From comics and short stories to novels and history texts, below is a list of 100 pieces of literature (in no particular order) that I believe are worthwhile to check out. Naturally, when doing something like this there will be a ton of wonderful works that won’t be included even though they deserve to be. This isn’t so much a “Best 100 Books” or “100 Books You Should Read Before You Die” list as it is an attempt to chronicle varied pieces of literature that all have a valuable voice worth listening to. Hopefully, you find something here you love. Enjoy!
1) A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz be might the weirdest post-apocalyptic book you’ll ever read. Set in the desert of the southwestern United States after a nuclear war, it spans thousands of years as both civilization and the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz attempt to rebuild. Equal parts surreal comedy (at one point the order has an internal argument based on legitimizing and making canon a discovered pre-apocalypse grocery list that may or may not have been written by Saint Leibowitz), horror, and philosophical text, A Canticle is a wonderfully unique examination of the cyclical nature of history and humanity’s inability to progress past its own self-destructive tendencies.
2) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Pull back the curtains on any horror story and you’ll probably find some piece of An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Written in 1890 by Ambrose Bierce, it’s a short story that plays with what are now common horror and suspense tropes. It’s a masterful display of subtle story telling and simple, identifiable fear, and is undoubtedly a vital part of the evolution of 20th and 21st century American literature. Still, the best thing to come out of it might be this Kurt Vonnegut quote: “I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce.”
3) Some Ether
Nick Flynn’s poetry collection Some Ether is brutal, jaggedly vulnerable, and practically leaks trauma. There’s so much force and depth to find in Flynn’s pain, yet at the same time there’s a subtle, precise, and heartbreaking spirit of understanding throughout that prevents the pieces from being completely overwhelmed by anguish. Below is a poem from the collection titled “Bag Of Mice,” which is based on his mother’s suicide:
”I dreamt your suicide note
was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag,
& in the bag were six baby mice. The bag
opened into darkness,
from the top down. The mice,
huddled at the bottom, scurried the bag
across a shorn field. I stood over it
& as the burning reached each carbon letter
of what you'd written
your voice released into the night
like a song, & the mice
Winner of the Nobel prize in literature and the Pulitzer prize for fiction (and a litany of other awards), Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved is without a doubt one of the most ferocious and sharp examinations of American slavery that exists. The story focuses on a mother and her young daughter who have escaped from bondage but live in a house that’s haunted by a revenant from their past. Morrison masterfully examines motherhood, trauma, family, and other delicate topics through the brutal lens of slavery.
5) Black Hole
Set in the 1970’s, Black Hole is about a group of teenagers in a suburban town who are all becoming infected by an unknown disease that is transmitted through sex. The disease causes the inflicted to grow random physical mutations, and as a result they are ostracized and humiliated. Charles Burns’ graphic novel is a simple yet unique take on the coming of age trope that captures the primal anxiety of being a teenager abruptly confronted by sexuality, adulthood, and identity.
6) A Visit From the Goon Squad
The core of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad can be summed up by a single quote from the novel: "Time's a goon, right?" A book that deftly carries stories of memory and relationships, it guides you through the lives of characters who slowly lose their innocence, vitality, and purpose. A Visit from the Goon Squad is also a joy to read, and the narrative is fresh and sharp.
7) As I Lay Dying
The quintessential American Southern Gothic story, Faulkner’s fifth novel is a unique dark comedy that blends family, the loss of innocence, and the absurd. As I Lay Dying uses stream of consciousness, first person narration, and distinct writing styles for each of the characters to create a work that’s intimate and deep. A constant on any “Best 100 Novels” or “Best American Novels” style lists, As I Lay Dying is Faulkner’s masterpiece (which is saying a lot).
8) The Underwater Welder
The Underwater Welder is a wonderful story on so many levels. It follows the character of Jack Joseph, who, like his father, is an underwater welder that uses his job as an excuse to spend time away from his pregnant wife and the fear of fatherhood. Jeff Lemire’s graphic novel is a heart-wrenching tale of father and son buoyed by a magnificent use of the medium. It ingeniously manipulates artistic techniques and panel design to shape the tone, an example being the portrayal of land and home as sharp and confined, whereas the ocean is open and dreamlike. Ultimately, these two worlds collide as Jack is forced to reconcile his father’s disappearance and his own childhood with the approaching birth of his son.
Michael Herr has many accolades in his career, some of which include co-writing the script for Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) and narrating part of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). However, Dispatches is by far his most important work. A collection of stories that detail his time as a correspondent for Esquire during the Vietnam War, Dispatches is a distinctive combination of fiction and non-fiction. By occasionally attributing real dialogue to fictional characters and settings, Herr is able to deliver a remarkable account of the lives of American soldiers in Vietnam. Hellish, funny, immersive, and poetic, Dispatches is must-read novel (which it more or less is).
10) Honor Girl