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Top 5 Books I Never Get Tired Of

I’m not much of a fan of re-reading, possibly because, as a holdover from childhood, I tend to read for story. Once I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it. So I was surprised, while writing this post, to realize there are books I do find myself revisiting from time to time. Which, over a span of 50 reading years, is getting to be an awful lot of times. Mostly they’re collections of stories and poems. It’s as if the musical part of my writing brain has struck a deal with the bossy narrative part. OK, you got your story. So now can I hear it again, just for the music? And like half of a long-married couple, the impatient, let’s-get-on-with-it narrative side says, Oh alright. Wake me when you’re done.

 

Here, then, are the top five books I never get tired of.

 

1. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

I was a kid in 1960 when the 26-year-old Roth won the National Book Award for this collection, his debut. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the contents, but when I devoured these stories in high school, lifting the book off a readerly aunt’s shelf, they knocked my knee socks off. Last year, I taught selections to a crop of students who’d never read Roth. How great to see their socks get knocked off too.
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Top 5 Books That Kept Me Up All Night

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

Like Eric, I try to read before I go to sleep most nights. Most books are good sleep aids, because they let you focus mind on something concrete but unabsorbing, and because a lot of them are quite boring.

But a precious few run the opposite way, they grab you immediately and are so relentlessly riveting that they don’t let you sleep. Often these are not thrillers or even traditional “page-turners,” and neither are they necessarily literary masterpieces. Instead, they are simply ripping good stories. These are the kinds of books I think of when I think of “classics.”

So, without further ado, here are the

Top Five Books That Kept Me Up All Night

5. The Giver, by Lois Lowry

I read this book for the first time just a few weeks ago, convinced by coworkers who were shocked that I hadn’t read it in grade school. I started it at midnight, and didn’t stop until I’d finished the last page. Granted, it’s not a long book (it took me about two hours to read cover to cover), but it’s a classic tale that inspired a whole host of knockoffs and imitators, the worst and most notable being M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. The Giver tells of a “perfect” society in which everyone is assigned a job and nobody ever leaves by choice. When Jonas turns 13, he’s assigned the job of Receiver, a supposedly illustrious job through which Jonas learns the dark secrets of the society’s supposedly utopian existence. It’s a simply, powerfully told story, an elegant execution of a familiar archetype.
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Top 5 Books to Take to Bed

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

Pretty much every night before I turn off the light, I read in bed for a while first. It’s a way of focusing myself for sleep, a way of driving off the stray concerns of day by replacing them with a singular voice. Mostly, this works for me, but I’ve learned over the years that reading in bed can be a dangerous proposition. I come from a line of pretty adept insomniacs to begin with, so put a good book in my hands and I’m apt to forget why I was in bed in the first place until it’s already 3 am. If the book isn’t good enough, though, then it just doesn’t do the trick. I lay my head down still full of whatever was hassling my mind during the day.

To that end, I’ve identified a certain kind of book that puts me to sleep in the best possible way. Each of these books comes doled out in small doses of strangeness, short, experimental pieces I can finish in a few minutes while I’m winding down and still take away something worth dreaming about.

Five Books to Take to Bed

5. The Weather of Words, by Mark Strand

This collection of “poetic inventions” presents one of America’s greatest living poets at his most nimble. It includes literary criticism, personal essays, prose poems, and fictional encounters with Jorge Luis Borges and a President who likes to read Chekhov to his cabinet. In whatever form it takes, Strand’s voice is always confident and compelling. He could write for the IRS and probably manage to make the tax code riveting reading. Thankfully, he has a lot more imagination than that.
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Top 5 Great Books I’ll Never Read Again

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

This recent (or, in Internet-time, ancient) piece on NPR.com got me to thinking not only about the many thousands of books I’ll never read, but also the hundreds of books I’ll probably never read again. Some of them because I’ve grown out of them (“Franklin W. Dixon’s” Hardy Boys, any Dean Koontz or Tom Clancy barf I’ve ever lapped up); most of them because they left no impression (Forgotten Title by Uninspiring Writer); and a wonderful few that I won’t read again because, assuming I continue to smoke, I have, at best, 30-35 more good years of reading in me and so much new writing still to discover.

It would be easy to write a post about the top 5 books I’ll never read again because they were garbage, but that’s the kind of thing that belongs in Junk Novel Roulette. (My contribution to which I am heavily overdue on. Oh Diane Mott Davidson, how I long for the day I have time and appetite enough to devour your “culinary thriller” The Cereal Murders.)

