A Top Ten?

This post started as a comment over on Dead White Guys, but it got me thinking. What are my top ten books, ever? Can I actually narrow that down? What would be my criteria for inclusion on such a prestigious (stop laughing) list?

In my comment there, I said that one criterion is how often I’ve come back to a story, either to re-read it or ponder on it. ‘Cause, you know, if something really sticks with you, it’s a top read, right?

The temptation for me in making – and sharing – such a list is to include high-brow titles simply because it might make me look more worldly or intellectual than genre fiction. Or to exclude childhood favorites, because that would be pure nostalgia. But you know, some of those childhood favorites are stories I still go back to read now that I’m all adult-like, and though I have enjoyed reading stories from all over the marketing label spectrum – even poetry! – I am most well read in genre fiction and what you might call Western canon. Do with that information what you will.

It would be interesting to come back to this list in ten years and see how it has or has not changed. I wonder what I will read in the future that will rock my world, change my world view, or find a corner of my heart and stay for the duration.

After some hemming and hawing, I present to you my top ten list. This has changed slightly from what I posted in the comments of that Dead White Guys post as I’ve taken the time to really chew on my reasoning. Some of these reads aren’t world changers and don’t provoke deep thoughts, some of them are terribly difficult to read, but worth the reading precisely because of the brutal side of life they depict. They have all stayed with me over the years.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read this since I first picked it up in 3rd grade. I blame it on Megan Follows. I only picked up the this book after I saw the mini-series on PBS, and it was ’cause I wanted to be that red-headed girl I saw on the television. Alas, I never have had red hair. Anne’s spunk, her dreaminess, and her fierce loyalty to those she loved gave me someone to identify with, in a way that the Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books of my childhood never did. I rather suspect that I’ve been comparing every man I date to Gilbert Blythe–and they always come up short.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I’m not sure which of my parents had their copy of The Hobbit laying out where I could find it, but I’m grateful they did. This is a fun adventure story, just dangerous enough to have me biting my nails as I fretted about the characters, exciting enough for me to read as fast I could to find out what happened, and smart enough to keep me reading it two decades after my first read. I went back to Bilbo and Gollum’s game of riddles time and time again when I was younger, and I’ve always wanted to sit down with Bilbo and Gandalf and listen to their stories.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. There’s something about Huck Finn, as a character, that I find endearing. The dialect of uneducated characters can be a pain to read, but that doesn’t deter me. I realize the novel has its faults, and there are articles all over the place about the depiction of non-white characters in this narrative, but in the end, it is the personality of Huck that draws me to it, again and again. I’ll probably never re-read Tom Sawyer’s adventures, but I will definitely re-read Huck’s.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. It might not be a great work of literature, but it is funny and smart and has hugely affected how I view the world. Arthur Dent is delightfully sarcastic, befuddled, and human, and Ford Prefect is the witty, hip version of Gandalf, come to drag a happy homebody off into an adventure. Throughout his travels, no matter how ludicrous or outlandish, Arthur remains Arthur, changing and growing as a character without losing his intrinsic, endearing, and very human qualities.

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Reading this broke my heart. Sometimes, I think, I need to have my heart broken, then sewn up again, by a great story and storyteller. This is that novel. It was so powerful to see Celie slowly come into herself, and with the help of her friendship with Shug, find her voice, and develop power over her own story.I’ve only read it twice, because it is hard, so hard to read, but I find myself thinking about Celie, Shug, and Miss Millie – and Walker’s mentions of them in Temple of My Familiar – fairly often.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. I resented being forced to read this in college, but in the decade since, I’ve found myself coming back to Pip, Estella, and Miss Havisham over and over again. Dickens is about as light-handed in his critique of social status, institutional law (and its divergence from moral imperatives) as Victor Hugo, below. The thing that struck me while reading the first time was that much of that social commentary, while different in the little details, is still broadly applicable today. We’ve come so far since this was published in 1861. Or, you know, not.

