January is typically a time for fresh starts and self-help books, but this year, instead of feigning absolute morality and perfection, ditch that copy of The Art of Happiness and relish the dark side of literature. These are a few books that require a twisted sense of humor, a complete lack of empathy and a fair dose of self-absorption to be properly enjoyed. They will shatter your moral compass — if you have one. Sorry we’re not sorry:
1. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Franzen has a reputation for hating his characters, so it’s no surprise that anyone who reads The Corrections has to adopt a dark sense of humor to enjoy it, laughing at the misfortune of the Lamberts and all of the people who cross their destructive paths. If you want a read that features people being terrible to each other, this book fits the bill.
3. Rabbit, Run by John Updike
It’s hard not to feel bad for Harry “Rabbit” Armstrong when he watches a few teenagers playing basketball and realizes that, at the age of 26, he’s already passed his time. Sure, Updike earns our sympathy, but the book basically encourages sympathy for a jerk who runs away from his family and cheats on his wife. (He’s in the midst of a spiritual crisis — and the children have stolen his wife’s beauty!) It’s a terrific book, just so long as it doesn’t catapult you into a midlife crisis.
5. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Okay, if you were raised as “Child A” or “Child B” in your parent’s strange performance art piece, there’s no doubt that would screw with you as an adult. The Fang family is a dysfunctional one to be reckoned with (even Salinger’s Glass family has nothing on these guys), and it’s hard not to read this without enjoying the hilarities of their misfortune — hell, you might even relate to their dysfunctional family! But it’s more likely that readers enjoy Wilson’s novel in a way that gives them a high and mighty feeling about their own families, to which we say: Sadists!
7. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
This book is perfect … for terrible people who dig Victorian-era gender roles, neverending sentences and eugenics. Basically, it’s not a book you want to go in reading blindly. Nietzsche cans morality in this book in favor of people’s natural “Will to Power,” a Darwinian concept that becomes more frightening once you’re aware of the connections Nazis made to Nietzsche’s work.
9. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
So what if Holly Golightly is captivating? You’ve got to admit that, at her core, she’s shallow and self-absorbed. It’s easy to empathize with a small-town girl who wants something bigger, but a woman who leaves everyone behind, changes her identity and continues to make a pattern of it has issues, to say the least. Considering that Holly is both a literary and pop-culture icon for teenage girls everywhere, who unfortunately don’t yet have a feel for her follies, she’s a character who’s loved somewhat blindly. In other words: If your friend reads this and starts carrying around long black cigarette holders, it’s probably best to give them a reality check.
2. The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton
The title alone speaks volumes. This book takes a close look at psychopaths who live among us as the most successful CEOs, stockbrokers, etc., and gives readers a glimpse into how their habits of manipulation and total lack of empathy work to their advantage. It’s a guide to success from the darkest perspective out there.
4. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Alexander Portnoy is oddly likeable for someone who literally fucks his family’s dinner (and then watches them eat it). Of course, Alexander also suffers major mommy issues and mistreats every girl he’s ever been with — making him possibly the worst person you could ever end up with on a blind date. But the most dangerous thing about Alexander is that he’s likeable no matter how terrible he is. If you find yourself relating too closely to his life, I’d consider some serious therapy, preferably with someone who doesn’t preach Freudian neuroses.
6. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
Sure, having a shitty job can make someone jaded, but just imagine that times two: Milo Burke gets fired from his shitty job for cursing out an entitled brat, but then he’s rehired just to have the axe dangled above his head again. On top of this, Milo has to deal with the monotony of his turkey sandwiches, his unhappy marriage and his fizzled past, which once seemed to hold at least an ounce of promise. Reading The Ask is like going out to lunch with your good friend who’s miserable all the time — some of that angst is bound to rub off on you.
8. Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The unnamed narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes isn’t exactly the most healthy character to relate to. The book is considered to be one of the first existentialist novels and is packed with bitter rambling, jaded judgements and the constant desire to escape society for total isolation.
10. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
This book is all sorts of terrifying: Not only does Ripley present a startling mix of borderline personality disorder and antisocial behavior when he kills his best friend and then assumes his identity, but he continues to kill anyone who suspects him of the murder. But the most terrifying thing about this book? Ripley comes out on top, happily rich, always fearing the police but never punished for his crimes. It basically reinforces psychopathy as a key to success.
Have any ideas for other books that might offer readers a road map to immorality? Got a reading list — for good or for evil — set for 2014? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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