Books can be many things. They are entertaining, intriguing, informative, and even shocking. Great authors have often been impactful in ways we can’t even imagine, and this list is dedicated to showing how exactly that can be. The books on this list are provocative, they challenge the mode, they make us think about ourselves in ways we never thought possible; sometimes they even predict the future. Whatever they do for us, it is worth giving each of them a read through.
At the outset, I’ll say that this list is my own. If you were to look at many top ten or top 100 book lists you’d likely find overlap, but not much. This list also incorporates fiction and non-fiction works, a feat that isn’t always attempted. I implore you as a reader to give any “best books” list a shot. Most of them overlap for a reason and there are many books that have not been incorporated into this list that could have easily made it. Books like Slaughterhouse Five, The Trial, Ulysses, and really anything by William Faulkner or Ernest Hemmingway consistently make “best book” lists for a reason.
10 Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Rand forwards quite a persuasive depiction of a world run by industrious and selfish (yes selfish!) people. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand depicts a world in which the industrious and self-interested innovators and businesspeople literally begin to disappear. As a result, the engine of the world grinds to a halt. Her famous characters who embody passion, assiduous dedication to their work, a self-centered love and incomparable intellectual prowess contribute to a novel that will have you embracing an individualistic attitude. If you were ever interested in exploring the psychology of a bootstrapping businessperson, I recommend this book highly.
9 Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf
Loneliness can swallow a person whole. In Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, that is exactly what happens to Harry Haller who is pulled into an increasingly unusual journey due to the beautiful Hermine. His brilliant novel weaves in themes relating to nationalism, depression, life and death, suicide, drugs, love and sex, self-image, and even the nature of the soul. A large portion of the story is devoted to exploring the ideas of suicide and depression and is often credited as a dark examination of the human psyche.
However, as Hesse notes in the preface to the novel’s 1960 edition, Steppenwolf is not meant to be a novel of depression. In fact, it is meant to demonstrate how one can explore their own feelings to find satisfaction in their madness. Some may be destined for self-destruction, but all have the potential to be “immortals” if they can shake off their fixation on disappointment and despair. Finally, to be immortal is to understand yourself as a many-headed beast with often competing and contradictory inner selves vying for primacy.
8 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization
Borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche, Foucault employs a method called genealogy to trace the roots of our conceptions (or preconceptions) of madness. What he finds is that the definition and subsequent application of madness is inextricably linked to the enlightenment. From the rise of the enlightenment, the Western paradigm shifted from an emphasis on piety to that of reason. Subsequently, if the reasonable man is portrayed as mature and wise, those who are unreasonable are depicted as children. If reason means upholding the utmost humanity, unreason is a regression into animalism. All of this is reflected in the treatments given to unreasonable patients ranging from imprisonment, beatings and denunciation to treatment and the birth of the asylum.
This examination illustrates a more universal effect of what postmodern thinkers often refer to as the “other.” It is a common practice for humans to define themselves in a dichotomous relationship with (often imaginary) contrary groups. All of which is meant to direct us to the conclusion that our current paradigm and the need to identify ourselves as good people can have severely detrimental effects if left unchecked.
7 Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is one of the first psychological thrillers to ever be conceived. Most strikingly, the story does not follow its protagonist from one desperate attempt to secure goods to another leading to a climactic murder scene. Instead, it opens with the act and follows it's protagonist through his mental states following the murder. This is where Crime and Punishment truly shines.
With the electric events of his actions, Raskolnikov is left to dish out punishment on himself through his increasingly deteriorated psyche. The result is a beautiful tale of redemption and despair that forces the reader to sympathize with the character they should like to revile – the killer of two innocent women and a petty thief. Nonetheless, his attempts to atone for his actions and his fits of immense compassion are enough to generate a deep sense of reflection on what we consider right or wrong and who we judge with those labels.
6 Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
There seems to be quite a dearth of spirituality in contemporary society. On the one hand, religions and spiritual groups are ubiquitous. On the other hand, these groups and the activities they partake in are becoming increasingly more commonplace in a way that is no longer spiritual. Coelho’s The Alchemist manages to find a shining light in this otherwise dark world of consumer religiosity. Along the protagonist's journey, he learns how to listen to his heart and observe the signs given to him by the universe. He also learns that, with enough will and desire, it will conspire to bring him what he truly wants.
