From drunken poets to record-breaking boxers, sci-fi pioneers to master stylists, these are the paperbacks you should have gathering dust on your bedside table
As John Waters once said, “If you go home with somebody and they don't have books, don't f**k ’em!” But even worse: imagine bringing somebody home – friend, family or future partner – and seeing them look at your books with disdain.
Nobody is obliged to read the classics, but having a few big names – both from the pantheon of greats and recent titans of the award season – is a great conversation starter, a mark of your engagement with the cultural sphere and a sign of your willingness to explore alternate viewpoints.
So while we’re not going to tell you that an avoidance of these books makes you a less cultured, interesting person... well, reading these books will absolutely make you more of both of those things. And that’s never a bad thing.
The Bass Saxophone by Josef Skvorecky
If your ideal Saturday evening involves drinking wine in an underground bar while listening to a jazz band, this is the type of book for you. Josef Skvorecky was a Czech-Canadian writer who devoted his life to publishing banned Czech literature throughout the communist era. Often tackling the impacts of totalitarianism and experiences as an expatriate in his work, there is also a recurring appreciation for the wonders of jazz. Never is this stronger than in The Bass Saxophone. Through this novella, Skvorecky traces the life of a young Czech student who is subject to the Nazi regime and adores their most forbidden form of music: jazz. Entranced by the genre of total expression, he begins to play with a German band in secret. This short story is one of Skvorecky's finest. Faye Fearon
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
You hear the name Gustave Flaubert, you likely think of Madame Bovary: it is, after all, his bestselling novel and still considered one of the greatest works in literary history. But a writer is much more than their most-known masterpiece, so for a deeper delve into the French novelist's work, open up Sentimental Education. Split into three parts, it follows the life of Frédéric Moreau, who lives through the French Revolution of 1848 and, as a result, the emergence of the Second French Empire. It's not solely centred on politics though – Moreau is infatuated with the idea of embracing passionate (albeit damning) love affairs, yet he remains completely infatuated with a significantly older and married woman all throughout his trysts. Another critically acclaimed novel of Flaubert's, you learn a lot about morality in an age of turmoil. Just prepare yourself for a fair bit of adultery. Faye Fearon
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The moment we clock the passing of time can often be a wake-up call to live more fearlessly. Or, it can go in the total opposite direction, with a real appreciation of the simple things in life. It's the latter that inspired Raymond Carver’s series of short stories, entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Detailing the occasions that most of us wouldn’t bat an eye at – bingo, fishing, drinking and yelling behind closed doors – Carver’s colloquial writing style adds a strange sort of power to these mundane days: a powerful look at the odd beauty of basic communication. Faye Fearon
The Fall by Albert Camus
You hear the word monologue, you likely think of Shakespeare. Fair enough if so – he is the king of all things dramatic. But for a modern and more relatable take on the dramatic monologue, we suggest you invest in a copy of Albert Camus’ The Fall. Published in the late 1950s, it’s the final novel from the French writer, and boy is it philosophical. It focuses on the life of Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who goes from being a successful lawyer to a man in turmoil, experiencing the most dramatic fall from grace. Camus’ words delve into the fragility of existence without restraint, and that’s probably the reason why he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature right after its publication. Faye Fearon
The Piano Shop On The Left Bank by Thad Carhart
If you have ever experienced a serious love affair with the piano, this book will be music to your mind. Thad Carhart is an American living in Paris and his first book explores the binding relationship between the city and his instrument. Every time Carhart takes his children to school, he passes a piano atelier nestled on a street on the Left Bank. As a former player, he becomes transfixed by the idea of owning a restored piano and upon stepping into this one-of-a-kind workshop, he rekindles his relationship with the instrument. Blending atmospheric prose about Paris with a real understanding of the most eloquent of instruments, Carhart’s text is a vital addition to any musician’s library. Faye Fearon
In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
Disclaimer: this one may take you a solid decade to read. But that’s OK, because it took Marcel Proust 14 years to publish in its entirety. In Search Of Lost Time is the longest novel in literary history (topping the likes of War And Peace with double the word count). If you choose to embark on its extensive journey, it’s worth it for Proust’s insights into the human condition. Throughout each of the seven volumes, via different people and places, the book explores the deepest crevices of existence. Proust’s take on involuntary memory has long been regarded as a classic and is well worth picking up if you’re starting to panic about the passing of time. Faye Fearon
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
This may only be her debut novel, but Emily Ruskovich’s talent for telling a psychological thriller is unparalleled. Idaho traces the lives of a family who embark on a trip to a mountain clearing for some good old birch wood collecting. You may enter the book prepared for some unfortunate surprises given the genre, but nothing will prepare you for the twist in this. When the book turns on you, Ruskovich uses her masterful knack of prose and her characters‘ perspectives to study the effects of unimaginable violence. Her subject matter is dark – there’s no doubt about that – but her compelling way of writing will grab you from start to finish. Faye Fearon
Another Country by James Baldwin
James Baldwin is first and foremost known for his honest yet tragic Parisian novel Giovanni’s Room. But if you’re looking to explore more of his literature (which we strongly advise), turn your eyes to Another Country: the literary sensation of the Sixties. Delving into taboo topics of the time, Baldwin paints a raw picture of New York’s bohemian underworld via drifting jazz musician Rufus Scott, who embarks on a relationship with a Southern-born woman called Leona, and his close circle of friends. The book’s ever-expanding focus means the story goes off on a lot of tangents, but its exploration of desire, betrayal and nationalism keep you gripped regardless. Faye Fearon
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
There's nothing like a good bit of American Dream-themed reading to fill your summer days. Hunter S Thompson's 1971 novel is a brutal journey to the heart of the concept so many writers have addressed, but without the usual sugar coating. A roman-à-clef, it follows the story of Raoul Duke and his lawyer, Dr Gonzo, as they embark on a brazen exploration of Vegas and delves deeply into law breaking, counterculture and reflection. We know they say not to judge a book by its cover, but Ralph Steadman's graphic illustration is just a taste of what lies inside.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
There's a reason Lana Del Rey coined the status "24/7 Sylvia Plath" in her most recent song. Plath's story is a tale like no other. She published her first poem in the Boston Herald at nine years old, won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University Of Cambridge and, frankly, produced a refined body of work like no other. But she was also diagnosed with clinical depression and this fed strongly into her only novel, The Bell Jar. Published two weeks before her suicide, it focuses on the development of a young woman called Esther, who is given the opportunity to embrace the glamorous Manhattan lifestyle after securing a highly sought internship. Esther's descent into madness is compelling because it maps Plath's own life. She poured her soul into the entirety of this text and, by its end, you're left with a vital understanding of a beautiful woman. Faye Fearon