I believe firmly in the power of fiction. A book is an experience that can change you just as much as any other experience can. Here are five books that influence the way you look at the world, in no particular order….
1. Winesburg, Ohio
What it’s about: This is a series of short stories following the lives of people living in a small town. The book follows George Willard on his coming-of-age journey, offering the reader a peek into the lives of unique, finely crafted characters along the way.
How it will change your life: If you’ve ever felt constrained by the pressures of life and beaten down by the invisible force of society, you will relate to these stories.
Were there ever a book in existence that could explain why people don’t escape the situations they find themselves in, this is it. If you’ve ever personally felt stuck and wondered why things never change for you, Winesburg, Ohio could help you make sense of it. It’s rich, complex characters find themselves in prisons of their own making, and while not all of them find their way out, they each have a lesson to teach. Their stories can help you realize what it is that seems to keep you in the same place, year after year, struggling with the same old problems.
2. Pale Fire
What it’s about: There is more than one way to kill a man. The narrator of this marvelous story claims to be giving the reader the true story behind his relationship with the author of a poem, and the meaning behind it. But as you read, you begin to realize that his story isn’t all that he claims.
How it will change your life: What is worse; bodily death or the twisting of your legacy? Nabokov’s book shows how dangerous and powerful words are, especially fiction. Anyone who wants to be a writer should pick up a copy of this and read it, because this short book will demonstrate to you how much more powerful a story can be than reality. One of the best works of “metafiction” of all literature, it invites you to create a “true” story that goes beyond the one you are being told by the narrator. Once you see Nabokov’s story-behind-a-story unfold in your imagination, you will have a whole new appreciation for what a storyteller can do.
3. Les Misarables
What it’s about: Jean Valjean was imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Afterward, he tries to lead a noble life, but circumstances put him on the wrong side of the law again, and he flees in order to fulfill the last request of a dying woman to take care of her child.
How it will change your life: As Christians, many of us have really simple, black-and-white notions of right and wrong. Victor Hugo’s book challenges those. Can a convict be a hero? Can a devoted and uncorrupt lawman be a villain? Is it always right to tell the truth, even if the life of an innocent hangs on your willingness to tell a lie?
Les Miserables invites you to take a hard look at the world being built around you, and how it treats the poor and the outcast. It portrays a world where prostitutes can be noble and the agents of worldly justice can be cruel. And it gives a keen look at what blind legalism can do when it’s pitted against conscience.
4/This Book is Full of Spiders (Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.)
What it is: In the sequel to the hilarious John Dies at the End, slacker heroes John and Dave face off against the zombie apocalypse. Warning: contains the same language, violence, and sophomoric comedy found in the first book of the series, but with a tighter, more focused narrative that feels more like a novel than a web serial, which is how the story got its start.
How it will change your life: This is the most important book ever written in the zombie outbreak genre. Serious existential questions masquerade as comedy in a book that asks us why human beings like monster stories. You will never watch The Walking Dead or play The Last of Us with the same mindset after reading this book. David Wong writes a story that celebrates empathy in the face of disaster and harshly critiques a certain selfish survivalist mindset. If you want a zombie story that will make you look differently at every other zombie story you ever read or watch, this is the one. And the ending is one of the most brilliant resolutions to any story of this kind ever.
5. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
What it’s about: The Pulitzer Prize winning story of a young geek whose life is haunted by his family’s struggles under a vicious dictator, and their immigration to the United States. Full of references that will charm any geek, from The Lord of the Rings to Dune, the story of Oscar Wao is post-colonialist literature meets nerd adventure.
How it will change your life: Just what is a curse? Oscar Wao thinks he knows the forces that have affected his family, but he learns that there are more insidious powers at work.
Readers should know going in that this book has a fair amount of swearing and some sexual content, but to those that are undeterred by that, this is one of those stories that has it all. Christians will appreciate the examination of family curses. Geeks will love all the references to their favorite stories. Readers will adore the beautiful prose. But the reason it’s on this list is that it shows how real evil can work its power on entire generations. It shows the harm of systematic racism through the eyes of a wonderful geek hero. Oscar Wao is a great example of a Christ Figure in fiction done right, but don’t expect him to behave like one. Diaz’s hero is complex and beautiful, one of those fictional characters that, once met, is never forgotten.
A lover of Jesus and of fantastical fiction, Silas Green talks books and Christian living on Geeks Under Grace. He spends the rest of his free time trying to write stories and exploring the paradise island in the Pacific on which he is stranded.
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