11. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”
This book may be magical. For whatever situation I may find myself in, I flip this open to some random entry, and there, in words beautiful and eloquent, is Plath going through the same thing. Perhaps what Plath describes is universal, in her works; however, perhaps there’s a special kinship between her and I. I have never found an author who so absolutely understands me, who I can identify my plights with so exactly. Like her and I are some metempsychosis, we may well be one and the same. The way she thinks, the way she goes about, her beliefs on marriage and family, men, love and heartache, the world and its inhabitants: we share viewpoints and emotions like no artist has done for me prior. Plath makes me feel so incredibly not alone, and it’s truly wonderful to have something, and someone, to identify so heavily with.
“I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me. My love’s not impersonal yet not wholly subjective either. I would like to be everyone, a cripple, a dying man, a whore, and then come back to write about my thoughts, my emotions, as that person. But I am not omniscient. I have to live my life, and it is the only one I’ll ever have.”
“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.”
The epitome of modernism. I must confess, I just recently completed this novel, the novel concurrently hailed as the greatest of all time, yet also unreadable. All I can say, is that Ulysses is the body of a triumph of what The Novel should model after. Very seldom do I come upon books that encapsulate human consciousness to a T (Mrs. Dalloway, As I Lay Dying), but Joyce tops the cake with this. And what with a plethora of identifiable characters: Bloom, and his effeminacy, social alienation, human flaws, loyalty and guilt, anxiety; Molly, telling her side of what the men collectively say of her, her unapologetic sexual empowerment, and ability to embrace beauty; Gerty MacDowell, and her lushly romantic views on love, her twist on the male gaze and simultaneous physical beauty and handicap; Stephen, and his youthful self-entitlement, his poetic Personal Fable. Split into 18 episodes, each with individual styles and tones, some will have you sobbing uncontrollably, laughing yourself silly, smiling crazily, or about to slug The Citizen across the face. Try to find a book that better captures human existence. Some say that life is too short to read Ulysses; I say it’s too short not to.
“I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
9. The Color Purple
“God ain’t a he or a she, but a It…I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it…I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any living fool in the world can see it always trying to please us back…Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?”
The epistolary story of two sisters, Celie and Nettie, one in the American South, the latter in Africa, both discovering what it means to be a black woman. Though this novel is stricken with woe and anguish, examining oppression in a harsh light, from men and whites notably, even exploring European colonization in the later letters, it is astonishingly universal: there is a ringing sense of hope throughout. Walker does not promise that tomorrow brings better things, but that, in general, there is a constant capacity for hope, and that it is never impossible to change. Walker did a wondrous job in renewing my spirituality, forcing me to look past organized religion and my distrust in it, and allowing me to see God in a separate light, where my lifestyle isn’t sin, but rather it being sin to not enjoy fully the life I was granted. Each character in this magnum opus is just so real; Walker astonishes with her ability to examine human relationships. I get a bit choked up speaking of this novel, just being so important to me. Walker forges a story of empowerment and hope, and boy, does it resonate.
“What will people say, you running off to Memphis like you don’t have house to look after?
Shug say, Albert. Try to think like you got some sense. Why any woman give a shit what people think is a mystery to me.
Well, say Grady, trying to bring light. A woman can’t git a man if peoples talk.
Shug look at me and us giggle. Then us sure nuff. Then Squeak start to laugh. Then Sofia. All us laugh and laugh.”
“Harpo say, I love you, Squeak. He kneel down and try to put his arms round her waist.
She stand up. My name Mary Agnes, she say.”
8. As I Lay Dying
“I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after a while the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle from one to the other; and that sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who have never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words…He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was just like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.”
An odyssey of the Bundren family, to transport the cadaver of their wife and mother. I was quite taken aback my first read-through. At the outset, it was my first attempt at Faulkner, who now is unabashedly one of my absolute favorites; but his style is so wildly contrasting than other contemporaries, and with his thick Southern dialect stream-of-consciousness, it poses quite a challenge. But I grew much too invested in this family, each with their individual agonies. Faulkner has a way with words that he so completely understands how humans think regularly, with our selfishness, flaws, anxieties, self-empowerment, and yearnings, and he wastes no time in assuring us that he speaks the truth and nothing but, the hard truth, the truth that forces speculation because it is too difficult to accept. Plus, Addie Bundren, even in her death, and single narration, is possibly the greatest chapter composed in English literature. Through her near ten pages, I understood every last word she spoke and understood it as a universal reality: her distrust in words, the conflict of retaining an independent separation versus human interaction, her longing for salvation and acceptance, but never through a man, or any other being but herself. Read this book, read it again, and if you still don’t understand the third time, then, in Faulkner’s words, “Read it a fourth time.”
