My wife hit me in the popular Facebook meme that goes, “List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way.” Here are my 10.
#10 Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Not only is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell an incredible, once-in-a-generation piece of writing, it’s also meaningful to me on a personal level. My daughter was born a few months after this novel came out. She was a colicky baby who would calm down only if we were holding her or if she was in the baby carrier. For weeks, I spent hours roaming around the neighborhood with my daughter in the Baby Bjorn and my hardback copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell open in front of me. I read the whole book that way. It was great.
#9 I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier.
The blurb for this 1977 YA thriller begins, “Imagine discovering that your whole life has been a fiction, your identity altered, and a new family history created.”
This novel is like the movie Memento, but with 10 times the psychological impact. It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t know how he got to where he is, and slowly begins to figure it out.
And, of course, being Robert Cormier, the big reveal is both explosive and marvelously disturbing. Robert Cormier is the only author who appears twice on this list. I read all his books in middle school and early high school, and it’s fair to say they have all stayed with me.
#8 Disclosure by Michael Crichton.
Do you have a book on your list that you feel like you should apologize for? Disclosure seems like a silly pick in comparison to the others on this list, but I can’t help myself. Yes, it’s a pop thriller that uses sexual harassment in the workplace as a jumping-off point to a huge corporate conspiracy. Yes, critics who say this novel trivializes sexual harassment by making it just another cog in a Michael Crichton plot are probably correct. Yes, the virtual reality scenes haven’t aged well and yes the movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore wasn’t very good. The book is special to me anyway.
I had a few years in my teens where books and reading got pushed into a corner in my life. My friends, my activities at school, homework, more time with friends, girls, after-school jobs, sports…most of the books I read from my sophomore through my senior years of high school were assignments from English class.
A notable exception to all this was Michael Crichton. I loved Jurassic Park and set out to read everything the guy wrote. I came to Disclosure when I was 19, and it reminded me of all the joy I had been leaving on the shelf. It’s a thriller you just can’t put down.
If you’re a reader of my novels, you can thank Disclosure for the Steve Garcia plotline in One Fall, or most of Jill Wentworth’s computer hacking in Girls Wearing Black. What can I say? I want to write novels that keep you up all night, and will always remember when Disclosure did that to me.
#7 The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.
Best biography I’ve ever read.
#6 Holes by Louis Sachar.
The ultimate read-in-one-sitting novel. I think this might be the most tightly plotted book I’ve ever read. Engaging from the first sentence, fun, clever, heartfelt, and with a great message for young people. Even today, 15 years after the book came out, Holes is fresh and surprising. I predict kids will still be reading this one long after we’re all dead and gone.
#5 The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.
There’s a book you read when you were young that changed the course of your life forever. We’re readers. We all have one. For me, this is it. I read The Chocolate War in 1988, when I was 12. I still remember the intensity of feelings this book brought out in me. The nature of good and evil in the world, the authority of our parents and our teachers, our entire purpose in this life–The Chocolate War helped me understand that there was nothing wrong with me or the subversive thoughts that began spinning around in my mind when I was a preteen. I think my encounter with this novel was one of the most psychologically healthy events in my life, which makes it all the more infuriating that this book is frequently banned and challenged in America’s schools.
#4 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.
We’re now entering the territory of ‘favorite novel of all-time.’ Every book that remains on this list has been my answer to that question at one point or another. The Fortress of Solitude is a brilliant, dense piece of literature that fills me with envy every time I read it. I wish I had the skills to write this novel. I frequently re-read it to remind myself of what I’m aiming to do when I put pen to paper.
#3 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
Read these opening sentences of The Corrections and enjoy how quickly and effectively Franzen puts you in the mind of a dying man who is powerless to stop his world from coming undone.
The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end.
Of course, lots of books start out with a couple pithy sentences. The Corrections is different because that intensity never lets up. On its surface, this novel is a simple story of a family struggling to deal with change. But underneath there is so much more. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. A few sentences later in the book, we’ll learn we are in Minnesota, and the idea of a northern religion of things coming to an end becomes much more meaningful. A change of seasons viewed through the eyes of a man who doesn’t want to accept his own fate becomes both setting and metaphor–there is so much happening in just that one paragraph, and the whole book is like that! This is art with depth to it. Jonathan Franzen is a virtuoso at what he does, and The Corrections is his best book.
