Since a while back I shared my favorite anime, and I just reorganized my bookshelves, I figured I would share my five favorite novels. Well, favorite this week, anyway; the number of novels I love is probably an order of magnitude higher than the number of anime I’ve seen, and so the category of “favorite” is ever-shifting. I am deliberately leaving out short story collections, novellas, short story collections disguised as novels by use of a framing device, and graphic novels; I may do other lists which allow those at some future date, but for now I’m sticking to clear-cut examples of prose novels. Also this is in no particular order; it’s hard enough to narrow the list to seven, let alone rank them.
- Foucalt’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco: Everything you would expect a conspiracy thriller written by a Nobel Prize-winning author/world-renowned semiotician to be. Dense, convoluted, twisty, a glorious celebration of the twin facts that conspiracy theories are fundamentally silly and the mystical is fundamentally a conspiracy theory.
- Desolation Road, Ian MacDonald: A bizarre, largely episodic history of a small town in the Martian desert, peopled by outcasts and oddities. By turns silly and profound, and sometimes both at once. But mostly it’s just deeply, deeply weird.
- To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis: Time-travel comedy of manners farce. In which two separate comedies of manners, one in the late 21st century and the other in the late 19th, collide gloriously. Nothing deep here, just a very funny and fun book.
- Night Watch, Terry Pratchett: It was a very hard choice between this and Hogfather, the climax of which helped solidify a lot of my own worldview, but I think ultimately this is the better book. It’s a fascinating inversion of Les Miserables, and without the interminable boring asides that prevent that book from being on this list. Like Les Miserables, it is ultimately an exploration of what it means to be good in a fundamentally corrupt world; this has better jokes and a less ridiculously uber-competent hero, though.
- My Name Is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok: If you’ve read one Potok book, you’ve read all of them. This is that one. The story of an artist torn between the calling of his craft and the strict rules of his insular religious community, between his own integrity and what his upbringing and everyone around him tells him is “right.”
- VALIS, Philip K. Dick: A bizarre, hallucinatory journey, another conspiracy thriller (odd that there are two on this list; I don’t usually care for the genre) caught in a complete psychotic breakdown, a narrative collapse par excellence that, ultimately, can only be resolved by the reader’s own choices and interpretation. This is either an absolute masterpiece or a complete train wreck, and after three readings over ten years I’m leaning towards saying it’s both.
- Magister Ludi (a.k.a. The Glass Bead Game), Herman Hesse: I cannot even begin to describe this book. It is a living book, a growing thing that keeps changing every time you go back to read it, that writhes and shifts even in your hands. A slippery thing. It’s about a guy that’s really good at this very complicated board game. It’s about academia. It’s about life in a prison that isn’t really there.