Engrossing books that make you think until it hurts a little bit.
March 24, 2008 3:18 PM   Subscribe

What books have transported you to another place, and occupied your thoughts for days whilst you read them?

When I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time last summer I got really caught up in it, and was for reading 3 or 4 times the amount of time I could usually bear doing anything. The Road was similar. I couldn't put The Life of Pi down, but it didn't effect me in such a similar way.

I don't just want to know "books you couldn't put down" but the books you read which then continued to spin about through your head until you had finished them, or at least until you had done some research and understood it a little better.

I was reminded of this phenomenon after reading a post at mp3 blog Motel De Moka:

"Lately I get bored of my friends easily and I have an increasingly disgust for my family and my city. For the past few days I’ve been avoiding going out and I’ve spent most of my time alone at home trying to understand this book"

From the books description "there are plenty of reasons not to read Peter Weiss’s monumental novel The Aesthetics of Resistance. It is long and difficult, filled with obscure references and intractable ideas. Few of its characters can easily be imagined or identified with. Its byzantine paragraphs stretch on for pages a time, sometimes containing only a single unrelenting sentence... In spite and because of all this, the book gives a rich reward. There are many novels which convey the bitter experience of Europe’s twentieth century, but few which range so widely or reflect so deeply on that history."

I like the sound of that and would love some suggestions.

Non-Fiction or Fiction is fine. Out-of-copyright/ free librivox audiobooks are a big plus.

It can be a difficult book, but one that is ultimately rewarding which might just occupy all of my thoughts for a whole - books that make you think really hard, in a very differenct way for all the time you've been reading them for. The opposite of a summer read may be pushing it to far - Zen &... was fairly easy to read and enjoyable - but totally engrossing.

I've got infinite jest and gravity's rainbow but I've yet to venture into them...
posted by takeyourmedicine to Society & Culture (103 answers total) 221 users marked this as a favorite
dhalgren - samuel r. delaney
posted by stubby phillips at 3:20 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest

Blood Meridian

The Trial
posted by xmutex at 3:27 PM on March 24, 2008

You're going to get a lot of answers, and you're going to see a lot of them over and over. I'll say that mentioning Infinite Jest in the same breath as Gravity's Rainbow seems, to me, heretical. The former felt to me like mental masturbation; the latter was a book that fundamentally changed the way I felt about reading and writing. But those are personal feelings and they may not matter much to you.

In the interest of suggesting something that's hugely complex, hugely rewarding, wry, fascinating, funny, different, challenging and full of puzzles you may not even know are there, and that won't be suggested by everyone else, how about George Perec's Life a User's Manual? Read the Amazon description and see what you think; it seems as if it may be out of print, but you can certainly find copies around.
posted by The Bellman at 3:28 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I read the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while travelling through Thailand and kept talking and thinking about it. Still today my memories of this trip include so many references to the book!
posted by ddaavviidd at 3:30 PM on March 24, 2008

When I read 'The Agony and the Ecstasy', a biography of Michelangelo, I became completely engrossed in his life and renaissance Italy. It still occupies me to this day.
posted by twirlypen at 3:33 PM on March 24, 2008

I totally loved Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, about North Korea and the Kims. I was on vacation while reading it and stayed up until 4-5am each night because I couldn't put it down. It took me about 4-5 days of heavy night reading to get through it.
posted by jbb7 at 3:34 PM on March 24, 2008

"All Day Permanent Red". The Greeks, retold and eternal.
"Catcher in the Rye". And I don't care who knows it.
"The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay". A mile wide; an inch deep.
"Metamorphoses". Nothing gold can stay, even in the Golden Age.
posted by Dizzy at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2008

Love, Toni Morrison
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
A Wizard of Earthsea, LeGuin
The Farthest Shore, LeGuin
The Tombs of Atuan, LeGuin
Tehanu, LeGuin
The Other Wind, LeGuin
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:36 PM on March 24, 2008

The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil
posted by bonaldi at 3:38 PM on March 24, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
posted by kimdog at 3:39 PM on March 24, 2008

Oh, man, the whole Christopher Logue Illiad is SO GOOD, but be prepared to familiarize yourself with the original, too.
posted by pullayup at 3:39 PM on March 24, 2008

Lord of the Rings...no, wait! Don't leave!

Great books, and totally approachable and readable on their own merits. But I love it because of the care and detail that Tolkien put into the craft of Middle Earth. He created several languages, maps, family trees, mythologies for all the races, literally thousands of years of history. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books are really just an outlet for this creative enterprise that occupied nearly his entire life.

