My book club recently read Sara Nisha Adams’ The Reading List and had a fabulous conversation about the book, particularly about the titular idea. Since then, I have been spending an over-abundance of thought on what books would be on a reading list I would make. Part of our discussion, and part of what has hung me up, is figuring out the criteria for the list.
Is this a list of life-changing books? Simply my favorite books? Books that were fun? Books that taught me something or challenged me or met me exactly where I was at a particular moment in time? Do I include non-fiction or only made-up stories? And, by the way, there are SO MANY BOOKS! I’ve loved so, so many, many books. How do I choose?
It is fair to analyze my need to settle on a list, but let’s ignore that anal, obsessive side of me for now and give me credit for settling on a list that may not be entirely precise or all-encompassing. I’m simply going to name the books that have been swirling in my head since I started thinking about this and hope that maybe my list inspires you to read some of these beauties and/or to share your own lists.
Let me start by contradicting myself and being just a little bit anal by separating out fiction and non-fiction because most of me thinks this list should be about stories—pure, delightful fiction. Yet another piece of me knows the list would be incomplete if I didn’t include these few non-fiction works that did impact my life. I read M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled as a young adult and it was the start of my spiritual and personal growth journey. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies moved me along on that journey, as did Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. (For the record, I could easily list several books by each of these women, but these are definitely my favorites). Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which is the basis of my existential therapy mindset. And last on the non-fiction list is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which gave me the courage and permission and need to write my first book.
And, now, onto the stories…
My number one all-time favorite book is John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Also love, love, love A Widow for One Year and Cider House Rules, but Owen is far and away my favorite. I love how Irving creates these bizarre, entirely imaginative characters who could never live in the world, yet feel like everyone I’ve ever known, yet are nothing like anyone. Weird, huh? I’ve read Owen Meany many times, yet cry and find something new in it every time.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett was a childhood favorite that I’ve read a few times as an adult, and it completely holds up. In a bizarre pick, I’m also going to go with the Flowers in the Attic series because I was obsessed with them for years, in spite of (or because of) the utter dysfunction and effed-up-ness of the story. Also, the Clan of the Cave Bear series; they remind me of my Grandma because we read them in tandem. And James Michener made me love historical fiction. No one particular book is good enough to be a favorite, but I read Texas when I moved to Texas and read Hawaii when I went to Hawaii…you get it…I learned so much about those places by reading these books (I think The Source is his best, even though I’ve never been to Israel).
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley was the first in a long line of classically male stories retold from the female perspective that I’ve loved, this one making King Arthur fade into the background (along the lines of The Red Tent and In the Shadow of the Arc and Ahab’s Wife and Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings, which are all great too).
The Time Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is timelessly romantic.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is an emotional, beautiful character study.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is pure fantastical magic (as is her Starless Sea, which I also love—my “Fantastical Story” blog is all about that one!).
I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb is heartbreakingly tragic.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is an amazing family saga with scenes I can picture as if I was right there.
Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is the most poetic piece of literature I’ve ever read and the only book I finished and immediately started again because it was just so beautiful. It wasn’t the story or the characters, really; it was simply the beauty of the words.
And speaking of the beauty of words, I have to acknowledge Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d be Lovely and Billy Collins’ Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems, which lives on my nightstand (“Love” and “The Lanyard” are my favorites).
Obviously, I could go on and on, and I’m now worried about what great book I’ve forgotten. The Alchemist, The Goldfinch, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, All the Light we Cannot See, The Alienist…
Okay, enough. Enough now. At least until I read my next best book! What will it be?