This isn’t going to be a top 100 list of nerdy books (NPR did that not too long ago). This is a list of books that nerds should find interesting, unusual, and inspiring. By the way…I’m defining nerd pretty broadly here. If you’re already reading Critical Hits, it’s a safe bet you’re a gamer-style nerd. But this list isn’t only for gamers. To me, “nerd” means “a person who loves learning and just can’t stop doing it.” Do you collect facts like little boys collect dirt? Do you read nearly all morphemes that flit past your eyes (including cereal boxes and the fine print on DVD cases?) Did you already know the definition of morpheme? If you didn’t, do you have at least five apps on your phone that could tell you? If you said yes to two or more of those questions, read on.
Why these thirteen? I picked these books because they are genuinely great reads. If I were stuck in an airport, I’d be happy to find any one of these books in my bag. Second, each of these books teaches a vital lesson in storytelling, whether showing how to create an amazing, deep character or how to draw a reader into the narrative. And finally, every book in this list should help the creative nerd (writer, artist, game designer,
murderer GM…) to think in a new way. Maybe it’s a different way to push your characters or players through a problem, or a whole new idea for a world. What you do with it is up to you. Now, on to the list (in no particular order other than to serve my whims).
Beowulf (Don’t know who, don’t know when)
When was the last time you read this? Never? Time to try again, this time without the teacher staring balefully at you from the front of the classroom. Beowulf, the character, is the prototypical adventurer. Literally. He sails about medieval Scandinavia looking for monsters to fight. And, boy howdy, he finds ’em. A GM could do worse than model an adventure after the Beowulf storyline: Hero swaggers into town. Tells the king (the king!) to step aside—he’s got this one. And he does get it. Except, of course, things go wrong, leading him to a nastier fight with something worse—the monster’s mom. Oh, and there’s a dragon. But Beowulf is a lot deeper than a mere adventure story. It’s a moody, existential meditation on fame, death, which gods to worship, and the end of the world. Did I mention there’s a dragon? Fun!
Grendel (John Gardner, 1971)
If Beowulf is on the list because it’s such a classic story, then Grendel has to be on the list too, just to show how you can turn a story on its head. Grendel is Beowulf, but told through the eyes of the monster. Other novels and movies have done this, but Grendel is especially interesting because Gardner makes no attempt to create a likable character. Grendel isn’t misunderstood. He’s not emo. He’s not nice. Grendel is still a monster, but you get to hear his thoughts. If you’re planning on making a monster anytime soon, you should check out Grendel to find out just how intricate and interesting a monster’s motivations can be.
If on a winter’s night a traveller (Italo Calvino, 1979)
Linear narrative is for chumps! Here’s something to get you out of your coherency rut. Italo Calvino’s trippy story-within-a-story-within-a-story-or-is-it-really is a wonderful departure from the traditional novel form, more like a puzzle than a story. You don’t even have to like it to appreciate the way it can challenge your expectations. It can urge a writer to take a story in a new direction. It can jolt readers out complacency. There’s an MC Escher-like quality to it, as you (the reader) become a character (the reader) who is preparing to become you (the reader). It will make your head spin…in a good way.
The oldest D&D handbook you can get a hold of (Gary Gygax, 1974, for example)
This is both for the established nerds and the newbies. Get acquainted (or reacquainted) with some of the earliest holy writings of Nerddom. Gygax’s innovation was in personalizing war games, so return the favor by taking a personal tour of the original books. Check out the rules in the Red Box. Read the spell effects from 1st Edition. Ponder the pantheon offered. Marvel at the single color art panels. Remember what you loved about early D&D. Remember what frustrated the hell out of you. Consider what you might do differently if you were to spin a story for your players or readers. For older nerds, nostalgia can be an inspiring, reinvigorating emotion. And if you’re younger nerd, it’s time to get in touch with your roots.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (Harlan Ellison, 1967)
The shortest story on this list. The gist is simple enough…an insane supercomputer takes over the world and brings on the apocalypse. It keeps five humans alive for the express purpose of torturing them. And why do I think you should read this, again? Because it’s a freaky lesson on the unreliable narrator. Ted, our protagonist, begins the story convinced that he’s fine. Physically, mentally, spiritually…for some reason the evil computer hasn’t messed with him. Yeah, right. The progression of Ted’s delusions is fodder for the most enduring SF stories of all time.
The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fford, 2001)
Something lighter, perhaps? The Eyre Affair is a mystery that uses classic literature as a jumping off point…and as a jumping-into-and-messing-everything-up point. It’s set in an alternate universe where the Crimean War is still going on, dodos make great pets, and people have the ability to hop into literature. Thursday Next, a literary detective, must stop a criminal from destroying the plots of the world’s greatest novels. The whole setup is really just an excuse to drive Thursday Next through a string of literary callbacks and bizarre situations. But what makes The Eyre Affair special? It’s the way that the story itself defies an easy genre label. Booksellers have cried bitter tears over whether this book should be shelved in mystery, science fiction, fantasy, “literary” fiction (say it with a straight face!), humor, or suspense. In fact, it’s all of these. Don’t be afraid to mix genres, or borrow elements from sources that seem way off base. Will a mystical Skinner box make your delve scarier? Go for it. You have nothing to lose but your sanity.
Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing, 1959)
And now for a true story. This is the definitive account of Shackleton’s ill-fated journey to the South Pole in 1914. Shackleton was a smart, experienced explorer. He outfitted his ship, the Endurance, with all the right supplies, and chose the best crew he could. And still, Antarctica kicked his ass. The crew’s ensuing struggle to survive the harshest conditions on earth is almost too amazing to be true, as is the account of the tiny rescue party who ventured out to get help from the nearest point: a whaling station on a rocky speck of an island in the middle of an icy sea. If you think you might be throwing up some obstacles too big for your characters to deal with, just ask yourself “What Would Antarctica Do?” A compulsively readable history of real-life heroes.
The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco, 1980)
Umberto Eco can take something as outwardly dull as a medieval religious house and turn it into a page-turning mystery. Eco is such a revered writer because he never lets his intellectual tendencies get in the way of telling a story you just have to get to the end of. What’s in it? A logical detective who’s had a few run-ins with the Inquisition. A mysterious book that seems to bring death to anyone who reads it. A pile of bodies stacking up at the supposedly peaceful monastery. This book reads like a blueprint for an RPG adventure: secret codes, hidden doors, poison traps, and fighting monks…oh, my!
Into the Wild (John Krakauer, 1996)
A bestseller that was made into a movie, this is probably the most popular book on this list. But if you haven’t read it before, it deserves your attention for a few reasons. First, it’s an adventure book, pure and simple. A young man named Chris McCandless, dissatisfied with his life, drops everything to pursue a mad, idealistic dream. He’s going to live alone in the Alaskan wilderness. How inspiring. How bold. I wonder what happens? Something bad, of course, which brings us to the other hero: the author John Krakauer. After hearing about the death of a young man in Alaska, the journalist patiently uncovers the path our tragic hero took over his two year journey. The juxtiposition of McCandless’s impulsive wanderings and Krakaur’s patient reconstruction demonstrates that two narratives are better than one. Twine threads together to get a much stronger story, and people will be more invested in the outcome.
The Big Sleep (or, really, any Raymond Chandler, any Mickey Spillane, any Dashiell Hammit…you get the idea)
The Big Sleep is classic noir, and one of the greats of hardboiled detective fiction. These stories all share the same handful of traits. Typically, a snarling bruiser of a man stalks through the mean streets of the Big City, intent on solving some mystery. He’s tough. He’s a loner. He’ll punch someone out as soon as look at them. Dames aren’t safe either. These paragons of the post-war era are uniformly chauvinist, racist, and rude. So why read any of them? Because of what their authors can teach you about pacing. There is never a dull moment in noir. Each story reads like the author had the devil breathing down his back. Take a lesson from these guys. It’s tempting to add lots of details to your tale…background, political histories, interesting folks for your characters to deal with. But beware, for that way lies the “Epic”. Noir shows you that a few well-chosen phrases can paint a whole scene. Do more with less, and do it with style. That’s what The Big Sleep will show you.
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a bet, essentially. She was hanging out with her Goth Romantic friends one night, and they all agreed to write a scary story. Shelley’s yarn about an idealistic doctor and the zombie he builds (with the best of intentions) still brings chills. The account of Dr. Frankenstein’s quest to create life through SCIENCE is compelling enough. But the real story begins when the monster wakes up and calls out “Daddy!” Follow Shelley as she spins a lurid tale of an outcast from society, and everything he does to meet his maker. In reading Frankenstein, you can see how an author can manipulate a reader’s perceptions…first we root for Frankenstien, then the monster, going back and forth as the characters both show human and inhuman faces. Also, it’s a crazy awesome ghost story.
Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1939)
“I used to be an adventurer. Then I took an arrow to the knee.” Are you thinking about setting a story in a wartime environment? Have you thought about what war will do, really do, to your players or characters? Johnny Got His Gun makes All Quiet on the Western Front look like Beetle Bailey. In Dalton Trumbo’s horrific war novel, the protagonist, Joe, takes more than an arrow to the knee. And he tells you every last detail of his experience, from his childhood to the instant everything changed. It’s also an amazing feat of storytelling, as Trumbo slowly, brutally, pares down Joe’s world to the absolute minimum, stripping everything else away. It’s probably the best book that you’ll never want to read again.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams, 1979)
One might assume every nerd on Earth (pre-demolition) has read this. Not so. If you haven’t, it’s never too late to follow hapless ex-Earthling Arthur Dent and his sarcasm-blind alien pal throughout the Galaxy. The pair encounter ever more wacky “civilizations”, not to mention a host of utterly mad characters, in their search for meaning and sandwiches. It might not be unusual now, but Douglas Adams was one of the first writers to make science fiction really funny. Earlier authors might have put in moments of levity, or a laughable sidekick. Adams stacked his novel with insane humor. What can you take from this? Never underestimate the power of the funny when worldbuilding or storytelling. It can make even the destruction of all you love fairly tolerable.