Since Gutenberg made the printing press, books became the dominant form of media to spread knowledge in the world. It’s a simple medium that does not require much to create and publish so there are literally billions of books. This also means that there are loads and loads of crap that you have to sift through to find decent books. So I hope to share some books that you may not have heard about so you don’t have to search around for something good to read.
Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.: Well this isn’t really a book but a collection of three short stories that all take place 600 years apart and take place in a post-apocalyptic world. The book concerns an order of Catholic monks called the “Order of Leibowitz” dedicated to preserving pre-apocalyptic knowledge and technology. The idea of preservation of culture and religion were something Miller personally had firsthand experience with. While he was serving as a tail gunner in WWII he participated in the bombing of a Benedictine Abbey in Monte Cassino, a move that was highly controversial (so much so that in 1949 the third Geneva Convention outlawed the bombing of religious buildings). Miller uses the setting as a mediation on the value of religion and human technology telling a cyclical tale with a rather dark but grimly ironic ending. The world Miller creates in the novel is incredibly vivid describing hill tribes wearing diodes as necklaces, their purpose lost with only the memory of their purpose remaining, and kingdoms being forged from the ashes of America bearing names such as Texarkana. The work’s influence is still felt today, for example anyone familiar with the Fallout series of video games may notice striking similarities between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Order of Leibowitz’s mission. It’s speculative fiction at its finest and manages to be both intelligent and enjoyably pulpy.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons: Once more this is cheating a bit because this is a comic book, though before you dismiss me and this article, agrees with me. Petty arguments for the worth of comic books as a medium aside, Watchmen is a fantastic book. Moore takes the regular conventions of comic book superheroes and turns them on their head asking “what would they be like in the real world.” Take for example the character of Rorschach, a character who like Batman has an unflinching deontological moral code and is compelled to fight crime. Rorschach, though, shows that a person like that would probably be a borderline sociopath with sever antisocial tendencies not a charismatic hero, and that having uncompromising black and white moral codes is unhealthy and not noble. I would be remiss to tell about the plot, given that the book is largely a mystery but there are some standout moments that utilize the format of comic books to their full potential. One such moment is when Dr. Manhattan the only truly superhuman being in the book abandons humanity for Mars, where his backstory is explained in a nonlinear fashion. This represents how Manhattan, who is essentially omnipotent, experiences all of time at once and not in a linear way. It’s hard to describe but it’s a truly unique use of the medium. The artwork is all illustrated by Dave Gibbons with a lot of detail being put into the panels. The coloring deserves special mention eschewing the primary colors of normal comic books for a palate of secondary colors. In the medium of superhero comics it probably is the best so for that at least it deserves to be read.
The Epic of Gilgamesh-Author Unknown: Why should you read this book? It’s the first ever written or at least the first we know of. Written around 2100 BC in Mesopotamia, it details the story of Gilgamesh King of Uruk and his friendship with Enkidu, a sort of wild man. Enkidu eventually dies and Gilgamesh goes on a quest for immortality which is ultimately futile. It serves as the earliest known example of the hero’s journey in fiction and is important in understanding earlier cultures. And let’s be honest, it’s incredibly cool that you can pick up a book written about 4100 years ago and understand it. As a bonus you can read for free online, given that Mesopotamia existed a couple millennia before copyright law was invented.
Seconds-Bryan Lee O’Malley: Okay, I’m cheating again with another comic book. I can’t help it — I like the medium and I read a lot of it. Seconds is a story by Bryan Lee O’Malley who wrote Scott Pilgrim and while I don’t think I like it as much as Scott Pilgrim, it probably is the more accessible simply because it’s just 1 book instead of 6. Seconds is about Katie (no last name given), a chef in her late 20s, waiting for her second restaurant to be built. Katie discovers that if she eats a mushroom, writes down a mistake she made in a notebook, and goes to sleep, when she wakes up that mistake will have been fixed. What seems like a generic time travel plot has some pretty clever twists thrown in later on. For me, though, the book truly shines not in the time travel but in showing the development of a friendship between Katie and a waitress at the restaurant named Hazel. The artwork is well done with detailed backgrounds and fun character designs that manage to straddle the line between cartoony and realistic. The dialogue is amazing with O’Malley keeping up the clever and goofy streak he had with Scott Pilgrim.
Our Band Could be Your Life-Micheal Azerrad: If you have read any other articles written by me, you may detect a not so subtle affection I have for the 80s underground rock scene. The period for me is they high point of rock music and had some of the most creative bands ever. Our Band Could Be Your Life is probably the definitive look at the era with Azerrad covering 13 bands, a good 11 of whom I would count among my top 20 favorite musical acts ever. It looks at how a system of underground rock venues formed through touring and it details the risks and mishaps some of these bands faced in their time on the road. While I think that the chapter on Chicago noise rock band Big Black is my personal favorite (probably has something to do with them being my favorite band) the chapter on the Texas weirdo group Butthole Surfers is incredibly fascinating. They were basically a group of immoral Texans living out of their van from town to town scamming every label, band, or venue they came across. It’s a great look at a bygone subculture in music that has sadly died off.