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The 12 Best Books of All Time

I promised a few weeks ago I would blog about the books, authors, and themes that influenced my own writing. And then I got stuck, because how to break it down? The difficulty is that most of them intertwine—my favorite authors wrote my favorite books (they’re favorites for a reason, after all), and my favorite books have my favorite themes.

Hence the dilemma.

But after sifting through my notes, I decided to begin with my favorite books. I could do separate lists for sci-fi/fantasy, classics, etc., but today we’ll just start with the favorites across all genres. And then of course I realized that I’d set myself an impossible task. I’ve been a reader my whole life—how to choose favorites?

So I cheated. You’ll find several series stuck in here, lumped together as one book, and a list of Honorable Mentions stuck throughout and at the bottom.

It is a very eclectic list, but I probably couldn’t come up with another such honest reflection of my personality.

Don’t forget to leave your favorite books in the comments at the bottom!

And now… THE LIST. The 12 (er… 36…er…?) Best Books of All Time!

12. Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Lewis’s last novel is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. It’s about love and loss and bitterness and suffering. And it’s beautiful. I find something new every time I read it.

“To say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.”

11. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This book was one of the few novels I was assigned in high school that I didn’t like. I didn’t appreciate Gatsby (or Fitzgerald for that matter) until I was an adult. However, now I get lost in Fitzgerald’s beautiful prose and simple (yet layered) story-telling.

“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

10. Night by Elie Wiesel

I didn’t actually discover Night until I began teaching. The autobiographical account of the author’s survival of the Nazi death camps is both haunting and inspiring. It is not extremely graphic, but no less poignant because of it. (Honorable mention: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom)

“Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.”

9. The Martian by Andy Weir

Yes, a complete reversal from the heavier fiction I’ve mentioned. I bought The Martian to read at the beach. And I couldn’t put it down. I laughed out loud while my husband gave me funny looks from the next beach chair. I will put a language warning on this book, and I’m using the second-best quote of the book because of it.

“Well, I didn’t die.”

8. Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchet

This one reminds me of The Princess Bride and The Once and Future King. If you like fun stories with names like “Brother Plasterer,” the “Unseen University,” and “Ankh-Morpork” (say that aloud), then you’ll like this story of “magic, mayhem, and a marauding dragon.” There are over 40 Discworld novels. I’m still working my way through them.

“Don’t we have to chant a mystic prune or something?”

7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I never get tired of Elizabeth’s wit. And of course… Darcy. Need I say more?

(Elizabeth) “And your defect is to hate every body.”

“And yours,” [Darcy] replied with a smile, “is willfully to misunderstand them.”

6. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

I first read this book in Junior High, right when the original movie came out. And it was my first real introduction to science fiction. I don’t remember how many times I’ve read Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World, but they’re still some of my favorites. My old, tattered copy is falling out of its binding despite the fact I put packaging tape on it at some point. After reading Jurassic Park, I read my way through most of Crichton’s earlier novels, and they’re pretty great, too. At this point, there are only a couple of his posthumously published novels I haven’t read.

“That’s right… the animals can get out now. Probably nothing will happen.”

5. Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Villette is the lesser-known work of the same author who wrote Jane Eyre. In fact, Jane Eyre was a favorite  of mine until college, where I read Villette. Villette tells the story of Lucy Snow, a 23-year-old Englishwoman with no living relatives who travels to Belgium to teach in a school. There she meets M. Paul Emanual, whose character is rumored to be based on a married man Bronte fell in love with while she herself was teaching in Brussels. It is darker than Jane Eyre and wonderfully crafted.

“I love, I hate, I suffer.”

“I liked peace so well, and sought stimulus so little, that when the latter came I almost felt it a disturbance.  I thought I loved him when he went away; I love him now in another degree; he is more my own. The sun passes the equinox; the days shorten, the leaves grow sere; but—he is coming. Frosts appear at night; November has sent his fogs in advance; the wind takes its autumn moan; but—he is coming.”

4. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

Where to begin with this one? (Or rather, with these 8?) Anne of Green Gables and the seven novels after it are staples from my childhood that I enjoy every bit as much as an adult. Anne (spelled with an e) Shirley is an orphan who has been passed around from house to house, used as a free labor/babysitter, before she finally ends up in an orphanage.

Then through a colossal mistake, she ends up at Green Gables, the house of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, an elderly brother and sister who wanted to adopt a boy to help on the farm. After Anne finds out they didn’t want a girl, she begs them to be allowed to stay. But with her temper, her excessive talking, and her constant daydreaming, Anne gets into all sorts of trouble. But the Cuthberts soon find they can’t imagine life without the little redheaded girl, and she ends up helping them as much as they help her. It’s a feel-good, heart-melting sort of story that will make you laugh and cry.

I generally don’t like that kind of fiction, but the Anne series strikes a good balance between good writing, rounded characters, and charming plot.

“Imagination is what you need.”

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

3. Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

So I’m cheating again as I include another whole series. Really, the last three books are my favorites even though I enjoy all of them. Most people know about these, of course, or have at least heard of them. I’m including all because I grew up reading them, but also because they contain probably my favorite literary character of all time: Severus Snape. His story explains why I waited in line in the middle of the night to pick up my copy. His character arc is the reason I read the books voraciously and cried almost uncontrollably (and inconsolably, as it turned out). And I’m happy to say he was a favorite even in the beginning, so you can’t accuse me of jumping on the bandwagon only at the very end! I just knew he’d turn out to be good. I KNEW it. And so my favorite part of The Cursed Child was when… but then, spoilers. I’ll leave that part out.

What can I say? I like a good antihero. (Who doesn’t?) And so I’m including Snape’s lines here:

“Yes, it is easy to see that nearly six years of magical education have not been wasted on you, Potter. Ghosts are transparent.” —HBP

“Would you like me to do it now?” asked Snape, his voice heavy with irony. “Or would you like a few moments to compose an epitaph?”—DH

2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Umm.. yes, just yes. The gold standard by which all other fantasy novels are measured. Favorite characters? Boromir, Theoden, Eowyn, Sam, and Gollum. These books have so many quotes, I had trouble narrowing them down.

Overused, but still a good one:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Relevant for today:

“The enemy? His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is, where he came from. And if he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home. If he would not rather have stayed there in peace. War will make corpses of us all.”

Most triumphant scene in any fiction book ever:

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Edmund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

There are those moments when you really feel that an author has lived through some dark times, that they have experienced true darkness. A place where the good times can’t be remembered. The darkness steals the good memories, erases them. And you are left with nothing but your present self and your immediate distress. Great is the writer who can put those times into words:

“No taste of food, no feel of water, no sound of wind, no memory of tree or grass or flower, no image of moon or star are left to me. I am naked in the dark, Sam, and there is no veil between me and the wheel of fire. I begin to see it even with my waking eyes, and all else fades.”

1. The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia must be read in the correct order–that is, the order of publication: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Last Battle. Reading TMN first is like watching the Star Wars prequels before the original trilogy–you just shouldn’t do it. (I read this analogy somewhere very recently and loved it, but I can’t find it again. When I do, I’ll link to it.)

These books are the first I remember truly loving. My second grade teacher read the first 4 to us that year. Thank God for her. We sat on wooden floors in an old school building in the still-hot September air–no air-conditioning and the windows thrown up–while she read to us.

At eight years old, my world opened to a love of reading that carried me through to adulthood. Oh, I loved to read before that—I read early and often—but The Chronicles of Narnia holds a special place in my heart because they were the first books I read and re-read until the pages were falling out and I had to hold them together with a rubber band. I still have that set—I can’t bear to replace it.

“One day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again.”

“‘I am [in your world],’ said Aslan. ‘But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.’” —Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Yes,” said the Lord Digory, “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”

“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” —The Last Battle

(I actually can’t help but think of Doctor Who when I read that last.)

More Honorable Mentions (but in no particular order):

What are some of YOUR favorites? Leave them in the comments!

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