Since I’ve been doing my “Year of Required Reading,” I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary fiction novels that changed my life.
I also blog on books and do literary criticism, so I often get the question:
What fiction should I read?
Needless to say, this is going to depend greatly from person to person. Even if you told me you like the postmodernist fiction from the ’70s and ’80s, that’s not going to narrow down recommendations much.
Instead, I want to talk about some of the books that actually changed my life. If you search for this topic, you’re going to get some pretty cliche things. A bunch of bestselling nonfiction makes the lists, like How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Eh. Did that book really change your life, or you just feel like you need to say that it did because everyone says that?
If you try to pin down fiction, it gets even worse. People list the “bragging” books like War and Peace.
Sorry for being a cynic, but that book probably wasn’t that meaningful to you. You just want to show off that you read it. And maybe these books did change these people’s lives. Everyone will be different.
I began this post not knowing how many books I’d include. If there was only one work of fiction, then it would be a post on that. If it was seven, I’d list seven. I didn’t want to force a number.
I’m using the term “contemporary fiction” to mean anything written while I’ve been alive (since 1986) and also to include YA. I know this is a bit broader than how the term is normally used.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
It’s a bit sad when I think the only time people will encounter this novel is if it appears on the reading list in a course titled something like Twentieth-Century American Literature.
Back when I felt cheated out of a quality education from my state school, I used to take 19 credit hours a semester and still walk the bookstore to get all the books on every reading list in every English class that I’d never read and plow through them to “enhance my education.”
Yeah. I was quite an insufferable person.
Anyway, I started this book having no idea what it was about. I’d never heard of Don DeLillo.
There wasn’t even a teaser or summary on the back or inside. This made the experience so much more powerful. I imagine most students are somewhat primed about its contents, and this will ruin it a little.
This novel is a darkly humorous take on death and dying. It is a painfully accurate treatise on how our society reacts to (and prepares for) disaster. Its satirical portrayal of academia is as harsh as it is funny.
I used to read it every year, but it’s been a few years since my last one. It’s one of the only works of fiction that has made me take a serious look inward at my own fear of death, my own erratic behaviors surrounding disasters, my own attitudes toward media coverage of disasters as entertainment, and on and on.
The novel is short, but it showed me a bunch of my own flaws of character. I can honestly say I was changed by the novel.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
I think there’s going to be a trend in this list of going into a novel without really knowing what it’s about first.
The Virgin Suicides had been recommended to me by someone. I don’t even remember who now. I got it and started it the same day without doing any research on it.
I was disturbed by those first pages and then baffled that the whole novel would actually be about a bunch of young girls, all sisters, committing suicide.
What really changed me was the way in which the novel was told. It uses the first-person plural: “we” instead of “I.”
The novel is told from the point of view of a bunch of boys of the same age as the girls. I find it hard to imagine this novel succeeding in any other voice.
These boys are reacting to an incomprehensible tragedy unfolding in front of them. No individual could articulate their bottled up emotions.
But together, the group has a shared experience. There’s safety in numbers, and they can piece it together and let it out.
I had a claustrophobic reaction to this novel as I understood for the first time that we can never truly know what it’s like to be in another person’s place. We can know a person, but we can never know what it’s like to be that person.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
I was the target audience when I read this. I’m definitely not recommending it to adults, because I have no idea what it would be like to read this for the first time as an adult.
I was twelve when I read this, and I refuse to ever read it again. I do not want to spoil the memory.
I vividly remember this being a book I took out of the library to read, but I don’t remember why. It’s another one of those books that is so much better if you read it without knowing anything.
I imagine so much of the power and impact of this novel would have been lost if someone explained the concept to me to get me to read it. I’m pretty sure some librarian operating way outside their pay grade handed it to me and said, “I think you’ll like this.”
Since this was a major movie, and it’s twenty-five years old now, I don’t feel bad spoiling it.
The way this changed my life was that it taught me that I always bring assumptions into a situation without knowing I’m doing it. Often, these are cultural or even human embodied assumptions.
One of the earlier scenes is of the main character seeing color for the first time. It blew my mind that I had assumed he could see color the whole time. Later scenes opened my eyes to the realities of human suffering.
It’s a YA novel, so I’m sure however it describes pain and war and death is not as vivid and realistic as I remember it being. But I was a white boy from the suburbs. This book changed me by showing me a world that was inconceivable at that time.
I remember going to history class that year and having chills because, for the first time, war wasn’t a date to be memorized. War meant human beings were experiencing great suffering and pain and loss.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
I hate to sound condescending, but I don’t think most people understand this book.
September 11, 2001 was a horrible tragedy. I was 15 when it happened, and so I remember it.
I don’t want to get political here, so I’ll just say that a large group emerged in the U.S. whose lives basically became devoted to “never forget” ultra-patriotic sentiments.
To many people, this book was an expression of the tragedy and preservation of the moment. It was about a brave father who died in the towers, and a boy who now didn’t have a father because of those horrible people.
But this is the wrong emphasis. The book takes place a year later. The main character finds a key and travels around New York City to try to find what it opens.
He’s a young boy who self-harms without understanding that’s what he’s doing. He resents the man his mother is dating. There is so much inner turmoil shown brilliantly about closure and moving on and grief.
September 11 is the catalyst, but it’s not what the book is about.
The novel achieves something rare by using a lot of “extended” techniques of letters, phone calls, and even a flipbook of images. I’ve only cried a couple of times reading a novel, and this was one of them.
Contemporary Fiction Honorable Mentions
I thought I’d list some contenders for the list here. These are books that I’ve loved, but I can’t quite say they’ve “changed my life” in the significant way as the four above (obviously, every book technically changes your life in small ways).
This is not exhaustive. It’s just what jumped out at me when I glanced through my bookshelves.
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
This minimalist novel achieves so much. It’s a disturbing look into the lasting tensions from apartheid South Africa.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Most John Irving novels could make the honorable mentions list, but this was the first one I ever read. His deep dive into the minutiae of character’s lives is unrivaled.
Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie MacDonald
I’d really like to re-read this someday. This is an epic family drama that shocked me when I read it.
The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
I’ve probably read this novel the most of any novel in the past ten years. I didn’t realize contemporary fiction could do this type of thing.
It’s part sci-fi, part literary, part indescribable. Slipstream fiction at its best that eventually ended up playing a major influence in my own novel Specter of the Spheres.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I’ve probably spent the most time reading this of any novel. This book has it all, and yet it’s held together by a much tighter narrative than many people give it credit for.
It predicted many of the most serious ills of our society today (addiction to technology, opioid epidemic, etc).
Read my article Maybe Infinite Jest is About Addiction or Reading for Comfort, Reading for Pain.