Top 10 Metamorphoses in Literature

Folklore is littered with humans who are transformed into animals, trees or objects (willingly or otherwise). Being transformed into ‘the other’ has been taken up in modern literature to allow for exploration of complex issues of identity. It has also been used to amusing ends. Here are ten of the most memorable human transformation in literature.

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Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are amongst the most famous children’s books in the world. The story follows a young girl called Alice as she experiences the absurd, and often anarchic, world of Wonderland. Her learning to cope with the changing world is a clear metaphor for growing up. But the book also features a literal ‘growing up.’ When Alice first follows the White Rabbit into Wonderland she finds herself trapped in a hallway full of doors. All are locked but she finds a key, so small as to only fit a tiny door on the ground, and a bottle labelled ‘Drink me.’ She knows enough to check the label for the word poison before drinking the potion. She shrinks and becomes stranded on the floor, having left the key up on the table. It is now she finds a cake labelled ‘Eat me.’ This cake seems the remedy to her woes when she grows large enough to fetch the key. Unfortunately, she continues to grow and is now too large for any of the doors. Growing up can be awkward, indeed.

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The woman of the poem, Lamia, is a mysterious person who has become trapped in the body of a snake. One day, while hunting for a Nymph he is romantically pursuing, the god Hermes happens on Lamia. In return for revealing the location of the nymph, Lamia begs to be made human again. Returned to her gorgeous human body, Lamia weds her beloved. Unfortunately, a wise man at the feast reveals Lamia’s true nature, and she is returned to the form of a serpent before dying. Her husband dies of his grief. All in all there have been better weddings. The poet does not reveal much about the characters in the poem, and the meaning of their actions is left for the reader to decide, but there are clear Christian resonances of a man being undone by a woman and a snake.

Beauty And The Beast

To quote a song; this is a “tale as old as time.” Well, not quite, but it does feature several archetypal themes. The story of a young woman who offers herself in place of her father to an inhuman beast is a familiar one, but the meaning of the story has changed over time. All versions feature a young prince transfigured into a monster, and his eventual return to humanity via the transformational power of love. In the earliest published form of the tale, the emphasis is on the need for the beast to return to his human form. Over time this message has shifted somewhat to also include the message that the heroine must learn to appreciate more than appearances. It should be noted that this trope of love equating to beauty was wittily subverted in Shrek, where true love joins both people in the ‘monstrous’ state of ogre hood.

King Arthur

Transformation allows us to step outside of ourselves so we may understand others better. In the books of T.H. White’s Once and Future King we see metamorphosis included in an organized educational programme. These books deal with the early years of King Arthur, here a squire named Wart. Merlyn takes the young boy in hand to prepare him for his future role as monarch. To do this he transforms Wart into various animals. Wart becomes by turns: a merlin, an ant, an owl, a goose and a badger. Each transformation comes with an adventure and a lesson. The most spectacular transformations in the book occur during a wizard battle between Merlyn and Madam Mim, where the magicians shape shift rapidly to outwit their opponent. In a radical transformation Merlyn becomes a deadly bacterium to kill his rival.


The Odyssey is one of the two epic poems ascribed to Homer, and tells the story of the return of the Greek soldiers who fought at Troy. Since the gods are displeased, none of the soldiers have an easy journey. Odysseus, in particular, will have to travel for ten years before allowed home to Ithaca and his wife. On the journey he meets with many strange adventures. On the island of Aeaea, Odysseus and his men meet the goddess of magic Circe. The beautiful Circe lures all the men to join her in a feast. The food is laced with her potions. After the men are sated she turns them into pigs. It is only the cleverness of Odysseus, and a warning from the god Hermes, which keeps him from falling for her porker plot. The men are restored and the journeys can continue (after a years interlude in which Odysseus beds Circe). Is this a simple fantastical tale, or is there a deeper meaning about the debasement of men who give in to baser urges? Homer was a good enough poet not to make his meaning explicit.


The concept of good and evil as forces in opposition to one another is an ancient one. The duality of good and evil has been internalized so that our own minds have become a battleground between devils and the better angels of our nature. The transformation which forms the basis of Stevenson’s book is more subtle than some others featured here. When Dr Jekyll takes a drug to separate his darker emotions from the good to make himself flawless, he succeeds only in creating an amoral creature, Mr. Hyde. At first Jekyll revels in the feeling of freedom Hyde gives him, but soon the violent Hyde commits murder and other terrible acts. The internal struggle between our animal instincts and higher reason is physically played out as the characters alternate. The transformation is marked by Jekyll becoming hideous as Hyde, though the disgust on seeing Hyde is more sensed than written in his face.


Transformation between sexes have a long literary tradition; in Greek legend the sightseer Tiresias was turned into a girl. The most important gender metamorphosis in all of literature is surely that of Orlando in Woolf’s story. In the book, a young boy is born during the Elizabethan period and through force of will he decides not to grow old. This conceit of will shaping reality gives Woolf the chance to examine English literature throughout history as her protagonist works on a poem over the course of centuries. The most famous event in the novel is the transformation of Orlando to Lady Orlando. The transformation occurs while Orlando sleeps and he wakes up as she. Now Woolf, one of the great feminist authors, has a chance to compare the male to the feminine as well as the idea of loves which are not bound by gender. The gender change does not upset or even greatly concern Orlando because the person inside the body is unchanged. Orlando is perhaps Woolf’s easiest work to read, but asks deep questions in an entertaining way.


Also known as the Metamorphosis, The Golden Ass is the only complete Roman novel to come down to us. Unlike some ancient works which seem remote, this book still amuses and interests readers today. The protagonist is a drifting young man, Lucius, just out of education. Deciding to travel rather than work, he visits his old home town and meets a witch whom he secretly watches transform into an owl. Deciding he wishes to fly he sneaks a drink of her potion. Instead of feathers he grows rough fur, and large ears. Lucius has transformed into a donkey. To turn back, he is informed, he must eat a rose. Unfortunately, fate intervenes and Lucius the Ass is stolen. Lucius is always on the verge of getting his rose but Apuleius never quite lets him eat it. Lucius learns the hard lot of a donkey and undergoes amusing, and risqué, adventures. In the end, Lucius is reborn in human form by the divine agency of the Goddess Isis, and dedicates his life to her service.


Kafka is the master of using the bizarre to explore the banality of existence. The Metamorphosis famously opens with the line, “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible verminous insect.” Why Gregor has been changed is not addressed directly, and the novella deals more with how his relationships change than his new body. Gregor’s transformation does not affect his mind, and his character changes very little over the course of the story. The monstrous metamorphosis is contrasted with the other members of Gregor’s family, who transform themselves into a more capable group to deal with their shameful secret member. Gregor is killed when an apple thrown by his father gets lodged in his carapace and festers. The final metamorphosis for everyone is death.

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Ovid is the source for most of our Graeco-Roman legends concerning transformations. His encyclopedic poem, The Metamorphoses, follows a narrative thread from the creation of the Earth to the transformation of Caesar into a god. The huge breadth of the stories Ovid tells ensured the popularity of the work even when Christian authorities frowned on the pagan content. Without Ovid we would have far fewer transformations to draw on. His telling of the story of Arachne is the fullest we possess. Arachne, a young lady puffed up with pride in her spinning ability, boasts that her fabrics are better even than Athena’s. Athena forces a contest between the two, to see whose work is better. When Arachne produces a magnificent tapestry, but with images of the sexual transgressions of the gods, Athena is so exasperated that she strikes Arachne. Arachne is spared death by the goddess but is shriveled, and her slender, skillful fingers changed to legs. Arachne the spider must learn to weave something more appropriate. With fifteen books of such stories Ovid is surely the king of metamorphoses.

