MY FAVORITE BOOKS, A LIST
not quite 100 yet, but I keep adding more
Readers like to share books. Some readers collect them too. One wall of the biggest room in our house is all books. But there are as many more, altogether, lined up on random shelves in other rooms.
Beth and I are readers. We each have some books that we will never part with, although we might lend them. We pick up new ones almost every week and we haul away boxfuls now and then. I’ve had the bad habit of bringing home extra copies of the ones I like best, in order to gift them. If you want a copy of The Source, for instance, one of the best books of all time, just ask. I may have one around here to give away. (Other titles too.)
Besides the ones I’ve written myself, (they’re in the list), what follows is a list of my favorite books of all time; about 80 and the list is growing. I wish there were time and space to explain each one. If you want to know why one is on this list, just ask.
Of course, my age influences my preferences. I was born in 1950. And yet, what moves me is splendid writing (command of the language), coupled with a good story, intriguing characters, and a subject that, while it may not initially interest me at least does not repel me.
The numbers 1-8 are a sort of ranking by importance to me. Those in the 1st rank are the ones I would read again and in many cases I have. Something in the 8th rank may be just as readable and captivating but, for me, the content may not have had as much impact as a book with a higher ranking. But they all had some impact.
Yes, I’ve read them all, some more than once. And I can warmly recommend almost anything else written by any of the below authors; I just refrained from listing every work each one has written and which I have read.
There are exceptions to the anything-by-the-same-author rule. Nothing else by Joseph Heller rises to the inspired genius of Catch-22. But almost all of James Michener’s works are equally absorbing. Almost all of Jack London, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, too.
Then there are modern authors, whom I’ve read but haven’t even listed. Maybe they will go on my next list. And collections of short stories — how I loved Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which I subscribed to when I was 13! But the stories in each issue came from several different writers. In an anthology of stories by several authors, which one gets the credit? (I haven’t included any by multiple authors, only short story collections by individual author.)
Which one is the best ever? No other book glows with the beauty of the English language like Lolita by the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, even though the story shocks many readers. And Nabokov’s Russian roots conceal his acquaintance with the English and French languages during the early years of his life. His early command of all three languages certainly contributed uniquely to his linguistic power. As a man of faith, I can’t promote the subject matter in most of his work and so I can’t rate Lolita a ‘1’ overall.
Who is my second-favorite author in English? I’ve listed only one title by O. Henry but absolutely everything by this author is a treat for a lover of language. And yet I can’t fail to mention Charles Dickens and E. E. Cummings as geniuses with words.
For fiction, though, I can’t pick just one book. The entire group that I’ve rated a ‘1’ is the best fiction ever.
The best ever for non-fiction would have to be Big Bang. And yet, anything by P. J. O’Rourke is the best non-fiction for sheer entertainment, and perhaps The True Believer is the best piece of social inquiry, unless you are willing to tackle Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock.
My favorite juvenile novel of all time, The Lion’s Paw, used to be hard to come by, but I understand that it was recently re-released. I have a new copy which I obtained right after its very limited 50th-anniversary re-publication in 1996, but I originally read it in my youth. Now I hear there is an edition published in 2008.
If you are looking for a book to read, you can’t go wrong if you choose from this list, although if you’re not “into” non-fiction, then I will not be responsible if you don’t enjoy, for instance, Big Bang. But if you do enjoy non-fiction, I will be surprised if your reaction to Big Bang isn’t similar to mine — the most engaging, suspenseful, and possibly the most faith-restoring book I have read in a quarter century. (And yet nothing in the book even hints at religion.)
I am specific about the edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, by the way. I fear that, over succeeding editions, important quotations will be deemed expendable to make space for later, and probably deserving, entries. So, if you do obtain a later edition, pair it with the fourteenth (or earlier), and if you have the fourteenth and you obtain a later one, keep them both.
Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills did not covert me to the Roman Catholic church, but it was hugely edifying and faith-affirming. (I could add books that moved me to embrace the Orthodox church but steering a reader to a specific denomination or even to a specific religion is not my purpose here.)
I could add hundreds more books. It pains me to leave some out, for instance William Bennett’s compilations under the titles of The Moral Compass and The Book of Virtues. The truth is, I haven’t read both of those cover to cover, but they are essential to a personal library.
