Have you finished adding all five books from the first half of this post to your to-read list yet? Or better yet, have you read any of them since last week?
If you’re anything like me, you spend an awful lot of time scouring Goodreads to decide what to read next. You’re also drawn to “best of” lists because they make you excited to read new things you haven’t come across on your own. Well, look no further. Here you’ll find the remaining five books that I think make for the best book discussions.
Top 10 Books for Discussion: Books 5 to 1
Drum roll, please. Here are the best books I’ve ever discussed in book clubs.
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell was my introduction to the “pop nonfiction” genre. His books were–and still are–everywhere. While I’ve only read the first three of his five books (in addition to Outliers, I’ve read The Tipping Point and Blink), I can see why they are so popular. He has a remarkable ability to explain complex sociological or economic issues in plain language and in a way that is interesting to the masses. In Outliers, Gladwell explores why people are so successful in their respective fields.
According to Wiki, his goal was to communicate to readers that “what we do as a community, as a society, for each other, matters as much as what we do for ourselves.” That is to say that success is not entirely a result of an individual’s efforts, but can be circumstantial, cultural, etc.
For example, he points out that many of the best Canadian hockey players are born in the first part of the calendar year. Since the hockey league eligibility cutoff is January 1st, kids born in the first few months of the year are bigger and stronger than kids born towards the end of that year. Because of this, he says they have an “accumulative advantage” in that they are identified as better athletes than their younger peers, coached more, and given more opportunities to succeed in the sport. Though it’s been a long time since I read this book, I remember thinking about this exact theory when I found out I was going to have Baby Bear in July. If I’m not mistaken, most American sport eligibility cutoffs are aligned to the academic calendar, meaning Baby Bear will potentially be among the youngest and smallest, and therefore may not be a highly successful athlete. I’ve come to terms with it.
Gladwell also says success can be attributed to the “10,000-hour rule,” which is basically the idea that to become an expert in anything, you must have at least 10,000 practice hours. By that estimation, I should be a parenting expert before Baby Bear is 14 months. Time will tell.
Okay, so that’s more information than I originally thought I’d write about this book, but it goes to show how some of these things have stuck with me over time. This is partially why I think it’s a good book for discussion; it’s memorable. My club also had some great dialogue about the case studies peppered throughout the book and tried thinking of any examples we had seen firsthand. Having become a parent, I think I’d enjoy reading this book again to try to examine how Papa Bear and I, and our community, may be setting Baby Bear up for success or failure in ways we can’t even imagine. I might have to give it another go to see.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I rarely re-read books, but this is another I’d love to read again, and soon.
In this novel, a totalitarian regime has assumed power in what was once the United States. Based on extremist Christian ideals, The Republic of Gilead has created a caste system where women are valued mostly for their reproductive abilities. The story is told from the perspective of a handmaid whose only role is to procreate with married men in the ruling class. Once a baby is born, she must turn it over and leave for their next assignment. She, and most women, have little to no say in their lives much less any rights.
Published in 1985, this book is still incredibly relevant in terms of its social and political commentary. It made me sad, angry, and honestly a little frightful for the future. I’m always impressed by and fascinated with authors who can conjure up entirely new worlds and be so imaginative with language. Atwood does both of these things in The Handmaid’s Tale, all while telling a beautiful and moving story.
A dystopian novel at its core, Atwood interestingly prefers the term “speculative fiction” over “science fiction.” She says it’s because The Handmaid’s Tale is about something that could actually happen today rather than something that humans are unable to do yet (like travel to another universe). It’s intriguing to consider the novel from that perspective, and I think it helps explain why book clubs are drawn to dystopian novels much like they are drawn to World War II novels. Both genres have worlds that are hard to fathom, though the latter is based on a world that actually did exist. You can’t help but consider how things could come to be so appalling or reflect on how you would react in those situations. Both of these things make for fruitful discussion.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
This is one of the few books I have already re-read. I loved it so much in high school (which says enough right there, because what high schooler loves any book they are forced to read?) that I recommended we read it for a book club about a decade later. I was not disappointed the second time around.
A classic and oft-parodied novel, it is the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome man who becomes enamored with hedonism and begins to wish that his portrait would age instead of him. As he begins to act more and more selfishly, he notices that his wish has come true and that his portrait is, in fact, growing older and more cruel-looking. While he at first feels a little remorseful as he affects the people around him, he soon gives in and begins to conduct a life of corruption. When he at last faces his conscience, he discovers it is too late. The ending is famous, but I won’t give too much more detail in case you haven’t read it yet.
