I am only listing books I have read—so a lot of very important books are getting left out. I’m aware of this. Also, I’m also leaving out the Bible because I shouldn’t have to explain why. These are simply the 50 books that have shaped my understanding of the written word, my place in the world, and how I perceive everything around me. I am not saying anything more than that. I am no authority.
1. Beowulf by Anonymous (???)
This book is pure fucking heavy metal. I’ve found that it’s best to read Beowulf while listening to a band like Blind Guardian. For some reason, I was obsessed with this story when I was a kid. For a long time, I thought the Goya painting “Saturn Devouring His Son” was Grendel eating some dude. I was wrong, obviously.
2. The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century BC)
Again, more heavy metal. Why are so many older books so heavy metal? I think it’s because life was much harder back then and you had to be good at sailing and swinging a sword in order to survive and mate. I probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Also, this book gave us the phrase “the wine-dark sea” which is just pure awesome.
3. The Republic by Plato (380 BC)
This whole book is worth reading just for “The Allegory of the Cave.” This is a book that keeps on giving. Once you read it, your whole world perception is affected. It’s like when Neo starts seeing the Matrix. You will begin to recognize the signs that life is showing you.
4. Poetics by Aristotle (c. 335 BC)
I found this in the communal laundry room of my first apartment building after moving to Chicago. I was nineteen years old. I had no internet and no television that whole year. After I read it, I started thinking critically about the way writing was classified, or the terms we use to describe the tradition, which has since turned into a huge problem for me. Now I can’t have fun while reading ☹
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Early 14th Century)
Dante’s ambition is astounding and his language is as thick and taut as a rope, always pulling you forward along with him for the ride. I’ve found that reading a single canto each day is a good way to digest this without getting worn out.
6. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (Mid-14th Century)
Non-stop fucking, scheming, plotting and gossiping—this book is the precursor for modern television. It’s a slog to get through all one hundred stories, but the framework devised around their telling is nothing short of brilliant. Also, the descriptions of the Black Death in the beginning are seriously heavy metal. This book signifies the beginning of what would later come to be known as the structured novel.
7. Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare (Mid-to-Late 16th Century)
This book is way better than Hamlet, which always seemed overrated to me. I never felt like I had a handle on Gertrude or what her actual feelings for Claudius were. Oh, well. There’s no whiny prince in Titus Andronicus, just a ton of pretty disgusting violence and plans for revenge. I think of it as the 16th Century’s “I Spit on Your Grave.” It’s pretty great. More than almost any other play by Shakespeare, I feel that Titus has had a lasting influence—an influence we might not want to acknowledge. It was hated for centuries, but like a bad stain, it never went away—and there’s a reason for that. Bloodlust, as much as we might try to ignore it, has always fed creation.
8. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Not much to say about this book. It’s really funny and it gave us the term “yahoo.” For that reason alone, it makes the list. Holds up really well even to this day and marks the first book on this list that could be considered a book of “grotesques.”
9. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling by Henry Fielding (1749)
Okay, full disclosure, I never made it through this book, but I really, really want to. For its time, the book had a wildly conceptual structure. Basically, the story is told in mirroring themes, so the beginning of the book has themes that relate to the end of the book, the middle sections of the book mirror one another, etc. There’s a scene pretty early on where a woman gets accosted in the graveyard outside of the local church. It turns into a huge brawl and someone winds up getting clubbed with a thigh bone. Fight scenes—or crowd scenes—don’t get much better than this one.
10. The Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (1833-1849)
It’s difficult to recognize now, but Poe essentially re-defined the way we tell stories, ratcheting the tension up one notch at a time. It’s powerful stuff—gruesome too. He even wrote a story about a murderous gorilla named Erik who dresses up in people clothes. It’s adorable.