According to Goodreads I’ve read exactly 300 books. There must be more than that, but that’s a pretty ok number to work from. The following list of 50 books represents 1/6th of all the books I’ve read/ranked on that site, which happen to be all the books I can remember. I really like all the books on this list, and only the top 15 or so should be considered to be in any kind of order. If it’s on this list, you can take it as a hearty recommendation. Any time the title of the book is a link, click it to bring up my full review. Here’s the first part of the list.
50. The Thurber Carnival – James Thurber
“Let me be the first to admit that the naked truth about me is to the naked truth about Salvador Dali as an old ukulele in the attic is to a piano in a tree, and I mean a piano with breasts. Senor Dali has the jump on me from the beginning. He remembers and describes in detail what it was like in the womb. My own earliest memory is of accompanying my father to a polling booth in Columbus, Ohio, where he voted for William McKinley.”
This is a fun collection of essays and short stories from throughout Thurber’s career. Thurber lived in my homestate and there are some fun thins to spot. Some of the short stories are really great, as are the stories of Thurber’s time as an intrepid reporter.
49. The Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling
“Youth can not know how age thinks and feels. But old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young.”
Ah, another note. Any book series will count as just one spot on the list. Here we have the mega-hit series which is quite amazing in how it grew up along with its readers. It’ll be interesting to see how the series ages, now that they are finished and the movies are done (for the moment). It’s a great story and well told, one that touches upon many themes and ideas among a world filled with fantastic characters.
48. Orland0 – Virginia Woolf
“To put it in a nutshell, he was afflicted with a love of literature. It was the fatal nature of this disease to substitute a phantom for reality.”
Here’s a daring piece of work. Orlando goes through a bit of a change from the beginning to the end of this book, as most protagonists do. In this case, however, the change is physical as well as mental. Orlando seemingly doesn’t age, and he becomes a she. Interested? You should be, it’s a great book.
47. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods – A.S. Byatt
“He was beautiful, that was always affirmed, but his beauty was hard to fix or to see, for he was always glimmering, flickering, melting, mixing, he was the shape of a shapeless flame, he was the eddying thread of needle-shapes in the shapeless mass of the waterfall. He was the invisible wind that hurried the clouds in billows and ribbons. You could see a bare tree on the skyline bent by the wind, holding up twisted branches and bent twigs, and suddenly its formless form would resolve itself into that of the trickster.”
This is a small book with a big idea. Take the Norse mythology of old and retell it in the very nature-tuned way that Byatt has and then wrap it with an autobiographical framing story about WWII and the potential horrors and depression it caused. You can read it in an afternoon, and you should.
46. IT – Stephen King
“Maybe there aren’t any such things as good friends or bad friends – maybe there are just friends, people who stand by you when you’re hurt and who help you feel not so lonely. Maybe they’re always worth being scared for, and hoping for, and living for. Maybe worth dying for too, if that’s what has to be. No good friends. No bad friends. Only people you want, need to be with; people who build their houses in your heart.”
Stephen King formed a large part of my middle childhood, that transition between kid lit and serious books, both of which you’ll find on this list, so why not some King as well. I don’t think he gets enough credit as a good author, which he is on occasion. IT might be his scariest book, as well as one of his most ambitious, though there are some coming up that are even more so.
45. The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
“Then you compared a woman’s love to Hell,
To barren land where water will not dwell,
And you compared it to a quenchless fire,
The more it burns the more is its desire
To burn up everything that burnt can be.
You say that just as worms destroy a tree
A wife destroys her husband and contrives,
As husbands know, the ruin of their lives. ”
And herein lies the English degree. I took a whole class on this book and it was really interesting to delve into each tale both separately and as a part of a whole. And it’s further proof that remakes aren’t necessarily a bad thing (take that, Boccaccio!).
44. Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue – Maurice Sendak
“”Is that all
you have to say?”
“I don’t care!”
“Then I’ll eat you,
if I may.”
“I don’t care!“”
This is a full on nostalgia pick. I had it in a little 6-book hardcover box set, each of which with a different color on the dust jacket. It was my first introduction to serialized books, something you’ll see all over my list.
43. Y: The Last Man series – Brian K. Vaughan
“No. No, first comes boyhood. You get to play with soldiers and spacemen, cowboys and ninjas, pirates and robots. But before you know it, all that comes to an end. And then, Remo Williams, is when the adventure begins.”
An epic sci-fi road post-apocalyptic comedy/drama thing. Maybe the most outstanding element in this world with only one man is the community theater. There exists an all-female version of Glengarry Glen Ross .
