9 Books for the Brainy Rebel

by Jackie Braje

I’d argue that people are naturally strange. If you disagree, then I urge you to stay up extra late sometime, turn on your TV and watch some of those hour-long infomercials. I mean it. The Shake Weight didn’t just invent itself, you know. More than that, though, I argue that people are naturally hungry for fresh perspective, originality, radical thinking — it’s how we move society forward and create things like the internet, penicillin, satellites and cronuts (God bless). It’s how we unravel new theories, new discoveries, and new definitions of modern thought. Where would our world be without those who’ve boldly cried out, “screw it!” and decided to go where no man or woman’s gone before — to declare that, yes, the marriage of croissants and donuts is ethical.

The same applies to the reader. As Haruki Murakami said in Norwegian Wood, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” Because perhaps the most rewarding part of reading is purveying new ways of thinking and sharpening that mind’s razor of yours.

For those who are tired of boring, straight-edge books, here’s a list of nine reads to bring out that brainy rebel in all of us.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

Does society make you sick? The college literati, the egos of academia, religion, football games and chicken broth — does it all stir you, and not in the good way? Are you a chain smoker? Franny and Zooey, two short stories taking place in an unnamed college town and in the Manhattan living room of the complicated Glass family, revolve around the spiritual and existential meltdown of Franny and the sardonic, sagely advice of her brother Zooey. Cure your social ills with the quick, combative dialogue or, as Franny would suggest, with a nice cheeseburger.

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On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On the outside, a deeply engrossing family drama between the Belseys and the Kipps; on the inside, a handful of characters stubbornly clinging to ideals while simultaneously trying to figure out what they truly believe in. While Howard Belsey, an art history professor harshly against Rembrandt, and his wife Kiki struggle to salvage what’s left of their marriage after a disastrous affair, their three children — Levi, Jerome, and Zora — try to find themselves through poetry, academics, and rap. Jerome falls in love with Victoria, the daughter of the Trinidadian right-wing Kipps family, who represent everything the Belseys are not, sparking a heated cultural war.

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Demian by Herman Hesse

Written by the ever cerebral and mythic Hesse, Demian trails the adolescence of Emil Sinclaire, a boy caught between the “world of illusion” and the “real world,” the light and the dark, good and evil, etc. When he befriends his mysterious classmate Max Demian, he revolts against his sheltered life and dives headlong into rebellion and a struggle to discover truth-with-a-capital-T, because as Hermie put it, “Who would be born must first destroy a world.” Or as some would call it, “teen angst.” (It’s not a phase, mom.)

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The Stranger by Albert Camus

In this novel, Camus explored what he coined as “The nakedness of a man faced with the absurd,” but I personally dub it, “Life was ‘meh’ today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” After Meursault, an ordinary Frenchman, is provoked into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, he finds himself in an existential rut while paying his dues in prison. A solid read for the “YOLO” type. Coffee and cigs not included.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

It’s that book that you were really, really stoked about rereading for your American Lit survey course in college but you toned it down and kept it chill because you’re not a nerd. Or something. Journeying downstream the Mississippi, Huck and Jim, a runaway slave, offer a vivid account of late 19th century America in an honest, artless vernacular: the horrors of the Deep South and racism, con men, southern gentlemen, a deathly family feud, a Duke, all of the moral blindness of America, and more. Also, watch the movie because baby Elijah Wood.

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Walden by Henry David Thoreau

If you haven’t fantasized about ditching your day job and retreating to the woods with the squirrels at least once, then I dub ye a liar. Thoreau, an American writer, transcendentalist, and all-around connoisseur of badassery, writes about just that: claiming his own solitary declaration of independence over the course of a two-year woodland voyage of self-reliance, spirituality, and of course, glimmering satire. Recommended for intellectual purposes, not as a reliable camping manual.

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Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

The drudgery, the melancholy, the glamour, the ugly, the '60s—while Didion is always striking in her nude honesty, Play it as it Lays is another, more nuanced breed of intense. Taking place between Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the wasteland of the Mojave Desert, the book captures the mood of American life while exploring a woman deep in existential crisis. Expansive as the desert in its emotional landscape, it’s written in brief, sparing vignettes and ends almost as soon as it begins; 214 pages of pure nihilism ending in four simple words of optimism. Or as Joan put it much more eloquently, “I am just very very very tired of listening to you all.”

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Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

So simply, outrageously, matter-of-factly weird — but in the best way imaginable. Gray’s collection of short fiction creeps through the frightening ductwork of an unassuming home, past a Dunkin Donuts that’s burst into flames, and into a massive snake that’s divided an entire town. The stories, warm and raw, lonely and beautiful, gore-infested and cleanly written, are cut all the way through with the most admirable and wry sense of humor. Not recommended to the squeamish or vegetarians (see: “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover").

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Feeling a bit rebellious and above the law? Got a pawnbroker who’s really putting a dent in your nerves? Well, don’t do what Raskolnikov did, that’s not the point here, but definitely read about it. After committing a murder in which Dostoevsky’s beloved protagonist considered a “contribution to society,” we’re taken down a topsy-turvey, frost-bitten street (this is Russia, afterall) through the human conscience and led straight the real imprisonment of human intellectualization. Or, you know, just read it to say you did and finally check it off your bucket list.

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Image: Jordan Sanchez/Unspalsh