STOP! You Are Not a Philosopher! (An editorial)

STOP!

You, in academia, and you, studying in academia! Just stop. We need you to stop now. We’re closing the bar, we’re shutting things down, we’re turning the dial, we’re changing the channel, and for the love of all we hold sacred, you need to stop talking!

You are not a philosopher. You read philosophy. Very good. Everyone should read the works of thought that have formed culture. Everyone should be aware of logic and reason. Everyone should ask these important questions. But, you are not a philosopher. You aren’t asking the questions. You’re reiterating them. You teach or study philosophy. You’re like a literature professor for nonfiction intellectual works. The literature professor over there, the one who memorizes Shakespeare, he’s not a playwright, either. And that English student! She’s not Jane Austen. She just reads Jane Austen.

You’re not a philosopher just because you read philosophy. The same is true of the art majors who just read art history. You’re not Picasso, but you SAW a Picasso once. The film theory student has watched a lot of movies, but until she directs one she’s just a theorist or a critic. But, and it’s one big but that doesn’t lie, art historians are historians, film critics are film critics. These are legitimate jobs and disciplines. What are you? You’re a teacher or someone studying to be a teacher. You’re not Socrates. You’re the guy who reads Socrates.

So, with that in mind, you may start to understand why you’re so insufferable when you go around calling yourselves philosophers whilst only restating things that Aquinas or Nietzsche said. But… worse. You restate it and make it worse. But, that’s just to be expected. I mean, the guy who teaches Shakespeare isn’t supposed to sound better than Shakespeare. It’s not like he’s going around saying, “My job is the hardest in the world!”

The trouble is… that’s what a lot of you do.

Philosophy students and teachers like to say that their jobs are the hardest in the entire world, so very, very hard, just about as hard as this brick, or maybe a spork –if the spork were titanium! Yes, it’s as hard as a titanium spork, but made of knowledge! Wootles! You have the knowledge, and this is why it’s okay if you’re rude to everyone else! Your mind is just THAT HUGE!

That. That right there. That’s why you’re ass.

Do you see that girl in the corner? The quantum mechanics major? Or, how about that guy? Yeah, he’s a rocket scientist. The neurosurgeon, or, hell, all the surgeons? The biochemist and the microbiologist and the nuclear physicist and the mathematician…? Do you see all these people? Do you have any idea what they do? They’re using math to discover the very fabric of reality, they’re measuring new star systems light years from us, they can do complex procedures INSIDE the human body, they can create formulas, put different genes inside microscopic viruses, hypothesize on grand scales and test these questions with material evidence or complex calculations… Are you telling me they can’t understand philosophy? Are you telling me the guy who just mapped the genome can’t read a damn book? You’re saying that a person who can understand a wall-sized equation can’t understand logic? What do you think math is? You’re saying people who come up with proofs about life, the universe, and everything can’t understand Hegel? You’re saying that the ability to read a complicated subject is too hard for the guy who can tinker around in your brain? What, that mathy sort of person over there isn’t smart enough to handle you? She’s working on a space program for future Mars missions. I think a space pioneer can MAYBE understand the concept of reading a book.

Come on!

The fact is, philosophy is at a crisis point at this time, and self-proclaimed, elitist philosophers are not helping the problem. Science is giving us answers, and they’re fantastic, beautiful answers. They’re answers like Yes, we think we can make it to Mars. Yes, we can map the human genome. Yes, we can find new star systems and measure black holes. Yes, we do understand how your mind works. Yes, we can heal this sickness or injury. Philosophy these days has just been Cartesian-ostrich and asked a lot of naval-gazing questions. Philosophers are still puttering about saying, “Does this exist?” Meanwhile, we’re working on launching privatized space exploration. The existence of the rocket on a philosophical scale will not come into place when we measure how COOL that is.

So, what, do I hate philosophy? Do I think that science has replaced philosophy? Do I say with Stephen Hawking that philosophy is dead?

No. Actually, I love philosophy. But, I also love great literature, which I think is extremely important in the same way philosophy is important. Literature, art, philosophy, these tell us why we should do things, they deal with non-science subjects, like love and justice. They govern how we think about politics, law, morality, ethics, beauty, goodness, happiness, purpose, religion, faith, doubt, and so on. However, I do not think that studying philosophy, art, and literature is all that difficult. You need literacy skills, a vocabulary, and some guidance into the context and background of the study, as well as the tools of discipline. That’s it. It’s not some ivory tower elite and sacred thing that only a high priest may touch. It’s something anyone can do!

And THAT, not it’s supposed difficulty, is what makes philosophy (and art and literature!) so important.

Philosophy is a populist study. It’s something that deals with issues we all deal with. We won’t all go to space. We won’t all need to know a complicated formula. I doubt most of us even know anything about cell division or calculus. How many times have I needed that in my daily life? About never. But, we all have philosophical questions. We all deal with social issues, the human condition, questions about life and it’s purpose, doubts and beliefs, justice, and politics.

The trouble with philosophy, and why people tend to ignore it when looking for answers, is that despite the fact that most of the self-proclaimed philosophers are not philosophers of any kind (unless you’re, say, Slavoj Žižek), they don’t try to make philosophy relevant to other people. They themselves are non-philosophers who study philosophy, but they can’t imagine that other non-philosophers might find their studies important or interesting. They don’t even try to get people involved in the discussion. It’s as if the excuse that their work is “hard” is just masking a hidden doubt that it might actually be really boring.

Science doesn’t do this. Sure, basically no non-scientist will truly understand everything they’re talking about, but even the best of our scientists have shown a great interest in writing for lay readers. Popularizing scientific discovery so that non-scientists can understand makes up for a big chunk of published scientific books these days. Scientists even write for children. Furthermore, their discoveries are things that we can see and that matter to us. Philosophy? Most people have no idea of what we can use philosophy. The fact that the departments are filled with hair-splitting sophists, who spend a lot of energy debating not-very-important things, doesn’t help. Also, using “qua” doesn’t make you a better philosopher. It just makes you sound like you’re hiding a great well of ignorance under a few piles of vocab lessons. It just means “as”, and unless you need to very specifically make sure that people know you mean a philosophical “as”, then you may not not want use it.

Look, we humanities people aren’t building spaceships, and we won’t fix anyone’s brain, and we never mapped the human genome. But, we did choose humanities for a reason, and that is because we think it’s important and beautiful. So, let’s stop hiding away in academics and pretending to be just too advanced for the lowly people, and start talking about our disciplines as if they matter. Stop using jargon to bully. Stop being rude and pretending it’s a offshoot of your enormous brain. Stop trying to subjugate science under some old-time philosophy that was around before we had electric lights. The good part of the philosophy will remain, even if we drop the dated bits. Smugly denying the light spectrum, how the eye works, gravity, evolution, and basic human biology doesn’t make you look intelligent. It makes you look stupid. And, for pity’s sake, stop making it about being a stiff-upper-lip boy’s club for predominantly white guys to rub their own egos. If anything makes your department look irrelevant, it’s that.

