The best novels for thinking about modernity

Why am I passionate about this?

My career as a novelist began when I landed in Mr. James Giordano’s 10th-grade World Literature class at Abington Senior High in the Philadelphia suburbs. The syllabus was amazing. We read Voltaire, Camus, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Kafka, and a half-dozen other writers for whom the novel was essentially a dance of ideas, not simply an absorbing narrative centered on a compelling protagonist. Candide, in particular, was a revelation to me—my inverse road to Damascus: in laughing at Dr. Pangloss’s idiotic theodicy, I found myself bidding farewell to conventional theism, even as I thought, “Fiction as a medium for cross-examining received wisdom—yes!—yes!—someday I’ll do that, too!”


I wrote...

The Last Witchfinder

By James Morrow,

Book cover of The Last Witchfinder

What is my book about?

My attempt to dramatize the birth of modernity traces to a single sentence in Edward Harrison’s Masks of the Universe. This physicist-historian argues we cannot know the Universe per se, only successive approximations—the mythic universe of early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the medieval universe, et cetera. Harrison’s focus is “the witch universe”: “The supposed renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes...an age in thralldom to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” I read that sentence, and I said, “Now there’s a subject for a novel.” And so The Last Witchfinder became the story of Jennet Stearne, who devotes her life to bringing down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act of 1604.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Candide

James Morrow Why did I love 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.

By Voltaire,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Enriched Classics offer readers accessible editions of great works of literature enhanced by helpful notes and commentary. Each book includes educational tools alongside the text, enabling students and readers alike to gain a deeper and more developed understanding of the writer and their work.

A classic work of eighteenth century literature, Candide is Voltaire's fast-paced novella of struggle and adventure that used satire as a form of social critique. Candide enlists the help of his tutor, Dr. Pangloss, to help him reunite with his estranged lover, Lady Cunegonde. But the journey welcomes many unexpected challenges, and overcoming or outwitting the…


Book cover of Frankenstein

James Morrow Why did I love 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.

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the BBC's '100 Novels That Shaped Our World'

'That rare story to pass from literature into myth' The New York Times

Mary Shelley's chilling Gothic tale was conceived when she was only eighteen, living with her lover Percy Shelley on Lake Geneva. The story of Victor Frankenstein who, obsessed with creating life itself, plunders graveyards for the material to fashion a new being, but whose botched creature sets out to destroy his maker, would become the world's most famous work of horror fiction, and remains a devastating exploration of the limits of human creativity. Based on the third…


Book cover of 1984

James Morrow Why did I love 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.

By George Orwell,

Why should I read it?

43 authors picked 1984 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU . . .

1984 is the year in which it happens. The world is divided into three superstates. In Oceania, the Party's power is absolute. Every action, word, gesture and thought is monitored under the watchful eye of Big Brother and the Thought Police. In the Ministry of Truth, the Party's department for propaganda, Winston Smith's job is to edit the past. Over time, the impulse to escape the machine and live independently takes hold of him and he embarks on a secret and forbidden love affair. As he writes the words 'DOWN WITH BIG…


Book cover of Catch-22

James Morrow Why did I love 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.

By Joseph Heller,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked Catch-22 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Explosive, subversive, wild and funny, 50 years on the novel's strength is undiminished. Reading Joseph Heller's classic satire is nothing less than a rite of passage.

Set in the closing months of World War II, this is the story of a bombardier named Yossarian who is frantic and furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His real problem is not the enemy - it is his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. If Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the…


Book cover of A Confederacy of Dunces

James Morrow Why did I love 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.

By John Kennedy Toole,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked A Confederacy of Dunces as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

ONE OF THE BBC'S 100 NOVELS THAT SHAPED OUR WORLD

'This is probably my favourite book of all time' Billy Connolly

A pithy, laugh-out-loud story following John Kennedy Toole's larger-than-life Ignatius J. Reilly, floundering his way through 1960s New Orleans, beautifully resigned with cover art by Gary Taxali
_____________

'This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists, anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists, onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades, litterbugs, and lesbians . . . don't make the mistake of bothering me.'

Ignatius J. Reilly: fat, flatulent, eloquent and almost unemployable. By the standards of ordinary folk he is pretty much…


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Book cover of The Woman at the Wheel

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"Unfortunately, only a girl again."

From a young age, Cacilie Bertha Ringer is fascinated by her father's work as a master builder in Pforzheim, Germany. But those five words, which he wrote next to her name in the family Bible, haunt Bertha.

Years later, Bertha meets Carl Benz and falls in love-with him and his extraordinary dream of building a horseless carriage. Bertha has such faith in him that she invests her dowry in his…


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