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  • Ken Ilgunas

The best books syllabus

More and more, it's becoming a struggle to find a book worth reading. The classics no longer seem relevant to my life. Contemporary novels (half of which seem to be set among the cultural elite in NYC) don't do much for me either. Travel books all seem so wimpy and unambitious. Lately, I've had to resort to nonfiction science writing and biographies. For every four books I start, three are given up by page 30.

I’d love it if someone, whose tastes are similar to my own, would give me a syllabus of decent books to read to save me the trouble of sampling and discarding so many. With that in mind, I’ve decided to list my favorite books for those of you who may also be struggling to find a decent book.

Many books that I admire and respect, but that didn’t agree with me (Joyce’s Ulysses for instance), didn’t make this list. These are simply my favorites. Still, many of my favorites didn’t make this list because I felt that they wouldn’t appeal to most readers, or maybe I fell in love with them at an impressionable age. And there are many books that I liked that I’ve regrettably culled; these are books that I loved. I chose the following because they were enriching, entertaining, or beautifully written (or all of the above), and would appeal to the general lover of books. They aren’t listed in any particular order, except by genre and alphabetical order by author.

Fiction 1700 – 1899 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe Middlemarch by George Eliot The Mill on the Floss by George Elliot Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Fiction 1900 – Present Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen Freedom by Jonathan Franzen Catch-22 by Joseph Heller For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail by Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence Call of the Wild by Jack London The Road by Cormac McCarthy 1984 by George Orwell Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien Stoner by John Williams Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North I, Robot by Isaac Asimov Poldark series by Winston Graham High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

Non-Fiction – Travel/Nature Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson The Writing Life by Annie Dillard Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl On Nature: Selected Essays by Edward Hoagland A Walk across America by Peter Jenkins Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez West with the Night by Beryl Markham Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner 501 Minutes to Christ by Poe Ballantine Non-Fiction – Philosophy Consumed by Benjamin Barber Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran A Tolerable Anarchy by Jedediah Purdy Walden by Henry David Thoreau Abstract Wild by Jack Turner Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Non-Fiction – Memoir/Autobiography/Essays Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen The Stars, the Snow, the Fire by John Haines Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt Denial by Jonathan Rauch Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris Naked by David Sedaris

Essays from the Nick of Time by Mark Slouka

Non-Fiction – History Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz The Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Non-Fiction – Biography Che by Jon Lee Anderson

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin The Days of Henry Thoreau by Walter Harding Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer Henry Thoreau: Life of the Mind by Robert Richardson Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West Grant by Ron Chernow Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

Non-Fiction – Special Interest How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie

Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk What We Know about Climate Change by Kerry Emanuel Story by Robert McKee The Conundrum by David Owen Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson


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