Because, at the end of the day, the scientists are taking us to the stars, the ocean floor, under the earth, the wilds, into the human body, to the mountains, and into a future of new technology, health, and exploration –and it’s for all of us, no matter the race, gender, or background.

The question now is, where do YOU want to go?

Over and out,
Outlit C

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So, You Read Maximum Ride…

Maximum_Ride1
James Patterson… What can we truly say about the man? Even at his worst –meaning when he doesn’t bother to write his own books at all– he’s still making pounds of cash. He makes up concepts that he doesn’t deliver, his premises are snappy and his execution is crap, he’s riddled with cliches, his books can easily be understood by any eight-year-old, and it doesn’t matter what I say because he’s a million times more successful than I’ll ever be.
Seriously, I fight for hits on WordPress. He bathes in cash.
So, instead of mocking the successful, let’s look at his YA franchise, Maximum Ride.
Maximum Ride is about a bunch of genetically altered mutant kids who are part human part bird. They have retractable wings, and all kinds of other X-men styled superpowers that they use to escape from baddies, and eventually save the world. The stories center around the titular Max, who is the unofficial leader of her group of superhero Boxcar Children (I am not the first person to make this comparison).
In many ways, this is a much better YA series than some of the others that are making their rounds. Max is a strong protagonist who certainly passes the Bechdel Test, and provides a funny, upbeat, and actually quite engaging narration. Even a crotchety, dyed-in-the-wool literati snob like myself enjoyed the hell out of Max. On the other hand, this is a series that seriously pissed me off when it all went to hell by book three.
**spoilers**
Why, in the name of Reason, did protesting against climate change end an evil science organization that had nothing whatsoever to do with climate change?
**end**

In the end, whether you loved or hated the series, it does provide some interesting characters without falling into the usual YA tropes of bland female, hot bad-boy, and… third wheel.
So, what else could a person who likes this series read?
Well….

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1. The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams
Adams is mostly known for Watership Down, and by mostly I mean that pretty much everyone thinks that’s the only book he wrote. In literature, he’s sort of the one-hit-wonder. This is a real shame because, like the band A-ha and other one-hit-wonders, Adams actually has an impressive oeuvre. The Plague Dogs is yet another epic, beautifully crafted look into politically charged anthropomorphism.
But what, you may ask, do dogs have to do with bird-kids? Well, the central conflict of at least books one through three of Max Ride has to do with experimentation. The kids are products of lab experiments, and so fall in the cross-hairs of self-serving corporate needs and scientific advancement. A huge part of the story has to do with what one should do in science and what one can do, and how those may be different things. Also, some people do terrible things in the name of discovery or finding ways to help humanity. Where does one draw the line? In The Plague Dogs, Adams asks these questions not of humans but of animals. The dogs are a part of a lab experiment, and because they may be dangerous to humans they are hunted and pursued by those they come across. The novel begs the question of whether or not it is right to put the dogs through pain and suffering for the sake of a greater good.
If you like your lab-experimentation stories with a big, heady punch and a lot of depressing, this will make you think –and also cry. It’s a dog story, and dog stories are sad.

monster dogs

2. Lives of Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis
I swear this list is not going to be filled with dog stories! This is the last one. I promise.
Like Max Ride, Monster Dogs is about mutants fitting into the world after experimentation made them what they are. But, unlike Max Ride, the story deals more with a realistic look at The Other in society. That is, it’s about what it is like to be alien, in this case a hyper-intelligent dog-monster, and what it is like to observe the alien around you. How would you act? How do they act? Why? Monster Dogs is a beautifully written meditation on the Frankenstein mythos of identity, what it means to be a person, and how we see those different from ourselves. While Max Ride is always off to the next adventure, running away from wolf-people and mad scientists, this story looks at a society like our own that suddenly has dog people in it. How does the media react? How do people on the streets react? How do the dogs react, and what do the dogs think of their own mad scientist creator?
It’s a beautiful, under-appreciated science fiction novel, and one worth checking out!

frankenstein

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Hey, we couldn’t have mad scientists and creatures without the one that started them all, could we? Mary Shelley’s book-she-wrote-at-a-slumber-party-of-sorts has become iconic. We all know the story of Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist who “steals fire from the  gods”, as it were, and creates life –life he will immediately abandon in horror. The dynamic of the book is one of moral ambiguity. Who is the monster? Why do we sympathize with the creature? And, can we do this while still remaining true to what the creature really is in the story –an eloquent zombie and murderer? Is the story a cautionary tale about playing God? Is it a story about bad parenting? Is it about monsters? Nightmares? The fear that one’s best intentions will backfire and ruin your life? The fear of being a disappointment and outsider?
I’ve found that, while most people know the basic idea of Frankenstein, few actually sit down and read it, preferring to get their ideas from the movies. This is a real shame because, while there are some great Frankenstein movies out there, the book is far more complex and raises more questions than any of the adaptations. It’s an enduring classic for a reason, and one you’ll want to get!

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4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It may seem out of place to suggest this Gothic romantic novel for fans of a YA science fiction series about kids who can fly. But, hear me out. Max Ride is a compelling series for one major reason, and her name is Max Ride. She’s a super strong character, an outsider, and yet also a normal girl with feelings and worries. Jane Eyre is also a strong character. She stands up to her employer, makes her own decisions about life, and, like Max, overcomes the trauma of an abusive past. Jane is also an outsider, not because she’s a superhero, but because of her station and lack of a family. She’s also in a very strange place, dominated by her mysterious employer/lover and his Gothic mansion. Yet, Jane always manages to keep her head and stay strong. She’s a survivor, like Max. Furthermore, Jane is still a normal woman, not a “strong girl” archetype. She has to struggle with her own feelings, insecurities, and her love for Mr. Rochester. This makes her extremely relatable throughout all she goes through, and the readers can connect with the story not through epic, Gothic trappings but through a tough and intelligent protagonist.
Characters make the stories, and even if Jane Eyre isn’t your genre of choice, it is certainly one that fans of the strong, female protagonist will want to check out!

something wicked

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Or, maybe you just like kids having fantastical adventure? Well, there’s not much more fantastical than Bradbury, and this one even has a Shakespeare quote in the title! Something Wicked This Way Comes is the story of two boys who discover a dark secret about the circus in their town. And that’s all I can tell you without spoiling it…. No, seriously, read this book! Witches, magic, scary circuses, a really freaking villain, the lighting rod man… This book is like opening a treasure chest of wonders. It’s beautiful and terrifying, and full of Bradburian goodness.
If you like strong kids, it’s also a great example. The boys are not passive horror story characters. They’re dynamic. They take action, pursue mysteries, and have to escape from the big baddies of the story –all of which are pretty terrifying. It’s a gorgeously written thrill-ride, and one that you’ll want to re-visit time and again –especially on Halloween!

adventures of sherlock

6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Max Ride is basically a superhero story. And, Holmes is basically a superhero. He can enter a room and immediately know everything about something that happened two weeks ago. He looks at your shoes and knows whether or not you’re German. He can spot a clue in a doorpost. The man’s amazing. He even has his iconic superhero look: tweed and a pipe!
Sometimes, the boundaries between highbrow literature and pop-culture adventure cross over, and this is one of those times. Holmes is a timeless, beloved character, and one whose epicness we really don’t mind or see as a boring or unrealistic trait. He’s the epitome of cool, a super-genius, and we love him.

