You can pick up a book that's super-erudite, but unless you you're putting your all into digesting it, it doesn't matter how smart the book is — you're not going to be better off from reading it. The truth is that a reader can only get out of a story what she puts into it. So, if you want to get the most out of the text in front of you, it helps to be a good reader. But how do you become a better reader?
I think what makes a “good” reader is similar to what makes someone a “good” fencer or baker or liquid-liner-putter-onner: it takes practice. It takes dedication. It takes doing it all the damn time. But isn't it nice to know that reading is something you can improve at with the amount of effort you put in?
One other thing that helps is choosing your reading regimen wisely. Aside from putting in my all, I picked books that were beyond challenging — they also introduced me to new lexicons (either of this language or another), to creative uses of the medium, to pitch-perfect narrative construction, and to the virtue of patience.
This is a small selection of the books that have helped me become a smarter reader. May they frustrate and frighten and energize the hell out of you, too.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
George Eliot is an absolute ninja with language: there’s a whole world of thought and meaning and emotion within each of her intricately constructed sentences, and she chooses each word for a specific purpose. Take Middlemarch’s first sentence: “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” Already, we can parse our heroine's economic and social status, and we can pose some pretty good guesses as to what she values. We also know that our narrator is omniscient, but opinionated, so possibly not-quite-trustworthy. And every single sentence of this 800-plus page masterpiece is just as loaded as its first, and worthy of the time and patience it takes to get through it.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is the cyberpunk genre's gold standard, which is partly because Gibson literally invented the term "cyberpunk," but also because it stands as an exceptional work of literature even outside the genre’s protocol. Basically, Neuromancer blew my brain apart. It altered my perception of what language can do, of the power and beauty of our native tongue: as it turns out, within the English language itself exists infinite possibilities for alternate lexicons. Neuromancer demands the reader’s total absorption, the experience of which is not unlike plugging into the sinister alternate-reality consoles the 1984 novel championed. It also boasts one of the greatest opening lines in 20th century literature: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel."
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
…Speaking of alternate lexicons. A Clockwork Orange is another book seminal to any devoted reader’s career. I’ve experienced few intellectual pursuits as satisfying as understanding Nadsat without the glossary, then proceeding to think in Burgess’s Cockney-Russian-German-nonsense mashup. Once you’ve mastered Nadsat, you can take on the world. Probably.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz changed the game: what The Telegraph dubbed the Dominican-American writer's “taut lexical calabash” fuels this stunningly real representation of life as a working-class, first-generation American. Just like there’s no one standard American experience, This is How You Lose Her proves that there’s no one standard of literary brilliance. Reading this collection of short stories taught me that what makes a genius story isn’t necessarily an Oxbridge-worshipping vocabulary, but a culturally-specific rhythm — a certain swagger, if you will — that sweeps you into a total experience.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
If you haven’t read a graphic novel yet, you’re gonna need to. It’s 2015, and there are donuts in space, and graphic novels are the books of the future. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which recounts the writer's upbringing in Iran, pushed the form into the mainstream. This remarkable, illustrated autobiography taught me that canon-worthy literature can appear in nontraditional formats: a story is a story is a story, but the best stories are told in voices and through mediums that are authentic to the narrative’s message and the author’s experience.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Two words: unreliable narrator. Also: Tyler Durden. Also: chemical burns. Fight Club has become a classic of the mindf*ck genre, and, like Neuromancer, the experience of reading Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 thriller is not unlike the insomniac protagonist’s own experience. Fight Club sets the engrossment bar high: while the experience is emotionally taxing, after reading Fight Club you won't settle for a half-assed adventure.
Room by Emma Donoghue
It takes a gifted thinker to create with a compelling, sophisticated novel that’s not only narrated by a 5-year-old boy, but that also takes place in one.tiny.room. Emma Donoghue’s prose is butter-smooth, but Room is hardly smooth-sailing. Donoghue asks for your full attention, forcing the reader to parse the truth from Jack’s wide-eyed, all-inclusive observations. It’s a unique reading experience, but the development of a painstaking attention to detail — and sharp eye for bias — will become a normalized practice across all the literature you consume.
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Before there were David Foster Wallace’s insane footnotes, there were Nicholson Baker’s insane footnotes. Baker’s first novel, which was published in 1988, involves one man’s ride up an escalator during his lunch break. That is all. But this stream-of-consciousness observation on (then-) modern life is a triumph of the form. You will never have known you’d be so interested in reading footnotes, some of which are over a page long, nor have been so interested in one boring man’s trip to buy shoelaces.
P.S.: If you’re into this footnotes-as-plot model, check out Bennett Simms’ A Questionable Shape, which offers an intellectual’s perspective on the zombie apocalypse while modeling Baker's style.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
It’s hard to believe that Zadie Smith’s first novel (which, FYI, was published when the writer was just 24, no big) is already 15 years old. It’s an enduring banner for the multicultural Britain that’s in full force today — and it’s indicative, too, of the complications in identity and social mores that have tagged along with this new era. Beyond its cultural relevance, White Teeth, which was included in TIME magazine's All-TIME 100 Novels, is a structural and lexical masterpiece. I guess you could call this a tough read — Smith weaves her tapestries densely, and unapologetically — but no pain, no gain, right?
Success by Martin Amis
Another modern classic by a word-happy Brit. I’m sensing a highly biased theme here. Martin Amis is crazy-smart... and crazy-mean: he's a notoriously tough cookie, but you can’t help but marvel at his spot-on dialogue, though often grossly misogynistic, and unflinching observations, though always unflattering. Amis isn’t afraid to call a knobhead a knobhead, but I prefer when he uses sophisticated synonymous phrases like “a quivering condom of neurosis and ineptitude.” No one does highbrow self-loathing better, smarter, or funnier than Amis.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
Sometimes it takes a dystopian horror story to open your eyes to life’s seemingly inevitable joys: like the (relative) ease of communicating in your mother tongue, for instance. Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange imagines a future in which a computer-borne flu infects human language, distorting words into indecipherable digi-speak. It’s a keen observation on the digital revolution, and it makes you appreciate good old-fashioned language that much more.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
I’d argue that no one does modern magical realism more insightfully, or more skillfully, than Kelly Link. (Okay, maybe Neil Gaiman, but I’m a fangirl.) In Get in Trouble , Link renders childlike imaginings into nuanced, adult-only horrors: mermaids are nasty, invasive creatures who threaten to pollute fresh water sources; a teenager falls in love with an uncanny life-sized doll. Her stories prove that fantasy isn't always fluff. Rather, the threads of reality Link weaves throughout these otherwise fanciful plots only amplify life's inherent strangeness. It's a strangeness worth noting, not only within literature, but within your own day-to-day life, too.