I could add several dozen books that are important to me but which don’t belong on a list of casual reading. These would include titles that I found edifying or academically informative or useful in personal meditation. The Bible, of course (The Orthodox Bible and the New English Bible with the Apocrypha). The Book of Common Prayer. The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife. My shelves full of railroad books contain more examples, as are my books in other languages. Perhaps, some day, I will turn my lists of books into a book unto itself.
I am certain that I have forgotten to include a few titles which, if I were to think of them, I would be chagrined to realize I have omitted. When they come to mind I will edit this list.
And here it is:
1. Big Bang by Simon Singh
2. In the Empire of Genghis Khan by Stanley Stewart
2. The Great Evolution Mystery by Gordon Rattray Taylor
3. King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz
3. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
3. The Way of a Pilgrim by author unknown
4. Ken Purdy’s Book of Automobiles by Ken Purdy
5. The Code Book by Simon Singh
5. Common Sense and Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (often published in one volume)
6. Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
6. The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce
6. Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons
6. Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills
6. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton
7. The Best-loved Poems of the American People compiled by Hazel Felleman
7. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
7. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt
7. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White
7. Familiar Quotations, Fourteenth Edition compiled by John Bartlett
7. Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman
7. The Life That Lives on Man by Michael Andrews
7. Game Management by Aldo Leopold
8. Quotations from Chairman Bill by William F. Buckley, Jr.
8. Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
8. The Founding Fish by John McFee
8. Annals of the Former World by John McPhee
8. Babie Nayms by David A. Woodbury
BOOKS OF ESSAYS
1. Parliament of Whores by P. J. O’Rourke
1. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer
1. Maine Stories by Lew-Ellyn Hughes
2. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
2. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White
3. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon
3. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner
1. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock
1. The Narrative of Henry Tufts by Henry Tufts, Jr., edited by Daniel Allie
2. A Whole-Souled Woman by Susan Strane
3. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
4. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour
1. Pogo by Walk Kelly
2. Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo
1. The Age of Steam by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg
A few of these are aimed at younger readers — ages 12-17. These could be called “juvenile” novels. The genre, “young adult,” is apparently aimed at the same age group but seems to emphasize what the publishing industry considers issues that affect juvenile readers. In fact, it’s very difficult to get a juvenile novel published nowadays unless it overtly addresses “coming-of-age” matters like unconventional sex, parental abuse, systemic racism, and so on. I don’t look for issues in what I read and issues don’t determine whether I enjoy it. I am interested in literature.
It’s also confusing that the “adult” genre, which I would think simply means over the heads of children, seems to imply graphic sex. So how does the industry classify a wonderful book aimed at an audience of adults? Literature, I suppose. And that’s what comprises this list.
There are titles that are wonderful for a reader of any age who is competent with one’s own language. The Call of the Wild is as splendid a read for a 12-year-old as someone decades older.
So here’s what I have done: Under FICTION I have begun with a section suitable for JUVENILE readers but no less appealing to adults. The ADULT section does not imply “adults only” and may be meaningful to older teenagers as well.
1. The Lion’s Paw by Robb White
1. The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
1. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini
1. Penrod by Booth Tarkington
1. Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford
2. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
3. Halic: The Story of a Gray Seal by Ewan Clarkson
4. The Clover Street News by David A. Woodbury
1. Cold Morning Shadow by David A. Woodbury
1. Fire, Wind & Yesterday by David A. Woodbury
1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
1. The Enormous Room by e. e. cummings
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts
1. The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clarkson
1. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis
1. The Source by James A. Michener
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
2. Follow the River by James Alexander Thom
2. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
2. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
3. Roots by Alex Haley
3. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
3. Work Song by Ivan Doig
4. All Creatures Great and Small by James A. Herriot
4. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
4. Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams
4. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
4. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
5. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
6. Papa Martel by Gerald Robichaud
5. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
6. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
1. Rolling Stones (and all the other volumes) by O. Henry
1. Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce [especially “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”]
2. Tales to Warm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury
3. Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd
5. A Fine and Pleasant Misery and other titles by Patrick F. McManus
Feel free to recommend more!