You can read the books and enjoy them just fine, or you can delve much much deeper into the mythology and get more out of them - The Silmarillion, Book of Lost Tales, etc. It feels very academic in a strange but good way.
posted by uaudio at 3:40 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

the books you read which then continued to spin about through your head until you had finished them

East of Eden (Steinbeck) stayed in my head for a long time *after* I finished it.
posted by librarina at 3:42 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Picture of Dorian Gray -- available on Project Gutenberg. I've read this book dozens of times, not so much for the plot which is thin, but because all the bits and pieces that Wilde throws in there about morality and art and humour and a variety of other things make me stop and think constantly as I read it.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:43 PM on March 24, 2008

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
posted by rabbitsnake at 3:47 PM on March 24, 2008

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrisson. The first 8 pages or so (depending on what copy you buy) are ridiculously obtuse, and I probably read them 10 times over trying to wrap my head around what they said. Then I moved on and found it to be one of the most otherworldly, engrossing novels I've ever read, and finished it in, basically, less than a day.
posted by LionIndex at 3:50 PM on March 24, 2008

Island by Huxley immediately came to mind when you said 'Transporting', not so much for the complexity of thought in invoked but rather that reading its description of a drug-induced trance actually seemed to induce the same effects in me. It threw me for a loop for quite a while.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:51 PM on March 24, 2008

((LionIndex -- do you really mean "obtuse"? Or maybe you are looking for "abstruse"? ))
posted by The Bellman at 3:56 PM on March 24, 2008

Fiction: Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Love it, love it, love it. First 100 pages or so are a bit hard-going, but vastly rewarding.

Nonfiction: A Nervous Splendor: Vienna, 1888-89 by Frederic Morton. Obsessively entertaining!
posted by scody at 3:59 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

The Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel by Ken Follett published in 1989 about the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge, England.

Oprah kind of ruined it when she made it one of her book club picks.
posted by JujuB at 4:00 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

LionIndex -- do you really mean "obtuse"? Or maybe you are looking for "abstruse"?

You're right. "Obtuse" isn't really what I meant there.
posted by LionIndex at 4:03 PM on March 24, 2008

Books that made me mentally inhabit their setting:

Vernor Vinge:

Fire Upon The Deep
Deepness In The Sky

Neal Stephenson:

Diamond Age
Baroque Cycle

David Brin


And I'm embarrassed to admit, Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion did this to me.
posted by sourwookie at 4:10 PM on March 24, 2008

Weaveworld by Clive Barker.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville.
The Year Of Our War by Steph Swainston.
posted by Tapioca at 4:12 PM on March 24, 2008

No one's said Harry Potter yet? Well I'll guess I'm the first... (I'm not ashamed to admit it!) I love(d) everything about them, couldn't put them down AT ALL, and although I wasn't one of the first to be out to buy the last few, it was only for financial reasons and I bought them as soon as they came down in price! Oh, and for an added bonus, I'm now reading them in German to improve my understanding of written German.

Also the Narnia books, which I can never stop reading once i've started them.

The Mists of Avalon, which I picked up and put down about 10 times over a 4 year period but never lost interest and I still love (and sections of it creep into my dreams every so often)

Finally, The Other Boleyn Girl, which I read before the movie came out, still influences my understanding about the Tudor era, even though I know it shouldn't.

Not the most sophisticated collection of books, but then again I never really got into the whole "deep thinking" types of novels.
posted by Planet F at 4:17 PM on March 24, 2008

It's a young adult novel, but Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why recently affected me this way. Others: Franny and Zooey (on a continual near-daily basis), Everything Is Illuminated, Tender Is the Night, On the Road, and Hamlet.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 4:17 PM on March 24, 2008

Right now the new book "Human Smoke" by Nicholson Baker has been in my head constantly. It stands everything you know about the run up to WWII and shows you how little you really know.
posted by zzazazz at 4:19 PM on March 24, 2008

nthing enders game
posted by milestogo at 4:20 PM on March 24, 2008

A Soldier of the Great War made me laugh and weep by turns. Absolutely absorbing, riveting storytelling.
posted by ZakDaddy at 4:23 PM on March 24, 2008

Yes yes to Steinbeck's East of Eden.

Also A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Magnificent and heartbreaking book about caste, poverty, corruption in India
posted by kitkatcathy at 4:27 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read The Master and Margarita for the first time as a moony-eyed undergrad studying Russian and Russian literature/history. It made me want to become a Russian witch, I still do. I can read that book dozens of times and be consistently immersed.
posted by msali at 4:28 PM on March 24, 2008

I just finished Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Terrifying. Horrifying. And absolutely fascinating. You hate every character and yet you want more.
posted by cachondeo45 at 4:34 PM on March 24, 2008

I find this normally happens when reading something that is very internal. By which I mean that you're reading a book which drags you – sometimes unwillingly, though in a good way – inside the head of the narrator/protagonist.

James Kelman does this brilliantly, particularly in A Disaffection and How Late It Was, How Late. Another brilliant exponent of the same is David Peace; his is an acquired taste, maybe, but the intensity of his writing – the squalor of human nature, the futility of attempting to be a moral being in a world which almost always recognises/rewards the cutting of ethical corners; the brutality which people are capable of inflicting on each other – gets to you. It can make you feel – or, at least, it made me feel – grubby and tainted and disgusted, which is something that stayed with me long after finishing reading his Red Riding Quartet (which covers a period from 1974 to 1983 in West Yorkshire, and follows an only partially-fictionalised version of the Yorkshire Ripper case). But ultimately, that's how you should feel after reading a series of four books whose plot concentrates on the rape and murder of more than a dozen women, and the investigation which surrounds the case. It shouldn't be a neat and happily resolved narrative, in which the good guys triumph, because the point is that horrible and evil as some people can be, there are no saintly good guys. Everyone is implicated in some way, because that's how society works; general cultural mores help foster a climate in which people like Peter Sutcliffe feel more comfortable acting on their desires than they ought to – it was, I think, no coincidence that much of the press reporting of the case placed blame on the women Sutcliffe murdered.

