The best books to make you question the nature of reality

Tom Newton Author Of Seven Cries of Delight
By Tom Newton

Who am I?

By the age of nine, I was beginning to wonder why things were the way they were, or if indeed they were at all. Perhaps growing up the youngest of five siblings and listening to conflicting opinions set me on my course. One of my sisters introduced me to literature. I began to write plays based on Shakespeare and Monty Python. The love of absurdity took me early on. I liked books that offered a different view of reality. I still do, and it influences what I write today. I believe Borges said something to the effect that all authors keep writing the same book, just in different ways.


I wrote...

Seven Cries of Delight

By Tom Newton,

Book cover of Seven Cries of Delight

What is my book about?

This collection of twenty-four short stories explores unknown but vaguely familiar worlds. Charting the frontier between the real and the illusory, Seven Cries of Delight celebrates offbeat independent human curiosity, the unorthodox spirit of Renaissance enquiry into the nature of things, and its exposition in fiction unfettered by either convention or doctrine.

The books I picked & why

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The Master and Margarita

By Mikhail Bulgakov, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Book cover of The Master and Margarita

Why this book?

The devil arrives in Moscow with three companions—a pistol wielding cat, a female vampire, and a hit man. Together they wreak havoc. 

These days The Master and Margarita might be categorized as Magical Realism, but I don’t think the term does it justice. It is humorous, fantastical and modernist, sensual and absurdist, a love story, and a social satire. There is also a recurring philosophical theme, expressed by Pontius Pilate struggling with his guilt.

The Master and Margarita has an interesting provenance too. In a fit of depression over the futility of being an author in Soviet Russia, Bulgakov burned the original draft of his manuscript. He then rewrote it but he never believed it would be read. Stalin held Bulgakov in high esteem and protected him, yet he would not allow his work to be published. It was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and first published in Paris over thirty years later. 

Having been written under such duress adds a potency to its already innate brilliance.

I think The Master and Margarita is one of the best books ever written. I gave it to my future wife, and the future became the present.

The Master and Margarita

By Mikhail Bulgakov, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The Master and Margarita as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Bulgakov is one of the greatest Russian writers, perhaps the greatest' Independent

Written in secret during the darkest days of Stalin's reign, The Master and Margarita became an overnight literary phenomenon when it was finally published it, signalling artistic freedom for Russians everywhere. Bulgakov's carnivalesque satire of Soviet life describes how the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow one Spring afternoon. Brimming with magic and incident, it is full of imaginary, historical, terrifying and wonderful characters, from witches, poets and Biblical tyrants to the beautiful, courageous Margarita, who will…


Collected Fictions

By Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Hurley (translator),

Book cover of Collected Fictions

Why this book?

Of all of Borges’ work, I chose this one because it contains all his work—of his fiction that is. There is another volume containing a lot of his non-fiction. He was a short story writer, poet, essayist, reviewer, screenplay writer and translator from Old Norse and Anglo Saxon, among other languages. It is hard to add to the litany of praise for this hugely influential and singular author. It is interesting that he never wrote a novel, and also pleasing that his subject matter, which is far from the mainstream has gained near universal recognition.

He examines the Theseus myth from the Minotaur’s perspective (The House of Asterion) He describes his older self meeting his younger self, an encounter between two strangers (The Other). What better author to read, for those people who like to ponder the nature of reality, or irreality as his work has been described? He is erudite with an intellectual elegance and an Escher like imagination—playfully serious.

I share some of his interests—time, recursiveness, and pseudepigrapha. 

It is probably not coincidental.

Collected Fictions

By Jorge Luis Borges, Andrew Hurley (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Collected Fictions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All of Borges' dazzling fictions have been freshly translated and gathered for the first time into a single volume - from his 1935 debut with The Universal History of Iniquity, through the immensely influential collections Ficciones and the The Aleph, to his final and never before translated work from the 1980s, Shakespeare's Memory.

Monkey

By Wu Cheng’en, Arthur Waley (translator),

Book cover of Monkey

Why this book?

I refer to Arthur Waley’s famous translation and abridgment of the novel Journey to the West, purportedly written by Wu Cheng’en in sixteenth-century China.