#2 Harry Potter by JK Rowling.
The Facebook meme requires us to choose 10 books. I’ve picked 9 individual volumes and one series of 7. Is that cheating?
If it is, then is it cheating to put The Count of Monte Cristo on the list too? That book was originally published as a multi-volume series. What about the great serials of Dickens, which we now read as individual volumes? Or The Green Mile?
Or Lord of the Rings?
If you want to know my favorite Harry Potter book, I’ll tell you #6, The Half-Blood Prince, which begins with the author throwing Professor Snape into a bind that we readers can’t possibly see him escaping, and then toying with us about his true identity for the entire novel (and the next one too).
But choosing one book in the series doesn’t feel right. Harry Potter is about three friends who take a journey into adolescence together. I can’t separate out one book from the series when the story is so much more powerful and complete if viewed as a whole.
The plots of these novels are snappy and fun. The characters are memorable and engaging. But lots of authors write books with snappy plots and great characters.
What makes Harry Potter stand out is the setting. Everything in JK Rowling’s universe is teeming with personality. Hogwarts feels real because there is so much humanity inside its walls. The clothes the characters wear, the books they read, the places they go–Rowling thought in fine detail about every facet of her universe, and then used her considerable skills to bring it all to life.
And the fact that she worked to make the books bigger and better as the story went on made all the difference in the world. Having spent the last 3 years of my life working on a series, I have tremendous admiration for the discipline and grit JK Rowling showed us when she kept her story building through seven fantastic novels. In my mind, the Harry Potter series is one of the great accomplishments of our time.
#1 Dune by Frank Herbert.
We read books to entertain us, to enlighten us, to relax us…we read to connect with others, and to achieve understanding. Reading gives us empathy. And perspective. More than any other activity, reading puts us directly in the mind of someone else.
My first go at Frank Herbert’s Dune remains my favorite reading experience ever, because every time I opened that book, it brought me deep into the mind of a genius.
I was a teenager when I picked up a worn paperback copy of this gem at Birdsong Used Books in Albuquerque. I was familiar with the book already–Dune was the bestselling science fiction novel of all-time long before I read it. I had seen the movie too. Everyone saw that movie in the 80s. It was a rite of passage. You watched Dune, then you walked out of the theater and said, “What the hell was that?”
For many of my friends, the strange David Lynch film was reason enough to stay away from this doorstop of a novel. That, and the fact that everyone you knew who read it was totally weird. I spent a lot of time bumming around the campus of the University of New Mexico when I was a kid, and many times I saw a student, professor, or general campus oddball reading Dune, and invariably the reader had an unkempt beard, a ratty comic book T-shirt, and hadn’t showered in days.
I don’t remember the moment I pulled Dune off the shelf and decided to buy it. But I do remember the walk home. I started reading Dune on the sidewalk outside the bookstore and read it during the entire walk back to my house. I was dead to the world for the next few days. The spice, House Atreides, the Bene Gesserit…good grief, just writing those words makes me want to push everything in my life aside and start Dune at page 1. There’s so much to love in that novel!
It’s a hero story about a young man who becomes a god. It’s a space opera with warring families fighting for control of interstellar trade. It’s a thought experiment about ecology and man’s place in the ecosystem.
It’s a psychotic drug trip captured on the page, a treatise on economics and politics, an exploration of Nietzche’s thoughts about “eternal recurrence.”
It’s a book that can turn a normal teenage boy into an unshowered bum in a ratty comic book T-shirt, reading science fiction on the lawn next to the duck pond on a weekday afternoon.
I’ve re-read Dune many times since that incredible first go at it when I was young. It holds up brilliantly. There’s something new to find in it with every read.
And no, I haven’t read all the other books in the Dune universe. I read Frank Herbert’s originals, and found all the sequels paling in comparison to the first, and I read five of the Brian Herbert/Kevin Anderson books before declaring myself done with them. I’d rather re-read a great book than stumble about in a mediocre one.
I guess that’s what this list is all about. 10 books I adore and am glad to open up and visit again and again.
Thanks for tagging me, Julie.