As a younger man teaching both day and night school when we had three small children, I used to fantasize about how, through some tangle of circumstances, I might be sentenced to a minimum security federal prison for a year and could finally catch up on my reading.
Now that we are all in "solitary confinement," thanks to the coronavirus, there is a luxury of time for reading great books, as part of our rehabilitation therapy. Below is a list of my top 10 recommendations based on three criteria: One, the book is pleasurable to read; two, it is a long-lasting self-investment; and three, the book is a prize-winner, but one we probably have yet to read.
About that first standard: I’m frustrated by book reviews more intent on impressing with profundity than on endorsing enjoyable reads, resulting in lists with head-bangers by the likes of William Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon: Geniuses, to be sure, though insufficiently attentive to audience and readability.
The second standard means a book you never forget, a book that influences your thinking to the degree that you associate its passages and themes with real-life situations long after having read it, a book that enhances your education, a book you wish never to end, and a book you may even resolve to read again.
The third standard means that a particular gem may have been, in its time, overshadowed by blockbusters.
“Winter in the Blood” by James Welch comes as close to perfection as a novel as any other I’ve read. A member of Montana’s Blackfeet Tribe, Welch writes with such power and clarity that the consciousness of his protagonist living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana stays with the reader many days after finishing the novel.
“The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is the best antidote in this list to “social distance” and empty shelves. The reader escapes for over 400 pages to the sometimes-dangerous and mostly breathtaking wilds of Florida while feeling as close to the characters as to members of their own family. Such is Rawlings’ gift.
In “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” by James Baldwin, the reader finds herself the confidant of an African-American theater actor who reflects in an intimate, often hypnotic first-person account on his fears, joys, frustrations, and insecurities while navigating through a less-than-welcoming 20th-century America.
“Rabbit Is Rich” by John Updike is on this list as one of the titles you might not have read by the American novelist who should have won the Nobel Prize in any single one of the years from 1981 to 2008. That’s 27 times that the Nobel Committee blew it.
“The Wayward Bus” by John Steinbeck is a classic allegorical journey whose characters, portrayed in Steinbeck’s inimitable way, become a part of your life during the week or two that you’re reading it. Steinbeck has a feel for linguistic rhythms that hit the sweet spot in our reading process.
“Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Next to Antoine de Saint-Exupery (“Wind, Sand, and Stars”), I can’t think of any other writer whose work translates so luminously and gracefully into English. This is a true story and among the most vivid and thoughtful chronologies we have of man against nature.
“To Have and Have Not” by Ernest Hemingway is the ideal combination of romance, danger, and thoughtfulness, with focus on the behavior of a Key West fisherman, along with his love interest, his friends, and his foils, all making their way in the time of the Depression. Bonuses are its contemporary relevance and, of course, lean sentences sculpted by the master, which grab you by the throat or the heart.
“The Border” by Cormac McCarthy, while less famous than “The Road” or “All the Pretty Horses,” nonetheless has the author’s trademark word paintings of the American Southwest, and his frighteningly real characters are so indelible and astutely drawn that you come to recognize each by the words used in the dialogue, without having to see their names.
While reading “Wildlife” by Richard Ford, you’ll find that you force yourself to put it down after brief periods in order to prolong the tragic beauty of the story, as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old, of the collapse of his parents’ marriage. Our most gifted and thoughtful novelist, Ford is the next in line for outrageous neglect by the Nobel Committee.
“Hazards of Time Travel” by Joyce Carol Oates is a personal secret pleasure. As a slow reader, I’ve always thought of science fiction, particularly dystopian novels, as a waste of precious time when there was so much “important” realistic fiction to tackle. But when one of our most prolific literary artists, known for credible creative perspectives on real events like Chappaquiddick (Black Water) applies her multiple gifts to the sci-fi genre, the result is a masterpiece.
David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is the author of "The Territory," is an emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.