Sorry, that turned into something of a derail; my main point being that, with Kelman and Peace, the pull is the stark contrast between the values that we believe society normally aspires to, and the moral depths which individuals are capable of plumbing; when the gap between the two is big enough, it's difficult not to fall in, and wonder why such a gap seems to be a constant in societies across times and cultures.

Oh, and other books I have become lost in for long after I've actually finished reading them, not necessarily for the reasons enumerated above:
Alasdair Gray: Lanark, Poor Things
Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov, Notes From Underground
Haruki Murakami: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Richard Powers: The Time Of Our Singing
Carson McCullers: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Mark Z. Danielewski: House Of Leaves
James Baldwin: Another Country
Raymond Carver: Where I'm Calling From
Don DeLillo: Underworld
posted by Len at 4:40 PM on March 24, 2008 [6 favorites]

Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. (Try the new translation only; the old one is dated and abridged.) It is the single truest psychological portrait of medieval lives that I have ever read, or indeed of any non-modern inner life. I re-read it once a year.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:42 PM on March 24, 2008


Seconding Underworld and Blood Meridian. I read the latter over six months ago, and it's still in my head, as affecting as the first day I picked it up.
posted by saladin at 4:43 PM on March 24, 2008

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

Of course, that was my years ago. I don't travel so much anymore.
posted by Rafaelloello at 4:44 PM on March 24, 2008

seconding MZD's House of Leaves.
Also, Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars.
posted by juv3nal at 4:48 PM on March 24, 2008

The most recent book to do this (and oh, did it do it) is A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys. Utterly remarkable book.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:49 PM on March 24, 2008

Haruki Murakami!

Seriously, he ruined me on other books for a month or so. I had read about 4 or 5 of his in a row and nothing else seemed to compare to his mysterious complex worlds. Theres something about the way that he writes that generates "on the tip of your tongue" ideas with every page. The Wind up Bird Chronicle is the place to start or maybe Kafka on the Shore.
posted by huxley at 5:00 PM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

East of Eden, The Brothers Karamazov, The Bell Jar, A People's History of the United States.

The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell is a book that has been scaring the shit ouf of people for 20+ years and will fundamentally change the way you think about nuclear weapons.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:00 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

a wee appology here, takeyourmedicine... I failed dysmally to fully read the question in my zest to answer, making my previous recommendations almost completely rediculous (so mods, if you want to scrap my previous comment, please do!)

Narnia can be very thought provoking if that's how you approach the books, but I still highly recommend The Mists of Avalon. GREAT book.

and if you're tired of all the difficult books with long words in them, then I recommend the Phantom Tollbooth. It's cute, fun, but at the same time it's a really really interesting look at parts of our lives that we take very much for granted.

(again, appologies)
posted by Planet F at 5:05 PM on March 24, 2008

My wife and I both HATED "The Road". *sigh*

the book that stuck with me for a long time was Dan Simmons' wonderful book "The Terror", which was half-fiction,half non-fiction, and concerned a doomed expedition searching for the Northwest Passage. Amazing book. I remember putting the book down about half way through and being blown away that there was still half a book to go, when I felt as though I'd already gotten my fill of literary goodness! I love that feeling!
posted by newfers at 5:12 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

every good book should be able to do this but of course not all actually are that good.

biographies seem to do it rather often for me. the key here seems to be picking subjects (as in people or circumstances) you are interested in. I am interested in history, so I picked up a biography called William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War and it turned out to be something I just could not put down for the life of me. I was at the same time in horror of and fascinated by this man, who was a blatant racist, cecessionist and warmonger. I then picked up David Nasaw's Andrew Carnegie, who had a fair share of skeletons in his closet as well, and spend a fantastic few weeks with him. these books may do nothing for you, most people actually seem to passionately hate such exhaustive biographies, but when you find what makes you tick you'll have a sure-fire way to keep you excited for a long time. it might be romance novels, it might be that fantasy or tax-code books end up being your thing, so don't limit yourself without giving something a bit different a try.

there is a downside to finding your kind of book though. it makes reading mediocre books all the harder.
posted by krautland at 5:19 PM on March 24, 2008

I've been reading a lot of Gillian Bradshaw lately; her novels about ancient Greece and Rome have brought those places alive for me, and kept me thinking about the characters and cultures even after I'd finished. I'd recommend starting with The Sand Reckoner.

Also, The Bear Comes Home, about a bear who plays jazz in New York City. Really.
posted by kristi at 5:20 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Asimov's Foundation series.
posted by spiderskull at 5:37 PM on March 24, 2008

Books that recently did this to me:

-Paul Auster's The Brooklyn Follies
-Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking

They each gibed with what I needed to hear about and connected with my thought process in a way that bordered on supernatural.
posted by limeonaire at 5:37 PM on March 24, 2008

(Both concern the nature of love.)
posted by limeonaire at 5:38 PM on March 24, 2008

I've marked as best some of the answers that jumped out at me.

