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What makes the best satire books? Satire is the use of humor and irony to show how something (a person, community, nation, etc.) is stupid and/or wrong. It’s different from humor, because humor can be anything that makes you laugh with or without social commentary. It also usually has an over-the-top aspect that shifts it from comedy to satire.
The person who comes to mind who exemplifies the satire is the Anglo-Irish author Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels. In “A Modest Proposal”, he argued that the best way to solve the Irish famine was to eat children. It was a biting satire against England’s abuses of Ireland. However, some people took the essay at face value and were appalled (or even worse, supportive) of its argument. That’s the problem with satire – sometimes people think you’re serious about what you say, instead of being serious about what you ridicule.
Here is my list of the ten best satire books. Like everything, the idea of ”best” is subjective. I included works that I wanted to highlight and excluded some of the best known, including Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. They are masters in their own right.
Classic satirical books
The Satyricon of Petronius, translated by Piero Chiara and PG Walsh
Starting with the classics, this 60 CE text contains one of the best satirical meal scenes I have ever read. It’s a real send-off of Nero’s Rome with the wealthy indulging themselves to the fullest. I had read it just for this scene; the satire continues with the other fragments, but it really gets “out there” in the rest of the story.
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
This is an 18th-century experimental novel allegedly about Tristram Shandy, which tells his life story… sort of. This is a book that defies summary, but I would describe it as a satire on learning, literature, and philosophy as a whole. It’s all over the place, back and forth in the timeline — so much so that the book includes a pictorial depiction of the plot near the end that’s basically one giant scribble. It is a strange and special book and truly a book out of its time.
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Few books are dedicated to the worm breaking down the author’s body, but here we are. Set in 19th century Brazil, Brás Cubas tells his life story with biting commentary – since he is dead, after all. He breaks off at various points, at one point to recount a crazy dream of riding a hippopotamus. It’s reminiscent of 19th century Brazil, but also of society’s senseless adherence to tradition.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Winner of the National Book Award and considered one of the most important books of the 20th century, Invisible Man features an unnamed young black man who travels the nightmarish American landscape from south to north. Through surreal and maddening encounters, the book exposes racial dynamics in the United States. It may have been written in 1952, but it is still relevant today.
The Dorothy Parker Laptop by Dorothy Parker
Parker is one of America’s great writers, known for his quick wit and commentary. This book is a collection of his short stories, essays, poetry, and more. For example, she once said, “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” His scathing writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, exposes many of the contradictions of American society.
Modern satire books (published after 1960)
Cemeteries of the Angels of Reinaldo Arenas
This is Arenas’ account of the classic Cuban history of 1839 Cecilia Valdes about mixed-race Cecilia, who falls in love with a wealthy aristocrat who ends up betraying her. Arena’s version tells the story from multiple perspectives. It’s a satire of the original work, full of racial and gender dynamics, but Arenas puts his own spin on the idea of the tragic love story or even the love story in general.
Power by Naomi Alderman
The premise of this book is that one day women realize that they can electrocute people with their hands. The book winds from a cast of characters, an American politician, an adopted child, a daughter of a crime family, and more. It’s not a thought-provoking story of women’s liberation, but a dark reflection on how things never really change.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede continues to have to clean up after the murders of her sister Ayoola. So far, that’s three. She could go to the cops, but she’s family, right? When his sister lays eyes on Korede’s crush, however, things may have to change. It plays with the crime novel format as well as the idea of what we are willing to do for our families.
Temporary by Hilary Leichter
This book explores the absurd world of work. The narrator is a temp who goes from job to job, from any pirate, assassin, witch’s assistant, all in search of illusory performances. It’s a commentary on how employers ask workers more and more for little in return.
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick, Taki Soma, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV and more
While female dog planet is a three-book dystopian graphic novel (two trade books and a third short stories), it’s an incredible exploration of gender dynamics. Women who act outside of their prescribed patriarchal gender roles are branded nonconformists and sent to a prison planet indefinitely. From not being the perfect mother to refusing advances from your employer, you can get a one-way ticket to Bitch Planet. It has been compared to that of Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale. Unfortunately, this seems increasingly relevant in our time.
These are just ten of the best satire books, new and old, that use exaggeration, irony and more to ridicule and criticize our lives. Looking for more satire? Check out these satirical novels and this essay on understanding satire.