Five must-read books that uncover some of life's greatest lessons
One of The National's journalists reveals his favourite reads
The best non-fiction reads like a novel, while the best fiction reflects deeper truths about the human condition. These five are books that have taught me something about life while sparkling with an energy that transcends the mundane aspects of existence.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1979)
The book recounts Matthiessen’s two-month search for a snow leopard in the Himalayas with his friend, naturalist George Schaller. It’s a spiritual journey, as Matthiessen grapples with the loss of his wife and meditates on existence, nature and Zen Buddhism. Memorable, iridescent prose. They didn’t find a snow leopard.
The Return by Hisham Matar (2016)
Another non-fiction work written with a novelist’s pen. In the wake of the overthrow of Qaddafi, Matar returns to his native Libya after an absence of 30 years looking information about what happened to his dissident father, who had disappeared after being arrested in 1990. Answers are elusive, but what emerges through these painfully beautiful chapters is a story of how enduring dignity can be salvaged from even under the most brutal oppression.
The Sea Wolf by Jack London (1904)
London grew up in poverty and wrote to maintain his lifestyle. So his genius is at times tempered by uneven writing. In this somewhat pro forma plot, a soft city gentleman Humphrey van Weyden is rescued at sea by the brutal and amoral captain Wolf Larsen. Ignoring the late entrance of a cringeworthy romantic sub-plot, this is one of literature’s most memorable morality plays, in which the values of refined western civilisation represented by van Weyden are pitted against the law of the jungle in the form of a Nietzschean ubermensch Larsen. You’re supposed to root for van Weyden, but the Wolf is just so much cooler.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1995)
A sweeping Dickensian narrative involving a cast of protagonists living in India during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Endless tragedies beset the characters, many of whom slowly slip deeper into penury. It’s poignant and tragic, but also uplifting and beautiful, particularly the relationships between the characters. A supreme meditation on the things that make us human, which reminds us that life itself is always in a fine balance.
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1998)
In 1957, Polish journalist Kapuscinski moved to Africa to report on the end of colonial rule for Poland’s state newspaper. He never had any money, and his journeys became odysseys of hitchhiking, rides in the back of trucks, breakdowns and being stranded in backwaters. This travel memoir presents some of his experiences as a series of hyper vivid vignettes written in a magic realist style.
Campbell MacDiarmid is assistant foreign editor for The National
Updated: April 13, 2019 12:04 PM