A Subjective List: Top 25 Favorite Novels (or Short Story Collections)

At some point, you need to take stock of the works that have shaped not only your writing but your reading career: the books that, through sheer identification of re-reading have entered your literary DNA, and shape all your aesthetic choices about a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ book. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life reading, probably more than doing any other activity—eating included, since I often eat with a book in hand (doesn’t reading intensify the thrill of eating? Just me?). So I thought I would subjectively make a list of the books that have stayed with me the most over the years, all of which I’ve read more than once, and a few cases, up to 6 or 7 times. Naturally, this is a subjective list and doesn’t pretend to be universal or persuasive. In fact, it’s severely limited in many respects, being largely Western (and very English), and showcasing more men than women. You might not agree with a single book on my list, but this list reflects my reading journey from ages 16 to 43, and as a teacher, the works I most often return to in my own classes.

The only thing I excluded were books of plays and poetry, since I would have a hard time preventing Shakespeare alone from taking 10 or 11 of the 25 spots. In short, these books have each transformed me in some way, large or small, and changed the way I thought about myself and my place in the world. I feel that each of these books have the potential to do this for others, but I also realize that reading is a strange form of alchemy which doesn’t always catch fire. The reader brings something unique to every book, and whatever I brought to these books—and sometimes, it took a re-reading to ignite—made them gloriously spark and sing.

In alphabetical order rather than order of importance (couldn’t manage that!):

1. Austen, Persuasion

2. Austen, Pride and Prejudice

3. Cather, My Antonia

4. Chekhov, any Collected Stories including “The Black Monk,” “Ward No.9,” “Peasants,” “The Man in a Box,” etc.

5. Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

6. Fielding, Tom Jones

7. Herbert, Dune

8. Krakauer, Into the Wild  

9. Kipling, Kim

10. Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies

11. Moore, Watchmen

12. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas

13. Narayan, The Guide

14. Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

15. Shelley, Frankenstein

16. Shostakovich/Volkov, Testimony

17. Simak, City

18. Simmonds, Gemma Bovery

19. Spiegelman, Maus I and II

20. Stoker, Dracula

21. Tolkein, The Hobbit

22. Turgenev, Fathers and Children

23. Voltaire, Candide

24. Wells, The Time Machine

25. White, The Once and Future King