It’s tough to define a “classic” and more difficult to define a “modern classic” – so I’ll let someone else try, which you can read a bit more about here.
As far as my considerations, I’ve taken “modern classic” to mean anything published within the last 75-100 years that has significant impact and potential for lasting impact. Significant impact, such as in assessing or commenting on relevant issues within the community being written or on the global stage as a whole. Potential for lasting impact meaning I really, really hope it lasts because it makes such excellent commentary of its subject matter, and I personally think it will be relevant 100 years from now.
This is all to say that these are my opinions, based on my reading experiences, and have been chosen because I think they are deserving. I am not a world-renowned writer, critic, or cultural maverick. But I know books, and I know good books (at least, I think so). So take this list with a grain of salt. And definitely try a few if you haven’t already.
5. Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid (2000)
“Secrets make life more interesting. You can be in a crowded room with someone and touch them without touching, just with a look,
because they know a part of you no one else knows.
And whenever you’re with them, the two of you are alone,
because the you they see no one else can see.”
In Lahore, Pakistan, a banker loses his job, and it’s just a downward spiral from there as he falls in love with his best friend’s wife and into a life of drugs and disillusionment. There is a class struggle in Pakistan, and Daru Shezad seems to mirror the strange self-destructive habits of moths flying toward an open flame as he mingles with the bored elite class, feeling displaced among the wealthy who don’t seem to see the struggle of the poor. While the story isn’t perfect, younger audiences may be drawn to its thematic cynicism as they struggle to deal existentially with the stark differences between an uncaring elite class and the poorer neighborhoods right next door. And the witty, biting sarcasm that composes Daru’s voice and personality give it an extra punch.
“But you can always justify killing animals on the grounds
that you want to eat them, or wear them, or that they smell bad,
look funny, bother you, threaten you, and have the bad luck of
being in your way. What about killing humans? Well aside from a few
die-hard individualists on the fringe, the general consensus among
people these days seems to be that eating and wearing other people
is just not on. Wearing a suit which costs as much as a farmer will make
in his lifetime is acceptable, but actually putting his eyeballs on a string
and letting them dangle above tastefully exposed cleavage is bad form.”
Hamid’s observation of the class struggle and general absurdity of the flow of life around him is stark and sharp, and his observation is certainly in good company with his writing. Hamid’s other works have improved since this debut, but his simple comparison of those who have and those who do not by dividing everyone by whether or not they have air conditioning is enough to put Moth Smoke very, very high on my list of all time favorites.
4. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
“All this happened, more or less.”
I know in some circles, this book is just considered a normal “classic,” since it was published in 1969, but it’s within my 100-year timeframe, so I’m including it. Who knows if it will last another 60 years? (It probably will)
In this strange science fiction epic, Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck” in time and spends his life jumping back and forth on his own timeline, experiencing moments of his life out of order. One minute, he’s sitting at home with his wife, in another he’s a POW in World War II dressed like a lost clown while Dresden is being bombed, and in another he’s been body-snatched and put in a zoo-like environment on an alien planet for observation and entertainment. Being a POW is terrifying, being a side-show for alien life-forms is terrifying, but Billy Pilgrim knows that at any moment he’ll be ejected into the future where his wife will smile at him like he was never in the war at all.
This book is clever, deprecating of life itself at times, poignant, and ultimately a mastery of turning even the most grueling circumstances into something simultaneously beautiful and completely trivial.
“Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life
that made sense from things she found in gift shops.”
Even better, of course, is Vonnegut’s writing, which is beautiful, simplistic, and completely capable of catching you off guard. I find that people are often intimidated by Vonnegut because his works are already considered “classic” in most high schools, but actually cracking open this installment in particular reveals a complex and deeply relevant novel about one man’s attempt to navigate chaos.
3. The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy (1994)
Why only The Crossing and not the entire Border Trilogy, you ask? Because they are companion novels, and as a standalone, this is still one of the best books I’ve ever read.
“Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back, whispered the sepulturero. Speak with them. Call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift.”
In 1940s Arizona, Billy and his father are determined to trap a wolf that’s been picking off their cows one by one. But this wolf is clever, and when Billy finally finds her caught in a trap after a battle of wits, he is conflicted. In a rather youthful display of decision-making naivety, Billy decides to return her to her homeland, across the Mexican border. As his kinship with the wild animal grows, their travels become complicated and interrupted by those who would harm or exploit the wolf for various purposes. Billy has to decide how far this journey will take him.
“Deep in each man is the knowledge that something knows of his existence. Something knows, and cannot be fled nor hid from.”
This is a soulful novel, stunningly written with a chopped simplicity that I imagine is incredibly difficult to master. And yet McCarthy does just that. The range of description for complex emotion that lies in simplistic lines of prose is astounding. McCarthy’s ability to mesmerize in prose is equalled by his ability to craft a story around loss and growth with such strangely pleasant effects, even in the face of despair. It is a trait of his writing that has always moved me, and when I say I am moved by a book, please know that it takes a swift roundhouse kick to get me to budge in any direction. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
“He called and called. Standing in that inexplicable darkness. Where there was no sound anywhere save only the wind. After a while he sat in the road. He took off his hat and placed it on the tarmac before him and he bowed his head and held his face in his hands and wept. He sat there for a long time and after a while the east did gray and after a while the right and godmade sun did rise, once again, for all and without distinction.”
2. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (2008)
“A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.”
He lives in fear and seclusion with his family during the Siege of Sarajevo. Every day, to step out the front door is to invite death to greet you, delivered by the swift judgement of “the men in the hills” – snipers positioned to rain fire down on anyone they choose. Kenan will only leave the house when his family runs out of water every four days.
“This is how….life happens. One small thing at a time. A series of inconsequential junctions, any or none of which can lead to salvation or disaster. There are no grand moments where a person does or does not perform the act that defines their humanity. There are only moments that appear, briefly, to be this way.”
The nickname of a young woman recruited by the Sarajevo Army, and she is a sniper to be reckoned with. Though she was revered in college for her ability to shoot as a sports marksman, she had never thought she would be able to take a life. The pressures of war mounted, and the thematic implications of this transformation are what you would expect. When she is confronted by a conflict of whether or not to pull the trigger, not giving in to the transformation may just save her life. While she watches over the cellist, an eye on the hills, an ear on the music, she feels the strain of change.
“Arrow let the slow pulse of the vibrating strings flood into her. She felt the lament raise a lump in her throat, fought back tears. She inhaled sharp and fast. Her eyes watered, and the notes ascended the scale. The men on the hills, the men in the city, herself, none of them had the right to do the things they’d done.”
Like so many others, Dragan makes a tense trek to the bakery each day to receive a free loaf of bread, dodging bullets from the men in the hills just to feed themselves for another day. When disaster strikes the bakery and dozens are killed in a mortar attack, it becomes a paralyzing task to return each day.
“The opportunity to die was everywhere, and it just wasn’t surprising when that opportunity became an event.”
At one time the chief cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony, the Cellist witnesses the mortar attack and subsequent death of his friends and neighbors who were waiting for their daily loaf of bread. In the crater left by the mortar, the Cellist sits and plays. For 22 days, one for each of the 22 dead, he plays. Mourning their loss, grieving the senselessness of taking life from those already desperately clutching it as best as they could.
“There’s no such thing as bravery. There are no heroes, no villains, no cowards. There’s what he can do, and what he can’t.”
As each perspective shifts, a new sense of war is revealed, a new struggle is discovered. Sometimes, a new courage is found. This book surprised me in so many ways, leaping between perspectives effortlessly and with complete grace. Moving and shockingly funny at times, Galloway is so capable of writing beautifully that crafting music and putting the sensation of sound into words seems effortless. Gorgeous.
1. City of Thieves by David Benioff (2008)
Two siege stories in one list? It will be worth it, I promise. Only published in 2008, this dark comedy follows the desperate travels of two young men during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. Their goal? To find some eggs. It is the only thing that will save their lives.
“The fire was silent, the little houses collapsing into the flames without complaint, flocks of sparks rising to the sky. At a distance it seemed beautiful, and I thought it was strange that powerful violence is often so pleasing to the eye.”
One night during the long and seemingly endless siege, Lev Beniov, a bit of a wet noodle in the courage department, loots the corpse of a fallen paratrooper who haplessly floated right onto his street. Lev is instantly captured – looting is a crime in a time of siege – and his only chance of survival is to find eggs for the Colonel’s daughter’s wedding in a time of starvation. Teamed up with the persistently chatty and charming Kolya who was arrested for desertion, the two set off in search of the impossible in the middle of a war.
“Contrary to popular belief, the experience of terror does not make you braver. Perhaps though, it is easier to hide your fear when you’re afraid all the time.”
It is quite nearly inimitable the way this book gathers emotion to a crescendo and swiftly cuts it down with a cynical joke. Benioff, a writer for the TV show Game of Thrones, is no stranger to the dramatic flare. But in his own work, not bound by mystical beasts and magic, the dramatic becomes palpably visceral, mounting tension only for the other shoe to never drop. He crafts a supply of bitter jokes and seemingly hopeless endeavors right alongside a wonderfully strange budding romance without any sense of disjoint. The sense of reality is weighted in the short time frame the book is set in, propped as a small period of significance in the arena of a much larger war, simultaneously self-aware and still completely willing to revel in the absurdity. City of Thieves is equally funny, frightening, and lovely in ways that few books manage to balance.
“That is the way we decided to talk, free and easy, two young men discussing a boxing match. That was the only way to talk. You couldn’t let too much truth seep into your conversation, you couldn’t admit with your mouth what your eyes had seen. If you opened the door even a centimeter, you would smell the rot outside and hear the screams. You did not open the door. You kept your mind on the tasks of the day, the hunt for food and water and something to burn, and you saved the rest for the end of the war.”
If you haven’t read any of these, I highly recommend each of them! I never realized what a daunting task it would be to only choose five. The photo above includes some of my runner-up recommendations: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
If you have read any, let me know what you thought of them! I always love a good gush over mutually loved books. I also enjoy a good bookish friendly-fight now and then.
To see what thematic drinks I would pair with each book, check out Books And Drinks Blog for my guest post! Her entire blog is delightful, and I was so happy to be able to contribute!
Be excellent to each other,