Thanks for all the suggestions so far, in return I'll make a list of all the books mentioned in a couple of weeks or so with some links and summaries to make it all a bit more digestable.
posted by takeyourmedicine at 5:38 PM on March 24, 2008

Patrick O'Brian's books about my friends Jack and Stephen.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:51 PM on March 24, 2008

The Road
East of Eden
Sometimes a Great Notion
posted by hulahulagirl at 6:02 PM on March 24, 2008

I read a lot of fantasy and they are really good (the George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire the most recent one) at engrossing me, but American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and any of Richard Feynman's personal memoirs were completely captivating. I have little fascination with either of the World Wars or the early 20th century, but I do have a fascination for incredible minds. I read a couple of the Feynman books and that interested me enough to pick up the Oppenheimer biography to learn more about the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer fit perfectly into the stereotype of a troubled genius. By his mid-late 20s he knew at least 4 different languages fluently and was considered the the top theoretical physicist in the US, but his personal life was littered with failures. Feynman had an incredible passion for physics and a great down-to-earth philosophy on life in general. He could take nearly any topic and come up with analogies that the average person could understand. I consistently think back on some of his stories and quotes and I try to mimic his attitude when it comes to teaching/tutoring.
posted by Hypharse at 6:04 PM on March 24, 2008

Seconding Dune, though don't bother with the rest of the series.

Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson had exactly the effect you describe.

Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things is doing what you describe to me right now.
posted by ontic at 6:12 PM on March 24, 2008

I just finished reading (nonfiction) Daydream Believers and found it a clear eyed view of what has happened over not only the last 8 years but much of the end of the 20th century. Although it doesn't make these events any better, it somehow calms me to at least have an idea of how it happened.

Getting back to your question -- I devoured this over about three days and did find myself thinking about it a lot while not reading it.
posted by wittgenstein at 6:13 PM on March 24, 2008

It took me two years to read Godel, Escher, Bach. I'd read a chapter, and a dialog, and put it down, only to pick it up and re-read parts as I rolled the ideas over my mental tongue. You know how sometimes a word, or someone's odd-sounding name, gets in your mouth for days on end (MeFi's own Henry C Mabuse stuck around for a week!)? That's how the ideas of GEB stuck with me.
posted by notsnot at 6:20 PM on March 24, 2008

I've been bent out of shape about the war for years now. I picked up William Sloane Coffin's book of sermons and essays called The Heart is a Little to the Left and read it over and over for a few months. The pieces are really short, but they talk about how justice, true justice involves being able to work, to do your life's work, out of love and compassion for others, not hatred and/or fear. It's a hard message I think in these troubled times and Coffin has a confusing past for someone coming with this message [he's a former CIA guy, recently deceased, sort of rich white guy but dedicated his life to peace and justice stuff and did some really impressive things]. The book is a real challenge to not only go live a righteous life but also how to work with others with differing views. He specifically talks about talking to Christians about homosexuality (he has a very pro-love, pro-couple approach to gay issues) and talking to angry people about peace. It is a thought provoking book and one that I wish I didn't have to return to the library.
posted by jessamyn at 6:21 PM on March 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think you should read Ulysses. It's maddeningly difficult at points, but it left me for months with the uneasy feeling that there was a layer right underneath my own life that I was just too dumb to pick up on. It'll make you think about what you're doing, and why, and what it's worth, and there are absurdly obscure puns!
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 6:26 PM on March 24, 2008

The Martian Chronicles, when I was a kid. It transported me. Still does, actually.

Strawberry Fields (in the UK, Two Caravans) by Marina Lewycka affected me like no book I've read since then. And I've read a lot of books. I can see the characters; I imagine I interact with them all the time. I wish I knew somebody else who's read it so that I can discuss it with them. Until then I take every opportunity to recommend it.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:29 PM on March 24, 2008

Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains are gorgeous, weird, involving evocations of Weimar Germany as expressed by one of the twentieth century's greatest prose stylists.

Ken Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion is maddening, long, probably in need of a good edit, and gorgeously involving with great stretches of difficult and wonderful prose.

Anything out of Emile Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle is great reading: totally current and impressive, even in translation and more than a century away from its birth. Germinal is the traditional recommendation, but La Bete Humaine and Nana are more pulpy and vivid.

Long a French classic (now somewhat out of favor) but weird, moody, and sublimely beautiful is the short novel Le Grand Meaulnes, a brilliant story about growing up without any of the normal bildungsroman trappings.

Confessions of Zeno (or Zeno's Conscience) as it is now translated, is probably the best overtly comic novel I have ever read. The author, Italo Svevo, was a great friend who studied languages with James Joyce. I prefer the older translations (as Confessions of Zeno) to the newer ones, which –– while more accurate –– are a bit too literal for my taste.

American writer Stephen Millhauser has a gift for weird and pushing narratives laden with brain-meltingly complete and complex descriptions of scene, character, and place. His two best (and most famous books are Edwin Mullhouse: Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954 by Jeffery Cartright and Martin Dressler: Tale of an American Dreamer, both strongly recommended.
posted by mr. remy at 6:54 PM on March 24, 2008

You like Zen? The Snow Leopard by Pete Matthiessen "In the autumn of 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen set out in the company of zoologist George Schaller on a hike that would take them 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo, "the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth." Their voyage was in quest of one of the world's most elusive big cats, the snow leopard of high Asia, a creature so rarely spotted as to be nearly mythical; Schaller was one of only two Westerners known to have seen a snow leopard in the wild since 1950."
posted by Jackson at 6:57 PM on March 24, 2008

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I can remember sneaking reads of it while at work. At that point it was a thrilling new way of thinking, I couldn't get enough.
posted by AuntLisa at 7:07 PM on March 24, 2008

Riddley Walker...crazy book which comes with its own dialect.
posted by spacefire at 7:09 PM on March 24, 2008

Seconding Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth.

