As I mentioned in my last post, I really hate anything on Facebook that resembles a chain letter or a FW: FW: FW: FW: e-mail. As a rule, I don’t participate in or pass on challenges and prompts. But my sister fell prey to the “top ten books” challenge, and because (and only because) she’s my sister, I obliged when she asked for my list.
Trying to limit myself to ten favorite books is as impossible as picking one thing to eat for the rest of my life or choosing one color to paint the world with. There are books I adored for a time and books that will stay with me forever, but whether I love them now or loved them once, each is important to me for a different reason.
Some books are bottomless wells of inspiration that I return to throughout my life. Each rereading is like reading it for the first time. There is always something forgotten to remember or something new to find.
Sometimes a book resonates with a specific season of mine. I read it at precisely the right time. It finds me ripe. I had just such an experience back in 2011. I was in an uncomfortable situation that was worsening. And while I was debating whether or not to say anything, I was also reading the section in Geri Scazerro’s book I Quit! (now titled The Emotionally Healthy Woman) about speaking up.
As someone who likes to know “why” as much as “what,” I’m using this post to expand on the favorite book list my sister’s request stirred up. It is not a definitive list. There are titles I forgot in that moment and others I had to edit out to stay within the ten-title limit. I included only two of the books I fell in love with as a child, but there are so many (such as Corduroy by Don Freeman, Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss, Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman, and anything by Shel Silverstein). On a different day (with a few exceptions) I would have picked other books and authors (Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Help, David Sedaris, or Toni Morrison). Even as I write this, I have to stop myself from sneaking in more titles and authors.
Superfudge by Judy Blume was the first book on my list for a reason. It is the first chapter book I read completely on my own. Up until then I only wanted to be read to—especially if the book didn’t have any illustrations. But I got so caught up in the Superfudge story that I couldn’t wait for bedtime for the next installment. This book inspired me to literally take matters into my own hands. It’s the book that propelled me into reading for myself. Judy Blume became the first author that I searched out. I wanted to read everything ever written by her. I also devoured the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book series by Betty MacDonald. I loved that books could be silly and fantastical. (Honorary mention: Madeleine L’Engle.)
I’ll never forget reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in school. That short story was a sucker punch that left me aching for more. I found it thrilling that a tale could so craftily build a tension that the reader becomes only incrementally aware of, and then detonate an explosion of information that makes everything you’ve read thus far exponentially more sinister. Her writing is both sharp and blunt. She subjects you to a thousand cuts and then knocks the wind out of you while she holds you up.
Sometimes it’s the author (above any specific book) that I’m a fan of. I have a literary crush on C. S. Lewis, for example. The Screwtape Letters (and just about anything else by him) is a perpetually satisfying read. There aren’t many books that I go back to, but whenever I reread something by C. S. Lewis I find it resonates with me at a different frequency. Things I hadn’t noticed before stand in stark relief. Ideas I’d forgotten to remember return to me. There is always something simultaneously new and familiar about reading his words. He is equally adept at entertaining and making a convincing argument. He can make you chuckle and think—all within the same book.
Then there are the writers who break my heart but also keep me wanting more. They’re sharp and dark and profound. While a part of me does like a glossy Disneyesque ending, I also find the well-constructed tragedy extremely captivating. Jhumpa Lahiri’s world in Interpreter of Maladies is realistically harsh and gloomy. Sometimes the tragedy is subtle and sometimes it’s overpowering. She lets hope sprout only to crush it. But then you realize it is a hope growing where it was never meant to flourish. Her characters are complex and flawed and honest.
Like Khaled Hosseini’s works and Chinue Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (also on my list), Lahiri shows us humanity’s capacity for cruelty, love, and ambivalence. Each of these authors endears us to a character and then makes us fear the worst because we know worse is coming. All of Khaled Hosseini’s books have deeply affected me. Forced to choose one, I chose the first one I read (The Kite Runner). But I also hold a special place in my heart for And the Mountains Echoed and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird both gave me hope. They each have a literary voice that sounds like a conversation with a good friend you can trust. Miller is thoughtful and frank. He presents himself and his theology without obfuscation and pomp. Lamott’s writing about writing is almost therapeutic. I found comfort and solidarity in her honest revelations about her fears and idiosyncrasies. She has the right kind of irreverence, the kind that aims to remove unhealthy pretenses and break destructive illusions. She helped me to see myself more plainly by revealing herself to me. Blue Like Jazz did a similar thing.
Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was a fantasy-laden voyage for my mind. His book reminded me that even “grown-up” books can be full of youthful imagination. As a person of faith, I appreciated the narrator’s spiritual journey and the humor inherent in it. I loved being given the option to accept the story at face value or as an allegory.
The beautiful thing about books is that you don’t have to love just one or ten or twenty. There are many more books I’ve read and greatly value. Some took me to new or imaginary places. Others introduced me to characters I could identify with. Some books are intriguingly deep; others are light or magical or endearing. Some make me think; others make me feel. But each one gives me something lasting and meaningful.
I am grateful to every book and author that has ever entertained or expanded my mind. To me, a good book is one that draws me completely inside. I become so fully absorbed and engaged that I forget I’m reading. A good book becomes a companion whose company I’m anxious to keep. I can’t stop racing toward the end, and as soon as I get there…I miss the journey.