Let’s be honest – book lists are everywhere online. I have dozens of links to them saved in Evernote, and I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of my “To Read” list on Goodreads.
Unfortunately, most of these lists fall into one of two buckets – the compilation of non-fiction business-oriented books and recycled bestseller lists of fiction novels.
This bothers me. Yes, I love reading self-help books about leadership, perseverance, and integrity, but I want a riveting story too. Few works of nonfiction create this effect. Why can’t I have the best of both worlds?
I rarely find lists along the lines of “fiction books leaders must read” or “top 10 fiction books you should read before 30.” So I’ve compiled my own.
Here are my eight favorite fiction books offering life lessons that seep into your soul one page at a time.
1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I willingly picked up Brave New World at 17 after a librarian took one look at my record of dystopian reading and recommended it. It’s been on my top-five list ever since. The story describes a tightly-controlled society dominated by a caste system and the disruption a “savage” creates when he enters this world devoid of choice and authentic emotion.
My favorite quote: “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.”
The lesson: Feeling something different from the crowd and acting on it often causes pain and despair, but, damn, at least it’s feeling something. Conforming rarely allows for authentic emotion.
2. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
I read A Doll’s House my senior year of college, and it rattled me. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become a wife and a mother someday. The play highlights the struggle of a mother and housewife who made personal sacrifices to save her family but is denied the recognition or respect she deserves. Even worse, her husband marginalizes her on a daily basis.
My favorite quote: “I have been performing tricks for you, Torvald. That’s how I’ve survived. You wanted it like that. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s because of you I’ve made nothing of my life.”
The lesson: Never attach yourself to someone who not only doesn’t understand you but also denies you freedom to be your most authentic self. And if you have to leave to be happy, do so. The play refers to a marriage, but I take this as a lesson for all relationships.
3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I owe a lot to Madeleine L’Engle for sparking my love for astronomy, physics and the unknown at a young age. I was only seven or eight when I first read A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t understand much of the story, but I knew I wanted to know more. The book covers the adventure of Meg Murray, who travels through time and space not only to find her father but also ultimately herself.
My favorite quote: “Thinking I’m a moron gives people something to feel smug about. Why should I disillusion them?”
The lesson: Knowing who you are and what you’re capable of is more important than what others’ think. Much more important.
4. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
I finished the 880-page Seveneves earlier this year. I was transfixed immediately, and it’s easily my favorite book of 2015. Stephenson’s excellent work of science fiction imagines how human civilization survives the destruction of Earth by living in the planet’s orbit for five thousand years.
My favorite quote: “Fighting isn’t about knowing how. It’s about deciding to.”
The lesson: People do crazy things when they feel threatened. Understand your opponents’ motives before making a move in someone’s direction. Actually, figure out who your real opponents are first. You don’t want to get blindsided.
5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This book sets up the argument for why people should read controversial books in the first place. We have a right to knowledge, even if some people don’t like the message behind it. Fahrenheit 451 narrates one man’s journey to finding authenticity, knowledge and passion in his life in a society devoid of true meaning.
My favorite quote: “Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.”
The lesson: Experience the world as you live it. Make real connections with people. Do what drives you – even if no one else understands it.
Sub-lesson: Stop looking at your iPhone so much. It’s just another “talking wall.”
6. Cleopatra’s Daughter by Michelle Moran
I love Michelle Moran’s historical fiction. She brings history to life with emotive storytelling. Cleopatra’s Daughter describes the life of – you guessed it – Cleopatra’s daughter, Selene, after the famed pharoah died. Everything was taken from the adolescent following her mother’s death – her home, her kingdom, her future. However, she learned to cope and built a legacy for herself.
My favorite quote: “Even in the most wretched life, there’s hope.”
The lesson: You’ve got to have hope and a level head to endure crises. Even in the midst of destruction and loss, you can build a life worth living.
7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Confession: I watched this movie as a teenager before I read the book. While the 2002 movie is quite excellent, I highly recommend reading the classic story of an innocent man convicted of a treason, his escape from prison and his cunning plan for revenge against those who betrayed him.
Favorite line: “How did I escape? With difficulty. How did I plan this moment? With pleasure.”
The lesson: Revenge can keep you going; it can keep you alive. But ultimately, the act of revenge itself brings little satisfaction. The journey may feel exhilarating, but it often leads more despair.
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice first tugged on my heartstrings a decade ago. I fell in love with its romance, but with every rereading since, I empathize with new insights related to human nature – manipulation, cowardice, practicality, deception, restlessness. The story of two people who dislike one another before they even really know one another creates a very tangled romance.
My favorite quote: “My good opinion once lost is lost forever.”
The lesson: People often make immediate judgements about new acquaintances. They are often wrong. I try to keep this in mind when forming my own opinions but especially focus on this lesson when others’ opinions do me a disservice.
Now, tell me your favorites!
What work of fiction delivered you a memorable life lesson? I’m always seeking book recommendations, so please share your favorites in a comment below!
Interested in what else I like to read? Here’s the 2015 recommended book list I put together in January.