This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2014. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s list comes to you from ZEST editor Alan Mattli.
Although I’ve become a little complacent in the second part of the year in terms of how much I have read, I am fairly happy with what I have achieved (book-wise) this year. I found the time to catch up on quite a few classics as well as some contemporary favourites, most of which I enjoyed very much. I finished 38 titles so far in 2014 and I’m still hoping to crack 40 in order to beat my Goodreads reading challenge. The following alphabetised list is a selection of those titles that made me feel and think the most, that stuck with me the most, and that I am looking forward to revisiting soon.
J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
There are so many reasons why this 1950s tale of teenage angst and alienation has become one of the most iconic American books of all time: it poignantly captures the feel of booming postwar New York as well as the preoccupations of a disassociated generation too young to be credited with winning the wars in Europe and the Pacific. It has a long history of making schools’ blacklists. And author J. D. Salinger’s fiercely upheld reclusiveness has of course become the stuff of legend. What stood out most to me, however, is simply the character of Holden Caulfield, our protagonist and narrator, who struck me as one of the most fleshed out, distinctive literary characters I have ever encountered. By the end of his rambling odyssey through the wintry Big Apple, I felt as engaged as I had rarely been before in a single character’s life (which probably would make me a “phoney” in Holden’s book).
Arthur Miller – The Crucible
If I needed any further convincing that The Crucible might be my new favourite play of all time after reading it in preparation for my English reading list exam, seeing it performed live on the stage of The Old Vic in London (starring Richard Armitage of The Hobbit fame) sealed the deal. Yaël Farber’s sparse, bleak interpretation of Miller’s sparse, bleak fictionalisation of the 1692 Salem witch trials brilliantly highlighted the universal truths conveyed in the stunning original text, published during the height of America’s anti-Communist “witch hunts” – the lamentable manipulative power wielded by deceptive individuals, the dangers of human gullibility, and the eternal struggle of reason in the face of vicious, fear-driven hysteria. The Crucible is a breathtaking four-act monument.
John Green – The Fault in Our Stars
After receiving a fair bit of additional attention thanks to a (perfectly serviceable) film adaptation, 2014 saw John Green’s young adult bestseller being subjected to serious backlash reactions, with commentators taking issue with seemingly everything from the book’s use of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House as a locale (admittedly a somewhat misguided passage) and its supposedly artificial dialogue to the fact that it’s set in affluent white suburbia. Frankly, such contrarian criticisms annoy me, but I won’t let them influence my admiration for the novel. I think Green’s love story about two cancer-stricken teenagers is an extremely touching piece of YA literature that, amid its engaging narrative, makes numerous points that ring heartbreakingly, beautifully true.
George R. R. Martin – A Game of Thrones
I’m not a particularly fast reader, so taking on a volume of roughly 800 pages like the first instalment of George R. R. Martin’s high-fantasy heptalogy A Song of Ice and Fire can be a daunting challenge. But the rousing blend of medieval power struggles and dungeons-and-dragons fantasy proved so engrossing that it barely took me three weeks (in the middle of a paper writing process) to finish it. It took me a while (100 pages or so) to wrap my head around Martin’s rich mythology and to familiarise myself with all the different characters and perspectives, but once I had managed that, I was enthralled. Especially in terms of storytelling, A Game of Thrones was one of the most captivating reads I came across in 2014.
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
What can be said about this that hasn’t been said already? The Great Gatsby is a multi-layered, awe-inspiring masterpiece of the highest order. Fewer than 50,000 words long, it features prose of utter beauty (see the final chapter for reference), biting social commentary embedded in a page-turning narrative, and indelible characters, for whom, even though most of them are as self-deluded as they are tragically shallow, you develop a strange attachment. It’s a fascinating tale of material gain and emotional loss that wholly deserves its status as a revered landmark of American literature.
Laurence Sterne – The Life and Opinons of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
I first heard about this 18th-century nine-volume oddity in Allen Reddick’s History of Literature in English lecture in the 2013 autumn semester. Shortly after being introduced to a few excerpts – wherein Laurence Sterne’s titular first-person narrator went beyond the boundaries of language, replacing text with squiggly lines, series of dashes and asterisks, and, at one point, a black page –, I saw Michael Winterbottom’s very funny quasi-film adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story and I was sold. I chose Tristram Shandy for my reading list exam and plowed through it in the winter break. Yes, it is an uphill struggle navigating through Sterne’s/Tristram’s meta-literary comments on what makes a novel (and on how it’s impossible to record life in full written detail), through his opaque descriptions of side characters’ biographies, through his countless digressions in which he references real and made-up philosophers, scientists, and Greek heroes and which include anecdotes of increasingly dubious relevance. But once you reach the memorable final line (which was probably not intended as such) – “L–d!’, said my mother, what is all this story about? A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick — And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard” –, you feel that it was all worthwhile. There is no doubt in my mind that I will reread this book for many years to come.
Herman Melville – Moby-Dick
It’s the most boring novel ever written, they said. It’s impossible to read, they said. Well, paint me unimpressed by those criticisms. Like Tristram Shandy, Herman Melville’s sprawling 600-page account of young Ishmael’s whaling journey on Captain Ahab’s Pequod is a challenge, no doubt, but it is just as rewarding. Apart from the highly arresting main narrative, detailing Ahab’s fateful hunt for the white sperm whale who bit off his leg, mirroring the captain’s obsession, there is dizzying chapter upon dizzying chapter about whale anatomy, whale behaviour, whales’ religious significance, whale imagery in art – you name it –, all written in beautiful eloquence with a density of reference that is nothing short of stunning. This, too, is a book that warrants – and, with its sheer depth, encourages – rereading. Moby-Dick is a literary monument that has stood the test of time.
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
The only novel by Oscar Wilde is an alluring Gesamtkunstwerk. Save perhaps for an overlong montage chapter at the centre of the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a wholly satisfying work. Wilde gracefully incorporates questions of ethics and philosophy into a thoroughly enthralling parabolic story, centering around the callous titular anti-hero whose egregiously hedonistic lifestyle is reflected only on a portrait of himself, whilst adhering to his trademark writing style that effortlessly combines the witty with the sublime. This, too, found its way into my reading list selection.
Stefan Zweig – Schachnovelle
One of only five German-language books I read in 2014 (the others being Die 13½ Leben des Käpt’n Blaubär, Federseel, Der Goalie bin ig, and Kanton Afrika), Schachnovelle, or The Royal Game, is just as readable and accessible as it is complex, becoming increasingly intense as layer upon layer of the carefully structured plot is unearthed. I think it’s not an overstatement to say that this novella reinvigorated my fondness for German-language literature, not least because of Zweig’s gorgeous prose, where, as is the case with Fitzgerald, every word feels like it was chosen and placed with absolute perfection.
Edward Albee – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Among the many reasons why I look back on my reading list semester with fondness is the fact that I have finally caught up on some modern theatre classics. The Crucible was one of them, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? another. Albee’s both acidic and strangely heartfelt deconstruction of American upper class intelligentsia is riddled with fantastic lines, outrageous acts of transgression, and underpinned by a brooding sense of nihilism – a satirical chamber play that incisively takes apart interpersonal dysfunctions and classist hypocrisy but never succumbs to cheap bitterness. As far as brash takedowns of foolish human behaviour are concerned, you won’t find many that are more tantalisingly cynical than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.