The best novels of ideas of the last 50 years

John Pistelli Author Of The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House
By John Pistelli

The Books I Picked & Why

The Sea, the Sea

By Iris Murdoch

Book cover of The Sea, the Sea

Why this book?

This 1978 Booker-winner is said to be the British philosopher and novelist’s finest work. A celebrated London theater director retires from his dissolute show-business life to the seaside, only to encounter his lost boyhood love, for whom he renews a frightening passion made of equal parts nostalgia and fantasy. In addition to its Nabokovian study in obsession and its poetic air of Shakespearean romance, The Sea, the Sea is also a seminar in the ethics of art: the characters debate their obligations to other people, the viability of art when divorced from ordinary human concerns, and even—this is not strictly a realist novel—the morality of using magic to transform the world. Most novelists don’t face the ethics of art and literature this fearlessly; I love the challenge Murdoch poses to those of us who practice the art.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

The Cannibal Galaxy

By Cynthia Ozick

Book cover of The Cannibal Galaxy

Why this book?

Cynthia Ozick's 1983 novel is set in a Midwestern academy founded by a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied France who wants to offer students a “dual curriculum” combining traditional Jewish religious instruction with the secular liberal arts. Eventually, this principal comes into conflict with a brilliant philosopher who insists that he not judge her under-achieving daughter too quickly when she becomes a student at the school. Ozick’s richly descriptive prose recreates the horrors of 1940s Europe and the placidity of the midcentury American Midwest as she surveys the dangers of American assimilation and anti-intellectualism with all the rigor we'd expect of a novelist who doubles as one of our best essayists. As a teacher myself, I recognize the anxieties of pedagogy Ozick portrays—how do we know when and if we’re doing justice to our students?—and I would recommend it to anyone who teaches at any level. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Watchmen

By Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons

Book cover of Watchmen

Why this book?

This 1986-87 graphic novel—for my money, the all-time best graphic novel—has by now been so imitated, adapted, and reimagined, all over the protest of its anti-commercialism writer, that it’s easy to forget how intellectually weighty it is. Its alternate-universe tale of a 20th century where superheroes really exist not only revolutionized a popular genre, and its formal innovations in graphic storytelling not only transformed an art form, but Watchmen also stages a conflict among political and ethical worldviews (The Comedian's right-wing nihilism, Rorschach's libertarian absolutism, Ozymandias's leftist utilitarianism, etc.) and develops provocative ideas about time and consciousness that Alan Moore would spend the rest of his career exploring. This is the book that made me want to become a writer when I read it in adolescence, and its mind-bending philosophical power is one major reason why.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Paradise

By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Paradise

Why this book?

Morrison’s most ambitious and most underrated novel, Paradise (1997) tells the story of Ruby, a town founded by a group of African-Americans turned away after slavery from other black townships because of their darker skin color. Ruby’s male leaders accordingly establish a patriarchal community devoted to keeping bloodlines pure and youth in line. This stern society inevitably clashes with the inhabitants of a former convent on its fringes where a multiracial group of fugitive women come together amid the tumult of the 1960s. In this intensely written and kaleidoscopically structured violent epic, Morrison rewrites the Biblical Exodus and the American myth of westward settlement, she sets Christianity against Gnosticism, and she strives to do nothing less than reinvent religion for the postmodern world. Reading this as a teenager in the late ‘90s showed me that contemporary fiction could aspire to be as grand and world-changing as the classics.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Leave Society

By Tao Lin

Book cover of Leave Society

Why this book?

In 2021’s most widely-discussed literary novel, Lin, the former enfant terrible of the early 2000s alt-lit scene, rejects that movement’s terse and affectless style in favor of a more startlingly inventive prose alive to everyday experience’s strangeness. This autobiographical novel recounts its narrator’s attempt to wean himself from the toxic habits and substances of our “dominator” society and, through natural foods and psychedelic drugs, to return to a matriarchal cooperative tradition he describes at length. Whatever we think of Lin’s potentially sentimental historiography, he embeds it in a gentle family comedy that effloresces into a tender romance. I appreciate Lin’s countercultural commitment to rejecting fashionable pessimism and unthinking science-worship, and I respect his evolving ethic of personal kindness. It would be preachy if issued as a proclamation, but becomes a practice we can all learn to share when shown in a novel.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.