Initially, I struggled to come up with five books that inspired my sociological imagination. Then I took a step back and started with a list of my favorite books, the books whose themes have stuck with me. Those books all ended up having something in common with my dissertation– they all explore the impact of the state and nationalism on individual’s lives. Here they are in the order that I read them:
1. All the Names by José Saramago
This is the story of a low-level bureaucrat working in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages, and Deaths who becomes obsessed with a woman he only knows through her official record. The main character begins to track this woman through her official record, raising questions about how the State and other institutions make sense of a life and the implications that has for how society treats the lives of individuals.
2. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
A 20th century classic set during WWII, which I probably should have read in high school but did not. What I remember most about this story is that the main character, Yossarian, believes that somebody is trying to kill him. People call him crazy and assure him that nobody is trying to kill him but Yossarian doesn’t believe them because people keep shooting at him. For me, it highlights the arbitrariness of the state as many of the situations the soldiers find themselves in come to seem absurd and unnatural.
3. What is the What by Dave Eggers
The story of a “Lost Boy”, Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who is resettled in the United States. The opening scene has always stuck with me. After Deng falls for a scam that leads to him being tied up while his meager belongings are stolen from his home, he recalls his journey from Sudan to Atlanta. It upends the notion the everything is better in America as he remembers his childhood before the war, coming of age in a refugee camp, and the hardships he has faced since being granted asylum. Each of these stages also mark a different relationship with the State– first as it collapses, then life in limbo, and finally as an asylee with protected status–and the results are not always what one would expect.
4. Stone Raft by José Saramago
Saramago is a brilliant social observer and I love everything by him. This novel imagines a world in which the Iberian Peninsula has broken off of Europe and is floating around the Atlantic Ocean. Governments try to figure out what is happening and how to adjust to the new reality of unfixed territory, while citizens of Portugal and Spain question the meaning of their own national identity. You can see why this would be one of my favorites.
5. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Saleem Sinai is born at midnight on August 15, 1947, the exact moment of Indian Independence and Partition. Sinai finds all the children born within the first hour of partition and discovers they each have a magical gift. This fantastical story traces the growing pains of a boy and a post-colonial subcontinent, as war, religion, and nationalism shift borders and identities.