Notable Omission: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde; The Adventures of Pinnochio, Carlo Collodi

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Top 10 Underrated Fantasy Stories After 1937

Some of you may recall that I wrote a list of a similar title regarding fantasy works before 1937. This is my follow-up. These are the stories that are never mentioned as the greats of modern fantasy, in spite of often surpassing the quality of their contemporaries. These are under appreciated, under-read or simply unknown pieces of fantasy literature. These are my top ten underrated fantasy stories (or series) published after J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”. And no, before you ask, I won’t be doing a similar list for science fiction works (all ten slots would be given to ‘The Iron Dream’, by Norman Spinrad).


A high fantasy trilogy written in the past decade seems like a nice way to start off this list. At first glance, it seems like the sort of story that falls in with the rest of the modern genre. However, if one opens the books, you will find an emotional, political fantasy in a unique, (non-Medieval) setting, with sympathetic characters and numerous twists and turns. It’s the sort of book where you glance over details, only to realize five hundred pages into the next book that those details will change the outcome of the final battle. They are a pleasant surprise for any casual reader looking for something outside the mainstream.


L. Sprague de Camp is one of those names in speculative fiction that often falls through the cracks in a list of influential authors, in spite of his great work in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Harold Shea is one of his greatest works. It details the titular character, a psychologist, who travels between parallel worlds where the mythologies of our world are the reality. Or he tries to, anyway. He doesn’t always get where he wants, but no matter where he ends up, it is worth the journey. After de Camp stopped contributing to the series, a number of other authors and collaborators continued, and spanned into a variety of fictitious worlds (such as Oz), as well. Certainly, an interesting series to explore.

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Probably the most ‘mainstream’ entry on this list, the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik, is an alternative history of the Napoleonic Wars, following a British captain named Laurence. The main alteration to the timeline this story makes is the addition of dragons. Really, do you need to know more about the book? Napoleon with dragons. Her writing is good, her characters are engaging, the story is exciting – but it wouldn’t go anywhere without such a wonderfully entertaining premise. As an added bonus, Peter Jackson (director of Lord of the Rings) has shown interest in adapting the novels into a mini-series.

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Jeff VanderMeer is best known, in the world of fantasy and science fiction, for his excellent anthologies of obscure subgenres, ranging from pirate fantasy to steampunk. This is a collection of his own short stories, set in one of the strangest (yet most beautiful) fictional cities in fantasy, Ambergris. While China Miéville generally overshadows VanderMeer in the genre, The Ambergris Cycle solidifies his place as a great name in New Weird. An excellent read for anyone who enjoys exploring a new setting, or is simply a fan of any fantasy that feels more than a little strange.


This is a prime example of a series that is both a classic fantasy story and a deconstruction of it at the same time. Thomas Covenant, as the title may suggest, is an ‘unbeliever’, a cynical leper who spends more of his time doubting the alternative world he is in, and the magic that surrounds him, than he does saving it. And at times, you might doubt it all, too. The story is, of course, fantastic and his writing also excels. The series consists of three ‘chronicles’, the first two are trilogies and the last is a tetralogy (the final book will be published in 2013).


Horror fans will almost certainly recognize the name. Clive Barker is one of the greatest horror authors of the modern day, ranking alongside such names as Stephen King, and is perhaps most famous for his contribution of the “Hellraiser” series to the horror canon. The Books of Abarat is a series of young adult fantasy, surprisingly light given the author’s background, with a unique world featuring the islands of Abarat. There are twenty-five unique islands, each representing an hour in the day (as well as a twenty-fifth hour) that provide an engaging fantasy adventure sure to be loved by any fan of the genre. What makes this series so spectacular, though, is the artwork. Barker, before even starting the first book in the series, painted over 300 pieces relating to his world.


This utopian novel is arguably not really ‘fantasy’, due to the lack of any magic or fantastic elements to speak of; indeed it even takes place on Earth. The story itself is simple, following a Harvard graduates as he learns about the culture of Islandia, a small nation on the Karain continent (near Antarctica). That’s really about it. What makes this novel stand out, however, is the nation itself. Islandia is arguably the most well constructed worlds in fiction, rivaling only Middle Earth itself. The history, the culture, the language, the maps – it is truly a magnificent achievement in an art almost exclusive to fantasy, and well worth a mention on this list.

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Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council – while only loosely connected otherwise – are three novels set in the Lovecraftian, steampunk world of Bas-Lag. His writing is sparing where others might be frivolous, while grotesquely descriptive where most would simply fade to black. His political background has a heavy influence on his stories, as well, and his stories benefit greatly from this, making them some of the most meaningful fantasy stories in the market today. Miéville is both engaging in terms of the stories he tells, while also provocative in regards to his message. While each of the stories follows a different set of characters, all three are incredible reads that are certain to exceed the expectations of the average fantasy reader.


Guy Gavriel Kay is the modern master of fantasy. His novels take a piece of history – often one far less explored in fantasy – and makes it his own, adding to it a mastery of fantasy prose he gained while editing “The Silmarillion”, with Christopher Tolkien. Tigana, perhaps his best work, takes place in a world much like medieval Italy during a time of two tyrants. The story is one you have seen before, with rebels fighting those who run their homes, but the characters and setting are so rich and complex that it borders on literary fiction.


This one should not be a surprise to any of you. Gormenghast, the incomplete series following the life of Titus Groan, is inarguably the greatest piece of fantasy literature in modern history, perhaps even exceeding Tolkien himself. As with a couple of examples above, this story contains no magic. The books follow the heir to the Groan throne, although the first takes place during his infancy, named Titus as he grows in the Earldom of Gormenghast, and later explores the world outside it. Some even claim the third book, Titus Alone, to be a precursor to the science fiction subgenre of steampunk. It is a book that has influenced modern fantasy nearly as much as the contemporaneous Lewis and Tolkien, yet is by far the most under appreciated.

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20 Examples of Why You Should Enjoy Poetry

Here is a sampler of various English-language poetry which, I hope, will give non-readers of poetry, in particular, the impetus to follow through and discover the joys of poetry for themselves.

The samples I have included are representative of the development of poetry over some 800 years, but without going into technical or critical detail; that is to say, I have tried to provide examples that may, notwithstanding any deeper meaning, be appreciated at face value.

Note that the list is fairly traditional, in that there are no examples of ethnic verse. This is purely for the reason that I have limited my selections to works with which I am familiar (ie. largely British and, to a lesser extent, American). It was extremely difficult restricting the list to the 20 excerpts detailed below and, whilst literary merit was my primary criteria, (arguably) my one indulgence was the William Carlos Williams poem.

If your own favourite is not here, tell us about it.


This wonderful lyric is one of the most famous examples of Middle English (1066-1450) and, although it was traditionally sung as a “round”, is also commonly taught as an introduction to Middle English literature. It is thought to be written in the Wessex Dialect. W. de Wycombe, a late 13th century English composer and copyist has been suggested as being the author, but there is little evidence to support this. It is typically attributed as Anonymous.

Note that a round is a musical piece in which two or more voices repeatedly sing the same melody, but with each voice starting at a different time. “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is an example of a round that most people will be familiar with.

Interesting fact: whilst some commentators translate verteth as “twisting” (or whatever) the word is, in fact, the earliest written example of vert, the Middle English version of fart!

And here is a very nice choral version for your listening pleasure, in counterpoint.


Image: Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623

Shakespeare who? A great sonnet from the nonpareil!