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7. Greek Love by Katherine Dunn
Hey, guys! Want some postmodernism? You do! Well, then! This is Geek Love, the story of a family of circus “freaks”, who consider freakiness a sign of superiority. The characters have a dynasty of sideshow living, with the parents who bred their children to be mutants, and the kids who have their own power struggles. It reverses expectations about who is or is not superior, with the sideshow characters starting out with a sense of greatness and beauty in their conditions, and falling from grace through their dynastic power conflicts. It’s like a very strange Greek tragedy, but with more geeks.
Oh, and to explain for the innocent, a geek is someone who bites the heads off chickens for a sideshow act.
Yes, you do need to read this.

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8. The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
Probably the most obvious choice would have been The Island of Dr. Moreau, since it actually is a story about human-animal mutants. But, I think that The Invisible Man has far more in common with the tone of the Max Ride stories that Dr. Moreau does. Of course, if you disagree, you’re free to read them both!
The Invisible Man asks the question of what happens when, through science, you Other yourself. Instead of being mutated by scientists, Dr. Griffin causes his own downfall by making himself invisible. Like the Max Ride series, he spends much of the story trying to get about without people knowing that he is, in fact, an invisible man, and also trying to avoid the authorities. The difference is that the invisibility serum has made Dr. Griffin into a psychopath, and so he’s no innocent victim. That doesn’t mean we as the readers don’t feel sorry for him. He’s a funny, interesting, and compelling character, even if he’s also kind of terrifying. As a science fiction great, he’s definitely a character you’ll want to met.

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9. The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White
Yes, this is a kiddie book. But, this is E.B. White we’re talking about, the man who created such iconic stories as Charlotte’s Web. And, this is a beautiful tale that really anyone can read and not worry. It’s the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan born mute. His father steals him a trumpet, and his human friend teaches him to read and write, giving him two means of communication. The story is about being an Other, once again, this time being a mute swan among trumpeters and a hyper-intelligent animal among humans. How Louis fits in and how his differences make him special, not strange, is what the story is about. Also, he’s the only character in my list who has proper wings, so there’s that. It’s a charming, beautiful, life affirming story about nature, communication, identity, and music, and one that I personally love.

And coming in for a tie…

watchmen-749826v for vendetta
10. The Watchmen and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
Oh, you thought we were to literati to read comic books about superheroes? You thought wrong!
*dons a cape and flies off into the sunset*
Ahem… But, aside from that, Alan Moore is no low-brow writer! What other comic book has ever topped a notable books list, outranking traditional novels? Alan Moore doesn’t just create stories about action and adventure, he is writing myths for the contemporary world, stories with depth and texture that ask complex questions about society, war, peace, government, control, power, anarchy, violence, and what it means to do right.
First, The Watchmen. This is an obvious, no-brainer choice for a series about superheroes. It’s basically THE literati superhero story. The characters are an elite group of costume heroes. However, the world has grown corrupt, and their group has fallen apart. When a mysterious attacker starts picking off old heroes, even if the characters might not be that heroic in the first place, The Watchmen rise up again. Secret plots, Cold War hysteria, nuclear arms races, science, and corruption ensue, leaving the ultimate question: Who watches The Watchmen?
V for Vendetta may not be as obvious of a choice, aside from also having a connection with grassroots protesting.
occupy wall
However, the story is actually quite similar. Just ask yourself, what if the scientific corporation from Max Ride was the entire society? What if the mutants didn’t have a chance to fight on the side of good people because all the good people were completely subjugated? What if Max Ride was a super-strong anarchist Phantom of the Opera as done by David Bowie? (No, seriously, those are V’s roots, right there.) V is a like a Batman who kills people, and who lives in the world 1984. He’s smart, strong, fights for justice… and has no moral qualms about ends justifying the means, really. He’s an anarchist, and not like that kid in high school who drew A symbols on his notebook. But, his background? Mutated by evil science, deformed in an explosion, and out to take down the big bad. Something tells me Max Ride wouldn’t be that gung-ho about some of his methods. But, Max Ride was never faced with stakes like V’s. Morally ambiguous, dark, frightening, and extremely cool, V for Vendetta is a superhero story that even your snobby lit major friends will want for their collections!
maxseries

So, you read Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras…

uglies

The Uglies and Pretties books may not have the household recognition of the other books on this list, but any amount of time spent with YA books and readers thereof will tell you it’s a damn popular series. And why wouldn’t it be? Feature a world literally built on the physical insecurities of put-upon teenagers, it’s a veritable marketing goldmine. For those who don’t know, it’s about a world where normal people are “uglies”, and the government then gives the “uglies” plastic surgery to become “pretties” –who live in a sparkly city and get to have parties all the time. The downside is that all the new pretties seem to have lost their former personalities. In fact, there may be something very, very wrong with them.

Yes, it’s another dystopian series. Two in a row. But, the focus of this one is quite different than for The Hunger Games. It’s about appearance, perfection, impossible ideals, and what people might sacrifice for these ideals. Not a bad initial plot point, even if I (disclaimer) really, really do not care for these books. So, if you want stories primarily about dystopian societies, I suggest the list for The Hunger Games, because here we’re looking at Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras for their discussions of identity, social control, and independence.

So, what recommendations can happen this time from Pushy Librarians?

