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12 Books You Should Drop Everything and Read This November

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As the temperature drops, the thought of staying inside with a good book becomes more and more appealing. With that in mind, we’re happy to suggest a few titles, including a holiday-themed book of essays, a classic adventure novel, and an in-depth look at processed food.

1. BLUE HIGHWAYS, BY WILLIAM LEAST-HEAT MOON

After his marriage crumbled and he lost his job, William Least-Heat Moon embarked on an ambling 10,000-mile journey around the U.S. using only the lesser-traveled highways and byways that appeared in blue on his old Rand McNally map. His account of the journey is filled with colorful characters—including a couple building a houseboat together, and a former Brooklyn police officer turned rural monk—who altogether paint an odd and wondrous picture that is unmistakably American. A deeply personal work, Blue Highways is also about Least-Heat Moon’s search for all things good and essential. "A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go," the author writes. Anyone feeling a sense of wanderlust can take refuge in this book.

2. HOLIDAYS ON ICE, BY DAVID SEDARIS

Amidst all the schmaltz and consumerism of the holidays, it’s refreshing to read about a disgruntled department store elf. That saga, one of several in this collection of personal essays that gleefully hacks away at the magic of the season, tells of Sedaris’ brief stint at Macy’s. It’s a classic for the author’s fans, and full of the dry, cutting humor that’s made him so popular. Also included in the collection: A pointed critique of an elementary school pageant, and a story about rescuing a prostitute on Christmas Day. Happy holidays, everybody!

3. THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, BY URSULA K. LEGUIN

George Orr is a very ordinary man with a very powerful ability: His dreams can alter reality. Rather than embrace his gift, though, Orr self-medicates to keep the dreams at bay. A sleep researcher named William Haber offers to help, but ends up harnessing George’s ability to dramatically change the world while enriching himself at the same time. LeGuin’s depiction of shifting realities, including unsettling visions of world peace and a world without racism, are thought-provoking, while the tȇte-à-tȇte between Orr and Haber keeps the plot tight, the pages turning.

4. THE TRIAL, BY FRANZ KAFKA

Two agents arrest a man on his birthday and take him to a makeshift courtroom to stand trial. Who are the agents? What are the charges? Don’t expect a resolution from Kafka, who’s more interested in the tension that comes from trying to make sense of the senseless. David Lynch fans will revel in the book’s many unsettling, dreamlike sequences, like when the protagonist, K., stumbles upon a side room where the two agents are being punished for soliciting bribes. It’s all very strange, which is entirely the point. Like any vivid dream, you just need to go with it.

5. RAGTIME, BY E.L. DOCTOROW

Doctorow reimagines 20th-century iconoclasts Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford in this raucous and moving page-turner. The author, who passed away last year, took a lot of criticism from history buffs, who objected to Houdini having an Oedipus complex and J.P. Morgan’s twisted obsession with immortality, among other revisions. But while he may have fudged the details, Doctorow captured the spirit of a diverse, rapidly industrializing nation speeding towards the future. The lengthy set piece that ends the book, inspired by the early 19th-century work Michael Kohlhaas, feels especially timely in light of police protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.

6. SALT, SUGAR, FAT, BY MICHAEL MOSS

Don’t let the upbeat name and cheerful mascot fool you: Behind that box of breakfast cereal, a political and marketing war rages. Moss, an investigative reporter with The New York Times, examines the inner workings of the processed food industry, focusing on three key ingredients that make these wonders of technology so appealing—and in many cases, so unhealthy. Highlights in this impressively researched book include a history of Lunchables, the wildly popular kids’ meal developed as a way to sell more Oscar Mayer bologna, and a behind-the-scenes look at the world’s largest salt provider.

7. A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE, BY SAMANTHA POWER

Power, who serves as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, believes that the U.S. could have—and should have—done more to condemn and prevent genocide in countries around the world. After reading her detailed accounting of mass killings in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia, among other places, it’s hard to disagree. Military intervention isn’t always the answer, as Power points out. Even deeming these atrocities "genocide"—something the U.S. has failed to do in the past—has a significant impact. Whether you agree with her or not, A Problem From Hell is worth reading as a history lesson on how countries can slip into chaos.

8. WHITE TEETH, BY ZADIE SMITH

Insanely ambitious is one way to describe the debut novel from British author Smith, who zips through time and an array of different character perspectives in her examination of immigration and identity. The book centers on two aging war buddies living in London, Archie Jones and Samal Iqbal, whose lives have turned out to be less than they’d hoped. Smith examines these men, their wives and children, and throws in a third family, the Chalfens, for good measure. The diversity of voices is wildly entertaining but also very focused. And the way Smith draws together the seemingly disparate plot strands speaks to her immense talent.

