One of the short-cuts booklovers often use when picking their next read is taking book recommendations from people they admire. It’s not a bad strategy (and I do what I can to help by offering a list of Keeping Up With The Penguins recommendations, by the way). Sometimes, though, the recommendations can surprise you. You’d think that brilliant scientists and writers and world-leaders and business people would recommend non-fiction, business strategies, self-help guides, manuals, textbooks… but you’d be wrong. Here’s a list of ten surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
You can find I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the 1969 autobiography of American poet Maya Angelou, on the shelves of memoirist Mary Karr, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and reigning Queen of the World: Oprah Winfrey. This coming-of-age story features strong themes of resilience, overcoming trauma, and strength of will, not to mention love of literature. Maya Angelou had it rougher than most, and yet she maintains a sense of self and determination that boggles the mind. This is one to read when you need help overcoming your baggage. Read my full review of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings here.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
You’d think that a really dense, 600-page treatise on a mad ship captain’s quest to quell a giant albino whale wouldn’t have many fans… but Moby Dick comes highly recommended by a really wide assortment of brilliant minds. Steve Jobs’ biographer listed it as one of the books that strongly influenced the Apple founder. Ray Bradbury is quoted as saying that Moby Dick’s impact on him lasted over half a century. Other devotees include Morgan Freeman, Chevy Chase, and Barack Obama. There are so many possible interpretations and allegories to be read into Moby Dick, it makes sense that so many people would find what they’re looking for in its pages. Read my full review of Moby Dick here.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye is another favourite of Oprah, and is also recommended by American literary darlings George Saunders and Dorothy Allison. It’s a heart-wrenching short novel about young black girls and the uphill battle they face simply existing in the world. But it’s not the only one of Morrison’s works that rates a mention on the must-read book lists of brilliant minds. Barack Obama has recommended Morrison’s later novel, Song of Solomon, and my hero Roxane Gay has sung the praises of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Whichever one you choose, Toni Morrison is clearly worth a read. Read my full review of The Bluest Eye here.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Perhaps the highest praise, the strongest recommendation, is that which comes from other authors. Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry Miller have all professed their admiration for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That said, none of them are shy about providing book recommendations – Stephen King frequently gives shout-outs to his favourite books on Twitter, Henry Miller wrote a whole book on the subject (The Books in My Life), and Ernest Hemingway drunkenly scrawled a list of books he recommended for writers, which was dutifully transcribed by his protégé. Still, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rates a special mention from each of them, and its influence is clear in their work. Read my full review of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn here.
Ulysses by James Joyce
I made no secret of the fact that I was terrified of taking on Joyce’s Ulysses. It is notoriously unreadable, and yet it came highly recommended by some brilliant literary minds. Vladimir Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, and Dana Spiotta all cite its incredible influence. Oates did concede that it’s “not easy” to read, but she also said every page is “wonderful” and well worth the effort. When I finally got around to reading it for myself, I could see what she meant – it wasn’t quite the crisis situation I was imagining. Read my full review of Ulysses here.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Like Moby Dick, To Kill A Mockingbird is often listed as a strong contender for the status of being The Great American Novel. For many Americans, loving this book has become a patriotic act. Alec Baldwin has famously said that it’s his favourite book, alongside a whole host of other prominent Americans, but the recommendation that matters most is surely that from our Queen, Oprah. She has shared her love for a few other books on this list, but is quoted many times as saying that Harper Lee’s 1960 novel is her all-time most favourite. She has been recommending it to everyone since she read it for the first time in high school, where she started pushing it on all the other kids in her class. Read my full review of To Kill A Mockingbird here.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
Most of us seem to remember The Catcher In The Rye as little more than a rambling stream-of-consciousness novel we were forced to read in high school (well, that, or as the favourite book of many murderers, but I digress…), and yet it comes highly recommended by none other than Bill Gates. Gates famously loves literature – he reads about 50 books per year, and frequently reviews his favourites online – and he counts The Catcher in The Rye as one of the best. Salinger’s most famous work is also beloved by writer Haruki Murakami and playwright Samuel Beckett. Read my full review of The Catcher In The Rye here.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women is too-often dismissed as sentimental garbage… a big, huge mistake! It has been talked up by some truly amazing women and artists. American poet Eileen Myles says it was the first book that they fell in love with. Poet and biographer Maya Angelou (who wrote one of the other recommended reads, remember?) said that, even though the little women were white, she found herself relating to them as though she was sitting there with them in their kitchen. Hillary Clinton has said that she felt like she lived in Jo’s family, and thinks the message of balancing the various demands in women’s lives still resonates today. Read my full review of Little Women here.
1984 by George Orwell
I’ll admit, my personal bias is at work here, because I absolutely loved George Orwell’s 1984, and I recommend it myself every chance I get. But I’m not alone: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire, has recommended that everyone read the dystopian novel as a timely reminder of the importance of vigilance and skepticism when it comes to power structures. Gen Z superstar actor Timothee Chalamet also recommends Orwell’s most-famous book. Anthony Burgess admired it so much wrote a book called 1985, directly responding to Orwell’s work. And although I haven’t been able to find a direct quoted recommendation from Steve Jobs, I can tell you that an ad (which he surely approved) for Apple Macintosh featured strong Orwellian imagery, suggesting that he was a fan.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky is probably better known in the public consciousness for his earlier novel, Crime and Punishment (which, incidentally, Joyce Carol Oates also recommends – she says it’s more readable than you’d expect, and I happen to agree). And yet, it is The Brothers Karamazov, a far heavier book published a decade later, that comes highly recommended by brilliant minds. Minds as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Haruki Murakami, and… well, erm, Vladimir Putin and Joseph Stalin. Make of that what you will!
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