I love to read. Always have. Recently, I began to exchange books to read with my neighbor, Olivia. In the most recent exchange, I encouraged her to read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Not sure if she will get some of the 1980s references, but I have a feeling she will love the video game and virtual reality aspects of the novel. That got me thinking, I know Ready Player One is one of the best books I have ever read, but would I put it in my top 5? Top 10? I started to come up with a top 10 list but then realized, what does “best” mean? As my wife read her book for book club, we started discussing that in detail. It’s harder than you think. For example, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card was a truly amazing novel that spoke to me on so many levels…when I read it as a nerdy, shy 13 year-old like Ender was. I felt I really identified with Ender. However, if I were to read it today, it would be a much different experience.
Coming up with my top 3 was easy. Top 5 was a little challenging. But coming up with a top 10 and ranking them truly required a lot of thought. (You should try it sometime and leave your top 10 in the comments section or on Facebook! At least give me your top 5!) After careful thought and consideration, here is my list. Starting with #10:
10. The Diary of William Byrd of Westover: 1709-1712
When I was a senior in college thinking about graduate school, I debated between focusing on World War II history and the history of every day life in Colonial America. This book convinced me to go the Colonial America route. Not intended for publication, Byrd’s diary gives the insight into the life of one of the wealthy elite in Colonial Virginia. Filled with stories of happiness, tragedy, sarcasm, the eighteenth-century diet, and a passionate marriage, it is the gold standard for all historic diaries.
9. Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke has a writing style that really speaks to me. The first half of his novels slowly buildup to something big, but you can never quite figure it out until it happens. When the big reveal comes, it’s often earth (or universe) shattering and changes the entire course of the book. Childhood’s End follows this pattern and goes away from the typical methods in which most novels depict the arrival of an advanced alien species to Earth. It’s a book that leaves you thinking very differently about humanity. The ending is both terrifying…and beautiful.
8. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
When I was in the tenth grade, my English teacher assigned my class to start reading Great Expectations. It became clear early on that no one in the class had any interest in reading it, not even those who liked being the teacher’s pet. She then switched gears and had us read The Pearl. To this day, it is still one of the best books I have ever read. It’s a classic tale of how greed, materialism and evil combine together to challenge those with the purest of intentions. It will make you scared to ever want to win the lottery.
7. How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein
If there is one thing I love more than sports or sci-fi, it’s maps. Combine that love with my degree in history, and you have the perfect book. This is my favorite non-fiction book of all time and one that I can easily read dozens of times in a year. The book explores how the boundaries of each US state came into existence, and how many different factors contributed to them. Some were defined by geography, some by politics, some by religion, some by the threat of vagabonds, and some by backroom dealings with Congress. Of particular interest are the southeastern corner of Missouri, the northern border of Delaware, and the southwestern border of Massachusetts, among others.
6. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
If you grew up as a child in the 1980s, you’re going to love this book. It tells the story of Wade Watts, a poor eighteen-year old kid who embarks on a journey through the OASIS to find the Easter Egg left by its creator. Whoever finds the Easter Egg gets the keys to the kingdom, but the journey is filled with a world full of people also searching for it; including large corporations who want to control the OASIS. The film adaptation is in the works and will be directed by Steven Spielberg. I honestly have no idea how it will ever live up to the book, but we’ll see.
5. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.
The ultimate story of how history repeats itself, and how humanity never learns. The book starts 600 years after humanity is nearly obliterated by nuclear disaster. Those that survived stamped out all forms of higher learning, even reading, forcing humanity to re-evolve. The novel is split into three time periods: the 26th century, 3174, and 3781. Humanity slowly rediscovers reading, technology, and science with religion playing a pivotal role in those developments. But can humans be saved from themselves? Is religion the the best path to turn for salvation?
4. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
I fought reading these books for so long. I saw how obsessed everyone was with them and decided that it was just going to be a fad. However, when I went to see the third film in theaters with friends of mine who had read the books, I had a million questions: “What, exactly, are Dementors?” “What’s the Shrieking Shack?” The answer to each of those questions: Read. The. Books. And so I did. Over the span of a month and a half I read books 1-5. I read The Half Blood Prince in three days and The Deathly Hollows in a day and a half (I actually called in sick to work so I could spend the day reading it). Fun, tragic, heartfelt, funny, witty, scary, mesmerizing…there are just too many great words to describe these books.
3. The Acacia Trilogy by David Anthony Durham
What’s the price of freedom? Before I had ever heard of Game of Thrones, I read The Acacia Trilogy. (In fact, when I watched the first season of GOT, I thought to myself wow, this is a LOT like the Acacia Trilogy.) The novel centers around the royal family and the empire of Acacia. Long-buried, dark secrets kept peace throughout the kingdom, but eventually things unravel. The first novel is good as a stand alone work, but then you learn that the larger world has greater threats than ever imagined and the whole story shifts gears. It’s a complex trilogy, but a surprisingly easy read. Durham does an excellent job of character development. The way Durham intimately connects the characters with the reader makes the plot twist that much more emotional. It’s the second best fantasy novel I have ever read. And yes, I like it better than anything from George R.R. Martin.
2. 1984 by George Orwell
“What?! You’ve never read 1984?? You of ALL people?!”
That was what my wife said to me seven years ago when I told her that I never got around to reading it. Once I did, I felt pretty ashamed that I had not read it sooner. It’s so good, that there are times I consider it 1A in my list of favorite books. 1984 is the ultimate dystopian novel. I often think that governments around the world, including our own, use parts of it as a blueprint for political strategy. Don’t believe me? Look up the definition of “thinkspeak.” Getting the populace to bow to the government’s will and getting them to believe anything they tell them doesn’t necessarily require force of arms. The more you read it, the more frightening it is because you know it can happen. And when it does, you might not even realize it has. Big Brother is out there, and he’s watching you. Do you love Big Brother?
1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
When I read The Hobbit back in the late 1990s, I knew that I had to read this next. I remember I got about 40 pages into the book and just lost interest. It was slow and I didn’t care what Bilbo did for his 111th birthday. Then, I heard they were making movies from the books and I decided to start them again. When I read that last line “Well, I’m home,” I got a bit misty eyed. I’ve never NOT wanted to finish a book more in my entire life. I wished it could have gone on for another 1000 pages. 2000 pages, even! It is the gold standard for all fantasy novels and has influenced countless authors over the past half decade. There are many imitators, but only one original. It’s my favorite book. It’s my favorite movie.
So what are your ten favorite books of all time? Can you choose?