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.
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?