Shawn put up his top ten books list, and I was so impressed at his ability to actually pick ten, I thought I’d have a go. In the end, I couldn’t pick ten. There are so many wonderful books that could make the list, I just couldn’t decide where to draw the line.
Does Huckleberry Finn make the cut? What about It, or the Harry Potter series?The Watchmen is very, very good. So is Like Water for Chocolate and The Time-Travelers Wife. I loved The Stand, and Charlotte’s Web made me cry and cry and cry. The Fountainhead was first and I check for news of the latest in The Song of Ice and Fire almost daily. There are just so many good books, picking ten is too hard.
But picking the five was easy. These are the ones I return to year after year. They’re the books I’ve read and re-read and re-read again and again. They’re the books that have meant something to me, the ones that changed the way I look at the world around me.
1) A Room With a View by E. M. Forester
I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that! Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul! Your soul, dear Lucy! I hate the word now, because of all the cant with which superstition has wrapped it round. But we have souls. I cannot say how they came nor whither they go, but we have them, and I see you ruining yours. I cannot bear it. It is again the darkness creeping in; it is hell.
I thought about these rankings for a long time, and this book is in the right spot; It’s my favorite. I’ve been in love with this story ever since I first saw the Merchant-Ivory film adaptation. The book has a quiet grace that fills my heart; it’s full of tender moments and surprising passion. This book fills me with hope and promise. When I close it–each time and every time–there’s a smile on face and sense of wonder and hope in my heart, “… by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory yes if you will, but a Yes.”
2) Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other.
If A Room With a View is my romantic touchstone, the book that speaks most directly to my heart, then Atlas Shrugged is my intellectual lodestone. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word, compelling, difficult, complex, agonizing, confounding, enlightening and fabulously gigantic.
3) Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker
I said, ‘Name’s Spenser, with an S, like the poet. I’m in the Boston book.’ I stepped through the door and closed it. Then I opened it again and stuck my head back into the hall. ‘Under Tough,’ I said.
But he doesn’t really know how to be a good man, so he goes for the simple rules that someone else told him. It’s easier than thinking, and safer. The other way, you have to decide for yourself.
Funny. Charming. Disarmingly spare. Parker’s Spenser was my first literary role-model. I recognized very early (I began reading this series when I was 13 or 14) that the core of Spenser’s character was not violence or mystery but integrity and honesty. Parker’s hero has been derided as a cardboard cutout, flat and dull–and he often is. But it’s rare to find a character in modern fiction driven by an authentic commitment to principles.
Spenser isn’t a simple fantasy (although he is often fantastical) of unwavering commitment to an abstract code of honor, he’s a man committed to making principles work in a messy, complicated, often difficult world. The novels are at their best when they explore the moments that Spenser’s principles compromise him and make him vulnerable. Early Autumn is the most thorough exploration of those principles.
4) Possession by A. S. Byatt
They took to silence.
They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.
One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud’s bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.
They did not speak of this, but silently negotiated another such night. It was important to both of them that the touching should not proceed to any kind of fierceness or deliberate embrace. They felt that in some way this stately peacefulness of unacknowledged contact gave back their sense of their separate lives inside their separate skins. Speech, the kind of speech they knew, would have undone it.
On days when the sea-mist closed them in a sudden milk-white cocoon with no perspectives they lay lazily together all day behind heavy white lace curtains on the white bed, not stirring, not speaking.
Neither was sure how much, or what, all this meant to the other. Neither dared ask.
Like A Room With a View, Possession is a beautiful and lyric story of love. At its heart, Possession is about the way that love can change our world; it’s about how love can render our world more beautiful, more lyrical and more moving than we had imagined. It’s about the possibility of a love that can possess us completely and allow us to step through fear, distance, circumstance and time. It’s about how our love creates its own story–a story that is as powerful, as passionate and as extraordinary as any story found in history or poetry.
5) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Daylight… in my mind, the night faded. it was daytime and the neighbourhood was busy. Miss Stephanie Crawford crossed the street to tell the latest to Miss Rachel. Miss Maudie bent over her azaleas. it was summertime, and two children scampered down the sidewalk towards a man approaching in the distance. The man waved, and the children raced each other to him.
It was still summertime, and the children came closer. A boy trudged down the sidewalk dragging a fishing-pole behind him. A man stood waiting with his hands on his hips. Summertime, and his children played in the front yard with their friend, enacting a strange little drama of their own invention.
It was fall, and his children fought on the sidewalk in front of Mrs Dubose’s. The boy helped his sister to her feet, and they made their way home. Fall, and his children trotted to and fro around the corner, the day’s woes and triumphs on their faces. They stopped at an oak tree, delighted, puzzled, apprehensive.
Winter, and his children shivered at the front gate, silhouetted against a blazing house. Winter, and a man walked into the street, dropped his glasses, and shot a dog.
Summer, and he watched his children’s heart break. Autumn again, and Boo’s children needed him.
This is the Great American Novel. Harper Lee’s book is a tale of innocence lost and of justice delayed too long. It uncovers the evil of prejudice and the ugliness of ignorance. It is also a heartrendingly beautiful story of growth and redemption.
Most of us read this book as children, assigned it in school. That’s where I first read it. If you haven’t read it again since, do. As a child, you play in the yard with Scout and Jem and you feel safe when Atticus is home. You run with the children through the streets, and you sneak with them into the courthouse, excited and flush with danger. Your heart fills with pride when Atticus takes aim and shoots the dog.
As an adult, you watch with Atticus as the children play and their fragility terrifies you. You dread the courthouse and you feel flush with the heavy weight of the heat as you watch Tom’s life slip away. You heart sinks with the despair and resignation as Atticus drops his glasses and kills a poor, infected animal.