stepford

  1. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
    If The Hunger Games owes its largest debt of gratitude to Battle Royale, this series owes a huge debt to The Stepford Wives. Like Uglies, Pretties, et cetera, this book looks at a society where there are certain impossible standards for perfection. In order to achieve these standards, you may literally end up losing yourself. In Stepford Wives, the focus isn’t on a dystopian government, but rather a small town. A family moves in, and soon discovers that every woman in the town is perfect, beautiful, docile, and basically the ideal, 1950s housewife. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Why does an interesting, powerful woman suddenly become a docile, demure lamb? And does the heroine’s family want this to happen to her, too?
    Ira Levin is known mostly for two books, Rosemary’s Baby and this one. Both are frightening novels based on the subject of gender identity and use horror or science fiction tropes to tell a story that illustrates these points symbolically. Like Tally in Uglies and Pretties, the story is about a normal woman who discovers a dark truth about the transformations that her peers have undergone. It’s a short but eerie story, and one of horror’s most memorable.gatsby pic jpeg
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    What does this have to do with a dystopia? you may ask. Well, it’s not a dystopian novel, really. But, it is a novel about a society that is corrupted and lost in his former convictions and purpose, the romantic ideals of the past turned against the characters, their lives set in a vapid world in which they desperately search for meaning and booze… It’s also a story about a glitterati world, where people appear to be perfect and beautiful, and which contains a dark secret. And, it’s a story about transforming yourself to fit into this world –at any cost.
    Oh, and love triangles. I know how much you YA fans love your love triangles. Well, this is one of literature’s greatest love triangles, so you’re welcome. You may put away your Tally, David, and Zane, it’s Daisy, Tom, and Gatsby time!
    The story is about a man who moves in next to a rich neighborhood, his closest neighbor a mysterious man whose life story is simply too incredible to be true. This neighbor is Gatsby, who spends all his time throwing amazing parties and being the focus of interest for those around him. But, these are not parties for the sake of the party. These are not happy parties. What is Gatsby’s secret? What is his connection to the beautiful Daisy?
    The Great Gatsby has the distinction not only of being a thought-provoking examination of the Jazz Era, its glitter and its dark side, but also of being one of the most beautifully written books in the history of literature. You heard that correctly. Also, Stephen Fry agrees, so you have to listen.
    We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
    Perhaps your interest in Uglies and Pretties is more concerning the focus on young adult insecurity and being an outsider in society? And, suppose you already read Ender’s Game? Well, you’re in luck! Shirley Jackson, ladies and gentlemen!
    Jackson is probably best known to readers for her often-assigned-in-school short story, “The Lottery”, a story about a local tradition that involves something absolutely horrific. It’s kind of like The Wicker Man, but about society as opposed to religion, and with less naked dancing and Celtic folk music.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn't have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee --and he's scary as hell.

    The REAL Wicker Man doesn’t have bees. It has a badass Christopher Lee –and he’s scary as hell.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of a young woman who lives with her sister in an old mansion, outcast by the town due to the unresolved murder of the rest of their family. The story focuses on the town’s prejudices against the girls, which may actually be quite well-founded, but even more so on our heroine’s outlook on life. She’s brainy but childish, angsty, rebellious, angry, a practitioner of sympathetic magic, superstitious, anti-social, and misanthropic. Like many of Jackson’s heroines, from The Haunting of Hill House to The Bird’s Nest, she’s part misunderstood creative spirit, part demon, an anti-hero to rival Catcher in the Rye, but with some postmodern Gothic trappings.  If you thought that Tally should have been a more active and interesting character to warrant how put-upon she is, look to this:
    “My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

    othello

  4. Othello by our man, The Bard!
    Shakespeare has something for everyone, and the idea of fitting into a seemingly perfect society is certainly no exception! Shakespeare basically rules this idea, in fact, with his play, Othello. This is the story of the titular Othello, a great warrior, talented man, and husband of the beautiful Desdemona. Unfortunately, this is Ye Olde Olden Times, and Othello is something that Europe didn’t like: a black man who isn’t shining shoes. He’s an African who fights on the side of Europe, and works to fit into European society, which appears to be so proper and cultured –from the outside. Inside, he is met with massive discrimination, even after his war triumphs, and all that due to marrying a white woman. Enter Shakespeare’s most devious villain, Iago, who seeks to warp Othello’s insecurities into suspicion and conspiracy until he is tormented into committing one of the most tragic crimes in Elizabethan theatre.
    Othello is a very complex play. On the one hand, the main character does something truly despicable by the end. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for him and Desdemona and how they simply played their parts in society, and were manipulated by Iago. It’s a tragedy, beautifully written, and will certainly make readers consider the issues of society and the roles that it sets up.stranger1
  5. The Stranger by Albert Camus
    Or, maybe you just don’t get society at all. Uglies and Pretties addresses the idea of a society that is basically meaningless, and that is the impetus for the heroine to resist and try to escape and assert her individuality. The Stranger offers a world where maybe there is no escape. And maybe it isn’t because everyone is brainwashed by an evil government, but because things don’t make sense in the postwar world. The novel poses this question: should I kill myself or have a cup of coffee? And that’s the tone of the entire book.
    If your interest is in the outsider, the person looking in and seeing the emptiness in the world, you may want to read a book in which the protagonist is so, so much more cynical and anguished than even you are. And when he eventually commits a brutal murder, would you be surprised if I told you he doesn’t seem to really care?
    Oh, well, we could at least have coffee…

    Secretly, she's considered killing at least five people by now...

    Secretly, she’s considered killing at least five people by now…

    androids

  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
    Philip K. Dick. To say his name around any sci-fi fans is to invoke great piles of gushing. He’s one of the most influential and important sci-fi writers in history. His works have been adapted into iconic movies, including this one, which became Blade Runner. His work is creative, subtle, and poses ethical and philosophical questions for the readers, beyond the usual good vs. evil found in many books.
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is about a post-apocalyptic future where much human and animal life has been depleted, and life-like androids work on off-planet colonies. Well, they’re supposed to. The androids may be artificially made, but they’re not without consciousness, and they come to earth and disguise themselves as humans. It’s up to our main character, a bounty hunter, to round up the renegade androids. The question remains, however, do these robots have their own individual consciousness worthy of respect as humans? Do they have souls? What is life and what are we, in ourselves?
    The book shares many similarities with Fahrenheit 451, including government mood-control, the use of media as a sedative, and the general populace’s lack of interest in the world around them. However, Philip K. Dick’s world is stranger and more experimental, reminiscent of almost a Gravity’s Rainbow kind of reality, where everything is just… off.
    Like Uglies and Pretties, it deals with fitting into a society, and who is considered better than who. What, exactly, is it to be a human being? And, could a good human being also be a robot?animal_farm
  7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
    Orwell, again! But, really, we can’t suggest books for readers of dystopian series without Animal Farm coming up! Animal Farm is an unusual, little book, because although it’s about a controlling government and has many tropes of a traditional dystopian novel, it’s about animals. It’s literally about animals that take over a farm –only to discover that not all animals are created equal in the eyes of the leaders.
    Animal Farm may seem a far cry from the series we’re doing here. But, in fact, it has many similar aspects. For one thing, the dystopia of Uglies and Pretties is revealed to be an answer to a former bad government. The bad decisions of the series come from reactions to earlier bad decisions, gone corrupt. That’s basically the entire premise of Animal Farm! Sometimes, the solution isn’t better than the disease, and may even be quite similar. While Uglies and Pretties actually does not address a previously failed government system so much as ecological depletion, and so doesn’t give a great deal to work on and see where the past could have done better, Animal Farm’s archetypes and understanding of real-world problems (like for-profit ruling elites vs. Stalinist ruling elites), is a much punchier and more intelligent compare/contrast scenario. It’s a thoughtful look at control and corruption, and definitely worth a look!dalloway
  8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
    Uglies and Pretties may focus on teen insecurities in general, but its protagonist and narrator is a teenage girl. The market it appeals to is mostly made of teenage girls who feel misunderstood and who do not feel like they can or even want to live up to the pressures around them, especially those of physical beauty. This is a pretty universal theme, and one that many teenagers face, perhaps especially girls with all the emphasis on fashion and makeup around.
    Mrs. Dalloway is a novel about feel like an outsider and being frustrated with the societal pressures around you. It is a dream-like story, about one afternoon, with a narrative that pops in and out of heads and reveals the struggles of each character to conform to their situation in life and also struggle to understand the changes in the world around them. If Holden Caulfield inspired leagues of angsty, frustrated teenaged boys, Mrs. Dalloway focuses on the domestic woman and her place in the world.
    It’s a melodic, tragic, poignant look at longing, apathy, ennui, desire, sorrow, and depression, and if all the teen angst left you wanting to step it up a notch, now’s the time to do it.persepolis-cover-small2-1
  9. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
    This is our first autobiography. You’re welcome. Oh, and it’s also a graphic novel. You’re welcome again.
    You see, sometimes you don’t need dystopias to live in an oppressive society that has specific roles for your life and strict rules that you cannot break. Sometimes, that’s real life. This is the world of Marjane Satrapi, a spunky, intelligent, creative girl growing up in Iran during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. She sees the Shah fall and the rise of theocratic Islamist extremism. She has to cover herself, segregate from the community, and sees those she loves persecuted and even killed. Throughout it all, she remains strong, and tells her story with wit, humor, and clarity, never asking for pity, but always pushing onward. She’s a strong role model for anyone, and the book is important and moving, and worth recommending to young readers as well as adults. If you want your youthful narrator and strong female protagonist, it really doesn’t get better than Persepolis.BluestEyeCover
  10. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Like Persepolis, this is a story that doesn’t need dystopia to discuss a corrupt society. The story is about a black community, living in segregation, and each character’s reaction to this environment. There is a tragedy coming up, where all the injustice, anger, and struggle comes to a head in the life of a little girl who feels that if she were only blue-eyed, she would be accepted.
    Uglies and Pretties focuses on the more superficial desires to look perfect, like movie stars, and the way media imagery and ideals affect those around them. What if you were in a society where not only where these ideals a problem, but that the entirety of who you were meant that you could not match this idea? What if from childhood the dolls you were given to play with looked nothing like you, and the movie stars and beauty queens looked nothing like you, and the people who lived in nice houses and had the best jobs and influence looked nothing like you, and all the politicians and powerful people of the world looked nothing like you? Don’t think “what if”. For many people, this was and in many situations still is a huge problem. In the age of segregation, it was even worse. Our character is driven through her tragedy by loneliness and abuse, and believes that if only she could change who she was, even just her eyes, she could change her fate.
    It’s a tragic and incredibly harrowing story that is also important and beautifully-written by Nobel Prize in Literature writer, Toni Morrison.

