My Top Five All-time Favorite Books
Novels and Poetry
Like many writers, I am an avid reader. I read both fiction and non-fiction, genre and general so narrowing it down to only five was a task! As the subtitle suggests, I decided this list would be novels and poetry only, and I would tackle non-fiction next time. The first criterion I used was whether I remembered the book. Not just the title, or that I had read it, but actually remembered the details of the plot and characters and emotions of the story. Honestly, that narrowed the list down a lot.
Then I considered how many times I had read it and whether the book stood the test of my time; that is, did it still resonate with me even if a decade or more had passed since I first read it. That’s not to say I haven’t read excellent books recently, but for my all-time faves list, I thought they should demonstrate longevity in my conscious. Finally, I considered how they resonated with me; what led me to connect with the story and characters. The books I ended up with weren’t perfect. Sometimes, the writing was okay, but the storytelling was very engaging. Other times, the beauty of the language—fluid and powerful—won me over. And sometimes, I just liked how the book made me feel.
Honorable Mention: Stone Angel, Carol O’Connell
What I love about O’Connell’s Mallory mystery series, and this one in particular (it’s #4 in the series), is the stellar writing, tight storyline, and surprisingly emotional impact both the story and the characters had on me. It’s worth noting that the storyline of this novel will lack some of its punch if you haven’t read at least Mallory’s Oracle (the first in the series) prior to this one.
5. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
I don’t have a good explanation why this story is one of my enduring favorites. Even more difficult to explain as I’m Jewish and don’t even celebrate Christmas. However, I love this story. I love the book. I love the movies. Not all of the movies. I have them ranked in terms of favorites (The 1951 version is probably my favorite.) In fact, I am something of a Scrooge expert. I reread this one a lot, annually, and not always at Christmas. It lightens my heart and gives me hope when I feel in despair. Can’t ask for more.
4. The Price of Salt (Carol), Patricia Highsmith
It was a young Patricia Highsmith who wrote this romance in 1952, revealing the vulnerabilities and insecurities of Highsmith before she embraced the lure of darkness and duplicity evidenced in her Ripley series. I first read this book in 1988, shortly after I came out. I enjoyed it, but that may have been the end of it had I not stumbled across Andrew Wilson’s biography of Highsmith, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith twenty years later. After reading it, I reread the novel several times and found that the biography brought yet another dimension to what is, at first glance, a simple if neurotic romance. Highsmith’s writing style is clearly influenced by the modernists—the stream-of-consciousness techniques and the questioning lost soul of Therese—while offering the dramatic earnestness of youth. I developed a much greater appreciation of the literary aspects of the novel in my later readings than I did upon my first reading when I was a teenager.
3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I don’t think I need to say much for the ‘why’ here. I love Austen’s sharp social observations eloquently written, Elizabeth Bennet’s sassy cutting wit, and the soft lens look at the past.
2. An Atlas of the Difficult World, Poems 1988-1991, Adrienne Rich
This is one of these most powerful and influential books I have ever read. Instead of explaining why, I am going to offer an excerpt of her poem, Eastern War Time.
: “But this is the twentieth century” :
what the grown-ups can’t teach children must learn
how do you teach a child what you won’t believe?
how do you say unfold, my flower, shine, my star
and we are hated, being what we are?
- Rich, Adrienne. An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 (p. 38). W. W. Norton & Company.
1. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
I picked this as my number one book for a number of reasons. I first read it in college, about 25 years ago. I’ve read it almost annually ever since, not always in its entirety, but elements and chunks of it. Its appeal, for me, is in the sheer essence of humanity in the story and the three-dimensional characters and range of emotions. Dostoevsky had epilepsy; he knew of what he wrote when he described Myshkin’s seizures and feelings of the dreamlike states that follow them, his disconnection from others while also expressing extraordinary empathy and insight. Ten years after I read this novel for the first time, I was diagnosed with epilepsy as well and was able to understand, on a more visceral level, some of what Dostoevsky was expressing.
Yes, this is Russian literature, so there is significant melodrama and lengthy passages providing minute details of furniture and streetways. There are numerous characters and a notable chaotic disjointedness to the storytelling, which did not always work in its favor. However, the pure humanity that Dostoevsky works to express through his characters, the freedom and flaws, captured me so completely that their actions never cease to surprise me, no matter how many times I read the book.
Have you read any of the above books? If so, what did you think of them? If not, what are some of your favorites? Let me know in the comments below.