Instead this is a post about five wonderful, masterful books I will never read again. The full title should be The Top 4 Books I’ll Never Read Again (Despite the Fact That I’d Love To) Because They’re So Goddamn Involved and Time-Consuming, and the Top Book I’ll Never Read Again Because I Don’t Want to Die of Self-Inflicted Head Trauma.

Top 5 Great Books I’ll Never Read Again

5. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

I’m a sucker for any book with my name in the title. I’m also a sucker for any book that’s just flat-out excellent and beautifully written. This is the most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels, a bildungsroman that takes us through the childhood and into the adult life of David (a.k.a. Doady, Daisy, Trot), along the way introducing us to memorable characters like Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, and Agnes Wickfield.

David Copperfield was released in serial form, like much of Dickens’ other work, and so it’s really, really, really long (most unabridged versions run upwards of 800 pages). I have so much Dickens still to read and so little time. Sorry, my Dickensian namesake, but we shall never meet again.

Besides, you’d just make all the same mistakes the second time through.


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Top 5 Books That Just Want To Play With You

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

As a child, I loved those books that would say “go to page xx, if you want xx to happen, or page xx, if you want xx to happen.” They made me feel I was actually part of the story. Now, as an adult, the kind of thrill I get when I see narrative rules being broken still makes me want to go up to strangers and say, “see this. You won’t believe what s/he has done here.” Not that I would. But if I did, these are five of the books I’ve accosted strangers about, or would have done… if I was that kind of person.

FIVE BOOKS THAT JUST WANT TO PLAY WITH YOU

5. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

The daddy of them all, written in 1759, and still breathtaking in what he does, and how he does it. Laugh out loud funny too–something people wrongly tend not to imagine experimental books to be.

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4. A Void, by Georges Perec

A 300 page novel written without the use of the letter E. Originally written in French, surprisingly it has been translated with the exact same form imposed. (Not surprisingly, the English translator, Gilbert Adair, won an award for his translation)

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3. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Nollop is a country that spends most of its time worshiping its namesake, the creator of the sentence, “The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dog.” But when letters start to drop off the sentence, citizens (and the author) are forbidden to use the missing letters. Communication becomes more and more ingenious as the letters keep falling, and the citizens fight not to get stuck in their language net.

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2. The Unfortunates, by B. S. Johnson

Now, a confession–I haven’t actually read this in the original because that’s a very limited collection indeed. This book was published on separate pieces of paper, boxed but not bound, with the idea that you could then read it in any order you wanted. Genius. In fact so genius, that B. S. Johnson apparently sent it out to review with another separate piece of paper informing critics how they should read it. (If you enjoy B. S. Johnson, the biography, Like A Fiery Elephant by Jonathan Coe is definitely worth reading.)

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1.  If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino

All thoughts of sinking into a satisfying read are deliberately disturbed, as you search with the main characters–two readers–for the book you are supposed to be holding in your hands, called–you’ve guessed it–If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller. Fascinating study of the act of reading.

Top 5 Books for Bonding with Your 13 Year Old Daughter

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

Top 5 Books for Bonding with Your 13 Year Old Daughter

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5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Show that you can bend. Start with the dystopian action adventure she’s been obsessing over for the last year.  Sure, a book about teens battling to the death while a rapt nation watches on TV seems morbid, but there is a sweet little romance that lifts things up, and finally you’ll find something you can agree on: Peeta is way too good for Katniss.

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4. Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Now that you’ve proven your “cool” credentials, slide her a copy of this semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution.  Bonus points: You will demonstrate that you actually know what a graphic novel is; She will realize there are worse injustices than having to clean her room.

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3. Maximum Ride, by James Patterson

This one is hard because it is sort of lame and all proceeds benefit the writing industrial complex known as James Patterson. (No one can write that much!)  But young teens really like this story about mutant flying children who battle their evil scientist creators. You’ll get through it.  IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU, AFTER ALL!

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2. The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

Like a certain other wizard-loving book series, this classic novel about King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table starts out silly but gets increasingly dark, and here’s something else you’ll agree on: Arthur is way too good for Guinevere.