So, you read The Hunger Games…

hunger games
Suzanne Collins’ series about children killing each other has been surprisingly mainstream and popular. This is even more remarkable when you realize her much less controversial series, Gregor the Overlander, did not achieve this kind of following.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.


Not only does The Hunger Games have a movie franchise, but major directors want to work on it, an Oscar-winning actress leads the cast, and hip bands seem to willingly offer their music (as opposed to begrudgingly offering it, as in the case of the Twilight movies).
So, how did an American knockoff of Battle Royale become so successful? Why is dystopia the go-to genre of choice for, of all things, escapist literature? What does this say about our culture?

Honestly, that’s really up for its own discussion.

What we can do, however, is bring you the best of Pushy Librarians and coerce you into the world of highbrow literature! And thank goodness this is a dystopian series and not, say, another paranormal romance, because there’s a whole lot of literati-goodness to choose from!

battle royale
1. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
While it’s not a great classic, we would be sorely remiss to leave off the book that Collins owes the greatest debt. If you read The Hunger Games, then you already know what Battle Royale is basically about. There’s a futuristic world where a corrupt government (this time focusing on a pan-Asian dictatorship) keeps control of the populace by forcing groups of children to battle to the death on live television. Like The Hunger Games, it is both a straight dystopia about the evils of tyranny and government coercion, and also a satire of voyeuristic TV culture. But after the basic plot, that’s where the similarities end. In the world of Battle Royale, there is no segregated society of haves and have-nots. Instead, the class conflicts are much more like those of today. Also, no one is really immune to the battles. There are no tributes selected from labor camps. Instead, groups of middle school children are simply drugged and taken to the fight zone. There, they fight on a marked location where their territory gets smaller and smaller due to rigged explosives, until even hidden children must be forced to encounter one another. What makes Battle Royale so intense is that all of the children are from the same school, and so you see the harrowing decisions they make concerning whether or not they have to kill their friends and peers. Unlike The Hunger Games, the book is told from a variety of perspectives, so that even seemingly evil characters get full back stories and development. This makes for an intense, harrowing, and profoundly disturbing read, and one that most fans will thoroughly appreciate.

lord of the flies
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
If The Hunger Games discusses the violence present in the state (“Now we see the violence that’s inherent in the system!”), Lord of the Flies looks at the violence present from human nature left to its own devices. Like The Hunger Games, it’s a story of violence and brutality, and features children in the acting roles. But, unlike The Hunger Games, the children are the instigators and arbiters, as well as the victims. The story is about a group of schoolboys who end up on a deserted island, forced to govern themselves. While readers may or may not agree with the message that humans naturally gravitate toward brutality, the story does raise many important points about the nature of violence and human’s proclivity toward cruelty. And, in case you were wondering, this is another Nobel-prize-literary novel, so no docked points on the literati-o-meter!

WE
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This sci-fi dystopian novel is dated, often silly, and regularly dips into less-than-sensitive race relations. So, why read it? Well, aside from inspiring one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time (next number down, folks), it also has the distinction of being the most hated book of the Soviet Union. That’s ballsy stuff. What’s the story? Well, in the future everyone’s life and work is based on mathematical forms and utility. You are a series of mathematical functions, and your job is to work properly in a larger system that is far, far more important than you. Personal liberty, love, individuality, these are weaknesses and must be stamped out by the law. In many ways, the novel functions as a satire of the USSR’s interest in Taylorism (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taylorism), communist statism, and the constructivists’ idea that mathematical harmony leads to betterment.
For the record, this is constructivist art:

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko

"The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions.... The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life." 
-Vladimir Tatlin

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko
“The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions…. The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life.”
-Vladimir Tatlin

So, you can see, you’re already getting brainy just by learning these terms! But, on top of your adorable braininess, We is also a straight dystopian novel. It raises questions about the role of government, individual liberty, human rights, and how a society may be repressed and may accept its repression. And, if you like dystopia, you have to read the book that inspired the man who made dystopia what it is today…

1984
4. 1984 by George Orwell
I wanted to leave this off the list in the same way I left The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia off of the Harry Potter List. I’d like to think everyone’s already read 1984. But, my work as a real-life librarian has informed me that this is not even close to being true. Even though dystopia is a huge fad, so huge that Tyra Banks actually tried her hand at it (with appropriately hilarious results)…

Witness the true horror of... government pageants?

Witness the true horror of… government pageants?


