like a win-win situation to me.
On a sidenote: I’ve just gotten back into reading, so this might be somewhat basic and sci-fi heavy, as that’s pretty much my favourite genre. That being said, I hope you enjoy this list and maybe we can share more recommendations in the comments. Enjoy!
10. The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien
The LOTR series is an established classic of fantasy and its impact on the genre is undeniable: humans coexisting with elves, dwarves, orcs and such in a fantasy setting was put on the map by these novels.
Apart from that, despite its age, this series’ take on masculinity is not toxic but rather positive, which I never realised until someone pointed it out to me, but once you consider this point, it makes this series feel all the more glorious. Now, why is part one my favourite? There are several reasons for this, one being the overall atmosphere, which shifts towards horror when the Nazgûl stalk the hobbits who are powerless when faced with them, and another one being the world building and humour. There’s a section when Gandalf provides some exposition about middle earth, which takes about 200 pages of the novel, if I remember correctly, and apart from that, there are so many bizarre moments that make you really appreciate the changes made in the films while simultaneously making you laugh. The Fellowship of the Ring is the set-up for the rest of the journey, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, even more so than its sequels.
9. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
This is going to come off as super pretentious, but I love Virginia Woolf and her literature was my research interest throughout my bachelor studies. Mrs Dalloway offers a heartbreaking insight into life after WW I by contrasting a day in the lives of Clarissa Dalloway, a wealthy woman who is organising a party, and Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked World War veteran, who struggles to survive in a society responsible for and completely ignorant of his trauma. Their stories run parallel to one another and at some point intersect, leaving you to make sense of their connections to each other. For those who are interested: there is also a queer subtext to this novel and various academic approaches focus on this reading. If you are hoping for a fun time, though, this is not going to offer that. This novel is really depressing but beautiful at the same time, as Woolf really pushes the envelope of what can be done with literature as a medium, as common for high modernist authors. This is a classic for a reason and if you are interested in literature, you should read this book.
8. Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert
Since I don’t want to spoil anything about the events of the next Dune film, I am going to keep this short. Dune Messiah is a worthy sequel to the original Dune novel that sucks you straight back into the universe that it is set in. As in the original, you find yourself wrapped up in power struggles and conspiracies, which keep you engaged until the very end of this short novel.
While this entry into the series does not focus as much on the world building as the first one did, it makes for an entertaining read and continues where part one left off, further complicating the internal struggles of its protagonists and the intriguing themes of this series. There is a lot of symbolism to this book’s plot and it is written quite introspectively. On top of all that, Herbert really managed to stun me with his use of language in this work, as he made me feel at awe at how pungently he manages to describe the very abstract issues and concepts that he tackles. As such, this novel makes for an incredible experience, but some novels just got me more engaged, even years after reading, as the next entry into this list.
7. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Another classic that is old but gold, Frankenstein, is a hearbreaking story about the creation of artificial life without any concern for the consequences. More than two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley was the one to shape science fiction with her most well-known novel about the titular scientist who creates a living being from parts of corpses. (Frankenstein is the name of the creator, not of the creature).
This made it onto this list for several reasons: firstly, it is another heart-breaking story that managed to make me feel something, secondly, I love sci-fi, and thirdly, Mary Shelley was really progressive and is one of the best examples showcasing just how early people started questioning the way we deal with non-human animals and other humans. This novel has a massive vegetarian and feminist subtext and holds up to this day as a great, entertaining read.
6. Dune – Frank Herbert
Spot six goes to another novel from Frank Herbert’s first trilogy in the universe surrounding the Atreides family, this time to the original novel. As in LOTR, this book serves as the build-up to everything that comes after and stunningly crafts an intricate world of conspiracies and power struggles on the intersection of sci-fi and fantasy.
Again, no spoilers, so to keep this short: the world-building is what this book excels at but its plot is similarly strong and Paul makes for a very interesting and influential protagonist, as the impact that he had on some more recent stories is impeccable. Herbert’s writing style is awesome and there is one point that I still vividly remember where something big happens, yet the way that this is conveyed to the readers is so subtle, yet effective, you might just glimpse over what’s going on and at the same time perfectly get what’s happening. Add some interesting themes surrounding imperialism and environmentalism and there you have a classic that is old but still as relevant as ever.
5. Invisible Monsters – Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk is a badass. He is the author who wrote Fight Club and after finally watching that film in its entirety last year, I had to start reading his catalogue. One novel in, having read what was supposed to be his first novel, I can confidently say that I am going to read all of this man’s pieces of fiction.
Invisible Monsters revolves around a disfigured woman whose story unfolds in seemingly random order but there is a purpose behind this chaos: some of the events that we learn about appear to be disconnected from one another if you take them at face value, but once the story continues, you start to unravel the mysteries and the novel becomes increasingly difficult to read, as you get more and more scared to continue reading.
Invisible Monsters touches on very dark subject matter and feels very much like a product of its time, given some of the characters’ statements. Palahniuk’s cynicism in this work is pungent, even brutal in parts, and disrupts the time it was written in while still being applicable today when people seem to be over-reliant on a craving for recognition and self-fulfillment. The novel takes a massive jab at all this and oftentimes feels mean while things get continually worse for the characters involved as the plot progresses. This is a stunning experience if you can stomach it, but I have to give a content warning for suicidal ideation, mutilation, sexualised violence and homophobia. This should give you a vague idea of some of the dark topics that you can expect from this novel. It really packs a punch.