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1. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

It’s a western, and that may be a hard sell, but emphasize that there is lots of violence.  That will help.  Then show her the actual tome. It’s like twelve pounds. That should seal the deal.  She’ll either see reading it as an opportunity to shame you (because, of course, she will read it way faster than you) or she’ll see the book itself as a potential weapon in the epic Sibling War raging in your home.  Either way, it’s a great read for you, and you did have to read Maximum Ride. You deserve some reward.

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Top 5 Books That Made Me Cry

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

I’ve purposefully excluded anything that I read before I was 17, which includes a lot of classic literature that you might otherwise expect to see here. Yes, I cried when I read Sounder and To Kill A Mockingbird and The Giver and Old Yeller and “The Scarlet Ibis”—but it’s easy to make us cry when we’re young. Especially me. I once cried when I got new shoes because I felt bad for the old pair. Anyway…


Top 5 Books That Made Me Cry

5. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day was the first book that made me think about growing older, and what a “missed opportunity” might actually look like. I’d read plenty of sad books, but their sadness always felt knowable; I’d experienced death and heartbreak (of the teenage sort) so I had some notion of their shapes. But Stevens’s struggle with time’s passage was completely unfamiliar to me, and by the end I was wracked with tears that I didn’t even understand.

4. A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway

The ending that continues to inspire overwrought teenage fiction was no less affecting when I read (or re-read) it as an adult. While some writers offer the reader consolation when a character dies, often in the form of another character’s grief, Hemingway was more than content to leave me with no mechanism for coping with loss, and no assurance that everything will be OK.

3. Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes

Clowes managed an even mixture of humor and pathos throughout most of Ghost World, but the last few chapters were heavy on the melancholy. Particularly the very last sequence, when Enid sees Rebecca through the window of the restaurant, the emotional distance that’s grown between them made literal on the page. Both characters have grown up, but they’re still struggling to accept change in themselves and each other. Clowes ended the story before either could come to terms with that struggle, and therein lay the tragedy.

2. All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely

In my “Deserted Isle” write-up I mentioned the Regan sequence, and how Superman’s compassion for a suicidal teenager, summed up in the affirming, decidedly non-patronizing phrase “you’re stronger than you think,” brings me to tears every time I read it. But the ending doesn’t skimp on the touching warmth, either—Superman kisses Lois one last time as his body begins to fail, right before flying into the heart of the sun, sacrificing himself to save the planet he loves once last time. The image of Superman operating some strange solar gearworks to keep the sun lit, whether or not you want to read it as literal, is as beautiful a depiction of superhuman love as you could ask for.

1. “The Distance of the Moon,” from Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino

So much of Cosmicomics is heady fun, like reading exquisitely written word problems, such that even when the stories delve into epic calculations of loss and alienation they still feel buoyant with whimsy. But I found the final paragraph of “The Distance of the Moon” absolutely devastating—the narrator’s devotion to Mrs. Vhd Vhd is too naked and his ritual of watching the night sky too desperate. It’s more bittersweet than whimsical, a shift in tone that no other story in the collection quite achieves.

Top 5 Books: Unexpected Encounters

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

I was going to do a straight forward, all-time favorite top five books. Then I realized that list would have counted down to One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that seems to come up in all of our special features. So instead of extolling Gabriel García Márquez on this site yet again, I decided to go another route. I noticed that three of the five books on my all-time list were unexpected encounters—books that I knew nothing about, books that I encountered on a shelf or was assigned for a class and absolutely loved. So I figured I’d write about five books that took me by surprise.

Top 5 Unexpected Encounters

5. Mankind: Have a Nice Day, by Mick Foley

I know you’re not taking me seriously. I don’t blame you.  When a friend told me that Mankind was one of the best books he’d ever read and forced his copy on me, I was fairly certain he was either on drugs or fucking with me. So it was unexpected that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. Foley is actually a decent writer. He’s witty and intelligent, and overall, he’s a good storyteller. This book won’t ever be considered high literature, but if you’ve ever hulked up or watched a Royal Rumble, or even if you enjoyed the movie The Wrestler, Mankind is worth picking up.

4. Men and Cartoons, by Jonathan Letham

You know those carts in the library, the ones you are supposed to use instead of re-shelving a book? I found Men and Cartoons on one of those. The cover and the name made me think it was a graphic novel. I would have put it down after realizing my mistake, but the first sentence of the first story hooked me, and I checked it out. A few of the stories in the collection are duds, but the best (“The Vision,” “Super Goat Man”) I’ve revisited a few times.