…many people still haven’t read the book that basically made the genre what it is today. Orwell’s work set the stage for what people think of when they think about dystopia. Like Zamyatin, he writes about government control, individual liberty, and how a society may be repressed –along with plenty of references to the USSR. But, Orwell went further with his world-building than Zamyatin. While in We the characters talk and think in mathematical forms, roboticized as they were by Taylotistic models, Orwell focuses on more realistic reasons for how a society may be repressed. Orwell came up with the idea of New Speak, changing words and terms in order to weaken just what concepts the populace may even be able to grasp. He also wrote about random arrests for control, absolute loyalty to the state, invasion of privacy, and children being used as informants. Orwell’s journalistic abilities helped create a world that is both realistic and terrifying, despite its moment of datedness. If you want to be a true dystopian-reader, you have to read this book.

handmaids-tale
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Let’s talk about feminist literature and… hey, come back!
Yes, we live in a post-feminist society in many, many ways, and in quite a lot of circles the backlash has pretty well blacklisted the idea of feminism in public thought. This is unfortunate, because much of how we relate to one another in society and politics is based on gender norms and relations. If you’re in doubt, check out the stir concerning the recent rape trials and the politics involved. Regardless of your personal beliefs, feminist thoughts have had huge impacts on the discussion of gender in society and any good thinker would be remiss to dismiss them.
(I rhymed…)
In the school of feminist literature, there are certain eminent members, like Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir that all feminists must read. Atwood is pretty secure in her place on the list. From her pursuit of feminine literary norms, to her desire to elevate “chick lit” to an art, she’s definitely a feminist writer. However, just as Orwell and Zamyatin were not just political proselytizers against Stalinism, Atwood is far from the feminist strawman of a yowling man-hater whose politics go before her art. This is apparent in her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale.
The story is a science fiction tale about a right-wing theocratic military dictatorship that imposes strict roles on the populace, especially women. The main character is a concubine, and the conflict is her struggles for autonomy in a society that does not value her.
While the other dystopians I mentioned have to do with freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of work, this also includes freedom of bodily autonomy, freedom of relationships, and freedom of religion. It is an award-winning science fiction piece that has spurred enough debate and discussion to definitely warrant a literati stamp of approval!

fahrenheit451
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a veritable god among book-lovers. He produced some of the most engaging, entertaining, and intelligent stories in American history, and we will fight you on that. Not only that, but he was insanely prolific, and managed to address complex, intelligent subjects with great scope and depth in a way that was enjoyable and entertaining to read. So, what I’m saying is, Nobel Prize for Literature people, you totally missed a good one.
The story is set in the future, and concerns a world where books are illegal and firemen are employed to find contraband books and burn them. Many people say that the story is about censorship, and while that is the case Bradbury himself said that the main focus was not on how people take literature away from us but how WE relinquish our literature freely. The characters give up their freedom for the sake of technological convenience and nonstop entertainment programming. They don’t even realize that there is a war going on!
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Bradbury’s story hits eerily home with his insights about giving up our heritage of literature and great thought for a sense of security and entertainment, even if we’re not secure and are dying inside!
The plot focuses on a fireman who one day does the unthinkable and reads one of the books he is supposed to burn. His depressing, empty life is changed completely and he realizes that the crazy of the world may be the only sane people left.
Also, any book that encourages readers to abandon simplistic entertainment in favor of intellectual thought, or else face dire consequences, is definitely something we can get behind!

huxley0408
7. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fun fact, did you know the band The Doors was named after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which is about dropping acid. Just… saying.
Ah, A Brave New World. You know, a lot of people who feel stupid saying that we live in an Orwellian future like to say that we live in this book. Personally, I think the only book that sucks people in and forces them to live the events is The Neverending Story, but I digress.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!


The story sounds at first like a utopia. The world is peaceful. We have technology. No one is getting burned alive with their collection of Shakespeare… But, that’s just the surface. Huxley’s book shows that peace at all costs may not be such a great idea. The people are artificially created, and live a weak, anti-intellectual, passionless lifestyle. Families and romance are pornographic. Nothing matters. Humans are basically just there to blandly exist, consume, and die. The chillingly clinical look at human existence and the reasons for continuing at all is not only frightening but important in today’s “unexamined life” espousal. If there’s nothing to die for, is there anything to live for?
Or, as Huxley himself said: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

clockwork orange
8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If no other book on this list will give you an invite to the “cool readers” crowd, this will. What can you really say about A Clockwork Orange that hasn’t been said? Or, what can even be said that the trailer for the (amazing!!) Kubrick film didn’t say?
Witty, funny, satiric, musical, exciting, bizarre, witty, political, thrilling, frightening, metaphorical, comic, sardonic, exciting, metaphorical, Beethoven, metaphorical, frightening, sardonic, comic, bizarre, musical, witty, frightening, political, satiric, Beethoven, thrilling, funny, exciting, funny, comic, bizarre, satiric, metaphorical, sardonic, thrilling, exciting, political, musical, exciting, witty, Beethoven, frightening, comic.
Basically, Clockwork is one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. The story is set in the future, where crime and depravity have become extreme and government corruption is the norm. Our “hero” is Alex, a young hoodlum who basically typifies the “kids doing violence” archetype. He’s a murderer, a mugger, a rapist, an abuser, a household terror, a gangster, and he does it purely for the fun of it. He’s Shakespearian in his enjoyment of villainy, and not in a way that seems mustache-twirling or unrealistic. He has fun when he’s being a criminal, and that’s who he is.
Enter the law. Enter a new treatment by the law: The Ludovico Technique, which classically conditions Alex into being an unwilling law-abider and pacifist.
The novel asks you, what do you think of this? Can a person’s human integrity be violated, even someone as evil and rotten as Alex?
For a book filled with so much depravity, to the point that the movie received an X-rating and was blamed for copy-cat crimes, one might think that it’d be too difficult for the average reader. However, Burgess separates the reader from the action through a writing style done in an imaginary slang-speech that Alex uses throughout the book. The experimental style allows the readers to step back and consider the ideas without being repelled by the story. (To be fair, the movie does this, as well, through experimental film techniques.)
It’s frightful, fearsome, and so, so quotable, and you won’t be sorry you read it!

1Q84
9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of those divisive names in literature. On the one hand, he’s very popular and an excellent writer (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?). On the other hand, some people dislike him because they see him as being overrated among Western readers whose only introduction to Japanese literature is through his books. While I understand the need to branch out and read other Japanese writers, this doesn’t mean that Murakami is a bad author in his own right. In fact, he’s a damn good writer, and don’t you forget it! (Again, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?)

Read the damn thing already!

Read the damn thing already!


