You know that Facebook thing that’s been going around where people tag you and you have to list your top ten books? Well, I was waiting and waiting to get tagged. I finally did a couple of days ago (thank you, Jared) but by then the number had ballooned to 20 books. Which I guess is OK, because I had a hard time as it was narrowing it down to just 20. And I didn’t think I could just post a list without explaining what each and every book meant to me. So it got too long for a Facebook status, and ended up on my blog. Here, in no particular order, are my top 20 books:
Part of me thinks this should be a list of authors rather than books. Ursula LeGuin writes so many brilliantly insightful books it’s hard to choose just one. I’ve loved this book ever since I was a teenager. Besides her insights into what patriotism is, what gender means, and why uncertainty is a necessity for life, there’s one particularly beautiful scene that expresses better than anything else I’ve ever read how lonely it can sometimes feel to be an expat in a foreign country.
I have read a great many King Arthur stories, and this is by far my favorite. It is wise, charming, and heartbreaking by turns. I wish every political leader could grow up like T.H. White’s Arthur, or at least read this book.
I took a class on Nietzsche back when I was a philosophy major, partly for the delicious irony of studying a philosopher who famously claimed that “God is dead” at a university that nicknames itself “The Lord’s university.” This is the book that introduced me to the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy, and taught me that art should be a “transfiguring mirror.”
This is actually a children’s picture book by the incomparable Chris Van Allsburg. It was also the center of a secret literary society I formed as a homeschooled kid to write stories about the mysterious paintings in the book.
As well as growing up homeschooled, I have read dozens of books about homeschooling, and this series of six is still my go-to manual and source of inspiration. 19th-century British educator Charlotte Mason talks about treating children as persons, giving them an education that is both wide and deep, and helping them to connect with everything they learn on a personal level.
Patricia McKillip has always been one of my favorite authors. This book is a beautiful parable about betrayal, revenge, and love. Also, if you have ever wondered where my email address and miscellaneous internet handle came from (Lyralen), it’s my intentional misspelling of the mythical white bird in this book.
During my freshman year at university, both my history of philosophy class and my literature class analyzed this play. It was fascinating to read it from the viewpoints of two such different disciplines, and it’s been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays ever since. I love the themes of hypocrisy and forgiveness, and I think this play has weathered the years exceptionally well even for Shakespeare.
What can I say about Lord of the Rings? I’ve probably read it more times than I’ve read any other book, and worn through several paperback editions. As a kid, I paid my seven-year-old sister a quarter every night to stay awake while I read the series aloud to her. When I got married, this was one of only two books that turned out as duplicates in our combined library–except that Tony’s copy was the leatherback edition from the locked case in the bookstore, and mine was yet another dog-eared paperback.
I really debated over including this one. My orthodox Mormon friends hate it, and my feminist friends hate it, for entirely different reasons. But it had a huge positive impact on my perception of my sexuality (not to mention my sex life with my husband). Which is already TMI, so I’ll leave it there.
There’s not a lot of nonfiction on my list, but this is a great book. I’ve traveled around the world enough to see the massive disparities in technology and living conditions in different countries. This book tackles the big question of WHY those disparities exist, and which historical and geographical accidents gave certain civilizations the tools to conquer and subjugate others (spoiler: it was climate and geography, not genetic superiority).
I think of this as a sort of novelization of Guns, Germs & Steel. I’m equally enamored of the movie, even though it’s more of a fantasy on a theme than a faithful reproduction. As a meditation on power, human goodness, and our inseparable connection to one another, this story moved me profoundly.
It’s hard for me to explain my adoration of Trollope’s novels, even to myself. This is book four in his ponderously lengthy “Palliser Chronicles,” which center around 19th-century British politics. It’s fascinating for the period detail, expansive vocabulary, and colorful characterizations of even minor characters.
I am currently in the process of reading this aloud to my children, all the while realizing just how much Anne influenced me when I was growing up.
Most Christian religions have (at least!) a few problems when it comes to traditional treatment of women. My spiritual journey is a little different from Sue Monk Kidd’s, but her book was valuable for me as I was articulating to myself my experience as a woman in my church.
Ray Bradbury at his very best. I can’t resist a book about books, and this is the iconic book about books. I’ve never forgotten the opening scene where the woman burns in her house full of books. “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”
This was sort of the beginning of me coming to terms with the good, the bad, and the weird of Mormon history. Joseph Smith was an extraordinary person, and it was great to get to know him, especially in the rich historical context Bushman provides.
I sobbed my heart out when I read this book as a teenager. I hadn’t much use for the somewhat sappy love duo of Cosette and Marius, but I was in love with Enjolras. This probably led directly to my soft spot for revolutionaries everywhere.
This was my first introduction to Hemingway. I had no real concept as a teenager of the harsh post-WWI background the novel embodies, but wow, could I ever relate to the angst.
When I was at university, my best friend and I printed out the first paragraph to this book, memorized it, then tore it up into little pieces and ate it. Because that’s what we did for kicks back then.
I’ve always been fascinated by these Middle Eastern fairy tales. And the underlying premise of a woman who must use her wits and her stories to stop a mad tyrant from killing her and the rest of the young women in the kingdom is an enduring testament to the power of the stories we tell ourselves and others.
So. If you’ve read this, go ahead and consider yourself tagged. What are your top 20 (or top 10, or top 5) books?