Asking me to pick a favorite book is akin to asking me to pick a favorite finger. “The bad news is we’re going to chop off nine of your fingers, but the good news is you get to choose which one you keep.” Actually, choosing a finger would be easier, wouldn’t it? I mean … for sure it’s either Pointer or Thumbkin. Books, though … Asking me to pick a favorite book is almost cruel, and yet, that’s exactly what an otherwise kind friend did several weeks ago, causing a dust-up and kerfuffle in my interior world. What’s your favorite book of all time, she asked? I couldn’t decide. I couldn’t pick a favorite. But I could, I thought, pick favorites. Not all my favorites, of course. That’s even more impossible than choosing just one. So not all. Just some of them, 12 books that twisted me into the fun little pretzel shape I am today.
Books have always stolen my time so pleasantly, so sneakily, that I couldn’t even hazard a decent guess at how many hours I’ve spent (some might say misspent, but we don’t listen to those silly people, do we?) with them. Nearly every one has become a part of my story, the ones below part of the short list that has stuck in my memory, and countless others that have dumped their phrasing and plots and narratives and themes into my head in a jumbled mess, so that only the end result, the stew of my brain, remains, with little ability to pick out the individual ingredients. So here, then, are a few—just a smattering—of the ones that are topmost in the little bookcase in my heart.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
I remember finding a very old copy of this book in my house as a child, probably what used to be called a reader from my mother’s school days. It was small, with a faded brown cover, more than a little beaten up, but every word still crisp on the yellowed pages. And it was transportive. I do believe it was the first work of speculative fiction I ever read, and the first (but not last) time I ever experienced regret that a book was over. It was with great joy, therefore, that shortly thereafter I stumbled upon the rest of the Oz universe in my little town’s public library. There are 40 canonical Oz books. I know for certain I read at least half of them.
Little House on the Prairie
This was the first semi-autobiographical work that I read, fascinating in its depiction of a life that seemed very unlike mine, and made even more interesting because I knew I was reading about people who had really lived and were now, all of them, no more. Yet they would live forever in the books. And in my head.
Ah, what would we girls have done without Judy Blume? If Little House was my first foray into understanding the lives of others, Blume’s works were key to a blossoming understanding of myself, including the knowledge that somewhere in the world, if not in my class, were people—girls—who felt as I did, who were confused and clumsy and sometimes very alone. I knew what it felt like to be ostracized at school and sympathized greatly with the title character in Blubber, which made me feel a little more understood myself.
I Am the Cheese
The first school-assigned book on this list, I Am the Cheese featured heavily in my eighth grade Language Arts class. It confused the heck out of me, I remember. At the time, I wanted to know what was really happening with Adam. When the pages finally revealed that (SPOILER) he had been in a mental institution the entire time, I wondered: was any of it objectively real (or, as real as a work of fiction could be)? Could a person really be that disengaged from what was actually happening around him? It took me years to realize that if internal realities being more real than external realities defines insanity, then we are all a little bit insane.
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury. Short stories. Worlds away. The climax of “Mars Is Heaven” I still regard as one of the finest and most terrifying things I’ve ever read. “His brother’s voice was quite cold. ‘I said, where do you think you’re going?’ … Captain John Black broke and ran across the room. He screamed. He screamed twice. He never reached the door.”
Of Mice and Men
Another bit of assigned reading, this time for ninth grade English, Of Mice and Men was my first exposure to John Steinbeck’s work, and though its main theme is loneliness and how we are isolated from one another, my big takeaways were the idea that a person’s intent and the consequences of his actions might be worlds apart … and that sometimes the kindest course of action is shooting someone at point-blank range at the base of the skull.
The Haunting of Hill House
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
One of the best openers I’ve ever read. Worth reading just for the skillful handling of language.
I love so many of Stephen King’s works, but I’ve got a real soft spot for The Stand because I’ve got a real soft spot for redemption, and Larry Underwood is the Cinderella of that story.
“No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.
Or you don’t.”
I loved Anathem so much that I don’t know why I haven’t read more Neal Stephenson. (I tried Snow Crash once, but couldn’t get into it.) There’s a sly little trick near the end that’s as delicate and deft as any writing I’ve seen, something that made me reexamine what “alien” really means.
The Night Circus
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is simply one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, the setting so magical, so clear, so intricately beautiful, that it inspired in me the thought at once awed and sad: “I’ll never write anything this good, ever.” And it’s her debut novel.
The only nonfiction book on my list—Little House is shelved with fiction—Stephen King’s On Writing is THE best book about writing I’ve ever read. It’s practical, encouraging, straightforward, with not even the tiniest bit of coddling in it. Writers who are not writing, I think, need to be coddled about as much as ghosts need health insurance.
The Last Book I Read
Since I am a creature of the moment, any list like this is bound to feature the last book I read, or at least, the last good book I read. Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings, the author’s latest, is an excellent book of short stories, one that I’ll be certain to pick up again and again. But then, I’ve never read a story of Gaiman’s that I wouldn’t be happy to read several more times. Stardust, Anansi Boys, American Gods, The Graveyard Book, Coraline, Good Omens, Neverwhere … all of it top-notch stuff.
The Book I’m Reading Now
And of course, I’m generally loving the book I’m reading now, which at the moment is Furies of Calderon, the first book in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. I put off starting this because epic high fantasy series are not generally my thing, but the Dresden Files series is so good that eventually I just had to. I knew within the first chapter that I would eventually be reading the whole series.
Ah, books. How I love them. How I covet those increasingly rare days where I hole up with tea and snacks and blankets and read the day away. I’m not the only one, I know. My awesome friend Ron has made his own list on his blog, and then of course if you’ve read this far you probably have a list of your own. I’d love to hear about it in the comments. You know, down there. Right below this sentence, but before the end of the web page. You might have to scroll to see it.