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. Honestly, I find Les Mis to be more than a little wordy, and a little preachy, but Jean Valjean and Javert are two characters that I just can’t get out of my mind. Having the musical’s lyrics piping through my head whenever I think of either character doesn’t help. Javert, when he’s forced to look at Valjean, and look at himself, and has his whole system of beliefs undermined–it’s a powerful moment for a powerful character. Like Great Expectations above, Les Mis illustrates the sometimes wide gulf between personal morality and institutional law. A nice reminder for we readers to be discerning in how we react to and treat those who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law, no?

Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Like The Color Purple, Bastard of Carolina is a hard, hard read, but one that is wholly worthwhile. I grew up in a sheltered life, and when I first read this, in my late teens, I had my world view irrevocably altered. Bone’s life with an abusive step father, poverty, and a mother who does nothing to help her has no happy ending, no knight in shining armor, and it is forever stamped in my memory.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. This is enough to melt anyone’s brain. I challenge you to read this novel and not make comparisons to hallucinogenic drugs. Despite this/because of this, Catch-22 is a story I find myself referencing quite a bit. Yossarian is, in many ways, an anti-hero. He doesn’t risk his life for others. In fact, his main goal throughout the novel is keep his life firmly not risked, despite the insanity of being in the Mediterranean during World War II, and being regularly asked by the military to put his life in danger. In the end, though, Yossarian can’t bring himself to put his life before those of the men he’s grown to care about, and it’s the ultimate catch-22.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein. Erase from your mind that atrocious B-rate film bearing the same name. They have nothing in common, and the movie doesn’t even have the cool special effects described in the novel. Starship Troopers is as much social commentary as it is military space adventure, and aside from the awesome exoskeletons the mobile infantry wear, the parts of the novel that stayed with me are the ways he arranged his society. Heinlein uses Rico to lay out strong thoughts on the meaning–and value–of war, civic duty, citizenship, sufferage, and capital punishment, and it is the combination of space adventure and social commentary that make me think of this as one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Honorable mentions:
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Didn’t make the list only because I don’t think I’m smart enough to have wrapped my head around it yet. I feel that I need to re-read, and then let it percolate in my brain for a time.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi. This is too new to me to be on the list; in ten years I think that might change. Another not easy, but worthwhile, read.

So readers, what are your top ten reads of all time?


About Jessica

Dork extraordinaire, that's me! An unhealthy knowledge of Star Trek, a love of books, a fondness for purring cats.
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13 Responses to A Top Ten?

  1. Andy says:

    In no particular order, fiction only:

    -Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
    -Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
    -Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
    -The Octopus by Frank Norris
    -Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
    -The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
    -Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
    -The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    -1984 by George Orwell
    -House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

    I realize that’s a whopping load of literary fiction and two hard-boiled detective novels, but hey, that’s the stuff I like. Melville’s Moby Dick rotates in and out of this list, depending on the day.

    Also, I’d include all of Chandler and Hammett if I could. I re-read all their works every couple of years, along with Sherlock Holmes. I’m a sucker for a mystery, even when I know the ending.

    I was pleasantly surprised to see Catch-22 on your list because I don’t think I know anyone else near my age who’s read it. If you think that’s like an acid trip, give Gravity’s Rainbow a whirl…

    • Jessica says:

      I think I need to revisit Chandler. We had to read him when I was an undergrad, and I mostly remember not liking him. I’ve noticed, that my tastes have changed (matured?) since then, so maybe I would like him now.

      Also: Lolita! That should have made my “honorable mention” list.

      House of Leaves is the coolest, weirdest book I’ve tried to read. I’m bummed that the copy I picked up didn’t have the different colored inks that I’ve seen in other editions – the different colors would have made it easier to follow.

