Twitter makes the rounds once again with a good idea rightfully mocked by people posting gags and wind-ups almost immediately.
20 books for your 20s. Controversially, as a 22-year-old and part of the target audience for these many varied and often dullard social media posts, there are only so many books that can truly be helpful. The collected works of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of the Wimpy Kid series, while hilarious, is not helpful.
But books are helpful to those that wish to seek help from them. Knowledge is porridge. Only to those that wish to read are they helpful, and only those that want to read a certain topic or writer will benefit.
There is no universal setlist of 20 books to choose from, deliberate over or study. Important books, yes, but books are personable experiences, so it would be futile to pick out 20 books and recommend them to everyone.
What that opens, though, is the possibility to reminisce and explain the 20 books that shaped the early years of decade number three (or four, as my birthday rests on the dying days of 1999). Unfortunately, that does mean putting up with personal encounters, first-person writing and gushing recommendations of books that will not affect you as they did me.
10 books of fiction, and another 10 of non-fiction, for good measure and balance.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
By far the best book on the list. A book that I bought from Waterstones in the middle of doubting what I wanted to do with my life. Sat there in a little block room overlooking a park where college students would smoke weed, next to a bus station in Sunderland where crackheads and criminals would probably wander was the perfect, isolated state to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in. It reaffirmed a pursuit of journalism and provided such grand fun with literature, rekindling a passion for reading I have clung to ever since.
All the President’s Men – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
Understanding the impact of journalism and how useful a tool it can be is always a sincere and continued effort. As I try and make my own waves in journalism, it is sometimes nice to be brought back down to Earth. Nothing I do, nothing I try to do or report on, will ever be as monumentally thrilling, exciting, rewarding or important as what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward wrote and documented in All the President’s Men. A book that marks an absolute treat for those interested in the unravelling of President Richard Nixon and the rich history of the Watergate Scandal, told right from the heart of the newsroom.
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Since reading Meditations from former Roman Emperor and all-around interesting figure Marcus Aurelius, I have gone on to read other, arguably better and more detailed books of philosophy from the likes of Cicero and Albert Camus. But similar to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this was a starting point. It made my purchase of The Philosophy Book compendium seem surplus to requirement. Why not go to the source? Doing so led to one of the first books that opened a debate in my own mind, an active argument against the strong points and weak dilutions of human life, as seen by Aurelius. Fascinating to read, and it still sits on my shelf next to a pocket of Irvine Welsh novels.
Cash – Johnny Cash
One of the many books on this that have had such a surprisingly profound impact on me that I would feel guilty, even stupid, to leave it out. Reading through the life of Johnny Cash at a time when I didn’t care all that much for his musicianship was monumental not just because it put me in touch with a phenomenal artist, but also rattled my cage in the faith department. Cash speaks so openly about religion, so truthfully about his experiences and does so with grand prose that feels tailor-made to a genuine truth and acceptance of highs and lows. That much definitely spoke to me, and it’s something I still find myself considering and coming back to.
On Writing – Stephen King
Similar somewhat to Cash, reading through On Writing was a reaffirmation of pursuit and an understanding of what makes writing good. Not just that, but it was nice to read what is, essentially, the closest to an autobiography we’ll ever receive for Stephen King. He talks not just about how to write but the mentality behind good writing, how to find the zone between productivity and replication of solid groundwork that can be built from time and time again. Thoroughly important to me because it stirs envy and jealousy that I cannot and shall not write as good or as much as King can, or could.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion
The late Joan Didion, like Hunter S. Thompson and Oriana Fallaci (who nearly made this list), has a plethora of great articles and excellent works. Slouching Towards Bethlehem isn’t just a great place to start with her work but some of her best offerings. Didion’s work was one of the first compendiums I’d read once I’d gotten back into reading, and her work was a genuine pleasure. Her writings on John Wayne, murderers and serial killers, the hippie craze and its rise and fall, are all an absolute delight to read and seek out. It’s the innovative experiences that are most intense and interesting of all, the emotive flourishes and wordplay Didion offered are captured greatly here.
Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
A tremendously readable travel writer and a delightfully light read, Notes from a Small Island is another important pocket of journalism. A book that I’d studied very briefly throughout my A-Levels. No surprise that I had hated it, then. But going back to Bryson, or any literature, on your own terms without education looming over it, is always a treat. He was the first piece of journalism I had truly taken in and analysed, but not the first that I had enjoyed because it’s hard to enjoy something when picking apart every other word of a trip to Durham.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks
Medical journals and the like form a big part of my work as a freelancer. Not writing them, but sifting through them and looking for strange cases to write about. Oliver Sacks has the best bunch of them, not because they are gross and gruesome, but because they are moving and incredibly touching. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat had a few tearjerkers in there but primarily serves as excellent and interesting documentation of oddities of medicine and how there is no solution to all inflictions. The boy who couldn’t remember a murder he’d committed, a woman that felt she was disembowelled. All of it is horrible to read, but heavy-hitting when understood.
Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
George Orwell wrote far better non-fiction than he did fiction. The latter may be more influential and held in more public regard, but it is Down and Out in Paris and London or The Road to Wigan Pier that linger so intensely, far better than 1984 or Animal Farm do as texts. His efforts in Down and Out in Paris and London give a grand similarity between the borders of living well and not at all. Orwell doubles down on efforts of showing that, detailing the route, outlook and minds of those struggling for work or to last on their own two feet. It’s a touching read and one that gets to grips well with Orwell’s prose and knack for journalistic intent.
Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain
Bold enough as it was at the time, the admission that Anthony Bourdain makes in later books, especially Medium Raw, about the headspace he was in at the time of writing Kitchen Confidential, makes it all the stronger. The scribblings of a genuinely angry man, deprived of sleep and fuelled by an array of drugs that, by all accounts, were the lifeblood of the masochistic living of a chef. Bourdain makes for an exceptional writer, and the lived-in style he takes, the anecdotes and the pet peeves of the chef-turned-journalist make for an exciting read not because readers are taken into the kitchen, but they are given a tour of all the gritty bits that are likely still around today.
Filth – Irvine Welsh
The responsibility Irvine Welsh has in keeping tabs on the decadent life of drug addicts and swindlers is always an entertaining read, but Filth is the pinnacle of his efforts. Elaborate, jarring and completely unique. That jet black humour and the subsequent adaptation are personal favourites because of how far Welsh pushes Bruce Robertson as a character, as a signpost for depravity. Somehow, despite all of that and the hundreds of pages dedicated to detailing him as a disgusting piece of work, Welsh manages to provide sympathy, and convincingly so. It’s whiplash in the written word, a genuine delight.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K. Dick
Science-fiction isn’t particularly my cup of tea. The shelf worth of S.F. Masterworks editions would probably disprove that, but that is by the by. It’s the work of Philip K. Dick, more often than not, that has convinced me science-fiction doesn’t have to be space operas or adaptations made out of LEGO. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? feels like the first mature, sophisticated bit of fiction I read. Maybe that’s because it was, and it is always a genuine treat to return to it. It proves not just that science-fiction doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter snooze, but something with deep intentions and genuine weight to it.
The Godfather – Mario Puzo
For every great adaptation, there is surely a great book behind it. The Godfather is one of those films that felt tepid at first and then blew up into its own bit of brilliance by the time my brain had developed. Reading through the book from Mario Puzo was a genuine treat. It’s the closest I’ve come to seeing action represented well in the text. It has the same impact as it does in the adaptation from Francis Ford Coppola, with the same threat and urgency to it, but more so since smaller characters are fleshed out, reasons omitted from the film are underscoring the desire and greed of these characters. It comes together perfectly in this surprisingly moving adaptation.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – John le Carré
Gritty and impactful spy work isn’t so much a common theme as it is an oversaturated market for art. It features frequently in James Bond, the Jason Bourne series, and the various riffs found in Johnny English or Austin Powers. All of it is there, but none of it felt complete. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold felt like a genuine respite from all that. John le Carré manages to dust off those old-hat stereotypes as something cold and chilling, ahead of its time for how it details the harsh and grim responsibilities of spies. It was a tough read, an exciting one, and one that put me in touch with one of my favourite authors.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
An essential read. Plain and simple. Downright one of the most fascinating and rewarding reads on this list, and one that comes with a new, postmodern expression to it. Harper Lee’s work is an intense and opportune look at the ill-timed justice system, the poorly thought-out prejudices of other people and their impact on the system. It makes for a stunning read not just because of a potent message but because of Lee’s desire to build up the world around these characters as a real and truthful place, rather than one tailor-made to buoy the message she hopes to write of.
Cathedral – Raymond Carver
Short story compendiums have the benefit of being brief and impactful, but the downside of being only as strong as the weakest writing. Raymond Carver circumvents that issue with Cathedral, a collection of stories each more chilling and incredible than the last. His work is fascinating to me because of how I started out in writing. The short stories, the horribly adjusted prose of fictional works that I tried to riff on occasionally between pumping out film reviews and ironing out essays elsewhere. Carver kindled a love for that again more recently when I first encountered his work.
The Green Mile – Stephen King
There cannot be any denial of the talent Stephen King possessed. His hand dabbled in fiction and non-fiction, with strong results in both. Where On Writing was a dictum of how to persevere when the mind wanders, The Green Mile is for the wandering mind. An exceptionally potent and believable journey through the final stages of life for criminals who, like To Kill a Mockingbird, question whether the justifications of death are presentable as a genuine punishment. A thoroughly interesting piece that relies just as much on its supernatural elements as it does on its experimental prose and theory.
Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Not just because it reminds me of the joy I have in recording the Death by Adaptation podcast, but because it poses a genuinely strong philosophical anagram, Catch-22 is a book I thoroughly appreciate. It is hard to assess whether or not it can be enjoyed as a text alone because almost all of its worth comes from the discussion it creates and the characters employed to shadow the meanings. Heller is a hell of a writer, and his prose throughout is dedicated not to the characters but to the ideals they represent. Seeing that work so thoroughly was touching and intricate, it sprung to my mind when reading other metaphor-heavy texts like Moby Dick. It makes itself important to me by being one of the first deeply rich texts I could wrap my head around, and much of that comes from the humour.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
Years ago before I had even started to read, my sixth form tutor gifted me two books. Jaws, and this. A Confederacy of Dunces is far, far better than the Steven Spielberg adapted piece of literature, and the notes written in the front of my Peter Benchley copy seem to admit that too. But both have a place in my heart because they were the first books I received as a gift in adulthood. Plenty of copies have come after that, but there’ll be no other book nearer or dearer to my heart than the tale of a bedroom-based philosopher at odds with the world because it won’t recognise his idiotic genius.
The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
Another to log under the “I can’t believe science-fiction can be this enjoyable and philosophical” list, but also because it introduced me to frighteningly entertaining classics with genuine value and contemporary effectiveness. H.G. Wells’ prolific nature as a writer often left much to be desired, but his work in The War of the Worlds left me with this genuine need and desire to learn more about classics, to learn more about writing and why people do it.
Wells did it for money, I do too. But there is a love for the written word there, and whenever I doubt that, I always return to these twenty books.