Inspired by the blogs of my literary (and movie-ary) friends, I’ve put together my own list. I was sad to realize that I haven’t read anything all that impactful lately, and the things that have been were mostly recommendations from friends’ blogs. So I’ve decided to list my top twenty five novels of all time. Okay, some of them aren’t novels: There are a couple of trilogies and a couple of short story collections. But they’re the books that rocked my world. Some I couldn’t bear to leave, and flipped over and read again without getting up to pee (or, while peeing). Others were so earth-shattering that I haven’t touched them since, but I’m haunted by their echos to this day. If you’re talking to me and I’m not listening, odds are I’m probably lost in the memory of one of these books. The numbers in parenthesis are my best guess at my age when I first read them.
1)The Brothers Karamazov, Fydor Dostoevsky (21)
This novel not only captured me entirely, it opened up new worlds for me of narrative. Dostoevsky is so brilliantly artless in the way he explains his characters every thought and emotion. I fell in love with the pious Alyosha, tortured by the thought of his unsaved brothers and father. And Dmitri’s dream of the baby…. Oh, my soul.
2) Gaudy Night, Dorothy Sayers (28)
This was one I read three or four times the week I discovered it, and still pick up regularly. Sayers deserves her association with the Inklings, though she wasn’t a regular. It is a beautiful study of two truly independent, intelligent people trying to learn how to be healed of the pain of the past and love each for who they are. The theme of redemption and God’s love rings out through the whole book, though it’s not at all “religious.” It’s the third in her books about Peter and Harriet, and the ninth or so in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, but it was the first one I picked up and I’m glad.
3) Watership Down, Richard Adams (11)
Yes, it’s about rabbits but it’s brilliant. You’re just going to have to trust me on this.
4) The Chosen, Chaim Potok (20)
I learned more about Judaism from this book than from studying abroad in Israel. And the friendship between the two boys! Beautiful.
5) Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger (27)
This one, too, was doubly influential to me both as a reader and as a writer. If you took out all the descriptions of people lighting their cigarettes, shaking the match, snuffing out their cigarettes, gazing pensively out the window, etc. the book would be about 20 pages long. But those cigarettes! Those pensive gazes! They convey so much.
6) The Place of the Lion, Charles Williams (19)
The Platonic Archtypes are come to earth, drawing all their reflections back to them!
7) Cry, The Beloved Country, Alan Paton (16)
So sad I haven’t opened it since. Ah, South Africa.
12) A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (15)
“‘Tis a far better thing I do now than I have ever done. ‘Tis a far better death I go to…”
13) The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd (28)
The only book from the 21st century that made it on my list. She creates a beautiful world of half fantasy and half bitter reality. Her next book, though, The Mermaid’s Chair, was a let down.
14) To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (16)
The scene where Scout breaks up the mob with just her presence… Ah.
15) The Once and Future King, T.H White (11, 22)
Not nearly as cutesy as the movie. I love almost anything related to the Arthurian legand. I read the first half of the book many times as a child, but couldn’t get past the part where they slaughter the unicorn until I was older.
16) The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula LeGuin (14)
The kind of perfect fantasy that speaks more about real life than any non-fiction. Sad and beautiful.
17) The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle (12)
Not just a kids book, really. The way that Shmendrick learns to be a real magician is such a wonderful allegory to the work of the Holy Spirit, though I don’t think Beagle meant it to be.
>18) The Sherlock Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (11)
The game is afoot!
19) The Father Brown stories, G.K. Chesterton (26)
A mild, round faced little man, but he goes straight to the heart of a criminal with the speed and accuracy of an arrow — or the Spirit. Father Brown converted his author to Catholocism.
20) A Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin (18)
21) Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (21)
Yes, I am a girl.
22) The Princess Bride, William Goldman (16)
So much richer than the movie! (Though I love the movie, too.)
23) A Separate Peace, John Knowles (15)
The first time I fell enviously in love with the friendship between men.
24) The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien (16,20,28)
It took me years to get into these books, but now I love them.
25) The Dragonriders of Pern, Anne McCaffery (10)
I’m a little embarrased about this one but, come on! You can talk to dragons!!
Please add your critique and your own favorites. Or if you remember me carrying another book around for weeks and pressing it to my breast, please remind me!
A couple of months ago I posted a list of my top 25 novels (with a couple of short story collections in there). I have to add three. One that I forgot is The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, Jr. It’s an amazing allegory about the difficulty of living out the sin and redemption of the world. It was also an excellent primer for me on the daily liturgy. Please, please read it.
And there are two that I have read recently that make the list, though I’m not sure which books get bumped off. Maybe it’s just a top 28 list now.
First, Jayber Crow, by Wendell Berry, for which I am forever indebted to David Kern for recommending. This is the mature masterpiece of a prolific writer, and spans the life of Jayber in a slow, building beauty.
And second, I am proud to announce that after years of trying I have broken through to some measure of understanding of Flannery O’Connor. For this I have to thank Tyler, Susi, Jeremy, Jason, Mike, my mother and Flannery herself for her essays and other writings in Mystery and Manners. The novel that’s making the list is The Violent Bear it Away. The plot rolls in with the slow back and forth motion of the tide, and breaks your heart with glimpses of truth and love among the madness and desperation of the characters.