I’ve made the case that reading fiction is one of the most practical things a self-improvement-minded person can do.
As promised, here are the books or series that stand out in my memory as powerful, interesting examples of transformative fiction. I’ll continue to add to this list over time as I gain new experiences with old books or old books with new experiences.
1. The Scarlet Letter
Set in early Puritan New England, this – far from being a novel about adultery – is a classic study of integrity and the destructive nature of unconfessed evil. Be true! Read the story of Hester Prynne, Pearl, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale as they grapple with motivations of bitterness, isolation, revenge, and the deep fear of being exposed.
2. The Wheel of Time
My newest favorite fantasy series. I’ve heard it summarized as the story of what it’s like to find out you’re a Messiah that’s probably going to have to die. That’s a pretty good start, but it’s so much more. This 14-book, 11,916-page epic fantasy saga successfully recapitulates dozens of mythic elements and story arcs from dozens of cultures and time periods. It’s truly astounding as a work of fantasy for that reason, and it’s on the level of The Lord of the Rings for me for that reason.
It will get you thinking deeply about the nature and physics of time and history, the frailty of human memory and civilization, and the balance between chaos and order. It will also crack you up and make you fall in love with a huge cast of characters as they fight, learn, and love their way to a final confrontation with an evil that seeks to destroy time itself.
3. Pride and Prejudice
Don’t knock it till you try it. I held back from reading Jane Austen freely for a while, especially after seeing how teenage girls just fawned over this book.
It turns out they were right do so. Austen is a funny, insightful writer who – for someone whose life was circumscribed by all of the limitations on females in late 17th century Britain – was self-aware and well educated enough to write for all people.
Pride and Prejudice is a comedy about mistaken judgment, how our friends are not often who they seem, and how our own prejudice – as big a problem in Austen’s day as in ours – can hold us back from recognizing true goodness.
4. The Fountainhead
The Fountainhead is a story of original creativity. What would it be like for a man to exist solely for his own sake, or for the sake of existence? What would it be like for that man to not compromise on the truth or on his vision out of fear or a desire for acceptance? How would the world respond to him?
In answer, author Ayn Rand gives us architect Howard Roark, who does not compete, does not bend, does not adapt, and does not give in. Rand’s novels are more-complex-than-they-appear morality plays that cut bitterly into the cynical and unfree ways in which most people live their lives and speak about their lives. The Fountainhead is full of opportunities for moral self-examination and full of incisive observations about creativity.
5. The Space Trilogy
Conceived after a mutual writing dare/challenge with J.R.R. Tolkien, the space trilogy of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength is C.S. Lewis’s first fiction. It’s unfortunately well-known next to the Narnia books, but this space trilogy covers fascinating ground. It’s anti-science fiction – a fantasy or fairy tale set in space – which, unlike the materialistic, deterministic, and dread-filled foretellings of writers like H.G. Wells, looks out into the galaxies and finds meaning. Lewis builds beautiful and interesting worlds, explores how myth works across cultures, and of course paints a vivid view of his Christian universe in these books.
To be continued