I once saw Wilde’s writing described as “sumptuous,” and I can’t really think of a better description. Reading it, I strangely felt like I was simultaneously devouring a juicy peach and riding on a thrilling roller coaster. Some of my book club friends had a hard time combing through Wilde’s long-winded prose, but the story is so enthralling and Wilde is so witty that everyone ended up enjoying the book and had plenty to discuss. Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890 and considered to be extremely controversial, Dorian Gray‘s themes are extremely significant today. Hedonism, morality, and the importance of public appearance…dare I say we could talk politics here too? I hate to imagine what some of our politicians’ hidden portraits look like given how they act in public!
2. The Shining
The Shining by Stephen King
Yes, this is a horror novel and I know it’s scary. But don’t skip over it! This is seriously one of the best books I have ever discussed in a book club. It didn’t even stop with book club, actually. I kept asking everyone I came across if they had read this because I wanted to talk about it all the time. Partially because I was scared but mostly because it was so good.
Most everyone knows this story. Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic already haunted by his own demons when he moves his family to the isolated (and haunted) Overlook Hotel. He is to be the off-season caretaker. His son, Danny, has a supernatural ability, called “the shining,” which allows him to see and experience the horrible things that have occurred in the hotel. (Remember the confession bear meme I posted in this post? I shudder to think about it.) The you-know-what really starts to hit the fan when the family is snowed in and the hotel decides it wants to “keep” Danny by way of Jack. This will make more sense if you read it.
There are two things you must know.
- The movie is almost nothing like the book. Yes, the plot is loosely the same, but there are several serious differences [spoilers in the article]. So many that King has publicly stated his dislike for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. So if you think you know everything about the book because you’ve seen the movie, you’re mistaken. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is wonderful for a lot of reasons. But it’s not the same story and the characters are totally different.
- It’s not just a horror novel. While it does have some of the scariest and most suspenseful scenes I’ve ever read (those hedges though!), this is a complex story with highly developed characters. King did an especially incredible job building humanity into Jack. We are witness to his slow descent into madness, try as he might to fight it. It really makes you wonder what’s scarier, what your mind and body are capable of or a haunted house?
It was really fun to discuss King’s writing style, especially because it blew us away. Obviously King is an extremely successful author, but we had no idea how deep this story would be. We talked a little about what scared us the most, but most of the time we focused on the characters and their development throughout the novel.
For even more fun and discussion, watch the movie after you discuss the book. My book club always reads a scary book in October (so original), and for this one we made it into a combo book and movie night. It was fun!
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
When I first decided to write this post, I immediately knew this would be my number one book. We had such a tremendously engaging discussion about it that, to me, it was the model of what all book discussions should be like.
The novel is composed of letters written by a mother, Eva, who is coming to terms with the actions of her high school shooter son, Kevin. The letters are written to her estranged husband and recall their lives before Kevin was born, through his trying childhood, and up to the point of the massacre (Eva’s trips to see Kevin in prison are also highlighted). Eva’s memories make it clear she has always found Kevin to be challenging, though as he ages and she fits all the pieces in her retrospective together, it’s clear he demonstrated sociopathic behaviors for years. Unfortunately, he usually seemed to reserve these behaviors for Eva and acted like a nearly perfect son for Eva’s husband and Kevin’s father, Franklin. Matters grew much more serious when Eva and Franklin added a daughter, Celia, to the mix and Kevin suddenly had a little sister.
Without saying too much more about the plot, I can tell you that the content is deeply disturbing, especially because of how believable it is given the pervasiveness of school massacres nowadays. Eva struggled with motherhood before Kevin was even born, and knew her relationship with him was off when he was an infant. She justly fell into a depression, especially given that he acted so differently with Franklin. Was he always evil or did it develop over time? Can babies be born evil? The nature versus nurture debate is as old as time, but that makes it no less lively. And while Kevin is certainly the character who has the most impact in the novel, he was not the only thing we discussed.
My book club and I were also drawn to Eva’s relationship with Franklin. How would a woman react if her husband did not see any of the warning signs she did about their son? What would that do to their relationship? What would it do to her mental health? Now that I’m a mother, I’m especially flummoxed when I try to think of how I would possibly cope with a child like Kevin. There’s already so much guilt I feel as a mother (about things I logically understand I should not feel guilty about) that I cannot possibly imagine trying to cope with the legitimate worries, guilt, and fear Eva feels. Unfortunately, there are parents of high school shooters out there who must face the fallout of such horror in real life. Luckily, we only examined Shriver’s fictional account, but it felt chilling nonetheless.
What Are Your Thoughts?
What books have sparked your book club’s most interesting discussions? What would you change on this list? Let’s start a discussion about discussions.