We are not all destined for greatness. In a world where popular media pushes stories of superheroes and sports stars down our throats, it is important to realize that we are not all special, many of us aren't even average, but that is okay.
To live a quiet life is no less accomplished than any other and without the ordinary, heroes would not be heroes, and the spectacular would become commonplace. Here we look at a few novels about or involving a simpler lifestyle that is quiet and contained.
1. The Summer Book - Tove Jansson
Tove Jansson is best known for her creation of The Moomins, part hippo-part troll creatures that live in the forest, these characters have featured in a series of books, films and television shows that have delighted children the world over with their charm and strong moral messages but The Summer Book is a far departure from that.
Written for adults, it tells the story of an old bohemian woman and her granddaughter holidaying on a Scandinavian islet. The writing is wistful and almost poetic as it lulls back and forth telling of a glorious summer in amongst stunning surroundings. Like a daydream captured and written for posterity, it holds true as a magnificent bit of writing.
2. Stoner by John Williams
Love is an act rather than a privilege or state of being. This is the message Stoner tells us and it is also a story of being content in our work and finding the meaning in our lives by just doing.
Following John Stoner's undistinguished career and workplace politics, his marriage to Edith, his affair with his colleague Katherine, and his love and pursuit of literature, it shows how the pursuit of small things, of an ordinary life, is no less important or valid than a grand and heroic lifestyle. If you only read one book from this list, please make it this one!
3. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
Only 160 pages long, this book certainly is one of brevity, but it still manages to be filled with beauty and wonder as the subject matter is about finding dignity in solitude.
An exquisite novel about a simple life, it demonstrates that solace and truth are virtues worth living for just as much as a life full of exciting interludes.
4. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Following a dying pastor writing his autobiography, the book actually tells of three generations of Americans through the civil war right up until the 20th century and talks about how faith has shaped the nation and how faith works in increasingly secular times and how there is still a spiritual battle for America's heart.
Trying to realign preconceptions about the founding ideology of America, it puts an interesting take on how the newly formed country found itself.
5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance
A book about life on the fringes of society and a rural culture in decline alongside a family in crisis. A fantastic read to remind us that our life experience is not universal as the bitter side of the American dream comes to the fore as it picks apart America's white working class living in the rust belt struggling with their situation and their identity.
A memoir filled with colorful characters, it tells of the people who keep America going on a day to day basis.
6. The Country of The Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
A short story sequence that are all linked by time and place, many don't quite consider it a novel due to their very loose connections, but it can be read as one as well. All the stories are sketches of the fictional Maine fishing village of Dunnet Landing.
Telling of hardship experienced by the inhabitants of the decaying fishing villages along the Maine coast, the book is credited with popularizing regionalism and talks of living at a slower pace and the time needed to write.
7. A Month in The Country by J.L. Carr
First published in 1980 and nominated for the Booker Prize, the book won the Guardian Fiction Prize that year. A subtle novel about two World War I veterans who are employed at a church, one to find a lost grave beyond the churchyard walls and the other to try and uncover a mural supposedly covered with a layer of whitewash.
The story looks at England's loss of/struggle with spirituality post-war and shows that life is not all life is not all ease and intimacy and often is emotionally cruel but still, we must persist.
8. The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
As a retiring butler takes a country drive through the English countryside, he reflects on his three decades of service and wonders whether he has served a greater good by helping serve a 'great' man. In his own mind he has done this but as he dwells on it further, doubts start to creep in.
A tragic, spiritual portrait of an insular world where a job becomes a life, it shows that maybe not all of us can contribute in great ways, but that makes our efforts no less worthy.
9. Waiting by Hai Jin
With a depiction of China so rarely seen in the West, this book follows a man who has fallen in love with another woman other than his wife and every summer he asks his wife for a divorce and every year she agrees but then backs out of it.
In a period where the ruling Communist party serves great punishment for adultery, the protagonist must retrace his steps to a past life with his wife to see where it all went wrong and convince her to set him free.
10. The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The story of a young man who grew up in an orphanage after becoming evident he would never be adopted, he is taken care of by the director who sets out to make him 'useful' around the orphanage and the attached medical practice.
As a man, this character, Wally, then sets out to be 'useful' but circumstances bring him back to the orphanage where he started, and the question remains of whether he did well and was 'useful' in his short period in the outside world. Showing us how even the smallest things are of great importance, the novel is touching and tragic.