Book Recommendations

My name’s John, and I’m a recovering bookseller.  (“Hi, John!”)

Running a used book shop was the most satisfying and fulfilling occupation I’ve ever had, and I’ve done a lot of things in my life.  Computer programming and applications design, process engineering, pizza delivery, construction big and small, hooking up live sewer lines, teaching — if it’s low-pay or high-stress, I’ve probably done it.

The beautiful part about selling books lies in matching the book to the person.  So, if you’re a jaded Manhattanite who drinks to keep your remaining humanity crushed down out of sight while surviving day to day in the naked city, I’ll tell you to read Lawrence Block‘s Scudder novels.  Start at “Sins of the Fathers” if you’re old and cranky, “Eight Million Ways To Die” if you’re still young and have some residual hope left.  If the city hasn’t yet made you dead inside, go with the Burglar novels (also by Block); start with “The Burglar in the Closet”.  If you’re too cynical for the big city to touch you, it’s the Parker novels by Stark; if you’ve still got your sense of humor, it’s the Dortmunder series by Westlake (same guy, two names.)

And if you’re not from Manhattan but instead Chicago and enjoy role-playing games, you’ll love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  “Storm Front” is where you start, and don’t binge-read.  –Actually, everyone should read these.

You get what I mean:  It’s all about hooking up the right person with the right book at the right time for them to read it.  There’s few joys in life that can compare.

But what I told you is, I’m a recovering bookseller.  That means my store is closed, but I’m still hopeful that one day I can open it back up.  No matter that the work pays so little it couldn’t keep me in ramen noodles.  Never mind that the shelves are racked, the books musty from long storage, and half the inventory destroyed by a freak flood (while nowhere near a river).  It’s what I do, it’s who I am, it’s…

*sigh*  I’m in recovery, OK?

Thing is, I can’t just quit cold turkey.  It’s not in me to do; I don’t have the strength  (“The Stainless Steel Rat Goes To Hell”, Harry Harrison).  Besides, anything else I try is either dangerous (“The Deep Blue Good-Bye”, MacDonald), immoral (“State Of Fear”, Michael Crichton), or ultimately pointless (“Walden”, Thoreau).

So bear with me for a bit and I’ll give you a list of books that you should read.  I’m making my recommendation based on what I know about you, which is that you’ve found my blog (AKA The Not Fake News), you enjoy reading, and you’ve managed to make it this far.  It may not seem like enough to base a list of reading recommendations, but trust me:  It’ll do fine.

  1. “War and Peace”:  Do not read this book.  It’s needlessly depressing, historically inaccurate, and says in a thousand pages something that would better have filled a short story.  Yes, it’s great literature; yes, it’s brilliantly written; yes, it’s far better in the original Russian.  But it’s a lousy story about people you’ll hate; you might as well watch Seinfeld.  On the plus side, the best editions contain some marvelous philosophical essays interspersed with the text; they rescue it from lengthy mediocrity and at times aspire to the sublime.  …so, yes, all right, you can read it, but remember:  You Have Been Warned.
  2. “Master and Commander”:  The first in a beautifully-written series about sea officers in the time of Napoleon, this tale is intricate, compelling, and very human.  There are nineteen sequels, and you should embark upon them only if you have a long sea voyage ahead of you.  Actually, to enjoy them is a prospect worth inventing a long sea voyage for.
  3. I mentioned “Walden”.  If you’re comfortably situated in life, you should take a week-long vacation in a cabin in the woods in order to read this book.  If you’re not, read the introduction on breaks in between working your two jobs and preparing for when the Revolution comes.
  4. “The Art Of War”, by Sun Tzu, is an immortal work of strategic wisdom.  Many people mistake it for an instruction manual on warfare; others think of it as a book to be read.  It is neither.  Instead, this should be used as a focus for contemplation and the foundation of a philosophy.  Its most valuable lesson lies in knowing when to ignore it and be human.
  5. “The Hobbit”:  Whenever I’m sick or depressed, reading this story always brings me comfort.  It’s lovely and wonderful even when it’s not, and it never fails to make my life better.  And yes, it’s OK to skim over the poetry.
  6. You need to read Michael Crichton, and because he was who he was you also need to watch the movies.  “Jurassic Park” and its sequels are slightly better in book form and far better when you both read and watch.  You should remember to take the time to fully appreciate the science rants of characters like Ian Malcolm.  Take notes.
  7. “Otherland”, by Tad Williams:  This is the poor man’s Walden for V-R, Star Wars for the MMO generation.  Anyone who hates the way the world is going should read this, if only for the chapter headings and self-lighting cigarettes.  Watch for the backhanded references to comedian, Renaissance man, and former wedding deejay Patton Oswalt.
  8. “The Deed of Paksenarrion” is probably the single best work of modern fantasy combined with a realistic picture of the life of a medieval mercenary.  If you ever wished you were a real-life paladin, read this right now.  Don’t even stop to finish the list.
  9. If you’re more rogue than paladin, read “Jhereg” by Stephen Brust.  It’s delightful, suspenseful, full of fun, and full of deep insights into humanity.  The world is opaque and incomprehensible, and once you get into the book you really don’t care.  Best of all, it’s about an assassin, and you end up really liking the guy and what he does.
  10. Read the Bible.  If you’re a Christian, you should read it in order to figure out why you do the things you do.  If you’re not, you should read it in order to understand why history and philosophy have sent us in the direction we’re going.  Either way you look at it, this book is like a manual for your life, and it contains wonderful lessons for how a person ought to live.  Word of warning:  If you’re using it as a measuring stick to judge other people, you’re using it wrong.
  11. “Invisible Man”, by Ralph Ellison — but only if you’re an American.  If you’re not, it’ll be meaningless instead of merely convoluted and opaque.  This book is a story that’s aware that it’s a story; it’s one of the few works deliberately designed to be half-skipped by the reader, and the half you skip depends on who you are.
  12. “The Killer Angels” is the novel of Gettysburg.  Author Michael Shaara’s goal in his fiction was to go back to important moments in history and try to capture the feel of the action and choice that mattered, the essence of the cresting of the wave, if you will.  Should be read by everyone.
  13. “The Thirteenth Tale”, by Diane Setterfield, is the exception to my personal rule against reading anything picked by a modern book club.  A perfect period and atmospheric piece, and at once delightful and horribly, incurably Gothic.
  14. “The Big Sleep” is the first and possibly best of Chandler’s Marlowe tales, the quintessence of the American detective novel.  It’s not the movie, which is as it should be.  It’s beautiful, glorious, and ideal.
  15. Once you’ve read “The Big Sleep”, you should read “The Burglar In The Library” by Lawrence Block.  It’s not the perfect Burglar book to start from, but it’ll do.
  16. John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee series is a must, but in a way it’s male only.  The philosophy is fascinating, the insights brilliant, but most women I’ve spoken to about the series can’t stand the main character.  I dunno; I kinda like him, but it’s Meyer that makes the series work.  Start with “The Deep Blue Good-Bye” and keep reading.

There’s hundreds of books that could have been on my recommended reading list, but remember:  It was designed for you.  These are the books I think you ought to read (or not, in the case of “War and Peace”).

If you disagree, or if you want a custom recommendation, all you need to do is explain here in the comments.  I’m always glad to help.

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