So, what is this nearly-thousand-page monstrocity about? Well, it’s 1984! But, it’s a bizarro 1984. It’s 1984, but with magical creatures, a martial arts technique made entirely out of testicle-punching, a massive publishing scam, and an alternative universe created by doing something so out of the Japanese norm that the fabric of space and time is actually ripped.
The story is about an assassin and championing ball-smasher (this is seriously a plot point –highbrow literature is weird), who climbs over a railing and creates the alternative 1984 (the Q is for question). It is also about a cult, an editor who is trying to pull off a literature scam, and his dyslexic prodigy who may not be writing fiction after all. In with all this weirdness is still the familiar Orwellian story about government, control, and the importance of language. Plus, you get to say you read a Murakami book.

infinite jest
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you really, really want to prove you’re not a literary newb, love for YA book series aside? Why not Wallace?
And, yes, let’s address the pink elephant in the room: this is a notoriously difficult novel. People make flow charts about this book. Yes. There are flow charts to help you understand what’s going on.
But, who am I kidding? You’re no pansy! You are dying to prove your literary chops, and, let me tell you, difficulty aside, this is not a book you’re going to regret reading. Satirical, poignant, funny, memorable, harrowing, and full of tennis, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll ever encounter.
So, what’s the plot of this notorious, difficult, smart, funny, awesome book of pure awesome? Well… Um… Okay, will a teaser do? It’s about a video that’s so entertaining that anyone who sees it will watch it on loop until they die. In a futuristic world of drug addicts, extreme tennis, support groups for the ugly, and wheel chair terrorists, the students of a prestigious tennis academy, the inmates of a drug rehab halfway house, and a variety of other characters eventually pursue the afore-mentioned Infinite Jest.
The book is hardly linear, and written in a series of snippets that reveal a lot of daily life for the characters in the story (complete with copious footnotes, so watch out!). This may feel daunting, but it’s actually very rewarding in that you get to experience a lot of Wallace’s insights. And, as one of the greatest intellectuals, if not the greatest intellectual of our time, Wallace’s insights are not to be missed.
Empathetic, gorgeously written, and dense enough for you to feel really good about yourself at the end, this is most assuredly a book you don’t want to skip!

So, you read Harry Potter…

harry
Okay, so maybe the young adult literature phenomenon/anti-drug of your choice wasn’t chock full of vampires. More power to you. If you’re like almost everyone on the planet, you have read Harry Potter. About 3/4s of you enjoyed it, too. And, most of you who enjoyed it enjoyed the living bajeezus out of it, enjoyed it with passion, preference, and pride, enjoyed it with every molecule of your body.
Again: more power to you.
But, all things must come to an end. Chimney sweepers coming to dust, lovers young… Oh, that Shakespearian rag, it’s so elegant… I’m mixing literature here and getting ahead of myself. The point is, Harry Potter had a nice, long run, and while most people won’t fault you for re-reading the entire series, most people will when you refuse to read anything else. Ah, but that’s why we have Pushy Librarians!
Pushy Librarians, once again here to make sure YOU are reading all your intellectually metaphorical fruits and vegetables! Yes, we’ll help you with all your literati needs, whether you want/like it or not! You WILL look like a grown-ass adult when we’re through… (feel free to begin the Mulan song, “Mister I’ll make a man out of YOU!”)
So, what would you want to read next after leaving Hogwarts? Well… here are some suggestions we’re aggressively forcing upon the populace!

the magicians
1. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Ask any literati source what the grownup, literary equivalent of Harry Potter is, and 9 times out of 10 they’ll point at this book. And why not? It’s a reflective, philosophical, intellectual novel… about a boy who goes to wizarding school. It basically is THE Harry Potter-for-grown-ups. We could finish the list by just posting The Magicians ten times, and most people would be happy. But, Grossman’s novel is more than The Boy Who Lived, but totally not for kids… no… more. (That actually would be very, very sad.) This is its own entity, addressing the insecurities, yearnings, and, erm, existential crises of an older set of readers, searching for identity and purpose. It also addresses the idea of the wonders of magic as melded with the doldrums and angst of adulthood. Maybe that sounds less than appealing, but The Magicians has more than enough fantasy to satisfy the Potterhead crowd. And, admit it, getting on the end of HP, you related to those angsty, real-life, rough, dark scenes that filled the last part of the series. You did, didn’t you? And, you wouldn’t mind more of that, would you?

krabat
2. Krabat (Or The Satanic Mill, for you English readers) by Otfried Preussler
Okay, so this is also technically a kids’ book. But, The Satanic Mill is also an obscure kids’ book, and a smart, weird, trippy one at that. It’s the kid’s book that’s socially acceptable to read in public without being suspected of having a set of Gryffindor robes and a sorting hat in your lego-castle themed bedroom. So, what is this obscure kiddie book about? Well, do you remember all the panic about “satanic schools” concerning the Harry Potter books? This is probably what those people were imagining. This is the story of a young orphan boy who goes to a school of magic… black magic. Satanic, killing-people magic. This is basically what Voldemort wants Hogarts to be. And, you might be thinking, “Huh, that sounds really disturbing for a children’s book.”
I know, right?!

phantastes
3. Phantases by George MacDonald
In the world of literature, there are certain standards of epic… beards. And, by Lincoln, did MacDonald have one of the most epic! But, facial hair aside, MacDonald was a pioneering fantasy writer. He even inspired C.S. Lewis! This is a mythical story, part fantasy part romance, concerning a questing man named Anodos, who is seeking “The Marble Lady”, the ultimate beauty. But, since this is MacDonald, it’s not just a story about quests and magic, it’s also really abstract, symbolic, and, honestly, trippy as hell. Not many religious ministers can claim that. Plus, it was illustrated by a Pre-Raphaelite artist. Does it get more magical than that? Possibly, but not without acid.

tom-browns-school-days-by-thomas-hughes
4. Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes
This isn’t fantasy. That doesn’t stop Tom Brown from being the closest to Harry Potter in spirit, however! Rowling’s series is sort of genre-blending. On one hand, it’s a fantasy quest, complete with unlikely heroes and dark lords. On the other hand, it’s a kid’s fairytale-fable story, with whimsical moments that would be comfortable in the realm of Roald Dahl. And, on the third hand (just roll with it), it’s a schoolboy story, a coming-of-age tale with schooldays events and relationships. In that last respect, it’s a whole lot like Tom Brown. Even many of the dynamics are like Tom Brown. Just insert a lot of rugby, and there you go. What many people really love about HP are the characters and the way they interact. The “in real life” fanfiction people have come up with, aside from being terrible, is also proof that people really like the characters for themselves. Well, if you ever wanted that dynamic in a more real-life setting, this is the book you want!

neverwhere
5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Or… almost anything Gaiman. Hey, HP fans, want to look really cool, hip, and with-it, and yet still get your fantasy fix? Try Gaiman! Gaiman has been called the literary equivalent of a rock star, and that’s basically true. In fact, there have been only a handful of writers who have had this status, and only about two after the Romantics: Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Gaiman. And Gaiman hasn’t taken every drug known to man, but still managed to be as edgy and cool. What’s interesting about Gaiman is that, although he’s obviously very charismatic and his writing is very cool, he also could easily be that one librarian that is really awesome. He’s like the perfect blend of bookish and rocking and…
neilgaiman
We interrupt this session for a complete fangirlish breakdown.

