10 Books That Sound Pretentious, But Are Actually Really Good

by Charlotte Ahlin

The word "pretentious" conjures a certain image. Specifically, the image of that one guy from your junior year creative writing class, who had the word "funeral" tattooed on his forearm and wrote about how cheating on his girlfriend made him sad. Pretentious readers, with their non-prescription glasses and their insistence that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, can be irritating. So, when we come across a book that pretentious lit-boys just love, or even just a book with a particularly pretentious title, we're understandably suspicious. We want to make sure this new book won't judge us for wearing non-thrifted clothing and drinking Starbucks coffee. Lucky for us, some of the greatest books are being held back by their pretentious reputations. Here are a few books that sound pretentious but are actually really good, because you can like intellectual literature without being a jerk about it.

After all, a lot of our most "pretentious" literature used to be good old fashioned pop culture garbage. Shakespeare was wildly popular with the common folk back in his day, and derided for his lack of education. The Brontë sisters were considered the scandalous authors of trashy romance novels. James Joyce was banned all over the world for filling his books with slang and female masturbation. Basically, there's no such thing as high art, and all of these books are great, despite their outward pretensions:

'Ulysses' by James Joyce

OK, I will freely admit that Ulysses can be a bit of a challenging read. You're going to want to get a copy with footnotes. But don't let Joyce's reputation scare you away, because Ulysses is actually a beautiful, transformative, and deeply silly book. One chapter will be written in a stream-of-consciousness monologue, the next as a play, the next as a series of questions and answers. It's a weird book, for sure, and you won't grasp every single reference about 20th century Ireland, but Leopold Bloom's story is worth the effort.

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'Everything That Rises Must Converge' by Flannery O'Connor

I think it's the title that throws people off here. But if you can get past her enigmatic titling, Flannery O'Connor's prose is actually quite clear, and her stories cut right to the heart of the (still all too relevant) tensions in America: outright bigotry, racism, and the hypocrisy of white liberals. Each story is beautifully gut-wrenching.

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'Open City' by Teju Cole

So here's a plot summary of Open City: this guy wanders aimlessly around New York City, feeling sad about his recent break up. Sounds thrilling right? The premise might not be very "high concept," but Open City is more than just pretentious musings on life and love. It's a gorgeous, restless novel that will keep your attention despite the lack of traditional plot points.

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'Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry' by Leanne Shapton

There's a fine line between "pretentious" and "just silly enough to be deeply affecting," and Important Artifacts walks that line. It's the story of an entire failed relationship told only through the objects that couple are putting up for auction. The result is this humorous, inventive, and ultimately tender auction catalog.

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'What is Yours is Not Yours' by Helen Oyeyemi

Again, don't let the vague and heady title turn you off to this odd, enchanting book of short stories. It's so much more than that. Helen Oyeyemi spins modern fairy tales about locked gardens, abusive rock stars, puppeteering schools, and mystical diaries. Each of her stories expertly bends reality to blur the boundary between truth and fiction.

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'1Q84' by Haruki Murakami

Plenty of people already love Murakami, but just as many people find him a tad pretentious. Give 1Q84 a chance before you dismiss it, though, because Murakami sure knows how to write a sprawling fantasy novel about parallel existences and ghostwriters. Ever worry that someone has stolen all of your possessions and replaced them with identical copies? Then this is the book for you.

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'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' by David Foster Wallace

If you're trying to come up with pretentious authors, David Foster Wallace is probably the very first name on the list. Infinite Jest is, indeed, a very long and somewhat difficult to read book. But Wallace's short fiction and essays are, for lack of a better word, delightful. They're funny, introspective, and pretty easy to breeze through, so pick up the collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men before you deem Wallace too pretentious to read.

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'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

Look, I'm not saying that The Bell Jar is all puppies and roses, but it's certainly not the pretentious, depressing novel that people seem to think it is. The Bell Jar is about a college-aged girl with a terrible internship, struggling with her mental illness and her waste of space boyfriend (and haven't we all been there?). It deals with the ugly truth of depression, but the book is actually about seeking treatment for clinical depression, not wallowing in it.

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'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel García Márquez

Like many classics of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude has earned a reputation for being "pretentious," when really it's just that Gabriel García Márquez is more concerned with emotional truth rather than literal truth. Sure, we don't actually have storms of flowers or love that defies the laws of time and space, but that doesn't make Márquez's masterpiece any less powerful.

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'If on a Winter's Night a Traveler' by Italo Calvino

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler does suffer from Pretentious Title Syndrome and yes, it is a meta-fictional novel about reading. But read a few pages and you'll realize that Calvino is not interested in impressing your with his intellect. He just wants to play with language, jumping genres every other chapter as you (the Reader and protagonist) set off on a mad search to finish reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.

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