Please note: I have intentionally decided not to include Amazon links (unless something is available exclusively on Amazon). Instead, if you are interested in reading any of the books I mention, I encourage you to check out your local library or independent bookstore. These places (and the communities around them) need your support, and they are generally quite willing to order any book if they don’t currently have it in stock. However, if Amazon is still the more practical choice for you, it is easy enough to search and find any of the titles that I mention.
*Warning: Some minor spoilers for a couple of the books ahead*
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
I listened to the audio version of this on a road-trip north, and it’s still one of my favorite of Gaiman’s books. It’s also the book that I usually recommend as the best introduction to Gaiman’s work. One of the things that really struck me this time is the beautiful message of self-sacrifice at the end of the story. The narrator, such a young and timid boy, acts with great courage and is willing to even give his own life for the sake of the rest of the world. Lettie, the other primary character, is also then willing to give her life for him, even though in the grand scheme of things he would seem pretty insignificant compared to her. Gaiman has such a gift for writing young characters; how they are both inherently selfish but still naturally good. Especially for those of us who were timid and sensitive as young children, he captures how frightening the world can be when you are young, but he also gives you the tools to combat those fears. He shows that no matter how scary the world might be, there are still good people and creatures who will love you and fight for you and help you to fight for yourself.
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
I could seriously write whole essays on each one of the letters in this book. As it is, when I was reading the book this time (it’s at least my second or third time through) I started marking down at the beginning of each letter what topic it primarily deals with, such as humility, gluttony, war, etc. In writing from the diabolical perspective, Lewis holds up a mirror to the world clearer than any other. I saw so many glimpses of myself and my own habits, far more than in any stories of the saints. Lewis had a deep understanding of the human condition, the reality of sin, and how the devil works on us, blinding us to his presence and easing us down that gradual road to Hell. But Lewis still ends with hope, and always shows how God is constantly reaching out to us as well; but it’s up to us to reach back to Him.
The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is only the second time that I have read this book, but I loved it so much more than even the first time I read it. I think it helped to know better what to expect from the format, which is more a collection of mythology than one continuous story-line. One of the things that struck me so much during this reading was not only the beauty of Tolkien’s writing but also the depth of theological thought that it is imbued with. His description of Creation and the Music of the Ainur easily rivals anything of Milton, but it’s the complexity of characters that show what a true master he was. Especially with Feanor and his sons and all of the tragedy that they cause, yet the acknowledgement that Finwe’s other sons were great and noble and the world would have been lessened without them even if it would have prevented the grief caused by Feanor. The other thing that I was impressed with was the diversity of Tolkien’s female characters, which are really far better than any other Fantasy book I have read. He has female warriors, but also those who are very feminine, and they are all strong, wise, and as capable as any of the male characters. I no longer have any patience for those who try to criticize Tolkien as a misogynist.
Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
This is easily one of the most important books that I have ever read, though in a lot of ways I don’t feel like I can fully appreciate it yet. It’s one of those books that I know I will have to keep returning to over and over again as my own knowledge and understanding of the world increases. There are so many things about how the world works today that we take completely for granted, yet there have been so many inventions throughout history that have changed not only how we live our lives but how we think and how we process the world around us. McLuhan was writing in the 1960s, and yet he was already predicting many of the effects that the Internet and mass communication would have on society. He was already witnessing the many changes to culture brought about by things like the wireless, radio, telephones, and television. I can only imagine all that he would have to say about current social media and the 24-hour news services.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
I have such mixed feelings about this book. It is very imaginative and clever, and the second half of the book in particular is very engaging. However, a lot of the time it also feels like just an over-indulgent wet dream for every male who came of age in the 1980s. In the first part of the book, the narrative gets bogged down a lot with lengthy descriptions and explanations to set up the world and circumstances. The character descriptions are all rather cliche as well as striving for political correctness: the love interest who is practically perfect except for her insecurity about the “flaw” of a port-wine birthmark on her face; the best friend who seems the perfect “dude” but then turns out to be a black lesbian; and even the hero, who is first described as acne-prone and chubby, but then of course gets buff, gets the girl, and saves the day. He represents every nerd boy’s dream. The overall premise of the books is intriguing, but it was Cline’s first novel and so I think he gets a little too self-indulgent at times and didn’t always know how to handle the information that he wanted to get across. I think the movie actually did a better job conveying an actual message and important theme, which is the difference between a first-time novelist and an experienced filmmaker.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
I first read this book in college and wasn’t sure how I would feel about it now, but I still absolutely love it. Burgess was a genius. First, his use of language is brilliant. The entire book is written in a slang that he invented, using words that aren’t actually words, but after the first few pages the meanings are all very clear and it doesn’t feel tedious. (It reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s masterful use of language in the Jabberwocky poem.) This invented slang primarily serves the purpose of allowing Burgess to describe horrific scenes of rape and violence, from the perspective of the perpetrator, without having to be excessively graphic. As a reader, I appreciated the mental distance that the language allowed while the point of the scenes was still able to be conveyed. And the horrific violence is of course one of the main points that the book is meant to bring up; that, and the significance of free will. Is a person really good if they have no choice in the matter? Does a society without free will, even if it is free from crime, have real value? Then there is the significant final chapter, which was originally cut from the American edition and thus from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. In that final chapter, the protagonist, up to that point a sadistic and callous boy, begins to grow up. We see that just by reaching an age of maturity he starts to lose his taste for violence and destruction, and he starts to desire settling down and having a family. This developmental statement is so significant and changes the entire message of the story. So if you read this book, make sure it has all 21 chapters.
The Golden Key, by George MacDonald
I am pretty sure that I read somewhere that this was Tolkien’s favorite of MacDonald’s stories, and I can see why. It’s not a long story, but it is filled with depth and nuances that leave you much to ponder after you’ve finished. Allusions to Plato’s shadows in the Allegory of the Cave were particularly delightful to me. MacDonald’s descriptions of the oldest beings having the youngest appearances also reminded of the G.K. Chesterton quote about how “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” My edition has an Afterword by W.H. Auden, and one of the things he discusses about MacDonald is the goodness to be found in his stories. His characters are always striving to do their moral best. There is goodness and sincerity in all of them, a sweetness that is still interesting and compelling. Such a concept is very refreshing in this time of Game of Thrones.