      1984. Sigh. I think people should read it because it’s an important book, but I found horribly, horribly boring, both times I read it. The second time, I didn’t even finish. Nonetheless, the ways that Orwell’s world mirrors our own–the ubiquity of televisions, the ease with which we lose our privacy, the way our language is changing thanks to text and ‘net -speak–is scary.

      • Jessica says:

        Scratch that comment on Chandler. I like his writing well enough. It’s Raymond Carver I need to revisit. I think I’d appreciate his writing more now than I did ten years ago.

      • Andy says:

        I have a full color edition of House of Leaves which you’re welcome to borrow if you ever want to revisit it.

        I haven’t thought about 1984 in years, but the current and former President have reminded me of its importance…

        So maybe favorite was an overstatement for that one.

  2. Andy says:


    I left out Lolita.

    Lolita beats out 1984.

    At least for today.

  3. Melissa T says:

    After reading yours, I’d be afraid to come up with my own list. It’d be mostly genre, and nowhere near as intelligent-sounding.

    • Jessica says:

      Pshaw. (I love saying that.)

      It’s not about sounding intelligent, but making your own criteria, and seeing what comes up for you. I wanna know YOUR top ten list. I’m nosy like that.

      I was actually shocked by how few genre novels made my list. I honestly expected it to be WoT or LotR, Narnia, etc., but when I actually started to think about what I’ve read, and what has really, really stayed with me over my reading career, those fell to the side in favor of some of the literary titles.

      Funny how that reading I resented being forced into at school means something to me now. I should let my old teachers & profs know.

  4. Lore says:

    Have I told you how much I love you? Many of my faves are on your list too!

    1. Gone With The Wind ( you knew that was coming)
    2. The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck
    3. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackery
    4. The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan
    5. The Temple of My Familiar – Alice Walker
    6. Pride & Prejudice – Jane Austen
    7. 1984 – George Orwell
    8. The Clan of the Cave Bear Series (Earth’s Children Series) – Jean M. Auel
    9. Delta of Venus, Erotica – Anain Nin
    10. Midnight Sun – (unpublished, Stephenie Meyer)

    I kind of cheated with a series, but I’m really a fan of the first 3 books not all 5, though I CAN’T WAIT for the 6th and final one to come out next spring!
    smooches to you!

    • Jessica says:

      GWTW – Gosh, why am I not surprised? ;0)

      Ooh, the Good Earth. I need to read that. I very much enjoyed Dragon Seed, too.

      The Temple of My Familiar. Sigh. I love pretty much all the fiction of Walker’s that I’ve read. The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart is gorgeous.

      Seeing Midnight Sun keeping company with the other nine is weird for me. Given your fascination/obsession with a certain self-hating sparklepire, though, it makes sense. *smooches*

  5. Redhead says:

    Les Miserables and The Name of the Rose would totally make my top ten list too. Let’s see, what else, off the top? well, it’s mostly genre stuff:

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlien
    The Scar, by China Mieville
    The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch
    The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss
    Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand – ok, it’s not all genre stuff!
    Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers

    • Jessica says:

      Wow, I haven’t thought of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in a long time. I read it as a teen, on a huge sci-fi binge…it kind of runs together some of the other early Heinlein & Herbert novels I read. I remember liking it, though.

      Atlas Shrugged I haven’t finished. I’m about fifty pages into it.

      The rest, I’ve not read – you just expanded my “to read” list. Thanks!

      • Redhead says:

        and this is how our “tbr” piles get out of control, lol. I go through controlled heinlein binges, and Mistress is the one I always go back to for another read.

        I’m interested to hear what you think of Atlas. I find that most people either love it or hate. I always cry at the “train in the long tunnel” scene. you’ll know what i mean when you get to it.

  6. Nymeth says:

    I’d need to give my list some thought (and even then I’d probably want to revise it an hour or two later), but I know it’d be speculative fiction heavy. I think my reading is fairly eclectic, but those are the stories that marked me and that I keep coming back to.

    Great list, btw. I love Douglas Adams, Anne and The Color Purple.

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