During the first lockdown back in March I searched for hope and solace in books. However, the daily uncertainty that engulfed our lives affected me greatly and my love for reading was tested to the limit. I often became restless. The old pleasure I used to always get from sinking into a comfortable chair and allowing myself to float into the wonderful world of fiction suddenly deserted me. The real world just wouldn’t let me escape its clutches. With all that was going on, like so many others I felt idle and helpless.
Thankfully, that familiar pleasure eventually returned as I came to terms with the reality that life would be different for a while. Now, as we begin 2021, the need for positivity feels as important as it has ever done. That is why I’ve come up with a list of novels—some old favourites and others I read last year—that I believe are noteworthy for their inspirational outlooks on life and their enduring literary quality. I hope these titles encourage you to keep reading and to appreciate the remarkable power that books have of connecting us in difficult times.
Lanny // Max Porter (2019)
The titular character of Max Porter’s second novel is a bright, quirky boy living in a rural village outside London with his mum and dad. Lanny has a particularly unusual connection with nature, which takes on a magical form when viewed through his eyes. This is a polyphonic novel—one in which the multiple voices and generations of the village can be heard, notably those of Lanny’s mother, father and his friend, Mad Pete. Overseeing them all and listening intently is Dead Papa Toothwort, a kind of mythic woodland creature who takes a special interest in the young boy.
Stylistically, Porter’s novel is memorable for its stream of consciousness. The amalgamation of voices really captures the spirit of the village, and the reaction to the dramatic event in the text—Lanny’s disappearance—realistically encapsulates the mad flurry of gossip simmering beneath the seemingly pleasant surface of small-town life. Lanny is a book that celebrates creativity and individualism, as the two most creative characters are also the ones perceived as ‘different’ by others. There are also strong environmental currents running through the book, and Lanny’s intimate relationship with the plants and trees symbolises a necessity for others to follow suit by looking after the world around them.
Stoner // John Williams (1965)
John Williams’ novel follows the life of William Stoner, as he goes from student to professor of English literature at the University of Missouri. A quiet man from a humble rural background, he marries Edith and they have a child. His marriage proves to be an unhappy one, however, as Edith is insipid, resentful and devoid of any redeemable qualities. Meanwhile, he experiences difficulties at the university that don’t just threaten his career but also his personal life.
I don’t think I’ve ever sided with a character more than the silent hero of this book. Stoner’s stoicism is one of the defining features of his character; although he is constantly faced with hardships, he endures them without complaint and tries to get on with his life as best he can. He thirsts for knowledge, and his passion for literature and teaching shine through and help him cope in trying times.
John Williams possesses a remarkable ability to move the reader through such simplicity in his writing. The empathy he made me feel for his protagonist is not down to complex descriptions, but rather a clear and precise writing style that beautifully and realistically depicts the human condition.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest // Ken Kesey (1962)
Ken Kesey’s renowned novel about the patients of a psychiatric ward in Oregon is narrated from the perspective of the towering Chief Bromden. Having passed himself off as a deaf-mute for years, he experiences first-hand the tyranny of Nurse Ratched, who exerts complete control over the helpless patients. It is not until the arrival of the swashbuckling Randle Patrick McMurphy that her authoritarian rule is challenged. The new patient, transferred to the mental hospital to avoid prison, comes up with a series of plans to rouse the patients from their submissiveness and take back their own freedom.
A damning reflection of psychiatric hospitals in America at the time, the book also fits the counterculture ethos of the 60s which championed the individual’s rebellion against the ‘system’. It encompasses so many other themes from mental health to the cruel treatment of Native Americans, and is narrated with energy, humour and empathy. There is also tragedy, as is to be expected when two uncompromising figures like McMurphy and Nurse Ratched go head-to-head. The movie version is great too, but it understandably cannot cover every issue with the same depth as the source book.
The Dharma Bums // Jack Kerouac (1958)
The narrator of The Dharma Bums is Ray Smith, a drifter fascinated by Zen Buddhism. As he hitch-hikes solo around the USA he meets an assortment of eclectic characters, none more so than Japhy Ryder. Japhy is the charismatic expert on all things Zen and shows Ray how to live in the moment and follow a simple, non-conformist existence that totally rejects materialism and involves a lot of meditation, poetry, and heavy drinking.
Kerouac deploys the same spontaneous prose that brought him global fame for On the Road, and the result is a beautifully written novel bursting with youthful vigour. So many paragraphs are just a joy to behold for the way they express the joys of living unshackled from society’s expectations.
Ray’s determination to live apart from the masses strikes a chord nowadays in our consumerist culture. The Covid-19 pandemic has really hammered home just how much excess there is in our daily lives. The idea of doing away with the items that really don’t enrich our lives and roaming a vast country with nothing but a rucksack full of food, water, a couple of books, a pen and paper sounds good to me.
East of Eden (1952)
If you’re looking for John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, then look no further than this sweeping tale of two families living in California’s Salinas Valley. The lives of different generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons are told as their stories often overlap. There is the story of the effervescent Irishman Samuel Hamilton and his large family, and the Cain and Abel relationship between gentle Adam and his brutish brother Charles. As an adult, Adam falls for a malevolent woman called Cathy, but she leaves him to look after two twin boys. The rest of the novel focuses mostly on the struggle of Cal, the more troubled of the two, as he struggles with his identity as the son of an evil woman.
East of Eden is the kind of book that can make people fall in love with reading again. Steinbeck’s descriptions of the Salinas landscapes are masterful, as is his ability to paint rich, unforgettable characters. Amidst the raging battle between good and evil is the beautiful message that an individual is not bound by his family history. One has the freedom to be who he wants to be, and to choose the light if he so wishes.
Words by Callum McGee
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