3. Blood and Grits, by Harry Crews

At the 2006 AWP Conference in Atlanta, I attended a talk during which one of the panelists kept referring to Harry Crews’s “memoir.”  But she kept pronouncing it with a French accent that she seemingly pulled from thin air: “mem-WAH.” A few of us laughed at her pretentiousness well into the morning. When I saw Blood and Grits on a used bookstore shelf a year later, I bought it for the laugh. But Crews knocked me off of my feet. He writes about booze, and drugs, and waking up with strange tattoos. And no matter how idiotic or hopeless those he writes about actually are, Crews manages to find their humanity, and portrays them gently and lovingly.

2. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I was assigned the prologue of this book for a Philosophy class on morality. I’m not sure how it fit into the curriculum. I do know that I went to the store and bought the book immediately after reading the assigned, photocopied prologue. I love this book for the musical quality of the prose. I also love this book because I continue to circle back to it: in countless conversations about religion, about politics, about class divisions, I’ll find myself saying, “have you read Invisible Man?

1. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I found this book on a shelf in a prison library. This was in 2004, before the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie brought the book back to the bestseller list. The book I encountered looked old and forgotten, had yellowing pages, and I mistook it for a pulp crime novel.  By the time I finished reading In Cold Blood, I realized how beautiful a nonfiction book could be, and had decided to write a book about my experience in the prison (I was teaching, not serving). I guess I have Capote to thank (blame?) for my MFA, my stack of rejections, and the last five years of my life.

Top 5 Books: Books That Blew My Mind

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]
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Top 5 Books That Blew My Mind

5. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

I was something like nineteen when I read this book and it blew my mind. It is part memoir, part science-fiction adventure, part war story, part chronicle of failing memory and mental illness, and, as the famous opening line implies, “more or less true.” I don’t even know what else to say except go read or reread this book. I’d like to excerpt the whole thing. Here is the full title, which is impressive by itself:

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, A Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

The rest is up to you. So it goes.

4. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

When I finished reading this I called a friend and said, “I think I just finished the best book I’ve ever read.” Hands-down, the best. The grittiest, saddest, funniest, craziest, most frustrating, most jaw-droppingly ambitious, most inventive book of my longish reading career. I was so impressed I didn’t want to believe it, but when I went back and read this book again it was still true. It contains the most hilarious and uncomfortable chapter I’ve read in any book, which ends like this:

So Hal’s most vivid full-color memory of the non-anti-Substance Meeting he drove fifty oversalivated clicks to by mistake will become that of his older brother’s doubles partner’s older brother down on all fours on a Dacronyl rug, crawling, hampered because one arm was holding his bear to his chest, so he sort of dipped and rose as he crawled on three limbs toward Hal and the needs-meter behind him, Bain’s knees leaving twin pale tracks in the carpet and his head up on a wobbly neck and looking up and past Hal, his face unspeakable.

At this point in the book, all the above makes sense. Wallace has taught you his own hyper-specific, ironic, intentionally imperfect language, or you’ve realized it has always been your own.

3. Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

This book is not out to trick you. Moby Dick does not want to pull the wool over your eyes or reveal the wool that has always been there, pulled. There is no post-modern posturing, only a boat, a whale, and the sea. Moby Dick is out to entertain, and it does. Despite the sometimes torrential purple prose (and more exclamation points per capita than a teenager’s liveblog), you occasionally come across something like this:

But far beneath this wonderous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side. For, suspended in those watery vaults, floated the forms of the nursing mothers of the whales, and those that by their enormous girth seemed shortly to become mothers. That lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and, as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence; -even so did the young of these whales seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sights.

Like a voyage on an ancient whaling ship, or a contemporary journey by modern means, the tedium is punctured by moments of elevation–and pirates.

