My friend Andy, from his places_and_books Instagram page, has a great blog at www.places_and_books.com and on it, he managed a great feat. He has listed his top 100 favorite books of all time. To make it harder on himself, he only allowed one book for each author. That means that Charles Dickens gets the same number of books of John Kennedy Toole, who is mainly remembered as the author of the hilarious and brilliant A Confederacy of Dunces. Andy lists books you would expect like classics like David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights with more modern novels like A Secret History and White Teeth. The list also has lesser known books like The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi and A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz.
Andy admits ” This list is changeable!”, which got me thinking about my changing taste in books. When I came across a top 10 list of books I found in a diary dated 8/23/99, when I was 38, I thought I would do 3 lists to showing my changing taste over the years.
I never made a list of my favorite books when I was 18 in 1978, but I can imagine what books would be on it:
- Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
- Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- The Diary of Anne Frank
- Crime and Punishment by Fedor Dostoyevsky
- The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Pearl by John Steinbeck
- And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
A few notes: I read a lot of Vonnegut in high school. He was very popular with young men. I think this book resonated with me more than Slaughterhouse Five. My mom’s influence comes across in books like Crime and Punishment and In Cold Blood. We had to read The Pearl in high school and I just loved this tragic fable about greed.
Now we come to the list I found in my old diary. I seemed to make a lot of lists back then my favorite films of all time (All About Eve is number 1) as well as favorite gay films (The Adventuresof Priscilla, Queen of the Desert ruled that list) and even least favorite movies (Blue Lagoon was number 1 on that list!). Here is my Top 10 book list from 1999:
- Pere Goriot by Honre De Balzac
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Ragtime by E. L. Doctrow
- The Way of All Flesh by William Butler
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
I also had listed, in no particular order, “other faves” including The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The Naked and The Dead by Norman Mailer, and My Antonia by Willa Cather.
Notice that Vonnegut, Bradbury, and Christie are no longer on the list. I read Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights while I was in college. I’m surprised that Sophie’s Choice made the list, not because of Styron but because it’s a long and depressing book. I have to admit I don’t remember much about The Way of All Flesh now except that it was semiautobiographical. I think I was becoming a better reader. I was looking for more from a novel than a good plot.
This leads to my current list, that I wrote recently, although I didn’t write down the date.
- My Antonia by Willa Cather
- House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
- Bleak House by CharlesDickens
- Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
- Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
- The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is One by Carson Mc Cullers
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
- White Teeth by Zadie Smith
As you can see, Vonnegut came back on the list. My Antonia went from being a “fave” to being my favorite book of all time. House of Mirth moved up the list and I swapped out Great Expectations with Bleak House. When coming up with this list, I thought of books that I find myself going back to in my mind or recommending the most to friends. But the list isn’t perfect. I originally had Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin as number 7. I wasn’t able to fit other books that I love like Other Voices Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Emma by Jane Austen, and The Master and The Margharita by Mikael Bulgakov on my current list. Still, I think this list really who I am as a reader. I think it shows I am looking further in a book than just plot.
Of course, Andy doesn’t think his list is set in stone. He thinks if he had to update his list, The Help by Katherine Stockett might not make it because of what he referes to as “smugness “. I understand because the book seems at times more about white privileged Scooter than the African American domestics she writes about.
All of this brings me to The Great American Read, which seemed like American Idol with books and without Simon Cowell. They had a couple weeks ago the final episode where they revealed what America’s favorite book of all time was. In the end, America chose To Kill a Mockingbird as its’ favorite book, and I was happy with the choice. Although it fell off my top 10 lists, I think Mockingbird still resonates with us today. As the Trayvon Martin and Eric Gardner cases point out, there is still social injustice to overcome. The book has become a play on Broadway. Even there was no Edith Wharton or Willa Cather on the list of America’s favorite books, I’m glad a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird made number one and not Fifty Shades of Grey.