The story has the underlying theme of a quest—the protagonist Monkey, born from a stone egg, an impetuous, impatient, self-centered creature, occasionally violent but ultimately good-hearted, seeks knowledge and eternal life. His exploits get him in trouble with the Jade Emperor who imprisons him beneath a mountain for five hundred thousand years. He is released by the monk Tripitaka when he promises to accompany him to India to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to China. Adventures ensue with monsters, dragons, and ghosts. They pick up companions along the way until they eventually succeed and become enlightened.

It is a magical, humorous story with a refreshingly non-western sensibility. It is comprised of Chinese folk tales with added political satire. It also has an almost cartoon-like quality.

I was given this book out of the blue when I was a teenager by a friend of my mother. Since that time I have reread it every few years, and I have read it aloud to my children. The fact that it was written over four hundred years ago does nothing to limit its accessibility and charm. It is a timeless book.

Recently I decided to thank the woman who gave it to me, and tell her about the impact of her gift. I discovered that she had died a few years earlier. My gratitude came too late.

Maybe there is a moral in that. Or maybe not.

Monkey

By Wu Cheng’en, Arthur Waley (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Monkey as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Probably the most popular book in the history of the Far East, this classic sixteenth century novel is a combination of picaresque novel and folk epic that mixes satire, allegory, and history into a rollicking adventure. It is the story of the roguish Monkey and his encounters with major and minor spirits, gods, demigods, demons, ogres, monsters, and fairies. This translation, by the distinguished scholar Arthur Waley, is the first accurate English version; it makes available to the Western reader a faithful reproduction of the spirit and meaning of the original.

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Book cover of Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History

Why this book?

Ever Since Darwin is a compilation of essays Gould published in the magazine Natural History. The beauty of the book for me is its multifarious subject matter. He writes of biological and socio-political oddities—from matricidal flies, whose young, conceived without a father, eat their mother from the inside, to anthropocentric bias. 

In the late nineteenth century, scientists were able to prove what they already believed—that white male humans were the pinnacle of life. They did this by pouring sand into skulls to measure brain size, taking meticulous measurements, and always managed to fit a little more into those of white males.

Another of his topics is the theory that humans evolved from neotenous apes—apes which never matured to adulthood and retained their juvenile form.

He talks of slime mold which has the capacity to move as individual spores or combine into one organism, depending on environmental conditions.

For me the overall effect of this book is enhanced by being a compilation of separate pieces written over four years. The sum is greater than its parts. Their combination is a new entity. 

It is easy to remain blinkered by quotidian mundanities and take things for granted.

This book makes me realize just how strange life is.

Ever Since Darwin: Reflections on Natural History

By Stephen Jay Gould,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Ever Since Darwin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ever Since Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould's first book, has sold more than a quarter of a million copies. Like all succeeding collections by this unique writer, it brings the art of the scientific essay to unparalleled heights.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross,

Book cover of The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Why this book?

This is a history of classical music from 1900 onwards. I’ve always been interested in early twentieth-century western art. It seems to have veered off in radically new directions and expressed a different consciousness than what preceded it. Perhaps it was fomented by the dissolution of the relatively stable European order of the nineteenth century, shattered by the First World War. 

Alex Ross discusses the music of these times and the lives of the people who composed it. He is eminently capable, being musically trained, and finds the perfect balance between the technical and the personal. I was fascinated to learn that Shostakovich was a man who lived in constant fear of being purged. He always expected to be imprisoned. 

I also learned about Harry Partch, the American composer, who devised his own tuning systems and built an orchestra of strange instruments to play his music.

The Rest is Noise inspired me to listen to composers I was unfamiliar with, like Ligeti. It also inspired me more widely and gave me a desire to be creative. Alex Ross writes with a generosity of spirit. He accepts the faults and foibles of his subjects, without judgment. It is a very appealing quality.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

By Alex Ross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Rest Is Noise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Alex Ross's sweeping history of twentieth-century classical music, winner of the Guardian First Book Award, is a gripping account of a musical revolution.

The landscape of twentieth-century classical music is a wild one: this was a period in which music fragmented into apparently divergent strands, each influenced by its own composers, performers and musical innovations. In this comprehensive tour, Alex Ross, music critic for the 'New Yorker', explores the people and places that shaped musical development: Adams to Zweig, Brahms to Bjoerk, pre-First World War Vienna to 'Nixon in China'.

Above all, this unique portrait of an exceptional era weaves…


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