By Hugo Millard
In these recommendations, I’ve tried to bring together a range of what I see as important fiction and poetry books everyone should read or pick up at some point in their life. I think these books offer unparalleled insight into both the lives of others and your own. They all explore various forms of beauty, empathy, and the pre-conceptions you might hold, they’re not all necessarily easy reads but the messages they carry and what they represent is invaluable. I strongly believe that books have power, and I hope that in the three books I suggest below you’re able to find something that inspires, speaks to, or challenges you. Before I get started, I want to make an honourable mention. I’m currently half-way through reading The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde, and it is quickly becoming one of my favourite poetry collections. I’ve always loved Lorde’s poems, so it’s little surprise how much I’m loving being completely immersed in her beautiful verse. Before I go off on one about how incredible Lorde is, here are three recommendations for books that everyone should read:
The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage (Poetry)
Sticking with poetry, Armitage’s eleventh collection, published in 2017, never fails to inspire, challenge, or fulfil that poetry sized literary hole. The work presented throughout this slim volume is incredible, marking a distinct return to the beautifully crafted contemporary lyricism that first drew me to his work. Armitage writes directly into the uncertainty and instability of modern society, creating expansive worlds and visions through clear, succinct verse that can take you on a journey of introspection, nostalgia, and hope. Throughout, Armitage maintains his characteristic wit, turning his poetic attention to an impressive range of subject matters, emotions, and forms (the gentle, realistic existentialism of ‘To-Do List’ written quite literally as a to-do list is a particular favourite). It may seem a copout, but the blurb of the collection captures the tone and range of this body of work so well I couldn’t possibly attempt to challenge it, “Odysseus stalks the aisles of cut-price supermarkets in search of direction, […] the star of Bethlehem rises over post-industrial Yorkshire, and […] alarm bells for ailing communities go unheeded or unheard.” Armitage makes a clear statement with this collection, not just poetically but also socially, exploring existential crises and exposing the daily effects of materialist capitalism whilst somehow finding ways to inject his work with hope and humour.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Novel)
In my opinion Hamid’s second novel is one of the most important and interesting literary works written in the twenty-first century, but if you’ve only seen the film… try and forget you ever saw it. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written as a direct address to you, the reader, and as a reader you figure as a pre-established character in the plot. I could go on a whole rant about how interesting I find meta-fiction and the ways it forces us to engage and examine ourselves and the text – but I’ll spare you. The plot is figured around Changez, the main character, telling you his life story, moving in and out of tenses, timelines, and perspectives seamlessly, to the extent that there’s a point in reading where you just feel like you’re chatting with a real person. Charting his career, love life, and outlook, Changez guides you through the intricacies and dramas of his life and how all these began to change and were affected by 9/11, documenting the subsequent treatment of Muslims in American. Filled with twists and turns, Hamid vividly captures landscapes, human relationships, and cultures with unparalleled skill. The final twist, and the immediacy it creates throws everything into question, including who the reader’s character and the man talking to you actually are. Hamid is able to explore an incredible number of themes, concerns, and issues in only 200 or so pages, and does so with such skill and nuance that, even in the unlikely circumstance that you dislike it, you will not regret having read it.
Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Novel)
My first introduction to the incredible writing of Virginia Woolf and the complexities of gender identity, Orlando holds a special place in my heart. I definitely read this book before I could really understand or appreciate it, and in many ways I’m glad, as I’ve revisited it several times since and always found something new and exciting in the fictional autobiography. Written as a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, Orlando follows the varied and extensive life of (surprise, surprise) Orlando, the main character. Starting in the early 1600s and moving swiftly over a period of 325 years, the novel culminates with Orlando in London in 1925 (the year Orlando was published). Yes. They live for much longer than the average person, but within this long life, Orlando offers beautiful insights on poetry, art, heritage, and identity. Arguably one of the most important aspects of this novel, though by no means it’s only focus, is Woolf’s exploration and experimentation with gender: how it’s constructed, how it’s experienced, and how it shapes the way we move through the world. Starting the novel as a young man in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, about halfway through the novel the Virtues transform Orlando into a woman, then after having returned to England and sometime later, Orlando begins to experiment, sometimes presenting as a man and sometimes as a woman. Orlando offers a sweeping view of the changing landscape, culture, and politics in England with Woolf’s beautiful prose seamlessly guiding the reader through.
Image credit: Hugo Millard