The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane (1895)
“He felt that something of which he was a part – a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country – was in crisis. He was welded into a common personality dominated by a single desire.”
I was initially going to pick something by Ernest Hemingway, but Crane came first and helped inspire Hemingway’s unique prose style. Apart from anything else, the book makes you feel inadequate once you realise that it is a classic American Civil War novel written by a 23-year-old who had never experienced battle. But this shouldn’t put you off, as The Red Badge of Courage is written in wonderfully simple, powerful language, and was one of the first to explore the turbulent emotions of warfare. It’s also been described as a watershed that paved the way for the greats of the 20th century… but apart from anything else it’s a pithy and compelling read with arresting descriptions and convincing dialogue.
The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon (1965)
“If miracles were, as Jesús Arrabal had postulated years ago, intrusions into this world from another, a kiss of cosmic pool balls, then so must be each of the night’s post horns.”
This is a weird book. Thomas Pynchon is known for his sprawling epic Gravity’s Rainbow, but The Crying of Lot 49 is an immensely compact novella about paranoia and the unknown. It is not a book about drugs, but reading it is the literary equivalent of 2C-B. Its publication date is enough to indicate the cultural shifts American society was undergoing when it was being written, and as a piece of post-modernism it contains a remarkable blend of solipsistic pondering, beautiful imagery, and larger-than-life eccentricity. The plot revolves around a woman’s increasingly obsessive journey to unravel the cryptic clues behind an apparently extraordinary secret – but conspiracies are hard to unearth when reality itself dissolves into mirage. It is the only book I know featuring a character with a name like Mike Fallopian.
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction – Mark Lilla (2016)
“The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind. Where others see the river of time flowing as it always has, the reactionary sees the debris of paradise drifting past his eyes. He is time’s exile.”
Not fiction, although often literary in style, Lilla’s slim book was published two months before the election of Donald Trump. It traces what must be one of the most important intellectual strands in today’s political climate, that of nostalgia, both for the past and (paradoxically) for an imagined future. Modernity has always left behind those who pine for something lost, and these days such people dominate the political scene in many countries. Lilla takes us through a history of such ideas, up to the present day, and shows us what links the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack and the far-right that was emboldened as a result. He is also a massive critic of liberal identity politics, and his viral 2016 New York Times article on that subject is well worth a read.