My all time favorite novel is "The Black Obelisk" by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the more famous "All Quiet on the Western Front." "The Black Obelisk" begins in 1923 Germany when the economic collapse fueled the early days of Hitler. Sometimes funny and black humored, this story is told as a salary increase in the morning had to be spent before the noon currency exchange rates rendered it worthless and a cigar could economically be lit with a ten-mark note. And there is a drunken retired army officer who urinates on the black obelisk.
Starting with "Things Fall Apart" I read the wonderful novels of Nigerian Ibo author Chinua Achebe. Achebe tells of the subjugation of the Ibo culture by British domination and takes place where I lived in the Peace Corps.
Some other favorites are "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" with its treatment of missionary arrogance and folly in the Amazon jungle; "The Last of the Just" by Andre Schwarz-Barz, considered by some to be the greatest novel of the Holocaust.
Of course, "1984" and "Animal Farm," which I read as a WVU student in 1955, when 1984 seemed far in the future, had profound effects on me. I could go on with works such as "Moby Dick," "The Scarlet Letter," Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s sly musings and many others that stopped me in my tracks and turned me around.
Denise Giardina's "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth" tell us in seamless prose how West Virginia got in such a mess; as does Ronald Lewis' "Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920." For pictures of that mess, try "Plundering Appalachia," edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner. And don't miss "Night Comes to the Cumberlands."
And to grin and laugh, sometimes out loud, there are the first two volumes of Pogo comic strips, from whence comes, "Deck us all with Boston Charlie."
Still learning from Thoreau
Walden. Walden. Walden.
My education started in a one-room country school, which provided two benefits. A. I could listen in while the teacher worked with the older kids. B. I was left alone while the teacher worked with the older kids.
I was dyslexic in a good way -- I spelled words backward but I could read 90 miles an hour. Dick and Jane at the Farm, phooey. I read "Robinson Crusoe" in first grade. And kept on reading. But it was all reading for fun, recreational reading, until I banged into Henry David Thoreau.
That was reading to make one think; reading to open one's mind. It was reading to let a 12-year-old kid know he wasn't alone in viewing this world sideways.
Most of my reading is still for fun; but Thoreau and Mark Twain, and a very few others with wide thoughts and strong word skills are still educating me.