I first read the book in high school and literally could not put it down (and would not unless a teacher asked me to). The only thing I could think about that week was the book.

It is also one of VERY few books that I've read more than once and I recommend it to all my friends. I would pick it up again right now and start reading, but alas, I just loaned it to a friend...
posted by odi.et.amo at 7:21 PM on March 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
is a book that has haunted me for years. The best type of novel, where something that happens on page 47 suddenly becomes pertinent on page 326. I still often think about the wonderful internal commentary that is part of this, years later.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
is another really atmospheric story: the characters inhabit a future where our mores and conventions have been changed out of recognition. I grieved when I finished the book, because I wanted to stay there (the best sense of loss that I know ... :-)
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I'm still not entirely sure if I enjoyed the book (It's what Gaiman would call one of his 'male' books) but I can't get it out of my head, two years later.
posted by sgmax at 7:22 PM on March 24, 2008

Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time series transported me. I couldn't wait to get home and read it each night just so I could be in that world. Work was just the thing that got in the way of me reading. I'd read each new one in a handful of evenings because I couldn't stop. I wanted to climb through the pages and live a simple village life in Emond's Field (and of course be on the A team that fights baddies). I read those books over and over just to stay in the world. Up through about Book 6, they were the best fantasy fiction I'd ever read by far. They stagnate after that, which was sooo disappointing, and pick up somewhat again at maybe book 10 or 11. And now the author is dead, but another author is going to finish the final book using his notes and publish in '09.

These books aren't cerebral, paradigm-shifting books like it sounds many others here are, just really really good stories, so rich and complex, covering so many different themes and styles within a single story - war, romance, politics, magic, the battle of the sexes, technology, food, myth, intrigue, mystery, humor, sorrow, history, culture, philosophy, and more. I'm ruined on fantasy fiction now and have been for years because they were so good, with only George RR Martin really coming anywhere close. Everything else seems cheap, pale, tired, clumsy, and small now, like high schoolers are writing it. I can still enjoy some of them, but not without realizing what they aren't and missing it, a sort of willing suspension of knowledge that such better quality is possible. Boooo!
posted by kookoobirdz at 7:41 PM on March 24, 2008

Seconding Foucault's Pendulum.

Tuchman's The Guns of August and Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel offer much food for thought.

And you can't go wrong with Shakespeare.
posted by SPrintF at 8:07 PM on March 24, 2008

"Confessions of a Street Addict" by Jim Cramer. It might seem like just some TV hack's book on the surface, but it is a damned compelling book. I literally couldn't put it down.
posted by gjc at 8:15 PM on March 24, 2008

Plato's Republic

and two woven from the same cloth:
The Idiot - Dostoyevsky
Being There - Jerzy Kosinski
posted by megatherium at 8:30 PM on March 24, 2008

Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin
Proust in the Power of Photography - Brassai
posted by minkll at 9:13 PM on March 24, 2008

Seconding The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Reading it was like having the best kind of dream, the kind that sticks with you for days. And Guns Germs and Steel, which I read four years ago, still influences the way I think about the world (for the better, I feel).

And a new one- The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was like someone took thoughts I had been having for years and turned them into poetry. YMMV, but it's still my favorite book.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:15 PM on March 24, 2008

Gödel Escher Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter
I Am A Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter
The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien
Great Apes, by Will Self
The Nightmare Factory, by Thomas Ligotti
The Annotated Alice, by Lewis Carroll (and Martin Gardner)
The World's Most Dangerous Places, by Robert Young Pelton
Les Chants de Maldoror, by Comte de Lautreamont
Slaughtermatic, by Steve Aylett
Lint, by Steve Aylett
Diary Of A Rapist, by Evan S. Connell
On Writing, by Stephen King
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Sinister Forces, by Peter Levenda
Unholy Alliance, by Peter Levenda
The Anti-Coloring Book
The Second Sin, by Thomas Szasz (quick quick read)
The Denial Of Death, by Ernest Becker
The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, by Søren Kierkegaard (collected bits, ed. W. H. Auden)
Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut
Melmoth the Wanderer, by Charles Robert Maturin (although it does get a bit boggy 3/4 through)
Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia, by Sam Loyd
Revelation X, by Subgenius Media Inc.
Parasite Rex, by Carl Zimmer
The Story of The Devil, by Arturo Graf
Six Memos For The New Millennium, by Italo Calvino
Amok Journal Sensurround Edition, ed. Stuart Swezey
The Redneck Manifesto, by Jim Goad
Mouthful of Air, by Anthony Burgess

