I see a lot of those Internet lists that have titles like, “100 Classic Novels You Are a Dunce If You Haven’t Read by the Time You’re 20” and “20 New Novels That Are Totally In Style and Stuff So Read Them Blah.” The thing is, I have always felt a little iffy about these kinds of lists. The number one reason for this is the fact that I actually have read a lot less Dickens and Austen than the Internet seems to think I should. From a young age, my teachers have been Robert Jordan, Sarah Douglass, Terry Brooks, and of course Tolkien. More recently, I’ve branched out into short story collections and literary fiction. Conclusion: I read a lot. And I love it. Therefore, I thought I’d make one of these list-y things.
I just spent two years reading and writing my little brain out. It was a lot of fun. I had a chance to read tons of great books; I also learned how to appreciate more the books I loved from before graduate school. This is a list compiled from my experience (recent and otherwise) and is completely and totally biased. Along with every other one of these lists on the Internet.
A few of these books have their own separate gush-fest posts elsewhere on my blog, so I’ve linked where appropriate.
1. 1984 — George Orwell (1949)
This is a classic, but it should definitely be here anyway. This dystopian novel will continue to haunt our modern society in a way that a lot of books cannot; Orwell so accurately portrayed the state of things, even though it was his own future, that we use the term “Big Brother” in our everyday lives. This is a pretty important one to at least have an understanding of.
2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane — Neil Gaiman (2013)
Wonderful and powerful young adult book about memory, childhood, and identity. Gaiman has become a strong voice for this generation, active on Twitter and Tumblr and generally just being awesome. I read this not long after it came out, and I’m thinking about picking it up again.
3. Howl’s Moving Castle — Diana Wynne Jones (1986)
The Hayao Miyazaki movie is cute and wonderfully portrayed. The book is even better. It actually takes a bit of a different tack than the movie, but in a definite good way.
4. Badlands — Cynthia Reeves (2007)
This book wrecked me, bad. I read it in one day, morning to night, until it was midnight and I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t finish the last page. My grandmother suffered for a long time from breast cancer, like the main character in Reeves’ novella, so (at the risk of sounding trite) it resonated pretty intensely with me. I spoke to Reeves about this last spring when she came to Miami for Sprint Week, and she admitted that the inspiration for the main character came from her own life. It drove home the point that writing and reading shows people that their experience is shared by many.
5. Dune — Frank Herbert (1965)
I read this for my thesis list, and I’m so glad I did. This book is iconic in the SciFi field, and not just because of the movie. (I mean, the movie is part of it.) I had seen the movie a while ago, but I never really got the feel for Dune until reading the actual novel. It’s long, and dense. But I loved it.
6. The Poisonwood Bible — Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
This tome is about a family that moves to Africa to set up a church; led by the father, four daughters and their mother try to learn to navigate a new culture, new ways, and old prejudice. If you haven’t read this yet, you definitely should. Every word was emotional for me. Five hundred pages of heartache and reality and really staring your previous opinions and worldviews in the face. The way it’s written is perfect as well. Kingsolver moves effortlessly between the perspectives of the four daughters, even one that speaks in anagrams and in backwards, strangely poetic constructs. One daughter marries an African man; her twin, the one who never speaks but thinks in poetry, becomes a doctor in America; the oldest, the princess, becomes a socialite in South Africa. Their shared experience of spending a couple years in the small village becomes the basis for each of their lives in startling but appropriate ways. Anyway, just read it.
7. The Wee Free Men — Terry Pratchett (2003)
I read this for the first time about three years ago, and it was the first Discworld book I had read. It still is the only one I’ve read, because even though I intend to read more, I keep coming back to this one. Even though it’s labeled as YA, this book is serious. It’s about a nine-year-old girl who enlists the help of tiny blue men called the Nac Mac Feegle, or Wee Free Men, to rescue her baby brother, who has been stolen by the Evil Queen. This book has one of the most emotionally draining climactic scenes in anything I’ve read — the last time I finished it, I became a little blubbering baby sitting at the breakfast table (thank goodness no one else was home).
8. The Lord of the Rings — J.R.R. Tolkien (of course) (1954-1955)
I was in the sixth grade when The Fellowship of the Ring movie was released in theaters. At that time, I was pretty much just getting into the whole “fantasy” thing (although at eight years old I read Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicorns until my copy was completely destroyed), so I wanted to read the book that the movie was based off. I devoured The Fellowship and then moved on to The Two Towers, then to The Return of the King. That third volume killed me. It took me so long to read it I’m sure my gramma thought she was never getting her copy back. But I did finish it, and by that point I started to understand just what these books mean for the genre itself. Quite simply, Tolkien is the father of fantasy.
9. The Eye of the World — Robert Jordan (1990)
One reason it took me so long to finish The Return of the King was that I discovered Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. The assistant librarian at my middle school suggested the first half of the first book to me (for some reason, to make it more appealing to a YA audience, they split the first book into two), and it’s history from there. I absolutely HAD to read the rest, which was easy because there were already nine of them out. And then I waited for the rest of the 14-book series (while simultaneously waiting for Harry Potter), each time excited to read a new installment, until the last book was published in early 2013. It was bittersweet, reading that final page.
10. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — Charles Yu (2010)
This is my favorite book of all time. I know that’s a difficult assertion to make, but it’s the truth. The first time I finished this, I cried. And the second. And the third. I keep rereading and rereading, and all the repeats never dull the emotional impact of that final page. And all the other pages.
Woops. They’re all my favorite books. This list was actually really hard to make without numbers 1 through 7 being the Harry Potters. But I guess the post about “10 Books That Defined My Childhood, Adolescence, and Adulthood At The Same Time in a Temporal Loop Forever” will have to come later.
This list isn’t all about cultural significance or “literary-ness” or “fantasy-ness” or anything like that. These are just books that have had a profound impact on how I see and write about the world. That’s what reading is about: different books impact people for diverse reasons based on their life experience. If you choose to read any that I’ve mentioned here (or if you’ve already read them!), I hope they impact you in similar ways, but also in your own unique way. Reading is a solitary act, yet it is a love shared by many. Happy reading. 🙂
P.S. I’m reading the book Gone Girl that everyone keeps raving about. Turns out they’re raving for good reason. . . . Review to come.