Interesting fact: Shakespeare ultimately had no descendents – apparently, his grandchildren all died!


I was so tempted to quote Jonson’s famous Song : To Celia, which includes the famous line “Drink to me only with thine eyes”, but this lesser known example of his work is typical of his lyricism. It was published as one of ten linked pieces in 1623. A friend of William Shakespeare, Jonson was a complex character; he apparently liked an argument and could be arrogant, but was also noted for his sense of honour and integrity. Not quite a genius…but still one of the giants of English literature.

Interesting fact: Jonson is the only person buried standing up in Westminster Abbey (London). His grave bears the famous epitaph “O Rare Ben Johnson” – yes, the inscription erroneously includes an “h” in his name – the engraver made a mistake!

According to Westminster Abbey:

In 1849, the place was disturbed by a burial nearby and the clerk of works saw the two leg bones of Jonson fixed upright in the sand and the skull came rolling down from a position above the leg bones into the newly made grave. There was still some red hair attached to it.


These famous words by John Donne (pronounced “Dunn”) were not originally written as a poem – the passage is taken from the 1624 Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and is prose. The final 3 lines are possibly amongst the most quoted excerpts of English verse.

Interesting fact: Donne was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral (London)


Born in London’s Cheapside, Herrick was the seventh child and fourth son of Nicholas Herrick, a prosperous goldsmith, who committed suicide when Robert was a year old. He ultimately took religious orders, and became vicar of the parish of Dean Prior, Devon in 1629, a post that carried a term of thirty-one years. It was in the secluded country life of Devon that he wrote some of his best work.

The over-riding message of Herrick’s work is that life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it (“carpe diem”). He is also renowned for frequent references to lovemaking and the female body.


Richard Lovelace was born a nobleman, being the firstborn son of a knight. On April 30, 1642, on behalf of Royalists in Kent, he presented to Parliament a petition asking them to restore the Anglican bishops to Parliament; as a result he was immediately imprisoned in Westminster Gatehouse where, whilst serving his time, wrote “To Althea, From Prison”, which contains – as per the excerpt given – one of the more famed lines of English verse “Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage”. Basically, Lovelace is saying that physical imprisonment/oppression cannot stifle his imagination or spirit.

Interesting fact: While in prison, Lovelace worked on a volume of poems, titled Lucasta, which was considered to be his best collection. The “Lucasta” to whom he dedicated much of his verse was Lucy Sacheverell, whom he often called Lux Casta. Unfortunately, she mistakenly believed that he died at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1646 and so married somebody else. Oops!


Milton ! Another literary giant. Possibly ranked, in terms of sheer literary genius, second to Shakespeare. Paradise Lost is an epic, dealing with the fall and subsequent salvation of Man. So great was the contemporary acclaim for Milton’s poetic epics, that other writers began to avoid writing long poetical works…which contributed to the birth of the novel as a literary genre.

Interesting fact: Milton became blind, and most of his prodigious works were dictated to a secretary.

Also: as a student at Cambridge University, Milton was so vain about his appearance that he was nicknamed “the Lady of Christ’s College”.


Image: Inscription on the Church at Stoke Poges refering to Gray’s Elegy

Gray’s Elegy (an elegy commemorates death) was written after the passing of one of Gray’s close friends, and is a meditation on the mortality of man. Gray was Professor of History and Modern Languages at Cambridge and, despite not being a prolific writer, was one of the most prominent poets of his day He was buried in Stoke Poges (near Windsor, England) the village whose churchyard was where he composed the Elegy.

Interesting fact: although he became a literary giant of his age, Gray only published 1,000 lines of poetry during his lifetime – this was due, largely, to his acute fear of failure.


This is a good example of a poem having as many dimensions as you might like to afford it. On the one hand, there is no certainty as to exactly what Coleridge is talking about. However, it is also deemed by many critics to be profoundly symbolic (art v nature etc.). The poem does appear to most to have obvious sexual imagery, though Coleridge himself did not elaborate on any hidden depths or symbolic undertones. Kubla Khan was, upon its publication, widely denigrated by contemporary critics. Today, it is viewed as a work of genius.

Interesting fact: Coleridge (possessor of an egregious opium addiction) stated that he woke one morning having had a dream/vision of the entire text of Kubla Khan. The poem remained unfinished because, as he was in the midst of writing it down, he was interrupted by a knock at the door – it was a local village tradesman. After some small talk the villager departed, but Coleridge had now lost his train of thought and could not remember the rest of the poem! Bummer!


Much of Wordsworth’s poetry was concerned with nature. He was a well-traveled individual, accompanied on his excursions by his sister, and lifelong companion, Dorothy. He was a prolific poet, and every school pupil will probably be familiar with his poem Daffodils.

Interesting fact: Wordsworth was born in a town with the improbable name of Cockermouth.


George Gordon Byron (the 6th Lord Byron) was an egotistical and temperamental person who during his own lifetime witnessed his reputation as an individual and as a poet reach lofty heights for a time only to plummet due, in no small part, to his scandalous private life (he married a wealthy heiress who left him after a year of marriage for reasons that were greatly speculated upon but never divulged). In fact, his poetry was thereafter belittled so much he left England, never to return. His literary reputation has, of course, been more than restored since his death.

She Walks in Beauty was inspired by his being smitten at the beauty of his first-cousin, whom he met at a funeral – she being dressed in black mourning attire.

Interesting fact: Byron had a club foot, and his sensitivity to this is reflected in some of his works.


Image: Keats’ deathmask

Having already lost both parents, Keats wrote these soulful lines upon learning that his brother was dying and that he himself was suffering from tuberculosis. He views the nightingale’s song as lasting and eternal, and as a counterpoint to his own deeply-felt mortality. Having said this, Keats could also turn his hand to some of the most beautiful lines in the English language eg. To Autumn).

Interesting fact: Keats was a doctor who was tormented by operations carried out – as was the norm in his day – without anaesthetic.

Also, it seems that our friend Lord Byron was a little jealous of Keats’ obvious poetic talents. In letters to contemporaries he described Keats’ works as “mental masturbation”, and wrote of “Johnny Keats’ piss-a-bed poetry” Charming! To be fair, he wrote generously of Shelley (well, of his personality, if not of his works).


Wonderful words imaginatively expressing an ex-patriate’s nostalgia for his home country

Interesting fact: Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was inspired by Browning’s famous work “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”.

Also… Browning was the first person ever whose voice was able to be heard after his death ! He attended a dinner party in 1889 (the year he died) and was persuaded to talk into a phonogram (a wax-cylinder recording device). He (somewhat falteringly) read his famous work How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix, which you can listen to here .


Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the wife of the poet Robert Browning and, though the theme of her works was often social injustice, she shows in these well-known lines that she could turn her hand to romantic poetry – a fact well understood by her husband, who had to insist that she publish them. I think the words speak for themselves, and that it is fairly pointless to try and attribute any profound meaning to them.

Interesting fact: Barrett-Browning, having never been unwell, was prescribed opium at age 15 and suffered from unknown illnesses (so called “nervous disorders”) for the rest of her life.


Image: Fitzgerald’s grave.

Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát is a (loose) translation of the work of 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. It’s not a particularly consistent translation, but was a staple text for English students for many years (not so much today). It has been pointed out that the “thou” to which Fitzgerald refers in the second line of the famous tract, above, refers to a male (given that there does not appear to be any reference to women in this work).

Interesting fact: Fitzgerald was a vegetarian who, erm, apparently hated vegetables. He mostly lived off of bread and butter and fruit.


