Esquire recently released “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read” in a slideshow format. How they thought that was a good idea, I’ll never know. Who even clicks through all of Maxim’s Hot 100 instead of just skipping to the top 10? But I suppose people are talking about it. Success!
Personally, I think any list of books that men “should” read is fatally flawed when almost all of them were written by white, male authors (Flannery O’Connor got a nod, but then again, there’s a chance the list’s author thought “Flannery” was a guy). I suppose it’s a good strategy if you want to open a book and go, “Hey, this sounds kind of like how I think. I can feel my mind staying exactly the same!”
So, in response to Esquire’s predictable and boring compilation of required reading for men, I’ve created an arbitrarily-numbered list of my own. Except here, my goal is to feature works that discuss contemporary masculinity, as well as works that challenged me to stop and think about perspectives that were different than mine, that helped me to understand the society I live in and to empathize with people whose experiences I couldn’t live except through their storytelling. They may or may not be the 16 best books of all time, but here are the best books I would recommend for men:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I recognize that this book has become the exemplar of “white male literature,” but give it a shot before passing judgment. Infinite Jest is an incredibly sincere work in a culture where irony is omnipresent, and is one of the best contemporary reflections upon masculinity that I’ve ever read, centering on a narrative about what it means to be a son or a father. Getting through this book is truly a life experience, and to play off the trope of hard-working men, you can flex your muscles after you finish this weighty tome. [Powell’s, $18]
Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising by Jonathan Littell
Part of the American male experience is grappling with military culture, and beyond that, people love a good war story. But instead of going with the classics, try the Syrian Notebooks. Littell’s book isn’t literary. The text is taken directly from his notebooks while he was in Syria documenting the uprising against the Assad regime. Reading this is as close as you’ll get to understanding what modern warfare is like without setting foot in it. One of the few Western journalists to gain access at the time, Littell shows what Syria was like in the beginning of the uprising that spawned ISIS. [Powell’s, $24.95]
The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
With social justice and prison reform rightly in the public’s focus, read this novel by Denfeld, a woman who works as a death penalty investigator. This book finds humanity in what many people consider to be the worst of us – death row convicts – and shows that in the end, we are all still human. An incredibly haunting and affecting work that stayed with me for weeks after reading, I can’t recommend this enough.
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
A modern classic and coming-of-age tale of a minister’s stepson struggling with his identity and faith. A masterclass in perspective and prose, this book will undoubtedly expand your horizons and change the way you view yourself. Divided in sections narrated by different members of one family, it’s one of many eloquent and powerful portrayals of the black American experience. And prose-wise, this book is as close to perfect as it gets.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Readers familiar with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore will be surprised to see a very straightforward story of lost love in Norwegian Wood. This book got to me. It’s one of those books that when you finish the last page, you want to immediately flip back to the beginning so it doesn’t have to end. For your sensitive self.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A current bestseller, you’ve probably seen Coates’ interview on “The Daily Show” (amazing). An absolutely necessary book about what it’s like to be black in America in 2015, Coates was inspired in part with the tragic death of one of his close friends at the hands of the police. When Toni Morrison says something is “required reading,” you don’t question it.
Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
This book is stunning. It’s an unfiltered look into the Soviet Gulag system, and is appropriate here in an age when America has as many people incarcerated right now as were incarcerated in the former U.S.S.R. at the height of the era of Soviet concentration camps. Read about it, think about it, and then think about whether or not you’re OK with it.
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
When I think of archetypically badass women, Mary Karr immediately comes to mind. This book is one of the best memoirs out there. With incredibly controlled prose and refreshing wit, Karr paints a picture of what it was like to grow up in rural Texas with a dysfunctional family and how to use that experience for your own personal growth. There is also some great content in here about masculinity and the old-fashioned idea of what Makes A Man, through her reflections on her father. Her poetry is a must as well. [Powell’s, $17]
The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
While there has been a good flow of quality literature from veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (notably Brian Turner, Phil Klay, and Kevin Powers), it’s important to remember that there are two sides to every war, and this hard-hitting book comes from an Iraqi perspective. Blasim doesn’t hold anything back. An important story that will expand how you think about war.[Powell’s, $15]
Beloved by Toni Morrison
No need for summary here. Easily one of the best books of the last 50 years and just as timely as when it was written. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor. If it’s been awhile, read it again.
The Gallery by John Horne Burns
A shamefully unknown book, thankfully reissued by The New York Review of Books (you can’t go wrong with anything they publish), this is one of the best and most honest books that came out of the Second World War. The name refers to a place where American soldiers congregated in Naples to unwind and, yes, have sex with each other. It’s the first book I ever read that reveals this side of war – loneliness, and male affection. Here, gay men are normalized as part of the American army that’s always existed, all soldiers just trying to cope. The Gallery should be read alongside all of the other WWII books that get spewed out on every other “men’s reading” list. [Powell’s, $16]
Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse
There will always be a soft spot in my heart for Hesse. An amazing example of one of my favorite genres, the bildungsroman (the coming-of-age story, especially heartstring-pulling for young male readers). This book is the story of two men, Narcissus and Goldmund, who take opposite life paths toward enlightenment -one seeks the outside world for experience, the other the ascetic life of a monk. An incredible spiritual work from the author of Siddhartha. Some serious soul-searching will result.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
This is the title I immediately and robotically recite anytime someone is looking for a book recommendation. By far the most infuriating book I’ve read, but vital for anyone that’s looking to understand why the #BlackLivesMatter movement exists. It’s an unrelenting and exhaustively researched book into our system of mass incarceration, which Alexander compares to the Jim Crow laws that justified and enforced segregation in the first half of the twentieth century. If after reading this book you’re still unconvinced that there is systemic abuse toward racial minorities, I suggest getting yourself a small, paddle-powered boat and sail solo into the Pacific Ocean. [Powell’s, $19.95]
There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories by Charles Baxter
I recommend this book because Baxter is just a master of the short story and his characters feel as real as any you’ll ever see. He has complete control over his prose and it produces powerful effects. Baxter is a writers’ writer and a readers’ writer, and reading this collection will show the power of a story and how it can build connections between people. This book is full of unabashed humanity. Read in order for the best experience.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The one classic I couldn’t resist listing, this book will cause you to actually lift your head from the page in wonder. Dante is responsible for modern conceptualizations of Hell, the first writer to portray it as a physical place, with an ordered structure. To give you an idea of how detailed this book is, people at the time actually believed that Dante went on this journey through Hell. Also worth noting is that it’s a woman, his beloved Beatrice, who is responsible for his journey to salvation. She sends the pagan poet Virgil to guide him through Hell so that he can right his ways and get to Heaven. You do not need to be religious to enjoy this book. Pick up the translation by Mark Musa for a very readable edition that also has notes on each Canto so you can get the full experience. [The Portable Dante containing The Divine Comedy, Unabridged Bookstore, $20]
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
In my eyes (and according to a poll at the BBC), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the best book of the 21st century. Another wonderful look at masculinity from the perspective of a Dominican nerd. Funny, sad, powerful, this book will stand the test of time.