4. House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Before we make it to the top ranks, here is a hot contender, the one novel that I love but cannot recommend to anyone. When it comes to this book, there are various interpretations, so here is mine: House of Leaves is a bizarre meta-commentary on the potential of literature that delves into psychological horror.
The meta-level is strong in this one. Basically, you read a fictional book that has been edited after a fictional character has found and edited it in an attempt to make sense of its content. If that’s not confusing enough as is, House of Leaves tells various stories in a fragmentary form. One is that of the house on Ash Tree Lane, which is conveyed in form of a scientific film analysis to a film that does not exist. The second story is told in the foot notes, as Johnny Truant tries to make sense of the book he has found in an abandoned house where weird stuff went down, which now appears to be happening to him. He tells his own story in the footnotes and documents how this book ruins his life. That is a spoiler-free synopsis of this novel and it should give you a vague idea about why I cannot recommend it to anyone: chances are high that you are not going to like it, because there is barely anything like it.
This was my first experience with ergotic fiction and I’m planning to take a deeper dive into that art form. Apart from the weirdness and fragmentation in it, this is a very strong horror novel that really harnesses the prospects of literature as an art form and pushes it to its limits while using them to make you experience the horror depicted on its pages for yourselves. Here’s one example of this: at one point, a group of characters find themselves in a staircase and try to lift someone out of there, using a rope, which works at first – until the rope snaps and the novel itself uses the layout of its text to convey the process of the rope tearing apart and the terror tied to this (pun not intended but lol). Words basically fall apart and this process stretches over several pages, some of which with only one word each, and while this may seem overly dramatic, it sucked me right in while reading, as it really added to the horror aspect of this novel. This is truly an experience like no other, but one cannot recommend it to anyone in good conscience, as it can be really difficult to get your head around. I’m not going to forget the house on Ash Tree Lane anytime soon.
3. Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
From this point onward, there is only going to be literature that broke me and made me cry. The first novel, or rather novella or short story, to achieve this was Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
You probably know the story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up as an insect and now has to come to terms with not being able to provide for his family who now treat him even worse than before. This is a heart-breaking tale about self-estrangement and alienation in capitalism and it was among the first pieces of this medium that really made me feel something. If you have not read this story yet, go rectify that and read it as soon as possible. It is really short and incredibly dark, yet entertaining, as you cannot turn a blind eye to the grotesque in this story. Plus, it inspired one of my favourite pieces of art ever, Tokyo Ghoul, so additional credit for that.
2. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Next up is one of the two novels that gave me back my joy in literature: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Six stories spanning across different ages all cut off at one particularly important point just to be continued and resolved in reverse order, now going back in time and finishing with the conclusion of the first story introduced in this novel. All of these stories are connected and once you get a sense of the greater picture, everything just falls into place and you might feel an unrivaled sense of empowerment.
Cloud Atlas is a post-modern novel about the nature of humanity that confronts you with all sorts of atrocities committed by humankind and raises the question whether it is all worth it. What can we do in light of all these events and can we even make a difference, even if we try? Well, the answer this novel has to offer is the following:
” […] ‘only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!
Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas, 529.
We are part of this world, whether we like it or not, and that brings a responsibility with it. If we just turn a blind eye and sit idle, nothing is going to change, so even if it may seem like it is all for nothing in the end, this world is still worth existing in and it is worth fighting for. After all, we can never know what ripples the smallest drop may cause and not doing anything is surely not going to change things for better. You can’t live if you don’t even try and you won’t achieve anything if you don’t take the first step.
1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
Finally, the novel that got me back into literature for good, the one that would later on be known as Blade Runner. The original Blade Runner is revered as a classic but what if I told you that it does not come close to the original source material?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is amongst the most disheartening stories I have experienced thus far and provides a reading experience like no other. Despite its short length of just above 200 pages, this dystopian sci-fi classic feels like a much longer journey, even given its short reading time – in a good way. On the first 50 pages alone, Dick created more depth than you experience in the entirety of some novels, as there is just so much going on in the world of blade runners and androids.
Thematically, this book revolves around the basic sci-fi question of what it means to be human, but it also touches on post-humanism, mostly the question how humanity interacts with non-human beings, non-human animals and androids alike, but also with religion. These themes are at the heart of its plot, really tying the story together, even with the title itself, which you might understand once you’ve read the novel. The story really kicks off when Luba Luft comes around and casually destroys all preconceived notions of what is true and what is not.
With this story, Philip K. Dick managed to disrupt all distinctions between human and non-human, organic and artificial life, connecting them all together in a fast-paced, ridiculously deep and well-thought-out plot that is going to tear on your heartstrings. As it turns out, humanity is not all that humane, which this book discovers in great depth.
As stated earlier, I adore sci-fi, as it touches on so many themes and topics that I am interested in, especially the relationship between humanity and the non-human in its various shapes.
Some of these stories, especially the former two, had a massive impact on me and made me realise what I want to do with my limited time on this planet. Now what about you? Are there any novels that had a lasting impact on you? Have you read any of these novels or do you know similar ones? Please tell me in the comments or on social media, I’d love to hear about more stories like these ones.
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Thank you for reading!
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