42. The Odyssey – Homer
“Men are so quick to blame the gods: they say
that we devise their misery. But they
themselves- in their depravity- design
grief greater than the griefs that fate assigns.”
Another full semester spent on this classic. It’s such a classic story and it informs practically everything that came after it. For some reason, I think of nearly all George Clooney characters as some version of Odysseus.
41. American Gods – Neil Gaiman
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”
The above can be seen as a kind of thesis for the book. When immigrants came to the US they brought their gods with them, but now those gods are being replaced by technology made corporeal. This is a book that works really great up to a point and then gets considerably worse. But those first 3/4ths are really great.
40. Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak
“But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go- We’ll eat you up- we love you so!”
How great is this book? So great. Under 50 sentences, but true and real and sad and imaginative. And the movie adaptation is great, too.
39. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – James Joyce
“He wanted to cry quietly but not for himself: for the words, so beautiful and sad, like music.”
Joyce is such a hard guy to crack. This book and another that will appear later are normal in length and, mostly, technique. But then Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake have such a big shadow that I’m terrified of approaching them. I’ll wallow in my relative ignorance until I have the time an inclination to take on such titanic works.
38. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
“I want to be held and told my name. I want to be valued, in ways that I am not; I want to be more than valuable. I repeat my former name; remind myself of what I once could do, how others saw me. I want to steal something.”
Atwood’s dystopia is about controlling women and taking reproduction out of their hands. It’s interesting how that one change could ripple throughout society. What makes a woman a woman and how can that be used against them? And what role does religion play in oppression and repression? Very interesting.
37. The Stand – Stephen King
“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.”
King does his best work when he goes very big or very small. His epics and his short stories are where he can expand to talk about everything or focus like a laser on one thing. This is the former. After a disease wipes out most of humanity, the rest pick sides (or are picked) between good and evil, and then there’s a battle. But before that there’s rebuilding society and the horror of decay. It’s terrifying and deeply human.
36. Kraken – China Mieville
“I know, I know,” Moore said. “Mad beliefs like that, eh? Must be some metaphor, right? Must mean something else?” Shook his head. “What an awfully arrogant thing. What if faiths are exactly what they are? And mean exactly what they say?”
“Stop trying to make sense of it and just listen,” Dane said.
“And what,” Moore said, “if a large part of the reason they’re so tenacious is that they’re perfectly accurate?”
Mieville is my favorite working genre author. He does mostly urban sci-fi and his Bas-Lag books are wonderful, but this one takes the cake for me. It takes place in our London, but underneath hides a thousand little religions dedicated to countless objects and ideas. Star Trek style transportation is real and horrifying in its implications. And a giant squid’s corpse is stolen in order to bring about the apocalypse. The mix of fantasy and sci-fi and mystery along with a rocketship pace makes this a super fun read.
35. The Magician series – Lev Grossman
“That’s what death did, it treated you like a child, like everything you had ever thought and done and cared about was just a child’s game, to be crumpled up and thrown away when it was over. It didn’t matter. Death didn’t respect you. Death thought you were bullshit, and it wanted to make sure you knew it.”
This series isn’t even over yet. There are two entries so far and the second improved upon the first, a tough feat for any writer. What starts off as “Harry Potter for adults” became something grander. It’s like Narnia meets The Dark Tower, with connections to all sorts of literature and stories. The second book is an Odyssey-type story of a quest to return home and is really great.
34. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
“This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
A classic for obvious reasons. These books are so full of ideas and cleverness and characters and worlds that I’m more and more amazed every time I read them.
33. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fightin’ with your head for a change.”
The first book I was forced to read for school and actually liked. I don’t know how anybody couldn’t like it. The quintessential coming of age tale.
32. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
“I worry about exposing him to bands like Journey, the appreciation of which will surely bring him nothing but the opprobrium of his peers. Though he has often been resistant – children so seldom know what is good for them – I have taught him to appreciate all the groundbreaking musicmakers of our time – Big Country, Haircut 100, Loverboy – and he is lucky for it. His brain is my laboratory, my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passersby. He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile. He is a lucky, lucky boy! And no one can stop me.”
It is what it says it is. The title is, of course, silly. But it is also true. It’s a memoir of the years shortly after Eggers’ parents died when he was in college and he changes his entire life to care for his brother. Along the way he tries out for The Real World and starts a magazine. It truly is heartbreaking and staggering and, perhaps, at times, genius.
31. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – Scott McCloud
“Art, as I see it, is any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.”
Scott McCloud found a way to teach his readers how comics work by writing a comic and breaking it down and giving examples of different techniques and ideas and explaining how it works. It’s fascinating and funny and a must read for anybody even remotely interested in the artform.