Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
There is much to be said of Kerouac (he was far from a perfect being) but he greatly influenced me as a teenager and into my twenties. I read most of his works in those years but two always stood out above the rest -- The Dharma Bums and Big Sur. Both weave tales through forest and mountains but it was Dharma Bums that was more akin to my inner dialogue. Filled with existential musings and odes to nature it is a novel of questions and probing for some truth somewhere. His writing on nature and hiking (especially Chapter 33) are among the best and his restless spirit remains relatable across the human experience. As with nearly all Kerouac's writing this restlessness pervades throughout, urging you as the reader to adventure beyond into unknown places in search of something -- anything-- beyond the bleak suburban lifestyle. It is because of this restlessness combined with philosophy, Buddhist thought and wonderfully poetic prose that I chose Dharma Bums for this list.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World by Haruki Murakami
Always drawn to the bizarre, sometimes nonsensical (why must everything have an explanation?), I loved this book for its reeling weirdness. This was my first Murakami read and still my favorite. There is really no one like him and his book synopsis read like some strange Seven Degrees of pop culture or something but in Hard-Boiled there is a truly compelling detective story. I think what impressed me most about this book was that it could even exist in the first place. Some of the plot points come from such unexpected angles that it is entirely nonsensical or imaginative (depending on your take) and forces you as a reader to simply accept this world and read on. When looking at all the pieces from afar it doesn't seem like it could work. But it does. Murakami is the only who could make this so.
Collected Stories Bruno Schulz
Bruno Schulz. What can be said of him? Yes he was influenced by Kafka but to me his stories remain entirely different and more subtly strange. There is an ethereal quality, certainly what we now call magical realism, relevant in these stories but it was not only the strangeness I enjoyed. The writing is completely exceptional. There are some paragraphs in the Cinnamon Shops and the short piece Autumn that I had to reread a number of times because I was so taken in by the musicality of prose that I completely lost the narrative. Perhaps this simply reveals that I'm a geek for well written word. Well probably, but I'm not the only one. A number of my writer friends had this happen as well. Schulz is a writer that deserves more acclaim than he receives.
Red by Terry Tempest Williams
A passionate book on the American Southwest's enduring, hidden beauty. Terry's observations are tender, timeless in their study of a place whose very scarcity and rawness reveal unique ecosystems that depend one upon the other. Her love for this place is told as if the flowering cactus itself, graceful and resilient in the face of human adversity. The rarity of this prose make Red, in my opinion, the quintessential read for contemporary nature lovers and any reader that values nature and poetic prose.
The Soul of A Tree by George Nakashima
I stumbled upon this book several years ago while looking into books about woodworking. I picked up a copy at my local library and was instantly immersed in the story of George. The book does not really look like what it is, which is something of a memoir. The cover appears as though you will be taught the skills of a man at the top of his craft. But this is not the case. George speaks of himself and his past before allowing the reader along on his many walks through his backyard forest. His respect for the trees and woodworking is addictive and falls somewhere between spiritualist and naturalist. It reminds me that everything made of wood has a story - what is it and where will it take us?
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore
This book finds itself in an odd place sandwiched between The Soul of A Tree and Turtle Island, two quiet, pensive books. Alan Moore's V For Vendetta is neither quiet nor pensive but instead violent and vengeful. I discovered V one year before the movie was released, specifically because I was searching for anarchist literature - especially ones with undertones of revolution and particularly where the elite and powerful were put in their rightful place. At the time I was reading a lot of philosophy, primarily Russian Anarchists, and so with Anarchy on my mind I opened this fantastic graphic novel. What followed was eye-opening, perhaps as much to me as reading Albert Camus several years earlier, and it gave me as much fodder for revolution as it did for questioning it. While this is a graphic novel, the story and writing is Alan Moore at his strongest and reads very much like something Camus would have written. It is dense with symbology and philosophy which really makes you think about government and revolution. Should it remain restrictive and stagnant or should the people bring forth a violent uprising?
Turtle Island Gary Snyder
Without intention, Snyder is also the principle protagonist in Kerouac's Dharma Bums, so perhaps it is little surprise that he makes my list with a work of his own. Snyder's poetry carries with it a solace that nature will continue to heal our soul. Yet there is also an urgency that we must protect and take care of nature for when the time comes, it will heal us or embrace us. But it is our task as humans to do so.
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
I don't remember how I found this book but it was probably by searching for unconventional books. And yet this is an epic poem, one of the most ancient ways of written story-telling. It is only an unconventional book because epic poems are rare in contemporary literature. I found it unconventional because each line is so succinct and pointed and dare I say, perfect? But not only is the word choice fantastic, the love story is poignant and beautiful. If there ever was a poetic novel, this is it.
Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Snow Goons by Bill Watterson
I still have my childhood copy of this book. The cover is half torn from the spine and it looks as well-read as it is. Can you really say that any Calvin and Hobbes compilation is better than another? I don't think so, but to me this is the most memorable and meaningful. The story of the Snow Goons throughout his edition is so imaginative and spirited that it fed into my own imagination allowing me to appreciate that whatever age I am, the innocence and liveliness of allowing the mind to imagine and wander and question is so important.
Just Ride by Grant Petersen
A must read for any cyclist, especially the outliers who are not drawn to the bicycle as a sport, but as a form of transportation or exploration. Grant's views present a philosophy that not everything is as it seems. He takes aim at the bicycle industry for making bikes tailored to racers and not to the everyday rider but at the same time reminds us that riding a bike is just as fun when we were children. Why take that fun away?