The Alchemist is a profoundly spiritual book, offering readers the ability to walk alongside its protagonist through their own awakening. Not only does it restore one’s fragile faith in their spiritual being, but it also facilitates their further growth through deep introspection.
5 Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451
Of the science fiction genre, I have never seen a book that more accurately describes a possible future than this one. Now, I understand that the likes of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell will continue to be huge influences on our current and increasingly more probable future outlooks. However, Bradbury does something that these novels fail to do – he fluidly portrays both sides of our society.
Bradbury, with grace and subtlety, is able to weave both an individual tendency to acquire meaningless pleasures and a system of totalitarianism in his novel. Like Huxley, he depicts a future where superficial interactions and an emphasis on pleasure lead people often to a depressing and meaningless existence. Akin to Orwell, he portrays a society marred by its disability to cope with individual freedom and creativity.
4 William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Perhaps one of the most challenging books in the English language, Faulkner tells the anachronistic tale of the Compsons of Jefferson Mississippi who must face the implosion of their family structure when suicide, incest, cynicism, selfishness and mental degradation all take their tolls. Faulkner employs a non-linear stream of consciousness style in which each of the Compson sons recount their intertwined lives. Throughout the story, the themes of racism, corruption, resurrection and chaos are woven into the fragile biographies of the characters. There are two reasons why this book may change your life. First, the themes are both impactful and applicable to anyone’s life. Second, this is not a book that can be glossed over. It demands your attention and in so doing, it forces you as a reader to develop a critical and detail-oriented outlook.
3 Adam Smith, A Theory of Moral Sentiments
Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism in his seminal work, The Wealth of Nations, attempted to create a system that holistically incorporated many of the ideas of the enlightenment. For that reason, many of us use and abuse the name of the “Great Adam Smith” in relation to the economic system we find ourselves in. Most importantly, we often conceive of capitalism as an anarchic form of self-interested strategizing.
Smith was a moralist philosopher - which is directly contrary to this view. Coupled with his political and economic theories, Smith argued that individuals would be motivated to secure harmony and work for the common good. In it, he both reviled and mocked self-interested individuals for devoting their lives to a superficial and meaningless cause – the acquisition of capital. Finally, Smith placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of considering others in making proper moral decisions. Why is all this so important? Well it’s good to keep in mind that our political and economic systems were never founded upon blatant self-satisfaction (Ayn Rand), but on a common purpose between individuals and a collective.
2 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Shelley’s Frankenstein is nothing like the movies. The monster isn’t dumb nor does he have bolts protruding from his neck. However, he is quite strikingly repulsive looking. What Shelley lacks in cheesy 50s era movie-making, she compensates for by offering on of the most thoughtful and intriguing novels ever created. Two of the most relevant and powerful ideas are examined. This first is isolation. Frankenstein literally shuts himself off from the world at first to create, then to find and destroy his own monster manifested in his “experiment.” Then, by a turn of events, we come to realize that the nameless monster has also faced the loneliness of being different, though he desperately wishes to be normal.
Second, Shelley offers a grim prognostication for society’s reliance on scientific discovery. We must all face the repercussions of the priority we place on innovation. They can often be detrimental to our safety both physically (as is the case of nuclear energy and fast food to name a couple), as well as psychologically (the effects of cyber-bullying, ubiquitous advertising and the constant need for interaction through communication technology).
1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky analyses the ideas of family relationships, religion, death, love, the paralyzing effect of doubt, free will, morality, and justice and redemption (to name a few). It is world renowned for offering endearing characters that embody many different opinions on these varied themes. With the combination of each individual's differing ideas, Dostoevsky creates a community of real and complex values and behaviors. Though Dostoevsky was a devoted Christian, he offers one of the most puzzling and compelling rejections of religion in literature. The Grand Inquisitor is a grim exploration of humanity's free will and from it, the ability to willfully ignore the path of righteousness for ease and baser pleasures.