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Books for Men: 20 smart reads to change your life

Culture

Some incredible reads for men who don't want the obvious best sellers but instead want their minds destroyed and then rebuilt...

Everyone has different tastes of course, but there are some books that are absolutely essential to read. That is, if you want a broad mind, and be challenged in your perceptions of life, or just to have a wild ride in solitary joy, nose-deep in the imaginings of a semi-deranged author (as the best of them usually are).

Have a look at this little lot, non-fiction and fiction, classics and newbies, curated in the spirit of adventure – so not covering the canon but hitting a far-reaching mix of styles and experiences…unified by the fact they can all change your life.

01

'American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer' by Kai Bird

A gripping biography of the theoretical physicist who was the leader of the Manhattan Project, the American's WW2 atomic bomb program that resulted in the development of the first nuclear weapons. American Prometheus reads like a thriller with Oppenheimer in a race against time to beat the Russians to the bomb, but also torn apart by the implications of his monstrous creation. His famous words about when he watched the world's first nuclear explosion - their successful test - give you an indication of the genius and torment of the man...he said as he watched the mushroom cloud that he thought of the words of the Hindu god Vishnu: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Soon to be massive due to a film version of the book coming out next year written and directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Cillian Murphy as Oppenheimer. Get ahead of the curve and read this now. Buy the book

02

'How to talk dirty and influence people' by Lenny Bruce

The autobiography of the legendary American comedian, who was famously banned across the States due to his 'obscene' act (hence the title). This book is every bit as funny and scandalous as you'd want it to be, written in such a thrillingly conversational fashion so that it feels like Bruce is in the same room as you, rapping out his tall tales and one-liners with that hepcat voice you may know from recordings of his shows. Oh just buy it... Buy the book

03

'Nightmare Alley' by William Lindsay Gresham

Recently made into a fairly good Netflix film with Bradley Cooper, the book itself is a far more impactful work – shocking, exhilarating and profoundly spooky. A drifter in Depression era America falls in with a travelling circus and becomes intent of being a psychic – or rather, a fake psychic. In his pursuit of sex, money and fame, he becomes the ultimate hustler yet also loses his soul in the process, destroying lives and eventually himself. Each chapter has the name of a Tarot card attached, which brings an eerie edge as the story continues. By the time it reaches its shocking conclusion, bringing the book hauntingly full circle, there is a sense of horrid fate coming to get you. A staggering fable. Buy the book

04

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

A stunning look at the takedown of Harvey Weinstein by two New York Times journalists. An insight into this era-defining moment in which a sexual predator was taken down – no easy task given the threat and fear this individual operated within. It reads like a thriller or even a horror, in which the worst extremes of male abuse are exposed and held up as part of a culture of misogyny that proliferates among the rich and powerful and were given form in the grotesque Weinstein. Buy the book

05

'The Right Stuff' by Tom Wolfe

The crowning achievement of one of the greatest journalists of all time – an inside look at the race to send astronauts into orbit. The men in question are test pilots, the most wild and adrenaline junkie thrill seekers of them all – to see them transformed into the rigours and dangers of getting launched into space against political posturing to make them into wholesome American heroes, makes for sensational reading. A staggering period in history and for sheer human bravery, told in Wolfe’s utterly unique immersive style. Buy this book

06

'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy

We’ve chosen this over Blood Meridian, for its deeply affecting bond between father and child, where protecting and keeping your young alive is utterly primal. You feel every second of his care and the fear when that comes under threat. Also the book’s post-apocalyptic world – though it’s never explained what caused it – makes it feel ever more relevant and haunting. Besides any specifics though, this book is pure genius in terms of exploring the will to be human even when humanity has collapsed. Buy this book

07

'Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties' by Ian MacDonald

A song by song look at The Beatles…which sounds very muso and actually is, to quite ridiculous degree, but weirdly, even though much of the musical theory may be indecipherable to laymen like us, it remains a thrilling read and a vivid illustration of just why the Beatles were geniuses. Makes every other rock book feel a bit non-committal. Buy this book

08

'Ulysses' by James Joyce

Well, I mean, come on, why not? You’re only alive once so why not tackle the biggie. We’re not going to pretend it’s not challenging, but it’s by no means impossible, and is actually funny and down and dirty once you get into the groove. In very basic terms it's a look at the collapse of heroism post-World War One, reimagining Homer’s The Odyssey in a desultory day in the life of a very ordinary man. It's been called “the novel to end all novels”, and once you’ve read it, everything else will seem like a breeze. Buy this book.

09

'Men Explain Things to Me' by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s short and efficient breakdown of patriarchy and damaging male behaviour in society. Each of these essays is a bravura reveal and takedown of what women have to go through in daily life - it pulls no punches but also implores men to engage, and is truly a book that every man should read. That so few have is only another reason to do so. Buy this book. 

