There are some books you read for the information or advice they offer you, and there are others you’re probably reading only because it seems like everyone else is and you don’t want to be left out. Then, of course, we all remember the books we read only because they were assigned to us during the span of one school year or another. But then there are the books you read for no other reason than the fact that they feed your soul — the books whose covers you lift just because you love really beautiful writing. They're basically the ultimate literary indulgence.
You know the kind of books I’m taking about: the ones with turns of phrase so mesmerizing they must be lingered over, or sentences that you absolutely have to write down to remember later (or, you know, use as inspiration for your next tattoo.) These are the books that stay with you as a reader. They’re the ones that you return to over and over again, and the ones you’d never consider tossing in the donation bin at your local library, or re-gifting during the office book exchange. They’re also the books that you’ll always recommend to friends, but NEVER offer to loan, because you'll never get them back. Ever.
If you already have your own shelf of books like these (and I know you do), I have some titles for you to add. Here are 12 books to read if you just really like beautiful writing.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
You'll have to wait until January to get your literary paws on this one, but Sunil Yapa's debut novel is possibly the most gorgeous book I've read in my entire life... and if you haven't noticed, I read a LOT. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist tells the story of a single day — that of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle — with prose so breathtaking and mesmerizing you'll swear you're reading poetry. The novel follows Victor, a 19-year-old homeless teen who plans to sell enough weed to protesters to afford to leave Seattle, but ends up in the center of one of the greatest instances of direct action in recent American history. Yapa's pattern of meandering, artful, full-bodied imagery, punctuated by zingy one-liners makes for a seriously addictive read. This one hasn't hit shelves yet and I'm already eager for his next work. It's painful. It's gorgeous. I can't say this enough: read it.
Healing Earthquakes by Jimmy Santiago Baca
If this novel reads like poetry to you, that's probably because it is. Healing Earthquakes is a novel written in prose poems, and tells the story of one couple's romance, from the moments before they meet until their heartbreaking, inevitable end. The emotional rollercoaster that author Jimmy Santiago Baca is able to conjure on the page is so vivid you'll think he's writing about your own relationships. His storytelling is graphic, bold, sometimes cringe-inducing, and just stunning. This is a book you'll want to return to again and again.
Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare
Call me crazy, (or cliché) but I really do think Romeo & Juliet has some of the most beautiful writing ever put to the page. I mean, Shakespeare invented his own words for goodness sake. Gotta give the ol' bard some kudos there.
She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
It's nearly impossible to single out just one of Wally Lamb's novels for its particular beauty over his others, but if you absolutely HAVE to then She's Come Undone is probably the one. When Dolores Price's father leaves his family for another woman, Dolores's life spirals out of control. She becomes an emotional eater who is eventually institutionalized. Her limited experiences with men are violent and disastrous, and Dolores becomes eerily obsessed with her college roommate's boyfriend. Whales hold a special symbolism for Dolores — first as her inspiration for attempted suicide, and later as her redemption. Through it all, Lamb's writing is stunning and flawless.
Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith's memoir is every bit as beautiful as one would expect from the poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars. Weaving her own coming-of-age story into the story of her mother's illness, her parents' experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, and her own discoveries about what it means to be a black woman and a woman writer in America, Smith's memoir is not only written beautifully, but tells a beautiful (though sometimes painful) story as well.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This novel is constantly credited with having one of the more beautiful first lines in literary history: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the Buendía family, who founded the idyllic town of Macondo in Colombia, and were subsequently plagued by misfortune, bad luck, disaster, and hauntings.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
Told from the perspectives of nine different characters, And the Mountains Echoed takes readers from Kabul, Afghanistan to Paris, France and beyond, telling the story of 10-year-old Abdullah, whose 3-year-old sister Pari is sold to a childless Afghan family by the siblings' father. Braiding each of the narratives together with entirely beautiful prose, this novel will make you think about all the ways families sacrifice for one another, and also fail one another.
Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey
This novel tells the ultimate Los Angeles story, experienced through the perspectives of countless characters — some who appear for only a moment, and others who stick around just long enough to blow your mind and break your heart. Written in harsh, gorgeous language, Bright Shiny Morning explores why so many people are drawn to the west, how Los Angeles fails to live up to the promises of its almost mythical reputation, and why people stay in the city so long after it has failed them miserably.
A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri
Saba and Mahtab Hafezi are 11-year-old twins living in Iran, but desperate to travel to the America that has been mythologized for them through issues of Life magazine. When Mahtab and her mother disappear completely, Saba imagines they have gone to live in the America the girls always dreamed about together. As Saba grows up beneath the Islamic regime of Iran, she imagines her twin sister's life unfolding much differently elsewhere. A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea is a stunningly composed story about family, fate, and imagination.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri is a contemporary master of the short story, writing with a quiet storm of prose so thoughtful and filled with symbolism that you'll want to keep examining each story until you're almost sure you've discovered everything Lahiri left on the page for you. Unaccustomed Earth is a collection of eight stories that, like so many of Lahiri's stories, focus on the relationships between men and women — the things that characters are able to sacrifice for one another, and what, despite their best efforts, they fail to provide.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
When Marie-Laure LeBlanc becomes blind at the age of 6, her single father makes sure she grows up not only as self-sufficient and educated as possible, but also with a strong sense of the beauty that exists in the visible world. But when the Nazis invade France during World War II, Marie-Laure’s father is placed in charge of saving one of the country’s most valuable relics, and the two must flee their home. This novel builds slowly with absolutely gorgeous language and setting.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
With a seemingly effortless blend of Malayalam (one of the regional languages spoken in India) and English, debut novelist Arundhati Roy tells a story of life in the Kerala district of India, via the experiences of two fraternal twins: Rahel and Esthappen who, due to complex family circumstances, are separated as children and do not reunite again until their thirties. The God of Small Things will make you think about how even the smallest things in your life can sometimes really turn out to be the most significant.