9. THE DOOR, BY MAGDA SZABO

First published in Hungary in 1987, this novel endured a long road to its eventual translation and publication for American audiences. The wait was definitely worthwhile. The story centers on a writer, also named Magda, who recounts her relationship with her enigmatic housekeeper, Emerence, many years in the past. Separated by class, age, and education, the women develop a complicated relationship that brings them—and the reader—closer to Emerence’s secrets. Szabo, who died in 2007 and wrote this book at the height of her literary powers, crafted something subtle and haunting that plot summary alone can’t convey. It’s a book that explores hidden lives and a country’s troubling past.

10. GHOST IN THE WIRES, BY KEVIN MITNICK

These days, Mitnick lives a comfortable existence as a digital security consultant. But before that, he was one of the world’s most wanted hackers. Mitnick revisits his heyday in the '80s and early '90s, when he regularly infiltrated corporations like Novell and Sun Microsystems, and the ensuing cat-and-mouse game he played with authorities leading up to his arrest in 1995. That his adventures unfolded in the days of dial-up internet and even before make Mitnick’s story all the more suspenseful, since securing sensitive information often required social savvy and a flair for the theatrical in addition to all those deft key strokes.

11. SALVAGE THE BONES, BY JESMYN WARD

In the wake of a tragedy like Hurricane Katrina, it’s easy to reduce the lives of those affected to symbols of love, faith, endurance, and so on. Ward’s luminous novel reminds us of the full, beating hearts that existed before and during the storm. The book follows 14-year-old Esch, a budding lover of literature, and her family in the days leading up to the hurricane. Confounding stereotypes at every turn, and fully rooted in Esch’s earnest voice, Salvage the Bones unfolds as a series of vignettes that are raw and surprising, and that carry the weight of contemporary myth. When the storm finally hits, it hits with a fury that could only come from one who was there, as Ward was.

12. THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, BY JULES VERNE

After escaping a Confederate prison via makeshift hot-air balloon, five men and a dog named Top end up stranded on an island in the South Pacific (don’t think too hard about the logistics). Verne, who published his book in 1874, weaves a compelling story of survival as the characters learn to scrape by and eventually thrive in their new habitat. There’s a mystery afoot, too, as the title indicates, and a battle with bloodthirsty pirates—all the hallmarks of a great adventure yarn, in other words.

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10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
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Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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Why a Readily Available Used Paperback Is Selling for Thousands of Dollars on Amazon
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At first glance, getting ahold of a copy of One Snowy Knight, a historical romance novel by Deborah MacGillivray, isn't hard at all. You can get the book, which originally came out in 2009, for a few bucks on Amazon. And yet according to one seller, a used copy of the book is worth more than $2600. Why? As The New York Times reports, this price disparity has more to do with the marketing techniques of Amazon's third-party sellers than it does the market value of the book.

As of June 5, a copy of One Snowy Knight was listed by a third-party seller on Amazon for $2630.52. By the time the Times wrote about it on July 15, the price had jumped to $2800. That listing has since disappeared, but a seller called Supersonic Truck still has used copy available for $1558.33 (plus shipping!). And it's not even a rare book—it was reprinted in July.

The Times found similar listings for secondhand books that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than their market price. Those retailers might not even have the book on hand—but if someone is crazy enough to pay $1500 for a mass-market paperback that sells for only a few dollars elsewhere, that retailer can make a killing by simply snapping it up from somewhere else and passing it on to the chump who placed an order with them.

Not all the prices for used books on Amazon are so exorbitant, but many still defy conventional economic wisdom, offering used copies of books that are cheaper to buy new. You can get a new copy of the latest edition of One Snowy Knight for $16.99 from Amazon with Prime shipping, but there are third-party sellers asking $24 to $28 for used copies. If you're not careful, how much you pay can just depend on which listing you click first, thinking that there's not much difference in the price of used books. In the case of One Snowy Knight, there are different listings for different editions of the book, so you might not realize that there's a cheaper version available elsewhere on the site.

An Amazon product listing offers a mass-market paperback book for $1558.33.
Screenshot, Amazon

Even looking at reviews might not help you find the best listing for your money. People tend to buy products with the most reviews, rather than the best reviews, according to recent research, but the site is notorious for retailers gaming the system with fraudulent reviews to attract more buyers and make their way up the Amazon rankings. (There are now several services that will help you suss out whether the reviews on a product you're looking at are legitimate.)

For more on how Amazon's marketplace works—and why its listings can sometimes be misleading—we recommend listening to this episode of the podcast Reply All, which has a fascinating dive into the site's third-party seller system.

[h/t The New York Times]

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