Esteemed author Anjan Sundaram recommends works by Franz Kafka, José Saramago, and more:
1984 by George Orwell (Signet, $10). The most important scene in this book, for me, is when the hero, Winston Smith, meets the leader of the secret opposition and is asked how far he's willing to go to defeat Big Brother. Would he throw acid on a child's face? He says he would. And thanks to Orwell's genius, we readers never lose sympathy for Winston. We understand him in a way that we might understand few people in real life who would say such a thing.
The Trial by Franz Kafka (Oxford, $14). Kafka wastes no time. From the first line we are thrown into the life of Josef K. and a sense of outrage: "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested."
The Cave by José Saramago (Mariner, $15). Saramago speaks to us like our grandfathers do: He's patient and always watchful. In this novel, an old potter is forced to confront the modern, capitalist world that he has resisted for so long. He gives up his delicate craft and finds himself lost in a place of illusion.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (Penguin, $15). The barbarians never arrive, but we are constantly waiting for them. In this allegorical novel, the leader of a town at the edge of an empire pays a price for loving a member of the indigenous nomadic tribe that is the source of his compatriots' fears.
Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin, $15). We never meet the deposed dictator around whom Dovey's debut novel revolves. Instead, we come to know him through the stories of his chef, his portraitist, and his barber. Through them, we learn the mysterious and insidious ways in which power, and the tendency to abuse it, work within us.
The File by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, $17). The author has a reckoning with his past, traveling to East Germany to meet the people who spied on him in the late 1970s when he was a student. A complex story emerges of how people participate in mass surveillance, how they justify it, and how they come to terms with betrayal and regret.