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My Top Four Favorite Books

Why four you may ask? Well, that has to do with my rather stringent qualifications for what qualifies as a "favorite" book. The criteria are quite simple: it has to be a book that I can read over and over again without ever getting fed up. It has to be one of those books which every time I read it feels like the first time.

Having said that, I have only four favorite books. There are lots of books I'd love to claim are my favorite books, titles such as Ulysses, Moby Dick, War and Peace, 100 Years of Solitude, The Great Gatsby, etc., etc., etc., but I would just be lying to you and to myself. In truth, those books bore the crap out of me. And while I may just have eliminated the chance that I'll ever get accepted into a PhD program, I'd rather just be honest with myself and read what makes me want to turn the pages endlessly.

So without further ado...my Top Four Favorite Books:

1.) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

Without a doubt, my favorite book. I bought it when I was 17 and read it one sitting. No joke. Not only was it a crackling-good read, but it was my introduction to my all-time favorite author. The book is a semi-fictional account account of a drug-fueled road trip to Las Vegas with main characters Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo--who are actually Thompson and long-time friend Oscar Acosta. But far from being merely a hilarious catalog of drug-addled misadventures (which it is), this book is also, in many ways, an incisive and somewhat nostalgic commentary on American culture and the death of the spirit of the 1960s.

Why do I like it? On one level, I enjoy this book as purely escapist literature; it is a trip into a lifestyle and a type of behavior I would never and could never engage in. On another level, it's also just a really well written book. If you've never read anything by Thompson, this is the place to start. His writing has this distinctly fast-paced, macho kind of style, while still being incisive and making acute observations about the human psyche. It also serves as a snapshot of a strange and dark moment in U.S. history, 1971: it was the end of the optimism of the 60s, the failed Vietnam war was winding down, and Nixon was still in office. The book is part of Thompson's lifelong quest to write about the death of the American Dream, and while I don't think he accomplished exactly that, he did write a blisteringly funny book that earned him a permanent place in American letters, and will burn your eyebrows off.

2.) Portnoy's Complaint, by Phillip Roth

This book should be a must-read for any guy in his late-20s or early-30s. I read it when I was 19, 25, and again last year, and it has never gotten dull. I can still pick it up and flip it open to any random page and find something that makes me laugh out loud. What is it about? It's about sexual-repression, it's about becoming an adult, it's about having overbearing parents and feeling like you'll never outgrow their dysfunctional imprint on you and just get to live your own life. It's about all those things, and it's also ridiculously funny.

Why do I like it? The main character's frustrations with life, women, and his family, simply resonate with me. It's one of those books that on every other page I find something with which I can identify. Roth's brutal honesty is endearing and comforting and does, in my opinion, one of the things a great work of literature should do: relate to the reader and make them feel a sense of comfort that someone else has gone through the same problems and lived to tell about them.

3.) The Friends of Eddie Coyle, by George V. Higgins

Probably the best crime novel ever written. Higgins was a Boston District Attorney for about 20 years before he turned his skills to writing, so the dialog and details are dead-on accurate, and the writing is ruthlessly spare and utilitarian. This guy knew what he was writing about, and he presented it in a fast, clean, hard-hitting style that pulls the reader through from the first page. I think it took me about four hours to finish. I simply couldn't put it down. If you have an ear for good dialog and like crime books, this is the thing for you. However, be warned, it's almost entirely dialog, centering around one big weapons deal that ends up landing a few criminals in hot water. If you're looking for a lot of colorful detail, inward monologues, and psychological depth...this isn't the book for you.

Why do I like it? I've always loved writing and reading good dialog. This book has plenty of that. Also, it's my definition of the ideal novel: lots of dialog, minimal exposition, and it's short. Higgins drops you into the story at a steep angle and gets you out again at a steep angle. Again, this book has that escapist quality that I like in books. Unlike Portnoy's, I can't relate to any of what's going on here. But Higgins has such a good handle on his material that you'll feel like you've been a member of the Boston underworld for years.

4.) The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy

This bizarre novel from the late 1940s was banned in the U.S. for years and had to be published in France first. You should be intrigued for that reason alone. The novel follows the picaresque adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, and American ex-G.I. who fights and screws his way through Dublin, chafing at the old-world Catholic morals and sexual inhibition that defined life in that time and place.

Why do I like it? Well for one, it was one of Hunter S. Thompson's favorite books. And just like Fear and Loathing, it depicts a lifestyle that's so far removed from my own, that I just find myself lost in it time and time again. Pure escapism. It's also written in a really interesting style, switching from first- to third-person sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. The book is absolutely laden with humor and touching observations about a misunderstood guy living life on the fringes of society, wanting to be on the inside but knowing he'd never be happy if got there...which describes the peculiar position a lot of us who call ourselves writers find ourselves in at times throughout life.


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