Plus short stories from Philip K. Dick, Sanislaw Lem, Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon, Donald Barthelme, and Kathe Koja.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:24 PM on March 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot
Graham Swift's Waterland
Melville's Moby-Dick
Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or Absalom! Absalom!
Camus' The Plague
Shakespeare's Hamlet
Rorty's Philosophy and Social Hope
Russell's Why I am Not a Christian
Whitman's Leaves of Grass (the original version, especially "Song of Myself")
posted by wheat at 9:30 PM on March 24, 2008

I forgot a few:

Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian
Don DeLillo's White Noise.
Foucault's Discipline and Punish
Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms
posted by wheat at 9:35 PM on March 24, 2008

I'm surprised the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik isn't here yet. The Napoleonic War ... and dragons! What's not to love?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, who has been mentioned n times already.
Butcher Bird, by Richard Kadrey (free, legal download here) - can't describe this one.
Passage or The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - They are sad, they will make you cry, you need to read them anyway.
The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault - Frank Miller wishes he were this badass.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch - heist fantasy!
Horatio Hornblower, by C.S. Forester - the Napoleonic War, without the dragons this time. Just an angsty Englishman who would have fit in rather well on MeFi, if you ask me.

J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr's run on Spider-Man did this, if comic books count, but then their editor-in-chief had to ruin it all by being frightened of a fictional marriage. Bah, comics.
posted by bettafish at 9:52 PM on March 24, 2008

You should read Dalva and then The Road Home by Jim Harrison. By the end, you feel like you've watched this family watch the unfolding of the 21st century from the center of the Great Plains near the Platte River since their great (great?) grandfather arrived shortly before the major western push of the Europeans.

But it's not your typical generations-rooted-in-the-land book. The narrative structure isn't linear; you start in the present; there are only two main characters in retrospect; there's not a lot of action; so instead it's very atmospheric and has all this random detail about various landscapes, like bird notes; and you get into the psychological terrain and worldview of this family. Not to give anything away, but it also makes you feel like you saw a tiny glimpse of the insider backstory of events that went down between the europeans and the native americans, and this planted a seed in my head that is still growing (to be a little cheesy about it).

I'll also second Dune. I can still re-inhabit that world in my mind moreso than any other book I've read after the age of 12.
posted by salvia at 1:03 AM on March 25, 2008

When I first read The Magus, by John Fowles, I literally threw the book across the room at one point. I never thought people actually did that. I have since reread the book at least three times.
posted by lauranesson at 4:05 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Last Run by Todd Lewan
True story of a Coast Guard rescue mission in a hurricane. Great character development. First book I wanted to start re-reading before I finished it!

Charmer by Jack Olsen
I: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen
Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell by Jack Olsen
Jack Olsen can really put me into another world. I was sorry to see he passed away a few years ago. Charmer started it all for me.

Under and Alone by William Queen

House of Secrets by Lowell Cauffiel
Sick but engrossing.
posted by qsysopr at 6:03 AM on March 25, 2008

I one took a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota while reading Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I remember little if anything about the trip, but "Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time." is still vivid in my memory.
posted by Xurando at 7:35 AM on March 25, 2008

One of the most engrossing books I've read in the last few years is, 'Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees" by Lawrence Weschler. It come out of a series of interviews with the artist Robert Irwin. He's a rare bird, both a great artist and someone who can make penetrating, articulate observations on art, perception, psychology, etc. He also just comes across as a hell of a cool guy. After reading the book, I wanted to go get a Big Gulp and take a ride with him on the Southern California freeways and bullshit for a couple of hours. And I hate driving in SoCal.

I can't do Simone Weil justice. Probably the most profound and accessible author I've come across. If you have any interest in religion or philosophy she is worth reading. While I disagree with it, her political work is strong as well. If you've read the Iliad then the 'Poem of Force' is a must. Otherwise, go with 'Gravity and Grace'.

'Moby Dick' gets sneered at a lot, the common criticism being, "Why does he talk so much about whales?". If you can accept that the book is partly about whaling, above and beyond the narrative, and you're willing to think about why he includes all of that material, then I think it's one of the most rewarding works of fiction you'll read.

Cormac McCarthy is finally getting his due and everyone recommends 'Blood Meridian'. It's a great book, but 'Suttree' is almost as good if not its equal. He can be very funny, and it has the best ending out of any book I can remember. And when I say ending, I mean the last line, last page, last ten pages, last fifty. It moves perfectly.

'Geek Love' by Katherine Dunn, is excellent. It's a fun read and it moves quick but there's a lot to think about as well. I think there's a lot more to it than perhaps meets the eye. Be warned, not for the squeamish. Read the first two page chapter before deciding whether to get involved. That's the environment of the story, it will only get more extreme.
posted by BigSky at 9:06 AM on March 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson. It seems like it should be boring, but instead it's engrossing and incredibly beautiful.
posted by walla at 9:43 AM on March 25, 2008

I can't second "Lord of the Rings" strongly enough. What was said above about the world Tolkien created is dead-on. I recently re-read LOTR after having read The Silmarillon, and it's like reading LOTR for the first time again- I'm aware of so much going on under the surface.

