Ask a Book Question: #74 (Just One Book)

August 16, 2009 | 10 books mentioned 35 6 min read

Elizabeth wrote in with this question:

This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college.  The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives.  To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift.  I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.)  My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?

Several of us pitched in on this one.  Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives.  While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience.  Here are our answers:

coverGarth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.

coverEdan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut –  may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it’s highly readable.  It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film).  Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time.  I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too.  And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous.  If you love his books, there are others to discover.  Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.

Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really –  are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.

coverEmily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again.  I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe.  When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe.  In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe.  I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service.  On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh.  I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.  Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.

coverNoah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.

coverLydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever.  Their lives were in my hands.  I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it.  Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them.  Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring.  Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them.  Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on.  Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels.  Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).

coverMax: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!)   It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel.  I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical.  With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years.  Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote.  But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen?  Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.

Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth.  Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.

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  1. It’s hard for me NOT to choose Infinite Jest. In the constraints of a college course, it may not be the best choice (and interestingly, I too thought of The Corrections), but I can’t think of a better novel to show what kind of things are possible in literature and “hard” reading. And if they can get through Infinite Jest, the whole world of fiction is open to them, no matter how difficult it may seem.

  2. BTW, on the desert island, I would bring the Dance to the Music of Time series. Garth sets precedent here by counting ROTP as one novel. I demand to be allowed all twelve DTMT.


  3. If I were a business major, the only novel that I would probably want to read is Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. It’s influence upon modern economics is indisputable. and its philosophy worthy of discussion. It certainly rises above the grist of high school reading lists.

  4. On a related note, to plant some seeds for future reading by the students, consider giving a few extra credit points to students who sign up for a local public library card. Tell them they can reserve things online, etc. :)

  5. I once sat next to a Williams Sonoma executive on a plane, and wanted to throw his binder full of columns of numbers out the window and give him the book I was reading: Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. That was what I had on hand, but The Book for me would be On the Road, which changed my and so many people’s lives. Don’t know if I’d gone on half my travels or been half the writer I am without it, but I would like to think it could dissuade someone from being a business major ending up on a plane reading corporate cost breakdowns.

  6. I’m actually teaching a course somewhat like Elizabeth’s. The one novel we will read is Lewis Nordan’s Wolf Whistle.I chose Wolf Whistle because:

    a.) it is funny, short, and an easy-enough read
    b.) it has provocative subject matter (the Emmett Till murder) so it should be fodder for class discussion (i.e., how can a white writer claim any right to inhabit the minds of black characters?)
    c.) it demonstrates postmodern storytelling techniques such as magical realism/fabulism
    d.) I teach at a southern university and want to expose students to southern writers they might not already know of
    e.) it’s dead serious and passionate about life and death in the way that Vonnegut is
    f.) it broke my heart.

  7. I love the suggestions! I think I’d go with The Great Gatsby–gives them a chance to read something relatively easy, but enough substance and themes to create a good dialog.

  8. I agree with Tracy that the Bible is probably the best book to pick for this sort of a question. So for my answer, I decided to omit that on purpose. For me, the book that I would choose would be either Augie March or Moby Dick.

  9. I would suggest Coetzee’s Disgrace. Front half of the book begins in an academic setting (perhaps some of the students will recognize themselves within the peripheral characters of the beginning chapters). Raises issues of ethics within higher education, etc…then turns to a perhaps distant locale for the student in which they may find something interesting during the latter half of the book. Leaving the rape aside and the questions it raises, there is the animal rights angle, and the bonus that it will be released as a movie in the near future.

    Writing is taut, and the length is about right for such a course.

  10. For myself if I could only read one book for the rest of my life, i’d choose Weaveworld, Clive Barker. IT’s lengthy complex and I have discovered new things each of the dozen times I have read it.
    For others, who will have to choose whether to continue reading after it, I would probably go with Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, not only is is it a superb book but I would hope it would make the point about how precious books and reading can be. It was also the only book from all my years of english at school that wasn’t ruined forever by clumsy teenage analysis. It still makes me shudder to think of a world where books are outlawed.

  11. Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Other Stories would fit the bill. It is easy to read and will get even someone who doesn’t read much hooked. But it’s not a novel…A good novel might be Jane Eyre. Its instantly recognizable, easy to read and is a bildungsroman with some heavy themes. Otherwise, Slaughterhouse Five would be perfect to get someone who has never read a book before to read more.

  12. Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’, for me. It is easily read, short (a must for uninterested business majors), beautiful and incredibly powerful. In other words much for the same reasons as Drew above.

  13. I’m a clergyman, so the Bible would seem like a natural, but that doesn’t seem to really address the question. You have to honor the premise that this will be the only creative (versus non-fiction) book that they will read their entire lives (as ridiculous as that sounds to me), so I would have suggested Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer or Agee’s A Death in the Family as gateway books to further reading. I’ll go with Hamlet (OK, not ‘a book’ like a novel); that or Leaves of Grass. Both capture humanity and our challenges.

  14. I love the Disgrace suggestion. I thought of American Pastoral because of the way it reveals the American Dream while also showing that life throws some curve balls.

  15. Well, I would try a Foreign Contemporary Book, to give them a broader view of what’s going on in the world. Sebald, Javier Marias, Alberto Manguel, Umberto Ecco, Pascal Quignard…
    And I would ask them to give the title of one book which changed their lives.Some of them might be readers, you never know….