Another who is commonly held to merit the title “genius.” This poem is reflecting, in a remarkably nonchalant manner, upon death. This particular poem has been described as “flawless to the last detail” by at least one eminent critic.

Interesting fact: reclusive in nature, only 2 of Dickinson’s 1,000+ poems were published during her lifetime – and these 2 without her permission!


from The Road Not Taken (1916)

Just a few lines from two of Robert Frost’s more famous works. Frost remains one of America’s pre-eminent poets, and there is often a genial simplicity in his words that continues to make his poetry accessible. Although a common theme in Frost is individuality or independence, I cannot help but think that he doesn’t follow through enough.

Listen to Frost read The Road Not Taken.


I’m not sure what is so compelling about this; maybe it is the simplicity of a writer who liked to create imagery about everyday people in their everyday lives. Whatever the case…I do know that most people, after a few readings, come to also love this short poem without really knowing why.

Interesting fact: Williams was a doctor.

Listen to him read one of his other works (Elise)


Dylan Thomas, one of the 20th century’s more influential poets, wrote this to commemorate the death of his father. The poem (which in its entirety has 19 lines) has only 2 rhymes throughout.

Interesting facts: it is widely held that Robert Zimmerman adopted the name Bob Dylan as a homage to Dylan Thomas, who was somewhat of a Bohemian cult figure in the USA.

Widely believed to be an alcoholic (a rumor that Thomas himself “promoted”), there is much evidence to suggest that this was not the case (including the state of his autopsied liver).

Listen to Dylan Thomas, himself, reading the above poem.


Who said modern poetry is dead! Undoubtedly Larkin’s best known poem, according to wikipedia “It appears in its entirety on more than a thousand web pages. It is frequently parodied. Television viewers in the United Kingdom voted it one of the Nation’s Top 100 Poems”. Cynical..yes, but also memorable.

Interesting fact: Larkin’s reputation was tarnished after his death. A biography based on his papers suggested that he was preoccupied with pornography and racism.

Contributor: kiwiboi

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10 Interesting Word Searches On Google Books

Google NGram is a cool feature that lets you search the amount of times a certain word or phrase appears in over 5 million books.

It instantly searches these books as far back as the 1500’s and graphs their amount of usage over time. Sometimes this yields interesting results; such as words that come and go into language with different meanings.

1. “hipster”


More people were using the word ‘hipster’ in the 1950’s than they are now.

So basically, the word was, like, so much cooler before everyone started using it… like in the 1940’s.

2. “cocaine”


Cocaine is a hell of a drug. People in 1909 knew it too.

3. “Seattle”


Seems like Seattle has a moment in the popular imagination every few decades. But the “grunge” era is when people really started writing about the city… and then lost interest around 2001.

4. “cowboys”


From actual cowboys to fake cowboys to Dallas Cowboys.

5. “Disco”


This one shocked me. Was disco really incredibly popular in the 1600’s?
Yes, but only as the Latin word for “I learn”.

6. “gay”


This is interesting. You can see when the word was used to mean “care-free”, and then drop off rapidly when it took on the meaning we use today. Then it came back hard as gay rights became a more widely-acknowledged social movement.

7. “web”


A word that has always been there, but happened to get a new meaning in the early 1990’s when it became a name for the Internet… until people started calling that “online” or “my phone” or “life”

8. “bomb”


Bombs have been around for a long time, but have increased in deadliness. During the end of the 1910’s there was a rash of “anarchist” bombings. WWII ushered in an era in which bombs could wipe civilization itself. And of course, Hollywood produces it’s own bombs.

9. “Hawaii”


You can see Hawaii’s entire history in this chart; from undiscovered paradise, to important agricultural colony, strategic military base, and finally sexy setting for fiction. But why are people now writing less about Hawaii with each passing year?

10. “comedy”


Looks like comedy is more important during certain eras than others. Sadly we are in one of those slumps; one that’s almost as laughless as the Civil War days.

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John Green’s Response To The Banning Of His Book Is Perfect

1. John Green answered a fan’s question on his Tumblr yesterday about the banning of The Fault in Our Stars.

Ton Koene

2. Riverside Unified School District in California has banned TFIOS from its middle schools for dealing with mortality and sex.

Q: Hey John, what is your reaction to the news that the Riverside district has chosen to ban TFIOS from middle school libraries on the grounds that it deals with mortality and sex? I remember your reactions to similar situations concerning your books have been pretty animated and wondered what you thought?

3. His response was hilariously perfect:

I guess I am both happy and sad.

I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.

But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.

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5. Well played, John Green.

Jarry Lee / BuzzFeed / Dutton Books

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10 Notoriously Controversial Books

We have written two lists in the past which deal with this same subject, so there is a little overlap, but this list is a more general one so it makes sense. This is a list of books (fiction and non-fiction) that have been the subject of great controversy.


The Da Vinci Code almost made it onto this list, but in light of this entry’s nonfiction status, it must overtake what Dan Brown expressly intended as fiction.

This is the nonfiction book from which Dan Brown got most of his ideas for The Da Vinci Code. As if that book isn’t controversial enough, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (yes, that’s right, three writers), published this book in 1982 in the UK. It states a case that Jesus was not divine, married and had sex with Mary Magdalene, had children by her, and that these children or their descendants emigrated to Gaul (France), and founded the Merovingian Dynasty, which has two of the most famous Frankish kings, Charles the Hammer, and Charlemagne.

You can see how this might upset a few Christians. It wouldn’t have be so bad if the writers actually had some hard facts to back up their case, but they rely almost exclusively on factoids, which are dubious, probably spurious attempts to sound factual. The Priory of Sion, on which the book heavily relies, did not have the storied history it describes. The true Priory was founded in 1956 in France, by Pierre Plantard, who deliberately concocted a fictitious history going back to 1099 and the Christian sack of Jerusalem. The Christians did sack it, but there was no Priory involved.

It also asserts that the Roman Catholic Church has completely corrupted the truth of Judeo-Christian history in order to control people. You can see how this might upset a few Catholics (and Jews).


This one makes very frequent appearances on public school banned-book lists throughout the United States, because of its use of the word “nigger.” Mark Twain wrote it at a time when it was not dangerous to use this word, but today things have changed.

The truth is, in the time of the story, white people called black people “niggers,” because that was the most usual word in the nationwide vernacular. It was not, at that time, so much a pejorative term as now. But typical PTA meetings at elementary, middle and high schools center on this book as often as they center on sex education, because the horrified parents can’t get over the thought of their children reading the word “nigger” several hundred times throughout the book.

Book Of Mormon

This one is controversial for a specific reason. At the very end of the Judeo-Christian Bible, in Revelation, there is a verse that reads, “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

The first half of that quotation is the one Mormons have to sidestep carefully, and they usually do so by saying that it should be interpreted as referring to only the Book of Revelation, not the entire Bible. If this is accepted, then Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon is an acceptable addition to the Bible. Almost all other Christian denominations argue fiercely that whatever the quoted verses mean, there is no need for an addition to the Bible. It was already complete before Smith came along.

Their arguments typically center on Smith’s (and Brigham Young’s) desire for multiple wives. Smith was not allowed by U. S. law to marry more than one wife, so he invented a new religion and got it accepted into the mainstream in order to marry more than one woman. Today, the Mormons believe some bizarre things, in terms of fundamental Christianity, namely that God has physical sex with angels, that when a Mormon dies, he or she becomes God in another universe, and that God took care of the ancient Native Americans, perhaps from as long ago as 2,500 BC, in much the same way that he took care of the Israelites. Also that during the forty days between Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus appeared and preached to the native American tribes.

