My friend and former co-worker Brandalyn recently asked me to compile a list of my favorite books for her daughter Briana, who’s on her way to college this year. Before I begin, allow me to throw out this predictable disclaimer: the books listed here are not listed in order of preference and are not necessarily my favorites. Like everyone else, my reading habits tend to reflect my personality. I go through a lot of phases, becoming intensely interested in one thing at a time and reading everything I can find about that one thing. Eventually, however, I lose interest and move on to something else. As such, I’ve read a lot of books that I greatly enjoyed at the time but which I don’t really think about anymore and/or have now completely forgotten about. The books listed here are the ones that have stuck with me, the ones I consider important and that have made an impression on me for better or worse.
1) The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark Series by Alvin Schwartz
In addition to the Dr.Seuss and Roald Dahl books that we all know and love, these were the books that turned reading into a lifelong habit for me. When I was in elementary school, there was a waiting list for them every October.
2) Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge by Judy Blume.
If you think boys don’t like Judy Blume books, think again. My fourth grade teacher read these books to my class and all of us, boys and girls alike, begged her to keep reading whenever she’d come to the end of a chapter. I still remember a lot of specifics about these books. Great stuff.
3) Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus.
One of the great forgotten Disney movies, The Great Mouse Detective, was based on this book. I read two or three in the series. Basil in Mexico was a fave.
4) Garrison’s Gorillas and the Fear Formula
When I was in sixth grade, I found this book hidden way up on a shelf in my elementary school library. It turned out to be a WWII adventure story for boys written in the 1960s…and I loved it. Garrison and his crew were basically special ops soldiers, hiding behind enemy lines, committing acts of espionage, and blasting Nazis day in and day out. I bugged the librarian for like a month after I read this book. “Are there any more Garrison’s Gorillas books?….Are you sure?….Are you SURE?…” And by the way, that’s not a typo. “Guerrillas” is misspelled on the original cover.
Classics That Live Up to Their Reputations
5) Ulysses by James Joyce.
Come on, you knew this one was gonna be on the list. Some of my friends have asked me how I can so deeply despise modern art and yet still love Ulysses as much as I do. The answer is that Joyce wasn’t faking it. Unlike the army of writers and academics that have borrowed his techniques to cover their lack of ability and substance, Joyce was an originator. With Dubliners, and even with the opening chapters of Ulysses itself, he proved that he could write a good, straightforward story without a lot of verbal pyrotechnics. Because of this, I’m willing to go along with him when he gets more experimental. Also unlike his descendants, Joyce didn’t hate Western culture, as evidenced by the fact that Ulysses is (obviously) an updated Odyssey. Finally, nerdy as this sounds, I actually remember my first college reading of Ulysses being a lot of fun. It was like a playful puzzle that had to be put together and looked at very closely. The following semester, I took a course in Faulkner and was somewhat disappointed. He used a lot of Joyce’s methods, but he wasn’t in love with Life the way Joyce was. I’m digressing here. (Be sure to check out my Bloomsday slideshow from my trip to Dublin in 2012.)
6) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
I love The Great Gatsby as much as the next person, but this is the great American novel. It’s not a story of kings and queens, great conquerors, or heroic quests. It’s a story about a poor boy and a runaway slave on a wooden raft, looking for freedom.
7) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
I put off reading this book for a long time, mostly because I’ve never been a big fan of science fiction. Boy was that a mistake! Turns out, it’s not science fiction. It’s comedy disguised as science fiction. Douglas Adams is one of those great authors who can make you laugh hysterically, then stop and say, “Well, hey, I guess I’ve never thought about it like that.” Look for his interviews on YouTube and you’ll see how his books were a very natural extension of his personality. Genius..
8) 1984 by George Orwell.
I know I’m a stereotype – the libertarian praising 1984 – but seriously, there’s a lot to admire here. First, Orwell was a socialist, but he wasn’t afraid to criticize the factions of the movement that he saw moving in the wrong direction. If you can’t admire him for that intellectual and moral courage, admire him for the amazing clarity of his writing. There’s a reason his name has become an adjective.
9) The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
A writing instructor once told me that you can’t write a story where nothing goes wrong. That’s not true, and this book is proof. “Alternately slow moving and fast paced,” according to Wikipedia, The Wind in the Willows contains a lot of simple stories about very simple things. Some might find them boring, but I look at them as a collection of meditations. The world disappears when I sit down with this book. [A sidenote: Mr. Toad is one of my heroes.]
10) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Don’t let the cheesy title fool you; this book is a great read. It puts an interesting spin on the age-old question of Life’s ultimate meaning. What’s it all about? What was it all for? Just read it. .
11) Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.
This book is overshadowed by Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood, but it’s worth checking out. A well-written coming of age story.
12) Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski.
Most, if not all, of Bukowski’s books are at least partly autobiographical, and this is the one that really puts his whole story into focus. Read it for the chapters about his acne and the senior prom. [Briana, be sure to look for some of Bukowski’s poetry. His style is a lot of fun to read. Little prose epiphanies.]
13) Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.
I’m a sucker for anything set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (especially the 1920’s), and this book is no exception. Doctorow quickly sketches everyone from the titans of industry to the anarchist Emma Goldman and makes all of them memorable. The movie version stays pretty true to the book.
14) Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt.
I recommend this book to anyone who’s even remotely interested in the economic/political issues of our day. It takes what most people consider a very boring subject (economics: the dismal science) and makes it accessible to everyone.
15) Meltdown by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Another important economics book. This one explains the 2008 downturn.
16) Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins.
Most people know Richard Dawkins for his atheist manifesto, The God Delusion, but I think this is the book where he really makes his best case for science and reason in our everyday lives. Being Richard Dawkins, he also takes a few swings at popular irrationality (“supernatural” tv shows, psychics, astrology, etc.) [Bri, be sure to read Dawkins’s essay “Postmodernism Disrobed.” It will help you see through a lot of the BS you’re bound to encounter in your literary theory courses.]
17) Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.
My life in Korea hasn’t been the same since I read this book. Though its title suggests that it’s about contemporary life in North Korea, it’s actually about the famine of the 1990s and the impact it had on ordinary people. Little details along the way, especially about the extremity of the Kim cult of personality, are truly unbelievable. I’m currently reading a book that says a lot of Demick’s information is outdated and that the situation in North Korea has dramatically improved. While I certainly hope that’s true, I still recommend this book. It’s important to look past the crazy rhetoric and nuclear threats and see the ordinary people of this very tragic state.
Great Short Stories
19) “Mr. Botibol” by Roald Dahl
From the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes a great story about strange people falling in love.
20) “Guts” by Chuck Palahniuk.
Though I’m not a huge fan of Chuck Palahniuk, I can vividly recall the first time I read this story in Playboy. I was so repulsed by it that I actually felt physical pain. One of my roommates at the time had to come into my room to see if I was okay. Years later, I found out that I wasn’t alone. “Guts” has apparently led several people to pass out at Palahniuk’s public readings and even inspired a South Park episode. I don’t know if I’d call it a great story, but it’s definitely effective.
21) “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri.
If you want to see how a good relationship falls apart, this story will tell you. It’s heartbreaking.
22) Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.
Everyone’s read The Catcher in the Rye, but I think Salinger was at his best in his short stories. Not everything in this collection is great, but it’s all worth reading at least once.
A Good Book With a Lot of Pictures
24) Watchmen by Alan Moore.
I don’t read a lot of graphic novels or comic books, but this one is something special. It’s about superheroes who really aren’t all that super. But more importantly, it’s about the big question of right and wrong. Is it okay to tell a huge lie if it leads to a great outcome? Who will save the world from the maniacs who are trying to save it from itself? Who watches the Watchmen? [Note: the scenes where Dr.Manhattan visits Mars are my favorites.]
A Book I Find Funny
25) Letters from a Nut by Ted L. Nancy.
A little comic relief now. Letters from a Nut is like a prank call on paper. The author, Ted L. Nancy, uses nice stationery to write very serious-sounding letters to various companies and businesses. The thing is, he asks them some of the most bizarre questions imaginable. In one letter, for example, he tells the staff of a hotel that he lost a tooth in the lobby and wonders if anyone has found it. (He describes the tooth in great detail.) In another, he tells the manager of an event hall that he bears a strong resemblance to President Taft (or some other president no one remembers) and says he fears assassination attempts from people who didn’t agree with Taft’s policies. Could the hall possibly provide him with a security detail? It’s such a great idea. Makes you wonder why no one had ever thought of it before. The book is arranged so that Nancy’s letters are on the left and the responses to them are on the right. Great downtime reading.
If you enjoyed this list, you can always check out my book blog, These Sentences.
Got any book suggestions for me? Anybody gonna compile a “25 Worth Reading” of their own?