“One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”
7. Pride and Prejudice
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
After years of close acquaintances telling me that this would be a favorite of mine, that I must read it immediately, I can’t say why I hadn’t gotten around to it until so recently. And just as they said, Austen sucked me in. Elizabeth Bennet was a protagonist to identify with, her tough will, her intellect and outspokenness, her mistrust of humanity but adoration for the world, her cultured interests; the list goes on. And Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was a character to fall in love with. I am never much one with an affinity for love stories, unless they are nothing short of grand, and Austen delivered just that. For one thing, it may be the one of the only books on this list to have a happy ending. The Bennets were one I could refer to as a second family, I had gotten so close to each character near the conclusion, that I actually never wanted to stop reading about them. Moreorless, it is a near-flawless novel, and the amount of characters Austen tied together by the end is a miraculous triumph. It is The Novel that every writer wants to write.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
6. The Bloody Chamber
“His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”
The book that sparked my feminist awakening. I had always been a feminist, mind you, identifying myself with the concrete movement, understanding, in my naivete, that the fight for gender equality was all feminism was. Until a literature class in this past year introduced critical theory to me. Feminisms could finally put into words the otherness I’ve been subject to my whole life, and allowed me to explore oppression through its many layers, be it material or psychoanalytical. These theories provided me with a foundation on which I could shape my individual being: once I was able to comprehend humanness as mutually exclusive from a patriarchal society, and grasp the notion of societal constructions (be it gender, sexual orientation, virginity, beauty, etc), I suddenly became a much more happy, confident person. Feminism empowers me; without it, I can honestly say that I have no idea where I’d be. The Bloody Chamber is a ruthless, gory examination of the patriarchy through ten retellings of fairytales. Carter’s prose is descriptive nirvana, and her insights into everyday society, and the power politics between genders, are still radical today.
“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.”
“There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer.”
“If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.
You leave the same impression
Of something beautiful, but annihilating.”
Many scholars argue that Ariel is one long suicide note, being it posthumous and mostly composed in the days leading up to her death; but I don’t agree with such a notion. I think Ariel, above all else, is a tale of perseverance. Ariel is Plath finding her voice, and using it to affirm her individual power. Look at poems like “Lady Lazarus” or “Purdah” or “Ariel” or “Stings,” where Plath rises above all those who have hurt her in the past, above the oppression and woes she has had to withstand; she rises above all this and claims her life back for herself, sometimes stopping to take revenge on those who have done her wrong. It is a book of self-empowerment, and I oft turn to it more than most would deem healthy. Plath understands what it’s like to be hurt, she understands what it’s like to feel like your life is flying around in front of you without opportunity to catch it, she understands betrayal and love and the world. No other poetry collection is as important to me as Ariel, no other collection knows me quite like this one.
No, it is not fatal.”
“I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:
It is what you fear.
I do not fear it. I have been there.”
“I shall unloose—
From the small jeweled
Doll he guards like a heart—
The shriek in the bath,
The cloak of holes.”
“Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
I apologize for the amount of quotes; I simply couldn’t decide to exclude any of these. Do give them a read, as with all the quotes I included for every book on this list. Expect more as I enter my top 5.
4. The Handmaid’s Tale
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
The story of Atwood’s handmaid is one of the most gripping visions of dystopian America to be written in modern times. Here, Atwood weaves a future for the U.S. after a Christian coup overthrows the government, establishing a theocracy that strips women, and most all marginalized peoples, of their rights, reiterating the powerful and seemingly indomitable forces of a patriarchy. It holds firm a belief of mine: That no one can argue for, as an example, that nations across seas oppress their women more; it is a theocracy there, and since all religions are based around, basically, the same Book, Christianity is no different in its treatment of women and would model after others as such if in a place of power. I studied The Handmaid’s Tale in a feminist theory unit at school, my first exposure to any Atwood whatsoever. Her prose is stunningly beautiful, and how she plays with words and the English language is masterful. With its comparisons to 1984 and Brave, New World inevitable, The Handmaid’s Tale is undoubtedly the most human, and comprehends that, subtract the technology and materialism, we are all human beings and feel as such. It is also a dismal look into the truth of oppression, the blindness tantamount with privilege, and also the deplorable ways society treats women presently. Read The Handmaid’s Tale, and see how nearer and nearer we approach the society Atwood presents, one would say she prophesied this all. It’s terrifying how close, especially with men like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz gaining loads of followers and attempting a position of leadership, it’s scary how close we, as a society, are becoming the Republic of Gilead.
“Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse, for some.” (A PSA to Trump, perhaps?)
“‘There is more than one kind of freedom,’ said Aunt Lydia, ‘Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
“The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil.”
“I feel like the word shatter.”
“I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting.”
“I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wished it showed me in a better light, if not happier, than at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one’s life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. I’m sorry there is so much pain in this story…But there is nothing I can do to change it.”
3. The Catcher in the Rye
“Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s poetry.”
The first, and one of the only, books to ever make me cry. And truly, there’s no particularly striking scene to shed tears at; it was the extreme empathy I could share with Holden Caulfield, as a high school sophomore, that had me wallow in tears one night, as he watched his sister on the merry-go-round. High school really was an awful time, and my mental state during adolescence was nothing close to stable or healthy. Holden Caulfield was a character I could heavily identify with; he soon became a best friend of mine, it seemed; and just as he stated, I had wished I could call up Salinger on the phone and strike up a conversation with him. This novel is what introduced me to literature, and what I can attribute to my becoming a gigantic bibliophile. I’m interested in rereading this again, now, to see if it still strikes such a cord.
“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
“I like when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice.”
“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (I’ve began to understand this quote more and more with age.)
2. The Awakening
“The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.”
I first read The Awakening summer of last year, at a very confusing time in my life. It had seemed the protagonist, Edna Pontellier, was going through exactly the same situation as I was. This first read, the novel wouldn’t have made this list at all. But, as I explained with The Bloody Chamber, the more I became subject to my feminist awakening, the more I grew as a human being, and the more I went through this transition the better I could comprehend what Chopin had been trying to say. Honestly, this book is life-changing; it has shaped me, as a human, better than any piece of literature, better than any person, has before. Edna’s slow awakening and understanding of herself touched me beyond any work beforehand. Edna and I grew, with each other, as we both discovered our place in this world, and decided not to belong to anyone but ourselves. Chopin taught me that one must have an independent awakening to feel whole, to separate one’s self from rigid gender standards and societal constraints, that no one can define my existence but myself, and I cannot thank Chopin enough for this novel.
“But whatever came, she had resolved never again to belong to another than herself.”
“She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.”
“‘I would give up the essential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.'”
“In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. This may seem like a ponderous weight of wisdom to descend upon the soul of a young woman of twenty-eight—perhaps more wisdom than the Holy Ghost is pleased to vouchsafe to any woman.”
1. The Bell Jar
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
I will try to avoid going off on another tangent about how greatly I identify with Plath’s writings, but The Bell Jar is definitely the apex. Esther Greenwood felt to me as Holden Caulfield did three years prior; as I grew as a person, it felt appropriate another book should mark where I am currently. Esther’s need not to be under any man’s thumb, to be absolutely independent and ambitious in her goals, her fear of not knowing and susceptibility to, and war with, mental illness, her notices in the hypocrisy of men and arbitrary societal constructions of gender, beauty, etc: overall, her sudden aphorisms as a college girl parallel and mimic mine. This book isn’t too depressing, it isn’t too anything to the reader who understands what she is saying. There were many times where I needed to place this book down because of how heavily I could identify with what was being stated. Even with how autobiographical this may be, The Bell Jar is surprisingly universal. Read it, read it, read it.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
“I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.'”
“If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.”
“Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon—my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce—my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’?—and from that day on my mother never had a minute’s peace.”
“I was my own woman.”
“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Here are some books that just missed the cut, but hold value in my heart, and ones to definitely read if you haven’t: The Complete Poetry by Maya Angelou, Power Politics by Margaret Atwood, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Burning Your Boats by Angela Carter, Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dubliners by James Joyce, anything by Gabriel García Márquez, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Her Blue Body Everything We Know by Alice Walker, and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.