I love lists.
I can keep myself preoccupied for hours thinking about my favorite baseball players, my favorite foods, my favorite movie lines or just about favorite anything.
I also love to-do lists. I have them everywhere. I’m often making lists.
I thought about this recently when I stumbled across one such list I wrote down several years ago. It’s my favorite book list.
I hesitate to make this public because my list reveals an utter lack of fraudulent literacy. I don’t often go for “the classics.” I read Moby Dick and often challenge anyone else who says they did because it was one of the worst, longest, dreariest books I had ever read. Few of the great books, modern or classic, make my list for the simple reason I am often bored reading them, which says far more about me than it does about the great authors of the past.
For an editor and writer, my list makes plain that I lack sophistication in my choices. But, I’ll get out myself. My list honestly makes no sense. It represents books that for whatever reason, touched me.
Here it is, for all its simplicity:
Just missed: The Last Night at Twisted River by John Irving (every book he writes is brilliant) and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Every book by Robert Parker in his Spenser series. And Blue Like Jazz, a forerunner to my unpublished spiritual memoir I didn’t know existed when I wrote it.
12. Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore. One of the funniest books I ever read. And yet it had sneaky relevance tucked into the chicanery, a bit of “what if” quality about the son of God that helped me grow spiritually, believe it or not.John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better
11. East of Eden, By John Steinbeck. This one makes me look a little better. It lives up to the hype. Radical for its time, sparse in its prose and deeply insightful. Timshel: One of the best passages I’ve ever read, powerful wisdom in literary form.
10. Lonesome Dove, By Larry McMurtry. I only picked this up because I had nothing else to read. I couldn’t believe a “western” had been so critically acclaimed. Then I read it. All 900-something pages in one weekend. It was brilliant.
9. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Compelling storytelling that made an entire culture approachable, lovely and dreadful. The ending fell off just a bit. I don’t know, but I suspect it was somewhat autobiographical about his move to the Bay Area and close to his heart, which is often the kiss of death for a novelist. But the rest of the book is so good, it weathered the lack of focus.
8. The Top of the Hill, by Irvin Shaw. I read this when I was probably seven years old. Maybe 10. I re-read it many times in the years to come. I didn’t know it at the time, but this early foray into “adult popular fiction” connected with an unconscious part of me that deeply identified with the flawed protagonist. It still amazes me how this book captured my childhood attention and held it for so long.
7. To Kill A Mockingbird, By Harper Lee. The highest standard of writing in the voice of a child and yet capturing vital issues every adult should know. Atticus Finch is a great literary character.
6. The Bridge of Madison County, by Robert James Waller. I am a hopeless romantic. But I don’t read romance stories. This had a rare combination of compelling romance with a fascinating story. Yes, it’s sappy and emotive and overly sentimental. But the writing is crisp, and the book was rejected by every agent who looked at it. It remains the forerunner to the possibility of self-publishing.
5. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. One of the best-written books I have ever read, a rare combination of great writing, fascinating characters and compelling story. Usually, one of the three is missing (often the last). This had them all.
4. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. I think Hemingway’s legend does not match his actual work. For example, most people talk about his “sparse prose” and “active voice.” Yet he is a master of the run-on sentence, which is what makes that prose so compelling. Without that, sparse prose becomes– like so many who try to emulate him — too simplistic, almost a “see Dick run,” cadence that is a snore. This book is a masterpiece in both. When the shark first hits his fish, I’ve never felt such physical dread reading a story.
3. The River Why, by David James Duncan. This is another book that couldn’t get past agents, probably because it was too wordy and wandering, nothing like the boilerplate that publishers demand from first-time authors. But the Sierra Club published it, and a gem resulted. Funny, lovely, important and mystical, it remains one of the best stories I’ve ever read.
2. I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margaret Craven. I almost can’t describe this incredible book my mother first read to my brother and me when we took a summer vacation driving through the national parks. Craven was in her 60s when the short little story of a priest in a remote village became an unlikely best seller. It’s beautiful, but also, a spiritual signpost I return to often.
And my favorite book from this list:
1. The Shadow of the Wind, By Carlos Zafon. When I found this book it came in a dark time of rehab when nothing was very beautiful in my life. The beauty of his prose and the story filled me with a lightness no book had ever done before or since. It’s translated from Spanish and still beautiful, so I can only image how incredible it is in the author’s native language.
Share your favorites in the comment section below. Like all my lists, they can be revised often. In this case, I hope they do, because discovering a new Top 12 book is a gift I look forward to every time I enter a bookstore.