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Coupled with Huck Finn as a popularly banned book in schools around the United States. Salinger had a lot of nerve to publish it in 1951, given its amount of profanity, sexual scenes, general subversive nature, and lots and lots of smoking and drinking. It was one of the ten most challenged books in 2005, with furious parents demanding it be removed from their children’s school curricula.


Atheists champion it, theists denounce it, and there is very little middle ground. That was Richard Dawkins’s intent with it. This is by far his most inflammatory treatise on atheism to date, and his biggest commercial success. It has sold over 2 million copies.

Dawkins openly attacks religion as a delusion, since there is almost certainly no God, never has been, period. He goes through a logical process of destroying the idea of a God of any kind, then discusses the nature of morality, whether it requires a religion to work.

The book has so inflamed the debate between atheists and theists that quite a few books have been written promoting it, and even more condemning it. Dawkins and two others, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who have also written such books, are referred to by many Christians as an Unholy Trinity, now.


O. J. Simpson should have laid low for a little longer. It wouldn’t have made the list had it not actually been printed, but about 400,000 copies have been.

It is difficult to know how many were destroyed, if any, but when it was announced in November 2006, it started such a controversy that the publisher had to yank it off the press. In August of the next year, the Goldman family was awarded copyrights for the book, as partial compensation for the lawsuit that Simpson never paid.

Judith Regan, the publisher, is on record stating that she considers the description of Simpson’s “hypothetical” scenario so perfect and pristine that it’s as good as the actual confession.

The premise of the book is really stupid, given that Simpson swears he didn’t do it. He puts forth the case that though he didn’t do it, this is how he could have done it. Not smart.

After his original plans for the book, as a way to make some money, were canceled, the Goldman family acquired the rights and hired a ghostwriter to get it into publication. Not a bad read, really.

(He did it.)


Niccolo Machiavelli’s masterpiece has garnered a rotten reputation over the centuries as advocating tyranny. Machiavelli argues that the best ruler is the one whose people love him. Such a ruler is almost impossible to come by. But a very close second to this is the ruler whose people fear him. There have been many of those.

The book is more philosophy than politics, and it champions the idea of self-reliance. But this can easily be taken as “don’t help anyone, because they should help themselves.” Self-reliance is one of the founding principles of the modern Church of Satan, and that’s the comparison detractors of this book routinely make.

In general, the detractors loathe it because it appears a very efficient method by which to create a corrupt tyrant.


Karl Marx should have been reprimanded, not for its controversial nature, but for writing the most boring book in history. His idea came from an observation that all of humanity’s strife, from the beginning of our history to now, has been over class struggles.

He therefore sought to abolish classes, and establish a system of government in which there are no betters or worses, but only equal people, who all get paid the same amount for whatever their jobs are, from the President to the peon. They would all get the same kind of food, the same amount, the same kind of car, house, everything.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Someone always wants more or better. Actually, everyone does. It was seen as the polar opposite of democracy, not because of its philosophy, but because it was seized upon and championed by the Soviet Union, whom the United States deeply abhorred during the Cold War.

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A few facts that you may not know. Muslims believe that the Q’uran is the divine speech of God, revealed through the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammad, from around 610 to 632 AD. They regard it as the primary miracle to prove that Muhammad is indeed the greatest prophet of all.

Muslims revere Moses and Jesus also, but do not hold that Jesus was divine. Christians around the world who are not particularly educated about the book consider it the closest thing to the Devil Himself that anyone is likely to see until Armageddon.

Most of these Christians (and there are other denominations and religions involved in loathing the book) believe that the Q’uran instructs its followers to strap on dynamite and C-4 explosives, and go kill infidels (Jews and Christians) in order to get to Heaven and be rewarded with 72 dark-haired virgins.

The problem is that the word for these “virgins” is “houri,” which has many meanings. It may mean nothing more than angels, meaning that 72 angels will minister to the departed in heaven, and “minister” does not necessarily mean sexual intercourse.

Most Muslims believe in these 72 virgins in the same way that most Christians believe that they will be outfitted with harps, wings, and walk on clouds.

But the terrorist organizations, dedicated to hatred of Jews and Christians, indoctrinate their primarily illiterate trainees into believing that their suicides and bombing of said infidels will be the path to Heaven. There is no such statement anywhere in the Q’uran. It is quite a peaceful book, advocating understanding and tolerance of the three major Monotheisms.

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No book has been published more, translated more, interpreted or misinterpreted more than the Judeo-Christian Bible. It has more copies in circulation that any other book, and is present in part or in whole in about 2,400 of the world’s 6,900 or so languages.

It is the breeding ground for more furious debates than any book in history, and is the go-to book for Christians, atheists, deists, even Jews and Muslims. If you’re going to convince a Christian he’s wrong, you have to use his book to do it.

Atheists, in particular, regard it with extreme hatred, because it depicts God as particularly ruthless, cruel, barbaric (Old Testament) and then self-righteous and magical (New Testament). Logically speaking, they say, the Bible is its own worst enemy, because it appears notoriously ambiguous in places.

It is the center of authority on gay rights issues, gay marriage, abortion, even the very nature of democracy. The Founding Fathers of the United States used it as their primary template for drafting the Constitution.

Not even the most secular debate on morality can avoid it. Before the Bible, philosophers typically quoted Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, etc. After the Bible, even the most vehemently atheistic philosophers quote the Bible more than any other source of philosophy when attempting to prove or disprove any of its points.

Some even argue that all of the world’s wars after its dissemination have been caused by it.

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10 Books To Read Before You Grow Up

There are many lists throughout the web about books you should read before you die. I find that peculiar. What good is reading a piece literature that can give you a whole new perspective on life “before” you die? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to have a list of titles you should read before you start truly “living?”

Young adults have a lot time on their hands. Sprinkling that time with books that will make them better prepared for life’s peaks and valleys can’t hurt. Especially at a stage in life when they can absorb it without the distractions of adulthood. The titles my teen gravitates to are wonderful if she plans to settle down with a handsome vampire or start her own crusade against evil wizards.

High School isn’t helping either. The reading lists she brings home hasn’t changed much in 30 years. “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “All ‘BORING’ on the Western Front”, “Lord of the Flies” all great books, but basically one-dimensional. Racism…Bad, War…Bad, Civilization…Good, o.k… we get it! How about titles that inspire, teach and help you learn from others mistakes. Because growing up is tough, but being a grown-up is tougher without a clue to what lies ahead.

Here’s a list of books that I’m encouraging my own teen to read before running off to college. I know if I had, I would have been better prepared for this big, bad and beautiful world.

Please feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.


Harriett’s psychologically incestuous affection for her parents ultimately leads to misery, for herself, and those around her. No reader can walk away from this book without realizing the importance of leaving the nest and establishing you own identity. The lesson for teens is that to be an individual you must rebel against your parents at some stage in your development. If not, perpetual adolescence in adulthood will sabotage any chance happiness and self-respect. So erase the possibility of running home to mum & dad’s sofa when life gets tough.

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Don’t blindly trust your leaders!

Any government or political movement (not just Commies), no matter how well intentioned, can be transformed from a force of good to one of oppression if its citizens yield to State sponsored violence and propaganda. Political leaders, like all of us, are fallible. And if left unchallenged, can destroy a nation from within. Animal Farm poignantly demonstrates this reality. It stand as a lesson to all young readers that liberty and equality must be vigilantly guarded on a daily basis.

