BY NICO VREELAND
[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5” list of books on a theme of their choosing.]
Like Eric, I try to read before I go to sleep most nights. Most books are good sleep aids, because they let you focus mind on something concrete but unabsorbing, and because a lot of them are quite boring.
But a precious few run the opposite way, they grab you immediately and are so relentlessly riveting that they don’t let you sleep. Often these are not thrillers or even traditional “page-turners,” and neither are they necessarily literary masterpieces. Instead, they are simply ripping good stories. These are the kinds of books I think of when I think of “classics.”
So, without further ado, here are the
Top Five Books That Kept Me Up All Night
I read this book for the first time just a few weeks ago, convinced by coworkers who were shocked that I hadn’t read it in grade school. I started it at midnight, and didn’t stop until I’d finished the last page. Granted, it’s not a long book (it took me about two hours to read cover to cover), but it’s a classic tale that inspired a whole host of knockoffs and imitators, the worst and most notable being M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. The Giver tells of a “perfect” society in which everyone is assigned a job and nobody ever leaves by choice. When Jonas turns 13, he’s assigned the job of Receiver, a supposedly illustrious job through which Jonas learns the dark secrets of the society’s supposedly utopian existence. It’s a simply, powerfully told story, an elegant execution of a familiar archetype.
Like many of the novels on this list, my memories of Serena are vivid frozen images, chief among them: the titular Serena, ruthless owner of a Depression-era logging camp, sitting atop her enormous Arabian stallion, flinging up the eagle she’s trained to kill rattlesnakes. To her husband, as well as the men who work and die in the camp, she looks like a goddess and they treat her like one. The book, a haunting, dramatic exploration of ruthlessness and efficiency, was one of my favorite books of 2009.
As a teenager, an entire subgenre of books that kept me up too late involved kids my own age stranded in the woods, not only surviving but thriving (obvious but still enjoyable adaptations of Robinson Crusoe). Another in this category is Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, in which a 13-year-old boy survives a plane crash with nothing more than his hatchet. My Side of the Mountain, while equally gripping, is far more badass. In this one, 13-year-old Sam up and decides to live in the woods, so he takes off with a knife and a ball of twine, and survives quite well. My memories of this novel mostly center around the awesome house Sam carves himself out of the massive trunk of a hemlock tree. And the deerskin suit he makes himself. And the hawk he trains. I don’t know if this kind of book would stand up to a reread, but man, was it awesome back when.
This novel about life at the Carolina Military Institute during the Vietnam War is heavily based on Conroy’s own experience attending The Citadel in South Carolina—so heavily that Conroy was ostracized from his alma mater for two decades after the book’s publication. This isn’t terribly surprising, since The Lords of Discipline is all about the school’s brutal hazing rituals (which still go on), its culture of fear, and its tradition of racism. Beyond its exploration of methods of control and the effects of strict discipline, this is simply a phenomenal book.
I remember the scene on the train in the most detail: Peekay helping a boxer prepare for a fight by force-feeding him water for hours (because he won’t be able to drink during the fight itself, and dehydration is a looming threat). I also remember the brutal account of life at Peekay’s Afrikaaner boarding school. Most of all, I remember reading this book by flashlight, long after I should’ve been asleep. This was the first book I ever read that I couldn’t put down.