Shelf Improvement: Books to Improve Your Life and Library: Elegant Allegories Edition

Shelf Improvement is a column highlighting books guaranteed to improve your library and your life. From literary fiction, young adult, and humor, to spirituality, autobiography, and more, no genre is off limits. The only requirement of the selections featured here is they must be transformative and page-turning. If you’re hoping to build a better bookshelf, Shelf Improvement can help you on your odyssey. The theme of this installment is “Elegant Allegories.”

Animal Farm by George Orwell
Written in 1945, Animal Farm has prevailed as one of the finest allegorical novels ever produced, and it’s no surprise why. This succinct masterpiece (with most editions under 150 pages) is bursting with biting wit, political commentary, riveting plot twists, and more symbolism than you can shake a cornstalk at. Set on the fictional Manor Farm in England, George Orwell’s artistic and social experiment details the revolt of a barnyard full of animals against their intemperate farmer, Mr. Jones, as well as their subsequent fate under the rule of Napoleon, a pig who surges to power and eventually becomes more tyrannical than Jones.

A thinly veiled reinterpretation of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of Stalin, Animal Farm is a delight for history buffs who enjoy connecting the symbolic dots—is Orwell’s Battle of the Windmill the same as World War II? Are the farm puppies really the Secret Police? Is the horn-and-hoof flag simply a retooling of the Russian hammer and sickle? Here, Orwell provides plenty of speculation on all matters of hidden history. 

That said, laypersons need not fear: the book is just as compelling for those rusty on Russian politics, as Animal Farm also succeeds as a general cautionary tale. As world events have shown, one totalitarian regime is often traded for another, and the oppressed, if unwilling or unable to challenge authority, gain no real foothold or progress. Animal Farm illustrates this conundrum beautifully…just ask the workhorses.

An important and entertaining read for anyone age 13 and up, Animal Farm is as relevant as ever in today’s political climate, civil unrest, and international discord. Equally chilling and hilarious, Orwell’s opus, for better or worse, will never fall out of fashion.

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
In the same vein of Dante’s Divine Comedy, C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce tells the tale of a man who takes a bus ride from Hell to Heaven and must decide if he wants to risk all he has ever known and trusted in exchange for joy. Written in classic Lewis manner, both frank and lush, The Great Divorce combines the best of Lewis’ theological leanings with his Narnian gift for fantasy.

The story begins as the narrator walks the lonely streets of Hell, offered up here as a perpetually gray town populated with lonely, argumentative people. Soon, the narrator embarks on a bus with others who, in one way or another, want something better for themselves but seem beset with cynicism and doubt that anything of the sort is plausible. Once the bus arrives at the foothills of Heaven—represented as a vast, monumental land of great beauty and weight—the passengers find themselves unable to walk on the grass (it’s too painful) or lift a single leaf (they’re too heavy). 

Greeted by supernatural beings who attempt to convince the passengers to overcome themselves to advance themselves, the miserable souls set about discussing the many reasons why they can’t. The narrator watches as passengers reveal their various blockages; some eventually surrender to Heaven, becoming solid, while others slink back to the bus, becoming ghosts.

Whether you consider yourself religious, spiritual, or neither, The Great Divorce is, nonetheless, a fascinating allegory of Hell and Heaven, or, more generally, a tale of free will and the choice between self-destruction or self-actualization. Loaded with stunning surrealistic imagery and metaphorical insight into the human condition, The Great Divorce engages readers straight through to its unexpected ending.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
There are magical stories and then there are phenomenal literary feats, and Life of Pi is certainly the latter. This fanciful and multi-layered work, bursting with allegory, tells the story of Pi Patel, an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and finds himself on a lifeboat, with a tiger named Richard Parker, for 227 days. 

After an enigmatic author’s note, Life of Pi is divided into three distinct parts, the first delving into the boy’s childhood where he explores and embraces Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism and sets the tone for an impending comprehensive spiritual journey.

The book’s second section details the move of Pi’s father’s zoo and the subsequent shipwreck. Stranded on a lifeboat briefly with a hyena, orangutan, and zebra, before Richard Parker appears as Pi’s ultimate shipmate, the book’s main component is deeply abstract and fanciful. Pi recounts his many challenges here, including delirium, blindness, a carnivorous island made of algae and meerkats, and a chance meeting with a cannibalistic Frenchman.

Life of Pi’s final segment consists both of Pi’s rescue in Mexico and an intense interview between Pi and Japanese investigators. When asked to tell his story, Pi’s version is dismissed as a lie, so, he tells a different version of his ordeal, replacing the animals with people. Though more believable, the investigators admit they prefer the far-fetched account, to which Pi responds: “And so it goes with God.”

Allegorical interpretations abound for this beautiful work, but most agree it tells the story of a human vision quest and highlights the many beasts without and within humans that both help and hinder on the road to wholeness. But the symbolism doesn’t end there. Does Pi’s name correlate with the mathematical pi? Is the dangerous island a fallen Eden? What of the life raft? Or the name of the original doomed ship, Tsimtsum, which refers to “God’s withdrawal” in Kabbalistic concepts? A story within a story within a story, Life of Pi is a must-read for anyone who loves a book that reflects like a prism.

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