Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you: It's freshman year of college, and that cute guy from your English class has finally noticed you. You wind up back at his room, and he shows you the short film he's been working on. The two of you end up sitting on his bed, under his Stanley Kubrick posters. He takes off his thick-rimmed glasses... so that he can wipe them while he explains to you in great detail why most girls just don't get Chuck Palahniuk.
Yeah. We've all had at least one run-in with a pretentious reader that made us want to eject from our bodies with anger. Because the thing about pretentious books is that people either love them or hate them (and people universally don't want to hear you talk about them). A truly pretentious book is just several hundred pages of condescension. Who needs that? If you really want to feel condescended to, it's much easier to hang out in a hip part of Brooklyn wearing name brand clothing.
Look, to be perfectly fair, I like my fair share of pretentious books. I genuinely enjoyed reading Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. But if you're a serious reader looking for a book that won't make you roll your eyes, here are some options that are not so pretentious (or at least, less pretentious than you might think):
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
I know, I know, you're throwing your laptop down in disgust because I promised you non-pretentious and I'm starting with Ulysses. But wait! Pick your laptop back up! There's no getting around that this is a hard book to read; you'll definitely need footnotes and some thoughtful googling to make it through a couple of these chapters. But, Joyce actually spends a lot of the book making fun of himself and other pretentious writers. The character Stephan Dedalus is a greasy whiner (loosely based on Joyce) who uses a lot of big words, never bathes or dates, and feels sorry for himself all the time. He's like that guy who wore a turtleneck everyday in your creative writing class, and Joyce knows it.
2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Say what you want about Victor Hugo: He's long-winded, he's obsessed with prostitutes, his books are too long, his plots are full of wacky coincidences, his books are SO VERY LONG. But I don't think you can call him pretentious. Les Miserables is melodramatic, sure, but Victor Hugo is very genuine in his desire to tell you just how miserable everyone was in France all the time. And there's a reason that people still read his beautifully-penned novel of survival and redemption in the midst of poverty (because it's good even though it's really, really long).
3. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie likes to torment his readers. He provides Saleem Sinhai as an incredibly unreliable narrator, and spins a complex tale of national identity and telepathically-linked children. Midnight's Children is not exactly an easy read, but nor is it a pretentious one: Rushdie writes a harsh reality (for all of the unreal elements in his book), and he's open about his political critics. He loves to dig into the grotesque side of human nature. But he's also able to keep you at the edge of your seat, blending myth and truth into a book that's not so much a novel as an epic.
4. Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor
Despite the title, Everything that Rises Must Converge is not a vague or pretentious book. It is a collection of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, written in her signature spare style. And yet, even though her writing is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated, her stories manage to explore faith, morality, and race, and all the unspoken tensions of American life. She's not heavy handed or condescending about it, either. Just grim and quiet and completely enthralling.
5. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
A man hurls himself off of a roof, trying to fly. Shortly after, Milkman Dead is born. And so begins a strange and deeply moving coming-of-age story, filled with seers and assassins, mysteries to be solved and allusions to The Odyssey. Milkman is starting to uncover the truth about his past, tapping into fable and history as he goes. But Toni Morrison is never unnecessarily elusive with her writing. And even at its darkest points, Song of Solomon is constantly crackling with life and wildly passionate characters.
6. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
I mean, just look at that title. I'll admit that If on a winter's night a traveler is a pretentious title, and there's no getting around that. But the book itself is weird, experimental, but utterly enjoyable and even kind of adorable. The first chapter begins with You, the reader, about to read Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. But, when you get to the first chapter, you realize that it's not the right book at all. The result is a meta-fictional wild goose chase for the right book, complete with ten different first chapters for the wrong book, all written in different styles. It's a clever, insightful, beautiful and somewhat goofy testament to the power of reading.
7. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Disgrace is one of those intelligently written novels with a narrator who you want to punch in the face. He's just the WORST. Coetzee's "hero" is David Lurie, a teacher of Romantic poetry in Cape Town, who's involved in an "affair" with his student. When the affair ends in him leaving in disgrace, however, he's forced to confront himself and his strained relationship with his daughter. Just kidding. He spends the rest of the novel avoiding confronting these things, while Coetzee explores the toxic nature of white male privilege in South Africa.
8. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
You know how it is. One minute you're a young English nobleman talking to Queen Elizabeth I. The next minute you wake up to find that you've become a woman overnight. Also you're immortal. Maybe you don't know how it is, but Virginia Woolf's Orlando certainly does. This book is both playful and heartfelt, filled with humor and wit, and Woolf seems to have figured out that gender is a social construct a few years before everybody else did. It might take Orlando an extra century or so, but he/she comes of age eventually, finding an identity for themselves that exists beyond gender.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One town, one family, one hundred years — in that time and space, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is able to explore just about every aspect of the human race. OK, so that might be a tad hyperbolic, but Marquez does do a beautiful job of finding the absurdity and the tragedy in all of his characters, and in building a world where myth and truth and thunderstorms of yellow flowers can all co-exist peacefully. But no matter the complexities of the town of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude is never pompous, and always a joy to read.
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