Confession time: I don’t read much.
Some of the reasons I don’t read much will be familiar. For example: I don’t have time. I find the only real time I have to get reading done is the 30-40 minute subway ride from Brooklyn to One Police Plaza and back each day. When you factor in interruptions for spontaneous breakdance shows, or subway-car religious preaching that rips you out of your reverie, it’s even less time than you think.
Some of the reasons will be less familiar, unless you write for a living. My reading time is now a commodity, as publishers and fellow authors want me to look at manuscripts, either with an eye toward giving a jacket quote, or to give needed feedback. This takes some of the fun out of reading, but even more joy-leeching is the need to improve my craft. This has me reading in the same way a boxer might watch a fight video of a future opponent. You’re not getting transported by the art, because you’re too busy picking it apart and trying to figure out how and why it works. One the earliest and most keenly-felt casualties of becoming a professional writer was a spike through the heart of the sheer-joy-of-reading.
It’s a good thing I hate fun.
I usually pass on the classics, without regret. But once in a blue moon, I am forced to engage, and wind up kicking myself for having waited so long.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Certainly the best Western, and easily a candidate for the best novel, I have ever read. It justifiably won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I had heard of it buzzing in the background as one of the classics I needed to get to ever since I was a kid. I finally picked it up, because Joe Abercrombie, one of the writers I most admire, had said that Westerns were a major influence in his writing, and I was trying to puzzle out what made his latest book, Red Country, so damn good. Well, I can’t swear it was Lonesome Dove that put Joe over the top with his novel, but it sure as heck had an impact on me.
McMurtry uses the broad, empty expanse of the old Texas-to-Montana cattle trail as a palette to paint a picture of love and loss that is more moving than any I’ve ever encountered. His cast of grizzled cowboys, tough-eyed frontier women and stoic Native Americans are evoked with such an intense empathy that they felt like real people to me. The book follows a cattle-drive and unwinds the longing for love and acceptance of each of the characters, made hard by the demands of the rough country, and therefore limited in their ability to reach out and claim what they need the most. The book is funny, exciting, and masterfully executed. But most of all it is deeply, deeply sad, full of the kind of “painful joy” that Yehuda HaLevi evokes in his famous poem. Love is devastating, McMurtry tells us in his masterwork, and it is also well worth it.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Pretty much every kid is forced to read Jackson’s famous short story “The Lottery” in high school English. But I’d wager a much smaller proportion of us go on to read her many other works. I counted myself among them, mostly for the reasons I listed above, but I was lucky enough to date someone who kept on me about broadening my reading horizons, and she hammered me on Jackson especially.
I’m lucky I listened. The Haunting of Hill House easily strips The Turn of the Screw of its top spot as best horror-tale carried by an unreliable narrator. The antiquated prose-style serves only to deepen the feeling of the setting, to create a sense of deep and profound alienation. The reader, like the guests at Hill House, is an unwelcome visitor in a space colonized by a hostile, otherworldly force that means them harm. From the moment you start reading, the book makes you intensely uneasy in the best way possible.
But the real strength of The Haunting of Hill House is what comes after you finish it. The endless questioning of your assumptions. Was this really a paranormal occurrence? Or was it simply the product of the narrator’s fevered imagination? Did the hauntings actually occur? Was it a conspiracy? Insanity? Something else? Narratives like these are fantastic because they linger for so long, prompting the kind of late night, whiskey-fueled intellectual debates that literature fans live for. Jackson is the absolute master of cover/uncover style fiction, giving the reader just enough breadcrumbs to keep them interested, but otherwise keeping them in the dark for the deliberate end of ensuring that the feeling of profound unease is never completely dispelled.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I didn’t even know that The Road was a science fiction novel until recommendations and the 2009 movie deal forced me to tackle it. At the time I was grappling with my love of the so-called “grimdark” subgenre, and was trying to see what made it so compelling. My friend Marc Aplin, who founded the influential Fantasy Faction fandom website, told me I had to read it, and I trust Marc’s taste implicitly.
He didn’t steer me wrong.
McCarthy sets up a landscape of impossibility, a post-apocalyptic world where nothing can grow, and where the food chain is irrevocably interrupted. Human life is in an irrecoverable death spiral, and that hopelessness permeates the text. The questions McCarthy raises write themselves. How can we find meaning in a world that is ending? Is it still worth it to love and care for one another? What does it mean to be good? McCarthy answers these questions with a bone-shaking resonance. Reading The Road made me feel like a human tuning fork. I was literally vibrating with the power of the narrative by the end.
And, like the zombies in The Walking Dead, the wasteland is merely the device, the crucible into which McCarthy thrusts his characters to we can have the pleasure of watching them dance under pressure. And their dance is so haunting familiar, so heart-stoppingly human, so full of love and loss and the promise of redemption. The Road has that greatest of story arcs, the gut-wrenching plummet into the abyss that somehow manages a slight upturn before everything goes black. It is a work that promises, in the midst of an immutable doom, an incredible, powerful glimmer of hope.
This is just a tiny sliver of the classics I’ve been fortunate enough to read that left me profoundly changed. And my tiny sliver is just a tiny sliver of what’s out there. If you’re a busy person, maybe make the time and put in the compute cycles to read some of these. I know I’m a better writer, and probably a better person, for it.
Myke Cole is a devoted comic fan and voracious fantasy reader who never misses his weekly game night. His fandoms range from Star Wars to military history. He’s a former kendo champion and heavy weapons fighter in the Society for Creative Anachronism. At the D&D table, he always plays paladins. After a career hunting people in the military, police, and intelligence services, Cole put these skills to good use on CBS’s hit show Hunted. Author of the Shadow Ops series and the Sacred Throne Trilogy, which begins with The Armored Saint, Cole lives in Brooklyn, New York.