I was so disappointed in Jackson's movies precisely because they were so superficial- he either didn't understand or didn't care about the depth of Tolkien's world. it's one of the great works of art of the 20th century in my opinion.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:58 AM on March 25, 2008

Also, Shantaram is a pretty amazing journey, despite the sometimes embarrassing prose style. (Thanks to whoever it was who first recommended it in a different question)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:00 AM on March 25, 2008

Ha! Oh man, The Wheel of Time. I resented Jordan for getting me hooked--as the series wears on, the ratio [description of bosoms : actual plot action] increases disappointingly, he's derivative as hell, and the prose is certainly (thanks drjimmy11) embarassing. But when I was actually in the middle of one, I was completely immersed. Trollocs and Myrddraals populated my dreams; expressions like "flaming xyz!" and "burn me!" replaced my usual swearing; I, um, was a lot more likely to stride around purposefully in long skirts with a knife tucked in my boot... The detail of the world is incredible, and it's fun to recognize references to real cultures and religions in the names, regional costumes and customs, and plot threads Jordan uses. Several extensive encyclopedic websites linked from the Wikipedia entry will give you a sense of just how absorbed people get in this.

Seconding the Annotated Alice! As well as annotated versions of Lolita.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting - Milan Kundera. Beautifully written, with enough political and historical backdrop to spur some research.

If you've got any inclination to poetry, "The Waste Land" and its notes could occupy your intellect for months.

How about books that draw you on to others? A very definite trio for me has been:
Sexing the Cherry - Jeannette Winterson
plus Changing Planes - Ursula Le Guin
leading to Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino [which I've only had bits of as yet]
Borrowing Xurando's reference, all three involve people becoming stuck in place but not time or vice versa, or time becoming unstuck in a place, or places being unstuck... a whole of unstickiness, generally.
posted by hippugeek at 10:13 AM on March 25, 2008

Invisible Cities - Italo Calvino: One of the most breathtakingly beautiful books I've ever read.
posted by billypilgrim at 11:51 AM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would say Haruki Murakami, too, but Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
posted by thebellafonte at 1:29 PM on March 25, 2008

Seconding Winter's Tale and A Soldier of the Great War. Helprin's prose is magical.

Also, Liquid Geometry by Cynthia Laskey. It's very non-linear and may be hard for some to wade through but the language is poetic and breathless in its pacing.

and The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco.
posted by elendil71 at 1:47 PM on March 25, 2008

I will throw in my vote for Nabokov's Lolita. I couldn't put it down for two days, and then when I finished I waited something like half a week and re-read it again. It did not leave my brain for months afterwards, and there are certain passages or turns of phrase - a very mediocre mermaid - that float into my brain now and again. In fact, this username is lifted from its pages.

Capote's In Cold Blood was engrossing, though in a very different way - much more clinical.
posted by dorothy humbird at 2:39 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Warlock, by Oakley Hall is an overlooked gem in the American canon. It retools, laughs at, cries for, and ultimately dismantles some of the mythology of the American West.
Plus, it's a great read.
Plus, Pynchon dug it
posted by Prevailing Southwest at 5:23 PM on March 25, 2008

of mice and men - steinbeck
time enough for love - heinlein
shockwave rider - john brunner
kim - kipling
the stand - stephen king
fear and loathing in las vegas - h. s. thompson
siddhartha - herman hesse
anything by flannery o'conner

(it's like a mix tape, isn't it?)

here are a few more (lumpy, but worthy, i guess)

still-life with woodpecker
another road-side attraction
even cowgirls get the blues -- all written by the same guy. if you like pershing, you'll like this guy
the gospel of mark
anything by james thurber
the power of positive thinking - norman vincent peale
anything by tuesday lobsang rampa (cavaet: he's a fake)
anything by carlos casteneta (also a fake)
posted by stubby phillips at 5:26 PM on March 25, 2008


i meant everything by flannery o'connor
posted by stubby phillips at 5:34 PM on March 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman. London Below still captivates my imagination, 8 or 10 years after I first read the book in a desperate all-night (school night!) session. It kick-starts my own creativity into a fantastic overdrive of the power of story and magic and myth, as though Gaiman is a direct conduit of the essence of story through which I can be connected to the wellspring of it, tapping into something far greater and more wonderful than I could ever fully understand. (Parts of the Sandman series did the same thing, but they're not technically books, and it's not always so consistent.)

C.S. Lewis' 'Till We Have Faces hit me in a similar way, but with a much more mundanely human element; yes, the ancient pulse of story runs through it, but much moreso than Neverwhere, it hits upon some of the agonizingly wonderful aspects of humanity, of relationships and flaws and the noble tragedy that is being human.

I never made it through more than about 60 pages of Foucault's Pendulum. I found it to be so packed with archaic words, seemingly placed there out of the author's (or translator's?) desire to show off their existence, or his knowledge, or both, as to be unreadable. (I wrote down words I had never heard/seen before and those whose meaning I couldn't guess; despite regularly reaching level 48 on FreeRice.com and an ACT score of 32, my list spanned over three columns down college-ruled binder paper. That, to me, is excessive.) Perhaps, as has been mentioned, it's okay after page 100. I couldn't make it that far. Just something to bear in mind.
posted by po at 3:45 AM on March 26, 2008

I just yesterday read the Pandora Prescription in pretty much one sitting. (Well, I stopped to feed the other people in my house, but that was so they'd quit pestering me. heh.)