Golden Book Of Chemistry Expriments

This book has been out-of-print for a long time. But if you can find it…get it. It’s a wonderful introduction to the basic elements that make up our world. Ever wonder how to make Carbon Dioxide? or collect Hydrogen in a test tube? make your own soap? The Golden Book of Chemistry will show you how. This book serves two purposes for the young adult. It can spark a love of life long scientific pursuit or confirm, once and for all, that the sciences are not for you. Either way, the Golden Book is a keeper.


If you can put aside Mr. Sowell’s political affiliations long enough to read this book you will discover that Economic issues are not that difficult to comprehend. No matter what point on the political spectrum you put yourself in, the rules of economics are neutral. And knowledge of basic economic principles are essential to understand how our modern world functions. Concepts ranging from economies of scale to the price of a paper clip are explained in a readable and compelling style. But most importantly, the esoteric jargon used by media pundits and politicians to describe economic issues will no longer be a mystery.


Whether you love or hate the French, there’s just “something” about them that magnetically draws us into their culture. This book is a collection of memories from the authors’ time in Paris as a magazine correspondent in the 1950’s. He touches on many unique aspects of French culture and history to bring his account to life. Having lived there myself for a couple of years, it’s amazing how much the French haven’t changed in 50 years, but I digress. The book benefits a young reader by describing a culture similar to our own but fundamentally different in many strange and wonderful ways. So, get out and explore the World.


Bel Ami is a classic (and copyright FREE) novel about a former soldier turned Parisian journalist in the late 19th century. Georges Duroy is a shameless scoundrel who will use any means at his disposal to get ahead. Although scandalous at the time of publication, Georges’ tactics are tame by today’s standards and quite entertaining. Young readers need to know that throughout their adult lives they will come across their own “Georges Duroy’s” and will be better prepared to overcome the charm of these parasites.


Talbot’s investigation into the possible nature of reality is, at the very least, thought-provoking and at best mind-blowing. The first chapters in the book deal with how the Holographic Model could explain the nature of reality and how our brains interpret the universe around us. Both skeptics and mystics will walk away with something valuable from this book. The benefit to young adults is to provide an alternate view about the true nature of our World. A view in which answers may lie beyond what religious dogma, and “this-is-all-there-is” science can reveal. It’s not the easiest read in the list, but its definitely one you’ll keep on your bookshelf for a long time.


Ultimately, the goal of life is to find your own patch of land and tend to it…or something like that.

If God could not possibly create anything but a perfect world then mankind’s brutality against itself must be part of His “perfect” design. Candide and his companions endure a series brutal hardships mirroring real-world 18th century events and narrowly escaping them. Voltaire’s hyper-detailed narrative of these horrible events actually make them humorously fun to read. Just imagine someone today writing a tale incorporating 9/11, The War on Terror, the AIDS epidemic, The Rwandan Genocide, The Japanese Tsunami and somehow make it relevant and funny. That’s Candide.

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The Alchemist tells the tale of a young shepherd in Andalusia whose quest to find the meaning of a dream leads him on an adventure through many struggles and ultimately to his own fulfillment Fortune, poverty, love, war, bravery, fear, and heaping spoonfuls of mysticism fill the pages of this uncomplicated story. The Universe wants you to “succeed” and will present you with clues to help you reach your goals. Those clues, however, don’t always follow a straight line. The twists, turns and delays encountered on your path are an important part of the journey to who you really are and where you truly belong. So, trust yourself.


Saints and philosophers alike have debated over the centuries about what makes us human. Why are we hairless apes different from the rest of the animal kingdom? The answer is simple. Humans COOK their food and animals DON’T. Therefore it is necessary for all participants in the human race to have a basic knowledge of cooking beyond simply boiling water. Mastering four or five sauce recipes from this book is sufficient to make you a proficient human being. After all, a salad without vinaigrette is just rabbit food.

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Top 10 Greatest Shakespeare Plays

There is no doubt that Mr Shakespeare is the greatest writer of modern English to date – his plays have been made into movies, his sonnets have appeared in books and music, and his works translated in to hundreds of different languages. His contribution to the English language is probably larger than that of anyone else. If you have not read all of the plays below, you should certainly try – I definitely will be [JFrater].


This tragedy is believed to have been written in approximately 1603. The work revolves around four central characters: Othello, his wife Desdemona, his lieutenant Cassio and his trusted advisor Iago. Attesting to its enduring popularity, the play appeared in seven editions between 1622 and 1705. Because of its varied themes — racism, love, jealousy and betrayal — it remains relevant to the present day and is often performed in professional and community theatres alike. The play has also been the basis for numerous operatic, film and literary adaptations.

Taming Of The Shrew

This comedy is believed to have been written between 1590 and 1594. The play begins with a framing device in which a drunkard is deceived into thinking he is a nobleman who then watches the “play” itself, which depicts a nobleman, Petruchio, who marries an outspoken, intelligent and bad-tempered shrew named Katherine. Petruchio manipulates and “tames” her until she is obedient to his will. The main subplot features the courting of Katherine’s more conventional sister Bianca by numerous suitors. The content has become the subject of considerable controversy. The play has been adapted numerous times for opera, stage, screen and musical theatre.

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This play is named after the Twelfth Night holiday of the Christmas season. It was written around 1601 and first published in the First Folio in 1623. Like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, this one centers on mistaken identity. The leading character, Viola, is shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria during the opening scenes. She loses contact with her twin brother, Sebastian, whom she believes dead. Posing as a man and masquerading as a young page under the name Cesario, she enters the service of Duke Orsino. Orsino is in love with the bereaved Lady Olivia, whose brother has recently died and decides to use “Cesario” as an intermediary. Olivia, believing Viola to be a man, falls in love with this handsome and eloquent messenger. Viola, in turn, has fallen in love with the Duke, who also believes Viola is a man and who regards her as his confidant.


This tragedy is believed to have been written in 1599. It portrays the conspiracy against the Roman dictator of the same name, his assassination and its aftermath. It is one of several Roman plays that Shakespeare wrote, based on true events from Roman history, which also include “Coriolanus” and “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Although the title of the play is “Julius Caesar,” Caesar is not the central character in its action; he appears in only three scenes and is killed at the beginning of the third act. The protagonist of the play is Marcus Brutus and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honor, patriotism and friendship. The play reflected the general anxiety of England over succession of leadership. At the time of its creation and first performance, Queen Elizabeth, a strong ruler, was elderly and had refused to name a successor, leading to worries that a civil war similar to that of Rome might break out after her death.


The play is an unflattering depiction of the short reign of Richard III of England and is believed to have been written in approximately 1591. The play is sometimes classified as a tragedy (as in the earliest quarto); but it more correctly belongs to the histories, as classified in the First Folio. It picks up the story from Henry VI, Part III and concludes the historical series that stretches back to Richard II. After Hamlet it is Shakespeare’s second longest play and is the longest of the First Folio, whose version of Hamlet is shorter than the Quarto version. The length is generally seen as a drawback, for which reason it is rarely performed unabridged. It is often shortened by cutting peripheral characters.


This is among the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays and is his shortest tragedy, believed to have been written between 1603 and 1606. It is frequently performed at both amateur and professional levels and has been adapted for opera, film, books, stage and screen. Often regarded as archetypal, the play tells of the dangers of the lust for power and the betrayal of friends. For the plot Shakespeare drew loosely on the historical account of “King Macbeth of Scotland” by Raphael Holinshed and that by the Scottish philosopher Hector Boece. There are many superstitions centred on the belief the play is somehow “cursed” and many actors will not mention the name of the play aloud, referring to it instead as “The Scottish Play.”


