The best novels for thinking about modernity

James K. Morrow Author Of The Last Witchfinder
By James K. Morrow

The Books I Picked & Why


By Voltaire

Book cover of Candide

Why this book?

Modernity arguably begins with the 17th-century Age of Reason and gets up to speed in the 18th-century Enlightenment, and no figure personified la siècle des lumières better than François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire. The eponymous hero of his most famous work stumbles from one hideous institution to the next, including a Portuguese Inquisition dispatching heretics as an “act of faith.” Stephen Sondheim’s “Auto-da-Fé (What a Day),” a gem among the many versions of Leonard Bernstein’s musical, captures Voltaire’s rollicking irreverence. (“When foreigners like this come/To criticize and spy/We chant a pax vobiscum/And hang the bastard high!”) Some critics feel the pathologically optimistic Dr. Pangloss is an unfair portrait of philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz—who did insist ours is the best of all possible worlds—but I think Voltaire got it right.

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By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Book cover of Frankenstein

Why this book?

While the Enlightenment philosophes reveled in rationality, subsequent thinkers insisted mere knowledge cannot satisfy our deepest longings. The Romantics appreciated science, but they also foresaw the problem of scientism. No less than Voltaire’s l’Infâme (the Catholic Church), reason has its dark side. Some critics claim Victor Frankenstein’s sin was to play God, though that charge applies more forcefully to H.G. Wells’s most vivid character, Dr. Moreau. Victor’s downfall traces not so much to hubris as to his refusal to nurture his creature. Shelley’s antihero is not a corrupt rationalist; he’s a terrible parent. My own view paraphrases Winston Churchill on democracy. Reason is the worst mode through which to negotiate the world—except for all the others.

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By George Orwell

Book cover of 1984

Why this book?

Valuable fiction provides not only subversive ideas but also, on occasion, newly-minted terms that help us articulate our situation. The title of Shelley’s novel has entered the dictionary as a synonym for creators who succumb to their creatures (though I prefer the secondary connotation, creators who betray their creatures). Joseph Heller brought off an analogous feat. In our efforts to navigate modernity and its discontents, no one performed a better lexical service than George Orwell when he gave us “newspeak,” “double think,” and “Big Brother.” Orwell took no prisoners. In 1984 he savaged not only Stalinism but also intellectuals who’d become transfixed by totalitarian ideologies. As the truism goes, the political right hated Orwell because he was a socialist, and the political left hated him because he told the truth.

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By Joseph Heller

Book cover of Catch-22

Why this book?

Modernity tells us we’re on our own. All our institutions, both splendid and deplorable, are wholly human in origin. Anti-secularists reject this conclusion as opening doors to chaos. And yet Heller never allows his hapless, humanist antihero to embrace nihilism, even though Yossarian is embedded in a nightmare of meaninglessness: Colonel Cathcart perpetually raising the mission quota, Milo Minderbinder arranging an air raid on his own base, Snowden’s insides slithering onto the bomber floor. (Some critics argue that this novel is less about the Mediterranean Theater than the plague of pseudo-rationality—call it Catch-22—that had descended on the postwar capitalist world.) Despite his despair, Yossarian remains determined to live in his own time. He declines to solicit supernatural deliverance, and in the end he’s still standing—or, rather, running.

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A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

Book cover of A Confederacy of Dunces

Why this book?

Catch-22 was acquired by the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, who also wanted to publish A Confederacy of Dunces but couldn’t get past his conclusion, shared with Toole in a letter, that the book “isn’t really about anything.” How I wish I could have teleported to the Simon and Shuster offices in 1964 and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Gottlieb, but this book is emphatically about something. It’s about a man at war with modernity, an appealingly repulsive misanthrope who thinks it’s all been downhill since Aquinas, a Slob Quixote who, after many comic misadventures, concludes that the sensibility of his activist girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff, is less ghastly than he thought.” Let me hasten to add I would not implicate Gottlieb in Toole’s suicide, given the latter’s severe depression and apparent alcoholism.

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