According to my grandmother, I could read at age three. I seriously doubt this is true, but supposedly, she would tell this to someone; they would question her; she would pull out something for me to read, and I would read it aloud. Whether or not this story is accurate, it is very fair to call me a reader. When anyone asks me what I enjoy doing with my leisure time, it always is one of the first items I mention.
English was my favorite class in middle and high school. I remember reading ahead of assigned pages whenever time allowed and then trying not to spoil the book for others in class discussions. I knew before I went to college that one of my majors would be English, and I chose Amherst, in part, because it has a stellar English faculty. Even though I attended Business School and worked professionally in some capacity for almost 30 years, reading was always a key part of my life. I even considered changing professions to teach literature at the university level once I had kids. I went as far as completing one post-graduate English class, taking the GRE and starting down the MA/PhD path at Duke before I realized I loved reading, not academia. I went back to business as a profession. Still, clearly, reading is a passion of mine.
And I read all sorts of books. I love Presidential biographies, especially when they read like stories. I consume a great deal of non-fiction now, much more than when I was younger, as I love how much I learn from deeply delving into a relevant historical or current topic. Well-written spy novels are another joy, and there was a time in my teenage years when I don’t think we could find a Ludlum title I had not already devoured. I also read a lot of novels that expand my cultural or historical understanding; recent examples are Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt or Richard Powers’ The Overstory. All of this said, if I could only read one kind of book, I’d choose powerful fiction. I realize this is not a known genre, nor is it entirely one size fits all. I’ll try to explain.
I finished Oh William yesterday (I started it just the day before). Elizabeth Strout’s newest book left me tearing up at the end, as main character Lucy expresses her thoughts about knowing ourselves. The book has been in my mind since, and I think it is because Strout was able to write her main character’s voice such that I escaped myself, connected with her and saw, in her, something of myself and my own experience.
That’s what powerful fiction is for me: a novel that allows me to escape myself and feel connected to the larger human experience.
I have read many books that I consider powerful in this way, and they all tend to be examinations of our shared human experience without explicitly projecting that as their subject. They all are stories, though they are not always straightforward narratives. And even though they are not necessarily written in first person, they seem to live inside the mind of the main characters who, while telling or experiencing the story, also think about what’s happening around them or about themselves in a way that resonates with my own feelings. I always like these characters, not because they are similar to me by description, but because I like the way they think and feel. I identify with their highs and lows, and I see some mirror of my own musings and emotions in them.
Something striking to me is that most of these novels are written by contemporary authors. This is not to suggest I don’t like novels written before my own lifetime. In fact, when people ask me to name my favorite book, I generally say my favorite story is Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and my favorite great novel is Austen’s Emma. I even wrote my undergraduate thesis on Austen’s Emma, specifically about the way the author pulls readers into the book, so we stand with the omniscient narrator, watching the action as if we were there. Still, I don’t think I really connected with any characters in Jane Austen. I was more an enthusiastic bystander, enjoying her ladies discover their faults and rise above them. I may have loved Elizabeth and Emma’s feisty personalities, or the way Austen’s narrator subtly judged smaller-minded characters, but I never ached over her heroines’ dilemmas. And this fact makes me wonder if powerful novels, the ones that speak to us most fully, must be set in our own time. If so, this suggests that every generation will perceive their contemporaneously written novels as the most powerful, the ones where we see something of ourselves and our lives in the characters’ emotions and experiences.
There’s one more aspect to this topic that feels worth a mention. The novels that I consider powerful don’t examine the human condition from the sidelines. I read many contemporary authors today who have a point to make about humanity, generally negative, and they sacrifice the reader-character connection to theme. I hate those novels – they are almost political commentary to me, and I think they miss the point of why readers love to read. They may be brilliant commentary on our world, but they leave me empty.
I continue to love reading my powerful fiction genre because, when I find a novel that successfully allows me to escape myself and connect to the characters’ joys and sorrows because I have felt similar feelings, I am reminded of how wonderful and difficult it is to be human and to live fully. And I am also dually comforted and thrilled to be reminded that I am not the only one who thinks so.
One beauty of the Kindle is that it keeps a history of what I read. I looked back over the last ten years, and what follows is the powerful fiction I’ve read since 2012, plus a couple of other titles that appeared in the last ten years of my Kindle history because I read them on paper long ago and recommended them to family members years later:
Oh William, Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout
Moonglow: A Novel, Michael Chabon
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
The Known World, Edward P. Jones
I have to add two more that are farther back than I went in my Kindle history, which means I’m adding them just from memory. That tells you how impactful these titles were – they really are at the top of my list:
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Honorable Mentions from my Kindle ten-year history: These titles are not quite as powerful, but they are close and highly worthwhile.
Becoming, Michele Obama (non-fiction with similar impact)
Washington Black: A Novel, Esi Edugyan
A Gentleman in Moscow: A Novel, Amor Towles
A Little Life: A Novel, Hanya Yanagihara
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo (non-fiction again)
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
As I review this list, I am struck by the fact that many of these novels are about women. I think this is worth mentioning because I would imagine an individual’s personal powerful list is likely to include works that speak to that individual’s historical and cultural experience. That said, there are also many on the list that are not about women, and I do believe the essence of what makes a novel powerful is its ability to connect us with our shared humanity.
If you get this far and have read a novel you think belongs on my list, comment or email me so I can read it! And if this entry resonated at all and you haven’t read one of the above, find a comfortable nook and some time (maybe not while the family’s around for Thanksgiving this week!) and enjoy the escape from yourself and the connection to the larger us.