This romantic comedy was written sometime in the 1590′s and portrays the adventures of four young Athenian lovers; a group of amateur actors; their interactions with the Duke and Duchess of Athens, Theseus and Hippolyta; and with the fairies who inhabit a moonlit forest. The play is one of Shakespeare’s most popular works for the stage and is widely performed across the world.

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Believed to be written in 1599, it’s based on the life of King Henry V of England and focuses on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Year’s War. The play is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1″ and “Henry IV, Part 2.” The original audiences would thus have already been familiar with the title character, who was depicted in the “Henry IV” plays as a wild, undisciplined lad known as “Prince Hal.” In “Henry V,” the young prince has become a mature man and embarks on an attempted conquest of France.

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This play is an early tragedy (and likely Shakespeare’s first) about two teenage “star-cross’d lovers” whose “untimely deaths” ultimately unite their feuding households. The play has been highly praised by literary critics for its language and dramatic effect. It was among Shakespeare’s most popular plays during his lifetime and, along with “Hamlet” is one of his most frequently performed plays. Its influence is still seen today, with the two main characters being widely represented as archetypal young lovers. This is the singularly greatest romance ever written and has been continuously adapted to each generation in musicals, cinema and the theatre.

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Written between 1599 and 1601, this play is set in Denmark and recounts how Prince Hamlet exacts revenge on his uncle Claudius, who murdered the King, takes the throne and marries Hamlet’s mother. The play vividly charts the course of real and feigned madness — from overwhelming grief to seething rage — and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest and moral corruption. “Hamlet” is Shakespeare’s longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in the English language. During his lifetime the play was one of Shakespeare’s most popular works and it still ranks high among his most-performed, topping, for example, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s list since 1879. It has inspired writers from Goethe and Dickens to Joyce and Murdoch and has been described as “the world’s most filmed story after ‘Cinderella.’” The title role was almost certainly created for Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of Shakespeare’s time. It’s arguably the greatest drama ever written and in the four hundred years since, it has been played by the greatest actors and sometimes actresses, of each successive age.

This article is licensed under the GFDL because it contains quotations from Wikipedia.

Contributor: Heroajax

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13 Of Your Favorite Books If Their Titles Were Honest

1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

2. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

6. Metamorphosis by Franz Kakfa

7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

8. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

9. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

10. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

11. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

12. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

13. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Top 10 Best Novels of the Last 20 Years

The ten novels on this list all substantiate the belief that books are the most elastic, introspective, human and entertaining form of media that exist. Not movies, not music, not art, not the theatre. A famous author once said that novels are the best way for two human beings to connect with each other. I believe this, and I believe that people who do not find pleasure in words have never had the opportunity to read one of the great novels. The first introductions students often have to literature are stale century-old books that do not translate well to this new modern era. Frankly they are boring, and a lot of kids drift into the living room and turn on the television and stay glued for the rest of their lives. So, here I will present the ten greatest novels of the last twenty years, without apologies.


First Sentence: ”It is after midnight on one of those Friday nights when the guests have all gone home and the host and hostess are left in their drunkenness to try and put things right again.”

As the only woman on the list, A. M. Homes deserves recognition for her amazing writing skills, her unique voice and her gloomy view of the world. Homes shines when writing about screwed-up, out-of-love or on the brink of out-of-love couples. Torching is no exception. The married couple, Paul and Elaine, first appeared in a short story in The Safety of Objects, and then took on a life of their own. Married in suburbia, with two young boys, we follow them in their search for happiness, or some form of contentment, which they never seem to find. Smoking crack in the dining room, having affairs, trying to burn down their own house…nothing seems to change their boredom and disappointment. They’re stuck. They’ve become strangers to each other, to themselves, to their children.

Homes makes this common enough theme of suburban ennui feel real with her shining prose, a secondary cast of interesting plots and characters, and lack of a fairy-tale ending.


First Sentence: “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.”

Of course, Palahniuk had to be on this list. And while he may have written better novels than Fight Club (see Survivor), this is the one that brought him to the show and inspired a new, fed-up generation to push back. I won’t insult you by giving a summary of the plot, but I will say that nobody in the world writes better, sentence to sentence, than Palahniuk. His quick, intelligent prose keeps the attention of the worst ADHD-sufferers, and the themes in Fight Club of revolt, of going back to zero, of anti-consumerism are universal, accessible and desperately needed in the world we live in today.


First Sentence: ”While enthusiasts and detractors will continue to empty entire dictionaries attempting to describe or deride it, “authenticity” still remains the word most likely to stir a debate.”

Words to describe this novel: Dazzling, original, mind-bending, genius, heart-breaking, addicting, wonderful, jaw-dropping. The list goes on and on and on. No other novel has created its own world quite like Leaves. Danielewski made us question our own sanity. He led us through the 3-and-a-half-minute hallway and then left us there, shivering and alone, waiting for the monster, who we’ve only ever felt, but that we know (for certain for certain) is the most terrifying thing in the world.

The main plot follows a family who moves into a new house that they quickly find out is haunted. Sounds simple and cliché right? Imagine if you will a book that you have to take over to your mirror to read passages written backwards. Imagine twenty-two page rants about the origins of the word echo. Imagine endless footnotes dripping with blood and perfectly normal characters slowing getting drawn deeper and deeper into neurosis and insanity until they can’t find their way out, until you can’t tell the characters in the book from the people reading it. Imagine.

The house is alive. It breathes. Don’t go any further. Forget you ever read this. Go on with your life, and move down the list. Do NOT read this book. You’ve been warned.

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Dubus is considered by many the greatest short story writer of the 20th century, and there is fairness in this claim. This book consists of three novellas, woven together and taken from earlier Dubus publications. It is also a wonderful movie starring the enigmatic Laura Dern and Naomi Watts. It’s about two middle-aged couples who can’t seem to keep their pants on. Affairs are had, feelings crushed, epiphanies thwarted, friendships tested.

But what makes this one of the great books is the “realness” it elicits from the reader. It puts the reader in every character’s mind, and it puts us right there in the bedroom, in the woods, or on the back porch. Not only does “We Don’t Live Here” entertain us, it gives us a rubric of how to live our own lives. Shows us that nobody ever has anything figured out, not really. That what we do and feel morphs and shifts. Shows us what to do when everything we’ve held on to for so long goes away, how to bear it. It’s about desperation, and love, and marriage. It’s about paralyzing loneliness, kids, and housewives, and betrayal. Ultimately it’s about what it’s like to live in a world where we get to make all the decisions, and have to bear the repercussions of what those decisions mean. It does what a great book is supposed to do: it makes us feel.


First Sentence: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”

Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest novelists still alive today (a phantasm of Faulker), and his newest book, The Road, clearly exemplifies this claim. It’s full of McCarthy’s terse dialogue, minute detail (but not TOO much, like Blood Meridian) stream-of-consciousness, masculinity, and an excruciatingly intense violent plot (win!). Not to mention that, in addition to all of these things, it’s also overwhelmingly sad, which is not an easy thing for a novel to be. It’s the perfect combination of everything, with exact measurements dolled out like a recipe for brownies.

It’s about a father and a son walking south to Mexico, to find warmth in a post-apocalyptic world, whose journey is beset on all sides by cannibals, and hunger, and the freezing cold. The sun is gone behind clouds of black dust, and the only light comes from the father’s love of his son. Without each other, all will be lost. This book is heart-wrenching, desperate and mesmerizing. The intensity of their journey, of the book itself, is indescribable, so I won’t even try. Let me just say that I was literally in tears in the middle of a crowded Barnes and Nobles, trying to pretend like there was something in my eyes. You will not be able to breathe until you finish it. It’s a fast read, because you have to see have to see have to see what happens next.


