Editor’s note: I’ve become intrigued by the topic of favorite book lists, how we make them and what they say about us. So I’ve needled our audio and cook book reviewer Tara into sharing her all-time-favorite-books list for this installment of what appears to be growing into a series. She has graciously obliged. -Nikki
There was a time when most of the books on my “top ten books of all time list” were classics. I used to read way more of them (it was called school, and feeling obligated). As I tried to compose a new top-ten-books list, I kept trying to refer back to that previous list. I’m sure it’s in a journal somewhere, but digging that up would be a rabbit hole of old musings and ramblings. I felt obligated to keep some of those classics here, despite not having read them, in some cases, in over a decade. That’s the trouble with these lists. Are they still on your top ten list if you can only vaguely summarize them? I’m making it an immediate goal to go back and reread all the ones I kept here, just to be sure.
To be fair, I made it easier on myself, and simultaneously made a “runner up” list, which includes most of the books that are actual favorites, in the sense that I go back and reread them every once in a while, and can easily tell you everything that happened in them and why I liked them so much. I also made a list of comfort books—the ones that I read (or more recently, listen to) whenever I just need to cuddle with a book and feel better about life in general. So the ones that survived on the ultimate top ten list had a lot to contend with. I honestly can’t properly say why these are the ones that remained. Stubbornness? And somehow the Lord of the Rings trilogy isn’t anywhere on these lists. Or Dune. How is that possible? I think it just means lists are, at heart, completely arbitrary.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
This has been my all time favorite book since my senior year of high school, and there it will stay for all time, I think. It was handed to me by a wonderful, insightful teacher who I still wish I had kept in contact with. She was like a magical fairy godmother. She leant me her copy and my whole world changed.
I wrote my senior thesis in college on The Waves, and I almost failed because I kept fighting against the requirement to pull it apart. It’s not a story, it’s an experience. You don’t read it, you feel it. This is not a book for anyone who wants plot, or to even fully understand what it happening in any one scene. But it remains the most beautiful thing I have ever read. If I could, I would put all of Virginia Woolf’s books in my top ten for their delicate ability to create a mood and an odd sense of peace that’s hard to describe. But that just wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the books in the world.
This is also the book I would rescue from a fire, if I still had time after rescuing my cats and my laptop and all the rest of it. I have a first American edition copy gifted by my awesome book-loving uncle and it is one of my few truly prized possessions.
Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
Oh, Tom Robbins. It’s actually been a long time since I last read Still Life with Woodpecker (which I read right about when I first read The Waves). But I can still remember this romp of an environmentally conscious princess and a bomb throwing anarchist. Robbins has this odd thing about really unattractive, almost disgusting men being really attractive to women, which in some books (Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas) crosses a line (for me) of being a bit cringe inducing, but Still Life with Woodpecker remains one of my favorite love stories. Which it is, at heart. Just with bombs.
The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin
This is the book I buy whenever I find a copy and hand to the next person I meet. I don’t think I ever have a copy of my own, for that reason, which is really fitting. This is a story about what would happen if all the anarchists moved to the moon. But it’s not a science fiction, per se, though it is classified as such. It’s really about what makes people tick, and how they interact with each other on a cultural level. It also inspired me to turn down a completely different track in my life, and inspired the characters for my first novel.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
I return to this book frequently, but it stayed on the top ten list because of its effect. I think I read it for the first time in high school, and when I did, things shifted. Pieces fit together that didn’t before. It’s not without its issues, as far as favorite books go, but it still has the ability to grab at something inside me and twist. Gaiman in general has that ability—to make me feel like I have to look twice at everything I see, though he’s just shown me something I probably missed the first time around. This was another contributor (along with Terry Pratchett’s books) to me tattooing the word “believe” on my arm.
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede
This is duplicated on my comfort book list (I read it at least once a year), but I just couldn’t take it off the top ten. It’s a story about a princess who doesn’t like being a “proper” princess, and so runs away and volunteers to be a dragon’s princess. I read this for the first time in the 6th grade. I found it in the school library. I did a class project on it. At the time I was reading mostly Star Wars novels, and here was a book about girls kicking ass and taking names who weren’t Princess Leia, who regularly gets overshadowed by a slew of male characters. Morwen the witch, who gets her own book later in the series (Calling on Dragons), is a definite role model.
Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
I read this book about six years ago, so it’s by far the most recent book to have made it into the top ten. But it became an instant favorite, especially after I got to hang out with the author (who is truly an awesome person). It’s about apocalypse, but it’s also about sisters, and food, and the woods. It was almost a fantasy for me, a callback to when I was a kid and used to “run away” into the woods, to survive on my own skills. And then the ending. *contented sigh* Just read it, already.
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I will admit that I have only vague recollections of this book, but it has been on my favorites list for so long, I felt obligated to keep it on there a little longer. For a long time, you could ask me my favorite authors, and they were (in this order): Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hemingway. Everything else was “fun” reading. This attitude has changed dramatically, but I do still love all of the above. Fitzgerald, though he uses completely different methods to Woolf, has a similar ability to capture a mood, and even though I couldn’t tell you the name of the characters, I can remember the mood of Tender is the Night, even now.
The Light in August by William Faulkner
Again, haven’t read it in a long time, though I keep meaning to. I remember when I finished this book. I was at my dad’s house and I just laid on my bed and felt…this profound sort of ache. And then I wrote. A lot of this book made it’s way into my first novel—not the plot, or the characters, but the feeling. I honestly couldn’t relate the plot anymore. It’s the most straightforward of Faulkner’s books (that I’ve read), which means it doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of The Sound and the Fury, but I also didn’t want to pitch it against the wall. It’s, to me, Faulkner truly telling a story, and not trying to fuck with your head. And he’s really good at it.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Yes, I’ve seen the movie. I read the book for the first time in college, for a Living Writers class. I listened to it when the movie came out, because I wanted to be prepared to hate the movie. I didn’t hate it. Instead I just fell in love with the book all over again. It’s such a little puzzle box of a story, and every time I return to it I keep trying to take it apart. There’s such beauty there that you keep wanting to get to the heart of it, and instead find yourself back where you started, not entirely sure where you’ve been. It’s a story about stories, really, and I’ve always loved that each section is a different format and a different voice, yet it’s all somehow coherent.
Dangerous Angels by Francesca Lia Block
I recently (within the past two years?) reread this book, which was one of my favorites in high school. It’s still wonderful. It’s a fantasy of teenagers living in LA and it was what I wanted my life to be when I grew up. Full of sparkles and roller skates and disco balls. My best friend and I were just like Weetzie and Dirk, though really I was Witch Baby all along. Give this book to the teenager in your life. And then read it yourself.
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Wicked by Gregory McGuire
The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenger
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Top Ten Comfort Reads
Harry Potter by JK Rowling
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede
Arrows of the Queen by Mercedes Lackey
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Julie, Julia by Julie Powell
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis
Soul Music by Terry Pratchett
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Night and Day by Virginia Woolf
Living My Life by Emma Goldman
Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
Endgame by Derrick Jensen
The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith
Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin
Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula le Guin
Women’s Body, Women’s Right by Linda Perlman Gordan
Bitch by Elizabeth Wurtzel
A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Gaviotas by Alan Weisman
What’s on your top-ten book list?