Around this time of year it’s trendy out here in the blogosphere to post about your favorite books of the past year or your reading goals for the coming year. But I’ve got a bit of a twist on that today.
A few weeks before Christmas my friend Bonnie messaged me, asking about my top five favorite fiction books of all time — “books that have prompted a big ‘ah-ha!’ moment or helped me to live my life better.”
I know! What a question, right? I told Bonnie I’d think about it, and then I pondered for about three weeks before replying. I was an English major; I still read about a book a week. How in heaven’s name could I pick just five fiction books out of all the fabulous books I’ve read over the last 25 years?
In the end, I’m not convinced these are my be-all-and-end-all top five favorite books, and I’m not even sure exactly how they’ve helped me live my life better, though I know they absolutely have. Plus, just two weeks after I finally replied to Bonnie with my list, I find I’m second-guessing a couple of my choices.
But I will say this. Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve read in my lifetime so far, these five have stuck with me. They are still right here on my shelf, and that’s saying A LOT, because I cull my bookshelves ruthlessly once or twice a year. I donate all the books that don’t pass The Test, which is this simple question:
Will I read this book again? If the answer is no, it goes to the Goodwill or is donated to my local public library.
I’ve read each of these five at least twice, some multiple times. Three I first read in college; two I read more recently (in the last three years or so). And here’s a little tidbit that I only discovered when I gathered the books together to snap a photograph: four of the five have won the Pulitzer Prize (does this make me hoity-toity?).
So here they are, my Top 5 Favorite Fiction Books of All Time:
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf – I will tell you straight up, the first time I read this book in college, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. Dense and difficult, it simply confounded me. Since then, I’ve read it five or six times, and each time and in each new season of my life, it speaks to me in a new but equally powerful way. At its heart, To the Lighthouse is about human relationships, our desire to connect with one another in meaningful ways and our tendency to fall far short of that goal in reality. It’s a tough read, but Woolf’s prose and her insights into human nature shine with a clarity matched by few writers. [To the Lighthouse is the only non-Pulitzer of the bunch, but don’t let that deter you!]
Beloved, by Toni Morrison – I first read this novel as an undergraduate in my African-American literature class, and I think I held my breath the whole way through reading it. It was the first time I ever really understood the profound horrors of slavery in any real, meaningful way. Poetic, harrowing, and beautiful both in narrative and writing style, I guarantee Beloved will be unlike any book you have ever read.
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx – Annie Proulx’s writing style takes some getting used to, but once you adjust to her fragmented, staccato writing, I think you’ll find this one funny, heartwarming and deeply poignant. The story centers around a fellow named Quoyle, a small-town newspaper writer, who, following a devastating break-up, flees to his ancestral home in Newfoundland with his two daughters to begin anew. The Shipping News is equal parts quirky, delightful and profound (Disclaimer: The Shipping News was my pick for book club and the rest of my group hated it! So…don’t say I didn’t warn you.).
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson – The first time I tried to read this one I gave up. I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. A few years later, however, I borrowed it from the library and gave it another shot…and I absolutely loved it. Gilead reads like a prayer of sorts – deeply spiritual, poignant and profound. And the language itself makes me swoony; Robinson’s writing is simply luminous. Don’t read this one a page or two at a time; let yoursef sink fully into it.
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout – This book makes me want to write fiction (not that I’m going to write fiction…but if I did, I would want to write like this). It’s really a compilation of 13 short stories, but it reads like a novel because they are woven together with common threads. Strout holds up the ordinary — ordinary people, an ordinary small town, ordinary events, tragedies and triumphs — and in doing so shines a light on the innermost parts of ourselves. The character Olive is a total hoot — crabby, opinionated, New Englandy; she made me long for my people.
And because memoir is my truest love, I feel compelled to add my Top Three Favorite Memoirs of All Time:
Girl Meets God, by Lauren Winner – I read this book as I was on the cusp of coming back to faith after a 20-year hiatus. I literally drove to Barnes and Noble and stood in the “Christian Inspiration” section looking for a book about returning to faith, and this title grabbed me. Winner was raised as an Orthodox Jew and converted to Christianity when she was in college. She’s not only a stellar writer and storyteller, she’s also a deep thinker and a questioner – two qualities I deeply admire.
Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth and Everyday Magic, by Martha Beck – I love this book so much! Laugh-out-loud funny, tender and thoughtful, Beck’s story of raising a son with Down’s Syndrome is gorgeously written and surprisingly relatable, especially considering my lack of personal experience with children with disabilities. The unexpected spiritual undertones of this book really resonated with me, too. A Mormon turned atheist, Beck is embraced by a mysterious presence during her difficult pregnancy that impacts her thoughts and feelings about God forever.
The Gift of An Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir, by Katrina Kenison – Kenison’s writing is beautiful – clear, lyrical and refreshing — and her ability to capture and embrace the ordinary-extraordinary moments of everyday life is nothing short of astonishing. I am a faithful reader of her blog, and I’ve read all of her books, but The Gift of An Ordinary Day is hands-down my favorite; I come back to it again and again.
Runner Up: Under the Tuscan Sun, by Frances Mayes — because seriously, who doesn’t fantasize about moving to Tuscany?!
So tell me…what are your Top Five Favorite Fiction Books of All Time? And what about memoir? Do you have a favorite?