Last year my best friend turned 30. I decided the best way to show my appreciation was to start create a book club – a 12-part-gift where he would receive a book of my choosing, once a month.

These weren’t the books that had the most conscious powerful shaping effect on my life – instead, they were the ones I’d read, enjoyed, hated or that had simply been memorable.

In the end – I had just as much fun creating this gift as he did receiving it.

And now – in the spirit of openness and full-disclosure – I present the 2016-17 Jeremy Suisted Book Club list

(Pro-tip – click on each headline to take you direct to the Amazon page for each book.)

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

 

I’d first heard of Jonathan Franzen when I was a Time subscriber, and he was featured on a cover with the moniker “Great American Novelist”. I didn’t think too much about him – until I stumbled upon Freedom at a second-hand book sale (this will be a recurring theme).

The blurb for the book was bland. The plot seemed to hinge on nothingness – a typical American family dealing with temptation, career, histories and hopes.

And yet – from the first page – I was utterly captivated. It’s the first book in ages that stayed on my mind all day. I was retiring to my bedroom embarrassingly early in the evening to dive in – and staying up yawn-inducingly late to carry on the story of the Berglund family.

That is the magic – it’s an engrossingly normal story – that captures a glimpse of the shallowness of the post-modern facade that we are encouraged to portray – and the deeper yearning for a life that means something beneath this.

It’s not a book that I ‘get’ – but it’s one that I enjoy. Plus – this is a great read to learn how to craft narrative and language in a way that is mesmerising.

2. East of Eden – John Steinbeck

 

I’ve always had a thing for epics. Long stories, that traverse generations and continents – the kind of stories that make Leon Uris get excited.

When I came across East of Eden I discovered that a fantastic writer can make an epic in a tea-cup.

One family, in one small location – yet a tale that cascades into the depths of relationship, love, grace, justice and mercy.

And – it has one of the most response-demanding speeches from any book I’ve read in a long time. Lee, the family’s Cantonese cook, teaches about the ancient Biblical story of Cain and Abel – a tale of fratricide, temptation, justice and possibility. He says,

““Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”

Does humanity overcome because we are ordered to from above? Will humanity overcome because we are promised? Or does humanity have an inordinate amount of freedom – to chose what will happen next?

3. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

 

The first song that ever made me cry was Derek Lind’s Do As You’re Told. The first movie was Schindler’s List, and interestingly enough, the first TV show was an episode of Eating Media Lunch, that featured a powerful juxtaposition of the images of violence and hate from New Zealand, accompanied by our national anthem, God of Nations.

And this was the first book that ever made me cry.

Paul Kalanithi was a neuroscientist, a surgeon and a lover of literature. Suddenly, he became a patient – diagnosed with Stage-4 lung cancer.

His journey is one of the most mesmerising explorations of suffering, life and purpose – from one who is living in the midst of these questions. This is not esoteric theories – this is the flesh-and-blood inquiry of a searcher facing their own end.

It’s beautiful and haunting – and the epilogue, written by his wife Lucy, is worth the price of the book alone.

4. On the Beach – Nevil Shute

 

Cambridge Town Hall. Book-o-rama. 2007.

At first, I mistook this book for The Beach – and thought this was the novel that Leonardo Di Caprio’s film was based on. Flicking to the inside cover revealed my folly – but also hinted at a tale of humanity rising above the apocalyptic outcomes of nuclear war. It cost $2. I bought it.

Later that night, I curled up in bed and began to read.

The premise is fantastic. The Cold War erupted – and the majority of the world is dead. A huge nuclear cloud is slowly drifting south. The last remaining city? Melbourne.

A group of survivors head to America on a submarine to see if any life remains. Others prepare to face what seems to be an inevitable end.

I won’t spoil the ending – but I will say – this is the only time in my life I have thrown a book in anger.

I read it in one sitting – it was that good – and it elicited a blind rage in me (that I childishly took out on the book). I’ve never read it since. I don’t want to. But I still remember it.

5. Creative Confidence – David and Tom Kelley

 

When you tell your Grandma that you work in innovation and design – this is the book to give her explaining a primer on the field.

I know that IDEO are a bit like Apple – over-used as examples in countless blogs, and coming from that Silicon Valley-centric perspective. However, they’re also a little like Coca-Cola – solid, reliable and thoroughly quaffable by all.

Tom and David Kelley have both been in the design and innovation space before it was cool. They’re not some entrepreneur/blogger trying to capitalise off a buzz-word – but are legitimate evangelists for the power of design-thinking.

And this book is like the fun Wiki page for design thinking. How to run design workshops? Check. Creating a culture of design thinking? Got it. What is design thinking – and can I have a small dose of neuroscience with it? Right up.

Full of case-studies, easy to read – and a fantastic primer on innovation.

6. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

 

Truth be told – I haven’t read this book in a long, long time. I remember soma, sleep-learning, dystopia and the savage John. I remember trips to exotic locations, and a return to a dull normality.

But, more than anything, I remember the uniqueness of its proposition – that in the future we would be enslaved not by fascist governments or robotic overlords – but by our own insatiable sensory appetites.

Science, technology and politics all combine to create a technotopia – and yet, human individuality, beauty and emotionality is lost. Instead, we start to become like what we have created – focused solely on output, sameness and mechanisation.

“And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears—that’s what soma is.”

What makes this all the more chilling is the fact that Huxley wrote this in 1932 – well before the days of smartphones, Internet, social media and reality television.

(Matched best with some nihilistic Placebo tunes ironically playing in the background.)

7. Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

 

This book is the third-game-of-a-closely-fought-Bledisloe-Cup of sports books. Which is ironic – given that it is about a sport that seems so boring – running.

Yet this work does not plod. Flying through history, science, poetry – and journeying across continents – Christopher McDougall sets out to explore the ultimate endurance athletes of ultra-runners – those who run races of more than 100km. (That’s in one go).

I am a wanna-be runner. I’ve completed two half-marathons, and considered entering the real-deal a few times. But I’ve lent this book to others who consider running about as exciting as watching a scrum be reset – and they’ve all returned it, riveted. And – they’ve all taken up running.

See, that’s what makes this book so magical. It makes you want to run. It’s quirky combination of narrative, humour, science and myth is alluring. The characters McDougall encounter are full-of-life and make running sound joyful. And the running style that McDougall eventually adopts sounds like floating across the ground.

When I’m struggling up a hill, several kilometres from home, I often find my mind wandering back to this book – and I smile.

And that’s worth the price of admission alone.

8. Planet Simpson – Chris Turner

 

I was one of those kids who wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons growing up. Bart was seen as a rebellious figure, who would turn me from nerd to class bully in a flash.

So it wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I was introduced to the world of Springfield.

It became a ritual – sitting at the TV at 5pm, watching the re-runs of Simpsons episodes. The Stonecutters. Maude Flander’s death. Every Treehouse of Horrors. The misadventures of Frank Grimes.

When I saw a yellow spine with Simpsons-ish writing peering up at me – I had to grab it. It was a fortuitous grab.

Chris Turner is a Canadian author who is convinced that Matt Groening is our modern day Shakespeare, and The Simpsons are a true piece of literary art. He gushes,

“I can count on The Simpsons to provide me with a solid thirty minutes of truth, of righteous anger, of hypocrisies deflated and injustices revealed, of belly laughter and joy. It is food for my soul.”

Although reading like a doctoral thesis at times – and only generating a 3-star review on Amazon – Turner uses The Simpsons to look at consumerism, religion, politics, individuality, corporate greed and more.

If you haven’t watched the show – this book will confuse you. If you have – it’ll make you think, reminisce and smile.

9. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

 

When I first got a Kindle, I was amazed that I could find and read free books. I was then dismayed to discover that 90% of the free offerings were erotic romance, with pictures of rock-solid abs on the front.

But then I discovered that Charles Dickens entire collection was also available for free. Excitedly, I downloaded with abandon and began to read.

Now – for the uninitiated – Dickens is slow. His sentences are verbose, long, wordy and often appear to ramble off in a tangential direction which bears no connection before sparking back with a punch.

And yet – his stories drag you in. The characters become fleshed in a way that requires a lengthy narrative. The pacing reflects reality – because, let’s face it – our lives often move slowly too.

A Tale of Two Cities tells of romance amidst the French revolution, poverty and riches, injustice and sacrifice. It concludes with the most powerful speech I’d ever read in fiction,

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

10. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

 

To my shame, I thought the sum total of Agatha Christie’s output was The Mousetrap. I’d seen this at the Cambridge Gaslight Theatre – and enjoyed the twist better than The Sixth Sense.

It was with surprise, then, that I received this book for Christmas as a gift from my sister. A devout Sherlock Holmes fan, this seemed like a knock-off. I opened the pages as a cynic.

If you want to learn how to create surprise in your story-telling – read this book.

Quite simply one of the best twists, that would leave even Holmes with his mouth agape.

Perhaps not a literary classic, but a definite fun read.

11. City of Thieves – David Benioff

 

One of the joys of reading non-fiction is the discovery of new information. As you read, you can play with the discrete units, consider the arguments, and shape the new facts as you file them away.

One of the pleasures of fiction, I am slowly discovering, is that fiction plays with and shapes you.

When I finish a good non-fiction piece, I can talk about what I’ve learned – but when I finish a great novel, I am different from what I was beforehand. It’s inexpressible – but transformative.

On the face of it, City of Thieves is a pointless book. It tells the story of two young men, tasked by a Russian Colonel to find a dozen eggs during the siege of Leningrad. If they succeed – they will be set free. If they fail – they will be executed.

In comparison with the magnitude of suffering in Leningrad, this story pales in significance. Yet, as the two – Lev and Kolya – journey, deal, avoid cannibals and fight Germans – they talk, joke, grieve, flirt with women they encounter and fear for their lives. These two are real – and their quirky story gives an insight into another reality.

At times funny, at times tragic – this is a great read. And it inspired the art style for The Last of Us – so it’s got to be good.

12. Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl

If I could take only one book away to a deserted island – it would be this.

Short, yet absolutely transformative. Viktor Frankl went from being one of Austria’s leading psychiatrist to a slave labourer in Auschwitz and Dachau. His wife, mother and brother were all killed in concentration camps.

This book is the reflection of both his knowledge and wisdom – applied in the most trying of situations.

Challenging Nietzsche’s belief in the will to power, and Freud’s belief in the will to pleasure, Frankl proposed that the driving force behind humanity is a will to meaning. Put simply – people want their lives to matter for something.

Frankl claims that meaning can be discovered through our work or creative endeavours, through our deep experiences and encounters, or through our attitude towards suffering. Each one of these claims is sorely needed in a world threatened by automation, loneliness and escapism.

Each time I read this book, I get a friendly slap of perspective. This book cannot be read just once – it must be chewed, re-read and then lived.

The Challenge

If you’ve made it to the end – well done!

I’m fascinated to hear – what would be in your book-club? What would be your top twelve?

If you’re feeling brave – jot down a couple of your books in the comments below, or let me know which of these is the standout for you.