Anyway…
Gaiman’s stories, like Harry Potter, are inventive, exciting, and full of memorable characters. But, Gaiman also writes fantasy for an older audience, and so is able to explore darker and more dangerous themes –truth, religion, beauty, the relationship humans have to myth and archetype. In Neverwhere, we have a story of an ordinary, even boring man, who ends up accidentally involved with the goings-on of a magical underworld. The story features eloquent assassins, dashing tricksters, brave hunters, warriors, rat-people, and Door, who is basically one of the coolest characters ever.

ender
6. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Addressing the elephant in the room: yes. Card is very political. And, of course, that leads some people to calling him a Nazi. I don’t mean this in the usual internet way, either. People actually do say that Card is an actual Nazi.
It’s a conspiracy, and he’s not actually a Nazi. But, he does have very, well, right-wing views.
Now, will this affect your reading of Card? For me, and I’ve read Sade, the author’s beliefs don’t necessarily have to affect the art. After all, Picasso was rather sexist, and yet we all love Picasso (anti-Picasso people are welcome to shut up).
The story is a science fiction tale of a young, intelligent boy in a bad family (not unlike Harry!), who gets sent to a special school, and who has a mission to save the world (because why not?). In this case, however, he saves the world by playing a lot of really cool video games… In many ways, the story can be overly simplistic, and has troubled readers concerning the apparent justification of a character basically due to ignorance. However, the “problematic” portions of the story can be beneficial, as well, can be open for questions and really make the reader think about the complexities of violence and war. And, considering that this is very literally a story about a boy who saves the world through video-game awesomeness, that’s kind of saying a lot.
It’s not necessarily one of the best books ever written, but Ender’s Game has been immensely influential, extremely popular, and promoted enough discourse and debate to well-warrant a literati stamp of approval!

The well at the world's end_Morris
7. The Well at the World’s End by William Morris
I don’t think we can go much further in this fantasy discussion without talking about Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. According to many literary theorists, all literary criticism is a footnote to Socrates in that it all must address Socrates’ apparent dislike of fiction (yeah… that totally happened). In the world of fantasy, all fantasy has to deal in some way with Tolkien and Lewis. Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. All fantasy writers basically have the choice of either following in the footsteps of the genre’s most significant members, or breaking with that tradition. Rowling is not an iconoclast. Harry Potter is full of Narnian and Middle Earth influences, from the style of her monsters, to mirrors that tell secrets, to religious symbolism, to entering new worlds, to the world-building, to, well, a great deal. It’s not a flaw. She’s a part of a particular literary tradition.
But, chances are you’re already pretty darn familiar with these books. If you’re not, please go read them. We’re not talking about them here. What we are talking about, however, is a book that had impact in the development of Middle Earth: The Well at the World’s End.
This is a little-known fantasy novel by Pre-Raphaelite William Morris, because Pre-Raphaelites, man!
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It’s a fantasy quest, a romance of knights and valor, not something too out of place for the Medieval and Romantic PRB. But, it was more than just as Spenserian fanfic. It also has many of the trappings of what we now refer to as the fantasy genre. The story has its own world, and world-building is an important aspect. Its attention to the past, like in the works of Tolkien, is there to create a story for the present and an escape to the exotic and unusual realms of magic.
The plot follows a knight in search of a well that produces the water of eternal life. It’s a traditional questing story, with daring-deeds and unusual characters along the way. If you want to backtrack your way into the roots of the genre the bore HP, you could definitely do worse than Morris.

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8. 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez
Hey, HP fans, do you ever get tired of being referred to as second-class readers? Do you want to prove to your literary friends, they with their Moby-Dicks and their Things Fall Apart, that you’re just as intellectual as they are? But, does it bother you to read stories that are very realistic? Do you yearn for magic and fantasy when you’re reading your Steinbeck and Austen? Are you reading this now and going, “You think I’ve read any of those books? Heh…”? Fear not! Literature has just the genre for you: magic realism, where life, liberty, truth, and beauty come to you in a package of FREAKING magic!
Not only is 100 Years of Solitude a magic realist story complete with flying carpets, alchemical arts, levitation, and a rain of golden flowers, it’s also very, very literary. How literary? you may well ask. Try Nobel Prize in Literature literary. Oh, yeah. The man’s the dude.
So, what’s this about? Well, in a remote place in Columbia, an ambitious family sets up a town (the solitude from the title), and this is its history for one hundred years… No, come back! It may sound like a dull premise, but there is nothing but nothing that isn’t in this book! Every aspect of life, good, bad, happy, sad, romantic, disgusting, beautiful, imaginary, real, revolutionary, brutal, lecherous, perverse, and sublime is here. From rebels and firing squads to a plague of insomnia, it’s a veritable feast for the imagination and will keep you glued to the pages until you think that the book is about 1,000 words long and way too short. And that’s a sure sign of a good book!

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9. The Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis
Again, this is technically a kid’s book. But, like The Satanic Mill, probably no adult will slight you on reading it. In fact, more or at least as many adults read this book than children do. Why? Well, some of it has to do with the fact that the author is a Decemberist:
http://decemberists.com/
Yes, that’s the band The Decemberists, and as all good literati know… they write songs based on literature and so are awesome. (Seriously, Infinite Jest, The Tain, Shadow Country…)
But, now is not the time to gush fangirlishly… twice. (*cough* Buy ALL the albums *cough*)
The Wildwood Chronicles is not just popular because of its musical ties and Carson Ellis’s gorgeous illustrations. It’s also a really, really smart story. The story is a well-crafted, loving treatment of the world of fantasy. It is self-conscious of its roots, to the point that may seem a bit winking at first until you take into account how earnestly the creators love their sources. It’s a story about children going to a magical world and saving the day, and it doesn’t try to put some cleaver, ironic, postmodern spin on this. It just says, “Hey, we love this kind of adventure, and that’s what we’re going to write! And it’ll be awesome!” And it is.
Plus, it has epic battles, rollicking songs, talking animals, bandits, political intrigue, and a really smart message about politics, control, and liberty. It’s something you can suggest to your kids and younger siblings and the children on the street, and something you can comfortably read in public without incurring the snobbery of the readerly elite. Just don’t be surprised when grownup adults run up to you and start singing sea shanties.

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10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
You like books. You like magic. It only makes sense to put the two together! This is yet another magic-realist story written originally in Spanish, because Spanish-speaking people are cooler than cool. (This is an objective truth.)
The Shadow of the Wind has the distinction of being both literary and one of the bestselling books of all time, so if you were worried about it being some obscure, hipster thing, it’s not. (Of course, if you’re an adult worrying about being a hipster you might be a very sad person…) The Shadow of the Wind is a lush novel, full of dark shadows and bright lights, and a sense of deliciousness, a heady sense of smell and touch and delight… It’s like dark chocolate on a shady pavilion overlooking a sunny garden…and you’re drunk. So, basically, it’s the bomb.
The story concerns a young boy whose father is a caretaker of a book cemetery, which should already have you hooked. If that’s not enough, the boy picks a mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind, a book that may have secret, mysterious enemies. Reading never was so cool… since Bastian went into The Neverending Story (which isn’t listed here because, dammit, you should have read it already).

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