10

'Eleven Kinds of Loneliness' by Richard Yates

Eleven short stories that formed the follow-up to Yates’ famed debut novel, Revolutionary Road. He the famously alcoholic master of what you might call male malaise…which sounds depressing and often is, but it doesn’t stop the work being vital and honest to a degree that still resonates today. Each one of these stories of office workers and suburban men and cab drivers, with their thwarted ambitions and drink problems and low key dread, will quietly devastate you. Buy this book. 

11

'Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration' by David Wojnarowicz

Searingly raw memoir by the artist and activist Wojnarowicz about coming up against the brutal force of the American Dream when you don’t fit its image. These tales of his life in New York, and across the States, living almost down and out, as an outsider, due his sexuality, all take place against the rise of AIDS and the lack of help of the contemptuous authorities. Wojnarowicz himself died from the disease, but it was far from in vain, as his reputation and work seems to grow in stature with each passing year. Heroic work. Buy this book.

12

'Damn Good Advice (for people with talent!)' by George Lois

Self-help books are all terrible and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. This is about as close as we’ll allow you to go, and really, this is more of a ‘fuck all the bullshit self help out there’ book. Lois, who died this month, was the legendary ad man who Don Draper was based on and the designer behind the classic Esquire covers like 'The Passion of Muhammad Ali'. This short, sharp book is a lesson in provocation from a Bronx-born dude who puts creativity into a realm of both intense artistic commitment and heroic impatience with arty farty mystique. “Don’t work for bad people,” Lois barks. And: “All tools in the world are meaningless without an essential idea.” In fact those two statements alone are enough to guide you through 90% of creative life. Buy this book.

13

'Faith, Hope and Carnage' by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan

A book created from over 40 hours of conversation between legendary musician Cave and the journalist O’Hagan. It effectively forms another continuation of the path of grief and renewal that Cave has been on since the death of his teenage son Arthur. The albums 'Skeleton Tree' and the astonishing 'Ghosteen' – an album in which Cave attempts to create a world, with music, where he can make contact with his son – along with The Red Hand Files, his fan Q&A site, have been expressions of someone coming to terms with a terrible tragedy and finding meaning in a collectivity beyond that. In this book we find important questions about life raised, with many answered. Buy this book.

14

'Agency' by William Gibson

The latest from the cyberpunk legend and another high point in his career, a career which is now less about future sci-fi worlds and more about our sci-fi present. The novel is set in an alternate 2017 where Hilary Clinton beat Donald Trump to the Presidency, where the protagonist Verity starts testing military avatar tech…although with multiple timelines intersecting, this is an upending and inspired fugue of apocalyptic proportions. Buy this book.

15

'Grand Union' by Zadie Smith

Short story collection by one of our greatest writers. Smith has a certain freedom in the way she writes, a willingness to not hold her fiction too tight, which means that these stories, collected from across her career as well as unpublished stories, are a mish-mash of different styles and subjects, all held together with her wit and intellect. It makes for an exhilarating read, one that feels always beautifully human. Buy this book.

16

'A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again' by David Foster Wallace

Collection of essays by the American author, who comes with a forbidding intellectual stature due to novels like Infinite Jest and his role at the centre of a 90s generation of iconoclastic writers taking apart and reinventing the Great American Novel. This book is not a novel, however, it is a collection of essays which are truly astonishing in their intelliegence and humour, not least the article that gives the book it’s title, in which Wallace goes on a luxury cruise liner and finds himself a little perturbed. I mean, you’re just in a dreamworld with paragraphs upon paragraphs of this stuff: 'There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir—especially at night—I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously.' Buy this book. 

17

'Books of Blood Vol. 1-3' by Clive Barker

A tour de force by the best horror writer of modern times – for our money, he beats Stephen King wth the sheer unnverving forces of his week as well as staggeringly ambitious imagination. These collections of his short stories is an absolute must. Truly horrible, deeply perverse, sickeningly grotesque…perfect for a nice Sunday in. Buy this book.

18

'Collected Essays' by James Baldwin

The master, perhaps the greatest essay writer ever, certainly the most resonant one from the 20th Century with a power that continues today. Of course he was a leading figure in articulating the experiences of black people in America in post-WW2 America, but he was also an artist – every one of these essays is like a Van Gogh painting, his whole heart and soul is in it and demands the same from you. Buy this book.

19

'The Catcher in The Rye' by JD Salinger

I mean, we tried not to include it, we really did, but how can you do any list of smart books and not have it in. I mean, just truly the greatest, funniest, most human of books. Anyway, it’s here, inevitably. Gloriously. Buy this book.

20

'Jesus’ Son' by Denis Johnson

The legendary outsider’s book about drug taking and everyday divinity is arguably an accepted part of the canon now, a solid presence on every self-respecting bookshelf. Neutered, in effect. Until you pick it up for a quick flick and are immediately hooked, bought, sold, blown away – it’s like having your soul cleansed. Happens two or three times a year, if you’re lucky. Buy this book.

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