  16. “Unless you can make the world wag better than it does at present, King, your reign will be an endless series of petty battles…”

    I first read The Once and Future King when it came out in the fifties and have read it almost every year since then. By 12 I had bought my own copy and still have it – the English edition with the blue and white cover. Beyond it’s adventure, I am grateful for it’s love of education and the natural world.

  17. The book at the top of my “nursing home list” is “Just Above My Head” by James Baldwin. It says a lot about our nation, and sexuality, and family. It is just as brilliant as “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” but reflects Baldwin’s maturity and experience.

  18. Gatsby seems to me like the no-brainer based on the “only book they might ever read” assumption. But I’m terribly biased toward anything Fitzgerald. For something undeniably relevant and appealing to the business students, also consider And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris.

  19. Having taught under similar circumstances, I can say that 85% of your business majors won’t read anything you pick no matter how accessible, engaging, contemporary, etc. it may be. They’ll find notes about the book online, or they’ll skip it completely.

    That said, I’m really surprised at some of these picks. Slaughterhouse-Five? It’s an excellent book, to be sure, but if you aren’t already a reader, you won’t stick with it more than five pages. Likewise, none of the other books mentioned are really written in a way that will grab and keep the attention of current-day college students who are not already readers.

    If you want something they’ll read, you’ll have to pick something 1) that they’ve heard of recently from peers, 2) that isn’t on anyone’s “classics” list, and 3) that will grab and keep them from page 1. Unfortunately, aside from some very successful commercial fiction (with questionable literary importance or substance), I can’t think of anything that fits those requirements.

    Perhaps The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

  20. I was a business major in college, but also a self-admitted literature nerd after being turned onto the classics by my amazing high school English teachers. I’ve seen first hand the numerous kids in the business school that can’t stand reading and immediately reach for Cliff Notes as soon as they are assigned a book. If someone’s not a reader it’s hard to fight it so you have to stay with something that relates to what they’re interested in.

    Any of Ayn Rand’s books or stories would be perfect. Atlas Shrugged is probably the best, but can be cumbersome to read at times and difficult to get through all of her stout philosophical speeches. The Fountainhead is much more accessible but doesn’t seem to hit the points Rand is trying to make as dramatically. And there’s always Anthem if they’re just too lazy to spend more than a couple hours reading.

    The only other book I’d consider is what many have already suggested and that’s The Great Gatsby. The book is accessible to those who don’t like literature. It’s a great, although tragic, love story. And it still somewhat entails business and economics so business students might actually pay some attention.

    Atlas Shrugged if you want to really challenge them.
    The Great Gatsby if you want to draw them in to reading.

  21. BryanD’s comment is discouraging but it brought to mind ‘And then we came to the End’ by Joshua Ferris, an accessible comedy, with a dark bridge, told in an uncommon voice. It may make her class of future corporate drones aware that they too are fodder for the arts.
    I went to an engineering school, took a massive load of maths and sciences, yet read shakespeare and ulysees as an undergrad. The students who just read the cliffnotes and read summaries online deserve the grade they will get and more’s the pity for their future if they never read another book.

  22. I was heartened to see Alvaro Mutis at least mentioned in this thread. I would go with Slaughterhouse Five for all of the reasons mentioned. I think it is easy to “out grow” Vonnegut, but that would be a goal anyway.

  23. I would choose Moonfleet, by J. Meade Falkner. With its theme “As in life, so in a game of hazard, skill will make something of the worst of throws,” it should appeal to business majors, and its status a story that has captivated readers for more than a century should give it at least a bit of gravitas to go along with a rousing good tale. At age 65, I still remember it from about the 7th Grade.

  24. I would choose Kundera’s Book of Laughter and forgetting, or Marquez’ 100 years of solitude. I remember reading them in college and it was the start of true adult reading for pleasure.

  25. When I read Oscar and Lucinda for the first time, in 1988, it immediately shot up into my top five favorites list. Twenty-two years and countless novels later, it occupies the number one spot in my heart and my mind . There are days when I feel that it shares the spot with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yes, they’re completely different novels but, both are stunning and brilliant in their own unique ways. Oh, Byatt’s Possession is a definite contender, as well. These books have everything: mystery, ideas, dazzling prose, a love story for the ages.

  26. No one has mentioned A Suitable Boy- desert Isalnd it would have to be the pick. Otherwise, Gatsby and Disgrace are great choices.
    For single novel readers, Breath by Tim Winton is probably one of the most accessible and discussable novels which spring to mind- all the great themes in 200 pages!

  27. I think I’d have to say “Cyrano de Bergerac.” That book opened my eyes to the beauty of language, the power of a *real* romance, and the sorrow, joys, and undeniable passions life has contained in it. The first book that ever brought me to tears for all of its beauty and truth.

  28. Raymond Chandler was once asked what book he would like to have with him if stranded on a desert island. He said a dictionary: “There’s not a dull page in it.” With that in mind I’d opt for the latest 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. That should keep me entertained for a decade or so. Then I could re-read.

  29. 2666–it’s the darkest novel I’ve ever read yet it’s also contemporary and struggles with important issues. It offers no answers or light at the end of the tunnel, however, it haunts you and leaves you with questions.

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