Lists of favorite books are fun, aren’t they? Sometimes they give me ideas on what to read next, and I am always on the lookout for good books, as I am always reading something. Usually I alternate between fiction and nonfiction, because there is so much I want to read in each category.
At first I was going to list my ten favorite fiction books, but then I realized that there were a few that were more important than the others. So I will list the top five here, and list five or six or seven runners-up in another post.
These books that I have chosen as my favorites are not necessarily what I would choose to read now, but at the time I read (and re-read) them they were tremendously influential for me personally in some way. So here they are:
1. “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien. No contest. The boxed trilogy was given to me by one of my grandmothers, my mother’s mother, when I was in my early or mid- teens. At the time I had never heard of the book or the author. But before the end of the first chapter I was deeply hooked, and by the time the dark riders were stalking the hobbits through the Shire I knew that I had stumbled upon a unique literary experience. In the next few years after I read this for the first time I read it at least a dozen times more. I remember once I read the whole trilogy, appendixes and all, three times in a row, nonstop, starting again as soon as I had finished. In recent years I have read the trilogy a few times more, and each time it has been a wonderful experience. No other work of fiction has influenced me so profoundly.
2. “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. This is the only book on the list that I think is dated and I have little interest in reading now, though at the time I read and re-read and re-re-read it I was profoundly changed by the experience. I discovered it in a book of descriptions of famous American novels and read it because it seemed an interesting story. It was far more than that. It made me long to be out on the road myself, and eventually I did hit the road.
3. “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller. I can’t remember how I found out about Henry Miller, but I know that “Tropic of Cancer” was the first book of his I read. Passionate, poetic, brazen, ribald, blatantly honest Henry Miller came along just at the right time. He made writing seem a wondrous glory of an experience, and life itself a celebration that was richer when the art of prose was added to the mix. After I read “Tropic of Cancer” I read as many of Miller’s other books I could get my hands on, but I came back to “Tropic of Cancer” again and again, and I think it’s his masterpiece, his breathtaking shattering of convention, a wonderful piece of wild exuberant prose, entertaining and moving and wacky and intense and precise all at the same time.
4. “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein. That same grandmother who gave me “The Lord of the Rings” also gave me a boxed set of Heinlein novels one Christmas. I don’t think this one was included, but because I enjoyed the others I found and read this, and it was far above and beyond anything else I had read by Heinlein, and most other writers as well. It starts deceptively simply as a science fiction adventure but quickly becomes much more – a counter-cultural event that satirizes everything conventional in established social systems. Coming as it did when the youth revolution hit its stride in the late sixties, it was quickly adopted as a sort of irreverent banner around which to rally, but for me it was a wonderful thoughtful piece of prose that caused me to question everything I had been taught of the right way to think and perform.
5. “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” by James Tiptree, Jr. When you see the list of runners-up you will see that several short story collections are included. I’m a great fan of short stories; I love to read them as well as write them, and James Tiptree, Jr., alias Alice Shelton, was one of the greatest short story writers of all. It’s hard to pick out any favorites because so many of her stories are so brilliant, but some of my favorites are “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, “The Women Men Don’t See”, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, and “The Screwfly Solution”.
Stay tuned for the fiction book runners-up. And if you have your own list I’d love to hear it; as I said, I’m always looking for a good read.