Editorial Review | Jordan McCrary

What are the Top Five Books that One Must Read in Their Lifetime and Why?

After seeing this question on an intellectual website, I decided to take a stab at it.  My response received much more attention than I expected. This is what I said:

Narrowing the whole of literature down to five is, quite obviously, impossible. That said, as someone who has always read obsessively, is a “writer,” and has a lit degree, here are five selections that always rang true to me as “important” reads for citizens of the modern world, especially those who consider themselves deep thinkers. I’m kind of limiting things to the modern era. So, in no particular order, please enjoy my selections and why I chose them:

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. This book’s incredible merging of story, philosophy, mechanics, psychology, history, writing, theology, and metaphor make it a unique, insightful literary masterpiece. It’s a hell of a work of art by the standards of narrative, plot, meaning, and style/execution. More importantly, though, if one chooses to take the intense time required to digest the content fully and read the book (for me it took 3 close reads), it will almost inevitably leave a positive mark in your mind, and, while a wonderful novel, the text will move any thinker deeper into questions that plague people and society in our complicated era. The book is both inspirational and mind-expanding, but, don’t let me fool you, the messages and insights it contains are not always easily recognized and are often somewhat disquieting. The dualistic message of the book makes the overall impression positive, yet real and far from “sunny.” It will shake anyone, even if that shaking helps rock them into a deep, peaceful sleep.

The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. This nonfiction piece summarizes every major religion in the world by discussing the religions’ origins, histories, principles, most popular myths, and followers. While the book’s summaries are far from adequate in terms of providing a level of detail sufficient to allow readers to “learn” a religion, they are fantastic in terms of providing anyone with a fairly thorough, quick, and workable understanding of any major religion. Smith’s true achievement, however, lies in his ability to simultaneously demonstrate the beauty, value, and cultural significance of every religion and to do so in such a way that even atheists/agnostics, the non-spiritual, the unfamiliar, and/or the devout follower can learn to see the unity in all faiths while also acknowledging the multiple avenues through which one can admire and appreciate each. This helps readers potentially develop a more informed, nuanced understanding of the connections, whether acknowledged or not, we all share as human beings with spiritual uncertainties. This book is a gem, and I will always be thankful for Smith’s sparkling, enlightening contribution to my understanding of spirituality and the human condition.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. This book is horrifying, and I do not recommend it for readers without very, very thick skin and strong stomachs. Its often flagrantly disgusting content almost makes one pity Ellis’s Eminem-like style of commanding attention through pure, unadulterated shock value. However, much like Eminem’s music, study into what lies behind the more easily noted profanity reveals deep, unique insights into topics such as addiction, capitalism, pornography, sex, power, psychosis, violence, ambition, greed, and, most notably, “The American Way.” This book, through a wonderfully crafted cyclone of sociopathic, obsessive, stream-of-consciousness narration, provides disturbing insights into the inhumanity, pettiness, vice, waste, excess, and overabundant self-interest inherent in modern America’s capitalistic ideals that, for at least a century, have been heralded by Americans as “number one.” The mirror Ellis holds to American society reflects a blemished, infected image of America’s surface values and, through the ugliness, provides any member of the modern first world an opportunity to examine their values and to personally evaluate the ugliness in their sense of nationalism. The book is amazing because, if one can stomach it, analyze it thematically, then apply it to themselves and/or their society, they will inevitably find cracks in their most deeply-held understandings regarding the inherent “good” within their national ideals and/or their individually-held senses of self. This book is like a thermometer– it helps gauge the extent of a sickness.

“Franny and Zooey” by J.D Salinger. This story/novella is beautifully written and, through its narrative, helps readers understand the struggle-laden progressions people may take while coming to grips with notions of spirituality and moralistic behavior. It also illuminates dilemmas and personal anxieties that can arise during the interplay between intellect, knowledge, wisdom, experience, family ties, and societal pressure that often occur as one “comes of age” and develops into a self-actualized person, for lack of a better term. In classic Salinger fashion, this story is so moving because it can help anyone grow through its many insights into growth itself.

1984 by George Orwell. In an extremely practical and well-written fashion, this modern classic is essential reading, in my opinion, because, without being overly dramatic, paranoid, or conspiratorial, it highlights the threats posed to humanity by both government and technology and, furthermore, by their combined influence. This book is also very relevant in terms of elucidating underlying evils and possible pitfalls perpetually occurring in the ever-expanding whirlpool of politics, war, racism, propaganda, government restriction of personal liberties, technological control, and economic progress contemporary societies find themselves struggling with as modernity continues. This book is essential as it is an easily recognized cautionary tale regarding ideals of “progress” and the actions of the state. Furthermore, as we slide deeper into Trump’s America, the messages and warnings contained in 1984 are more relevant than ever. This book will be vital to all intellectuals until the state outlaws it…

Thanks for checking out my list. I’m happy to address questions or comments; I hope it’s interesting and/or helpful. I get some will think it sucks. There’s a lot of books, so, essentially, I picked five that I feel were pivotal in shaping my understanding of myself and the world as I have grown into who I am. Anyone at any stage of life can benefit from these books. Happy reading, people!

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