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Thinking back over the (many) decades of my reading life, I decided it might be fun to take a look at my reading history and compile a list of favorite books. As my average number of books per year is between 90 and 100, such a list appears at first glance to be an impossible task. It is said that engaging the “little gray cells” (thanks, Poirot) is beneficial to long-term mental activity. We’ll see.
I have been a reader from day one, but really became a fanatic when I discovered the Nancy Drew series. Hooked—completely hooked. From that point, I’ve never looked back. My parents never vetted my reading material, leaving me to haunt the library to bring home an armful of books at a time and return for more. This was in the summer months when I had whole days to do nothing but read. All through my many years, books have been a constant. I cannot imagine life any other way.
For the last 17 years, I have worked at an independent bookstore in my neighborhood. Customers come in every day to ask for suggestions. One of the advantages of a small store is that we recommend books that we have actually read. Now and then we receive galleys that are pre-published copies. The bookseller gets to read a “free” book, but the down side is that she is inundated with piles of galleys that grow higher and higher. Thank goodness I am a fast reader. Thus I can be more helpful at the store with my suggestions and have more books to love.
In order to make my list more definitive, I have omitted series of all genres and mysteries (my personal favorite category and a candidate for another Top Ten list). I chose books that span a lifetime from childhood to the present day, but feel sure there are many more I should have included. I have agonized and revised until I finally made myself stop. I am not a particularly scholarly reader, so you won’t find Ulysses or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire on my list! Instead, my recommendations are accessible, enjoyable, and memory-laden treasures of my past and present.
My first four selections are childhood and young adult favorites.
Eloise by Kay Thompson tells of a spunky six year old living at the Plaza with her harried nanny, dog, and turtle. She makes up words, has the run of the hotel, gets into all kinds of mischief, and is simply a wonderful creature. This has become a multi-generational favorite in my family partly because we all admire Eloise’s enchanting free spirit!
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is a must for all young girls. I found myself mesmerized by the engaging March family and their lives as they wait for Mr. March to return from the Civil War. Every female I’ve known who has read this book has identified with one of the March daughters.
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank has probably been read by every school age child in America. When I first read it at about age 12, I was very moved by her story. But it wasn’t until I was 16 and living in Germany (father in military), and my family visited the Franks’ hiding place/home in Amsterdam that the full import of her words hit me. Anne Frank is surely one of the most poignant voices of the persecuted Jews of WWII. An absolute must read.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, set in Alabama in the 1930s, focuses on Atticus Finch, the town lawyer, and his children Scout and Jeb. To me, the heart of the book is the loving relationship Atticus has with his children, patiently explaining life lessons to them in ways they are able to understand. Probably on most everyone’s Top Ten list, this book is a treasure.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—I can still feel the chills and surprises of this somewhat creepy story of a young bride easily intimidated by her new home haunted by the
memory of its previous mistress, her husband’s first wife Rebecca. This was one of my early forays into more adult reading and may be why today I am so intrigued with the mystery genre. Yummy.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry—simply one of the best Westerns ever written. It is peopled by such believable, colorful characters and told with such feeling of the Old West that you fall right into that world and want to stay. When I read this for the first time, I remember thinking I would cast Robert Duvall as one of the two main cowboy characters for a movie—and he was!
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese follows the lives of a set of originally conjoined twin boys born in Ethiopia in an Indian mission hospital. How they evolve in the culture and political upheavals over the years to become completely different people is mesmerizing. Verghese spent time in Ethiopia as part of his medical training, and his love for the country and its people shines through. An all-time favorite.
The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone is a fictional biography of Michelangelo. I have never erased the mental images of him dissecting bodies to understand how the people of his paintings and sculptures should look. Today, when I see any of his magnificent work, I can’t help thinking back to when he was just beginning to create.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, set in post World War II Barcelona, is a book about books. What could be better? A 10 year old boy is introduced by his father to the Cemetery of Lost Books, and the story takes off from there. A mixture of history, mystery, romance, and illusion. Lovely.
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott is a book I’ve been giving to friends for years. Lamott, who is quirky yet insightful, looks at life and religion in her own unique way and has a way of writing that will grab you and won’t let go. I learn something new each time I go back and read it again.
It’s not a mistake that I only have two non-fiction selections on my list, as I read primarily fiction. Occasionally, I dip into other genres, but good fiction and mysteries are usually my choices.
Compiling my list was so much more difficult than I had originally thought it would be–I had to omit many much loved titles. Maybe later, I’ll do a second Top Ten! I would love your responses to my list and for you to submit some of your own favorites. It’s always fun to see what others read and to compare their lists to yours.