First Sentence: “And it’s a story that might bore you, but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that, and it was, she thinks, her first year, or actually weekend, really a Friday, in September, and Camden, and this was three or four years ago, and she got so drunk that she ended up in bed, lost her virginity (late, she was eighteen) in Lorna Slavin’s room, because she was a Freshman and had a roommate and Lorna was, she remembers, a Senior or a Junior and usually sometimes at her boyfriend’s place off-campus, to who she thought was a Sophomore Ceramics major but who was actually either some guy from N.Y.U., a film student, and up in New Hampshire just for The Dressed To Get Screwed party, or a townie.”

This is the second novel from Ellis, of American Psycho fame. It doesn’t depart much from the style (run-on sentences, sex, drugs, 80’s MTV music videos, more drugs, more sex, some violence thrown in there) of his other works, except that here it works throughout the whole book. Here he gives us a little more to work with, like allusions (Howard Roark!), different narrators, a setting that’s not L.A, and a semi-coherent plot. His talent is endless and the sentences run on seamlessly until you’re almost disappointed when a sentence actually ends. Nobody in the world can write like Ellis, though many have tried, and failed miserably. Yes, Ellis is a deranged person (has to be), but he’s also a prolific, talented writer whose put his time in. And here he shines.

It’s about sex and drugs and horrible, self-absorbed, incomplete people, trying to get laid and quit smoking in a fictional University in New England. The things they do are despicable and immoral. There’s nothing redeeming about any of the characters in the entire book, no hope, and yet this book stings because nobody could write this well about people like this if they did not, in fact, exist in real life. When’s the last time you went to college? What do you think happens in Universities around America? What do you think most people are really like? This is a documentary of lost, attractive young people falling into the void. And nobody cares and nobody cares and nobody cares.


First Sentence: “Sometimes when people asked Eileen Holland if she had any brothers or sisters, she had to think for a moment.”

Another second novel. As always Franzen’s scope is immense, and his talent is clear on every page. If Palanuick is the very best writer, sentence to sentence, then Franzen is clearly the best living novelist. This story involves one Louis Holland, and a Harvard seismologist named Dr. Reneé Seitchek, and it revolves around abortion activists, big corporations, and strange sudden earthquakes appearing near Boston, which every Harvard seismologist knows is very strange indeed. It writes about the evil of corporations, but in a stronger, more mature way than Palanuick. Franzen is a historian, and he tells us exactly why the world is bad, how it came to be that way. He goes all the way back to the colonization of America, but not in a preachy or boring way. He personifies a raccoon for five pages, which is strangely one of the most poignant parts of the whole book.

The two main characters are what make the book. The medium-attractive Renee’ Seitchek and the lonely, lost Louis Holland, who fall for each other but seemingly never at the same time, and have painful rubbing sex as the earth shakes underneath them.

Franzen is a master and a genius; he builds and constructs. He creates suspense, and makes us wait for whatever’s going to happen. He makes us work for it. As with the #1 author on this list, you can imagine him standing behind a door somewhere laughing at all of his readers. He’s smarter than us, and God can the man write. This novel succeeds where The Twenty-seventh City fell a little short, and The Corrections overthrew.


First Sentence: “They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles.”

This book reverberates with originality, authenticity and craftsmanship. It follows generations of a Dominican-American family, the struggles they encounter in the Dominican Republic, and the curses that follow them to America. The main protagonist Oscar is a 300-pound nerdy, RPG-playing guy in America, who desperately wants to find love. We follow him in his constant struggle to find it, and bear witness to his countless rejections. No girl wants anything to do with this sweaty, obese nerd, and at some point our pity turns to admiration, as we root for him to succeed, screaming “You can do it Oscar. You can do it!”

Now go back a few decades to when his mother was the hottest thing in all of Dominica, and broke guy’s hearts by just batting an eyelash. Who eventually falls for a gangster (Why Beli, why?) involved with the Trujillo (evil dictator) regime that raped and murdered and tortured like it was going out of style. Then go back a little more to her father (Oscar’s grandfather) and see what happens to a respected surgeon who’s looked away from all the raping and torturing going on in his country until Trujillo himself sets his eyes on his beautiful daughter. Then you might just believe that there really are “fuku’s” (horrible unbreakable curses) and that this family’s got a BAD one.

Diaz blends Dominican history and folklore, humor, love, sex, death, revolutions, Castro, and dictators into one of the best freshman novels of all time. He employs current pop references, historical footnotes, a bad-ass original refreshing writing style, a mysterious narrator, Spanish, a blazing humor, age-old plot devices, and one of the most heart-breaking characters in existence to make this an instant classic.

Tree Of Smoke.Large

First Sentence: “Last night at 3:00 A.M. President Kennedy had been killed.”

This mammoth odyssey about the Vietnam War transcends all other attempts to write about Vietnam, and makes them look like Hallmark greeting cards. It follows Skip Sands, working for the psychological operations department of the CIA, and his larger than life uncle “Colonel Sands”. It takes us everywhere in Southeast Asia, and even back to the United States. Johnson depicts a war where nothing is clear, where friends and enemies are indistinguishable, and where myths are created out of the land itself.

With a cast of half-a-dozen supporting characters, he portrays the war from the perspective of both sides of Vietnam, from two G.I. brothers from Arizona (who appeared in Johnson’s Angels), from a widowed Canadian nurse who can’t stop reading Calvin, from a Sergeant who seems to be perpetually tripping on acid, from a German hit-man, from a priest in the Philippines who thinks he’s Judas, from a “civilian” war-hero Colonel who’s trying to implement his own unorthodox campaign against the Vietcong.

Spanning thirty years, and over 700 pages, it’s still a disappointment when you arrive at the last page. This is Johnson’s masterpiece – a book you can imagine him writing under a succubus’s spell in a fallout shelter—hair long, unshaven, chain-smoking, frenzied to get the words out.

Infinite Jest Cover

First Sentence: “I am seated in an office surrounded by heads and bodies.”

So here we are. While it was very difficult indeed to rank the other nine books on this list, deciding where to put this book on the list was as involuntary as breathing. This is by far the best, the longest, the most difficult, the most frustrating, the most entertaining, the most rewarding book on this list.

The term Infinite Jest is an allusion to Hamlet, as well as the title of a film by auteur Jim Incandenza, that circulates throughout the book causing anyone who’s unlucky enough to watch it, to want to do absolutely nothing else but watch it again and again and again, even if that means starving to death, or going to the bathroom on themselves, or not taking their insulin and going into epileptic shock. Ultimately, this book is about addiction in every form you could possibly imagine: Heroin, alcohol, cannabis, crack, cocaine, Diludiad, Percocet, sex, sports, cleaning, and on and on and on.

With a cast of hundreds, and almost 400 footnotes, coming in at a whopping 3 lbs, Jest focuses mainly on a halfway house in the Boston suburbs, and the adjacent Enfield Tennis Academy. Wallace spent hundreds of hours going to AA meetings, and this book is considered by many to be the most realistic account of drug addiction and the Alcoholics Anonymous program in either fiction or non-fiction.

Wallace created his own world in Infinite Jest. This is not just a big novel with big ideas. It’s not just a grand achievement by a writer with the greatest voice of his generation. This is not something you finish and then say, “Well that was a really great book,” and then move on with your life. This book deserves its own cannon. It cannot be categorized. This book genuinely redefines the boundaries of what a novel can do.

Wallace hung himself in late 2008. Infinite Jest is his second, and last, finished novel.

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