I once had a friend brag about how they’d never read a book for fun until they were 21; needless to say, I was shook to my core. Apparently, there are people out there who not only refuse to read, but act like it’s something to be proud of? I find it hard to believe that someone could live their life without even peeking at a Harry Potter novel, but then again, I am definitely not one of those people. I once read about the concept of a sanity shelf: a personal collection of books you read again and again for pure enjoyment. Since I always have a book in hand, and even took an American Literature course for fun, I thought I might share my own list of favourites (in no particular order) to help the skeptics among you discover that literature is lit!
Children of Gebelawi by Naguib Mahfouz
Also known as Children of the Alley, and written by my all time favourite author, Naguib Mahfouz, Children of Gebelawi is a retelling of the three main Abrahamic faiths, including stand ins for the main figures of each religion, like the character Adham as an allegory for Christianity’s Adam. Children of Gebelawi is a beautifully written book that earned Mahfouz the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Mahfouz stated that his Nobel Prize felt like a win for the Arab world as a whole. I wholeheartedly agree with Mahfouz’s statement that Arabic literature suffers from a lack of recognition on the global stage: there are so beautiful many works from this region beyond those of Khalil Gibran and Edward Said. Sadly, with recognition came death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, which led to an assassination attempt in 1994. Mahfouz survived the attempt, but passed away in 2006 due to health complications from old age. His words and legacy live on, however, so I will leave you with this quote from Children of Gebelawi: “Oppression must cease as night yields to day. We shall see the end of tyranny and the dawn of miracles."
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.
When I first read this book at the age of 14, I found it incredibly groundbreaking. This book written by a member of a diaspora specifically for his own people, instead of for a mass audience. One of my biggest issues with Chinese-American author Amy Tan, is that she writes in a way that appeals to the majority, resulting in a lot of oversimplification and playing to stereotypes. With Diaz, there is no shying away from niche 80s sci-fi references and obscure Dominican myths; he also includes more Spanglish than you know what to do with. In the end, it all comes together to display a uniquely hybrid Dominican-American life, with characters you would never find anywhere else.
Pro Tip: If captivating characters are your thing, I also highly recommend Haruki Murakami’s gem of a novel, Norwegian Wood, which features one of my all-time favourite fictional characters, Midori Kobayashi.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This novel is based on American journalist Upton Sinclair’s time spent undercover in a meat factory, where he sought to expose the injustices acted upon its workers, many of whom were recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who didn’t know their rights. This book was widely discussed following its release, but not for the reasons Sinclair had intended. Instead of demanding change for their country’s workers, Americans were disgusted by the conditions of the factories their meat was coming from. So, while the original author’s intent may have missed its mark with the general American population, don’t let that stop you from cracking the spine of this great book yourself!
Pro Tip: If you’re a fan of investigative journalism, I suggest checking out Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson, a novel whose 1884 release significantly influenced the culture of Southern California.
I hope my list has inspired you to grab a book and dive into the literary journey that is building your own sanity shelf!