I have to say that I adore conspiracy novels, spy novels and the whatlike for easy reading between "real" books, and I picked this one up at the library for something to read while Boy was playing at the park. It was due back today, and I remembered it yesterday. It's only about 400 pages or so, mostly chase scenes and whatnot, so it's a pretty fast read.

I read it so fast that I didn't notice the typos and grammatical errors that a few people on Amazon have mentioned, but I found the premise about the FDA keeping Laetrile off the market to protect the pharma industry to be pretty fascinating. True? I dunno. But interesting enough that I've started doing some research on how Laetrile his used in other countries. I've some people that I care about that have cancer, and if there's even a chance that a nontoxic solution is available, then by gods I want to know about it.

(To be fair; I tend towards gullible...)
posted by dejah420 at 12:24 PM on March 26, 2008

The Stornoway Way by Kevin Macneil; Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin; A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:12 PM on March 27, 2008

I never made it through more than about 60 pages of Foucault's Pendulum. I found it to be so packed with archaic words, seemingly placed there out of the author's (or translator's?) desire to show off their existence, or his knowledge, or both, as to be unreadable. (I wrote down words I had never heard/seen before and those whose meaning I couldn't guess; despite regularly reaching level 48 on FreeRice.com and an ACT score of 32, my list spanned over three columns down college-ruled binder paper. That, to me, is excessive.) Perhaps, as has been mentioned, it's okay after page 100. I couldn't make it that far. Just something to bear in mind.

Allegedly, this was precisely Eco's intent -- he purposefully made the first part almost like a puzzle, so that the remainder of the narrative would be sort of like a prize for readers who stuck it out. In other words, he wanted to put the reader into the same position as the narrative's protagonists: fumbling around until suddenly coming across the key that makes everything seem to fall into place.

There's probably an argument to be made that this is an elitist way to write a novel, and it's certainly true that I had to force myself to get through it the first time I read it. But I had a blast once I did (and every time I've ever read it since).
posted by scody at 2:23 PM on March 27, 2008

enders game and its series, footfall, emergence
posted by quseio at 10:26 PM on March 28, 2008

The whole time I was reading Alone by Richard E Byrd I felt pretty cold. It was summer. It doesn't make you think, necessarily, but it is comprehensively written and absorbs you in.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:05 PM on March 29, 2008

Primo Levi's If This is a Man and The Truce (often published together) about his experiences in Auschwitz and his long journey home after the war completely preoccupied me while I was reading it. He writes with such grace and quiet objectivity and gives attention to the smallest details - it really draws you in and I found that while reading it I was looking up the people he mentions, google-earthing the towns he went through.. It's often called "one of the most important books of the 20th century" but don't let the self-importance that might suggest put you off. I'm reading it again now.
posted by rose selavy at 2:10 AM on March 30, 2008

I'm late to the party by a longshot here, eh? But for the record, if you're looking for thinking-til-it-hurts, may I suggest Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov? It's a beautiful book, in parts, largely concerning the love affair between brother and sister Ada and Van Veen. It can also be kinda hard to stomach, depending on who you ask.

I'm recommending it because it's the kind of book that, first time round, makes you feel like your mind is being put through a sawmill. It's worth persisting, I think; I began to enjoy it on the re-read and have a tattered copy to prove it. The first chapter seems to be deliberately unreadable, referring to whole bits of family history you're not sure whether you're interested in (you're pretty sure you aren't), but later you'll return to it and realise that chapter contains many of the essential details of the book. Vladimir Nabokov is a writer who always seems to be running races around you, and a lot of the fun/frustration of Ada is puzzling out the parodies. The book puns on Russian/French/German words (there's a handy glossary at the back by one Vivian Darkbloom... geddit?) and I needed a dictionary for some of the English too. Here's a site with annotations for the first 25 chapters, btw.

I read and re-read it over one particularly uneventful summer with (gasp!) no internet connection. I think it's worth the (re)read; the writing is definitely juicy. It also amply satisfies your headache criteria.
posted by eponymouse at 3:48 PM on March 30, 2008

some non-fiction psychedelics:

seconding Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter

also, The Mind's I, a collection of essays edited by Douglas Hofstadter & Daniel Dennett

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann

Cosmos by Carl Sagan

Primate Visions by Donna Haraway

Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy


and some mindbending fiction:

Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy, reissued as Lilith's Brood

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

The Lathe of Heaven / The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Aegypt by John Crowley

The Sparrow / Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

posted by jammy at 9:01 AM on April 11, 2008

Nabokov's Pale Fire.
posted by juv3nal at 12:28 PM on April 11, 2008

Another set: His Dark Materials
Philip Pullman has said he wrote them in part as a rebuke to The Chronicles of Narnia (most evident in The Golden Compass vs. the early Narnia books), and they draw heavily on Paradise Lost for their theology (most evident in The Amber Spyglass).
posted by hippugeek at 8:00 PM on April 12, 2008

Focoult's Discipline & Punish
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 4:54 AM on June 29, 2008

Raintree County, by Ross Lockridge

Truly deserves that elusive honor, "the greatest American novel". Sits on my bookshelf, and in my heart, next to Shakespeare.
This new edition unfortunately has a tabloid cover, but don't let that deter you.
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:14 AM on March 16, 2009

Raintree County
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:19 AM on March 16, 2009

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