2. Jesus’s Son, by Denis Johnson

You know how you have one or two stories where something almost goes horribly wrong, like the time you woke up behind the wheel in your own driveway with no memory of driving home, you almost got into a fight with those guys at that seedy bar by the highway, the cop who pulled you over for a broken tail light almost looking inside your glove compartment/pockets/trunk, but didn’t? Denis Johnson’s characters don’t have those stories. These are stories about when things that go terribly, impulsively, wrong. A random overdose, a spontaneous burglary, a car crash on a dark highway late at night, impromptu brain surgery, dead bunnies, voyeurism, these are not subjects for the weak of heart, but the reason they work so well is exactly because Johnson’s narrator, a sensitive dreamer nicknamed “shit-head,” is just that–a little too weak for the strange underworld he is part of. Here is how a typically untypical story begins:

A salesman who shared his liquor and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…And a family from Marshalltown who head-onned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…

…I rose up sopping wet from sleeping under the pouring rain, and something less than conscious thanks to the first three people I’ve already named -the salesman and the Indian and the student- all of whom had given me drugs. At the head of the entrance ramp I waited without hope of a ride. What was the point, even, of rolling up my sleeping bag when I was too wet to be let into anybody’s car? I draped it around me like a cape. The downpour raked the asphalt and gurgled in the ruts. My thoughts zoomed pitifully. The travelling salesman had fed me pills that made the linings of my viens feel scrapped out. My jaw ached. I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.

I didn’t care. They said they’d take me all the way.

1. The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever

819 pages of immaculate stories that go like this (from halfway through “A Picture of the World”):

But my wife was sad.

“What’s the matter, darling?” I asked.

“I just have this terrible feeling that I’m a character in a television situation comedy,” she said. “I mean, I’m nice-looking, I’m well-dressed, I have humorous and attractive children, but I have this terrible feeling that I’m in black-and-white and that I can be turned off by anybody. I just have this terrible feeling I can be turned off.” My wife is often sad because her sadness is not a sad sadness, sorry because her sorrow is not a crushing sorrow. She grieves because her grief is not an acute grief, and when I tell her that this sorrow over the inadequacies of her sorrow may be a new hue in the spectrum, she is not consoled. Oh, I sometimes think of leaving her.

Who has the gall to start a story this way? Only someone who knows he can pull it off.

Although the Suburban Ennui theme can run a little thick, every now and then you will discover a story like “The Swimmer,” or “Goodbye, My Brother,” or “The Country Husband,” or “Reunion,” any of which could be career-capping masterpieces in their own right. In the collected stories, these are the rule, not the exception.

Top 5 Books: Old Standbys

[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5″ list of books on a theme of their choosing. Read other entries in Top 5 Books here, and catch up on other fun series like this on our Special Features page.]

I couldn’t come up with a clever theme for my list, so I decided just to pick the 5 books I’d most want access to at any given time. Kind of like a comfort book survival kit. You’d think picking my five favorite books would have been easy. Turns out it was more difficult than choosing a single book to bring on a deserted isle. I know my all-time favorite, but choosing and ranking 2-5 was no small task. I narrowed it down to ten, then went from there. Ultimately I had to leave cherished books out, books that I don’t think I could possibly live without. What I think I’ve come up with for my shortlist is an accurate representation of my eclectic taste as a reader. No matter where I found myself, if I had some or all of these five* books with me, I’d be all set.

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Top 5 Old Standbys

5. The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien

I’ve long been a fan of early-20th-century Irish writers. Picking Joyce, Beckett, or Behan would be too easy, and yet I doubt it would cause anyone to go out and get reading. Flann O’Brien is the literary little brother to those giants, and this delirious novel stands with some of their best. While those other guys more or less require a degree in English, O’Brien, while just as bizarre, is far easier to pick up and read.  And fans of LOST (the first few season, before it got stupid) will find some familiar subject matter.

4. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card

One of the very few sci-fi books I read, let alone enjoyed, as a kid. It wasn’t hard for me to identify with the quiet loner pipsqueak who would prefer being left alone to saving the world. And for a kid’s sci-fi book, it turns out to be surprisingly deep and somewhat emotional. Ender’s Game spawned a whole series. The second one is okay, I lost interest in the third and never went any further. But I still revisit this book regularly. (Note: It doesn’t exist in the writing, but Card is a homophobic bigot. Get this book from the library rather than giving him any money.)

3. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley

Boy oh boy, did Hollywood do a number on Frankenstein. Don’t get me wrong, I really like the old “Frankenstein’s monster” movies, especially the Karloff one. But shambling-monster fright flicks have almost no relation to their source. The book is a twisting character study told from multiple perspectives. It brings up some heavy subjects and is downright philosophical, and entertaining to boot. One of the Gothic granddaddies of science fiction and horror, Frankenstein should be required reading.

2. The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser

Millhauser’s fabulism manages to encapsulate so much that I love about literature. His stories are wonderfully creative, his narrators varied and precise, his details carefully selected. This collection contains what I think is my favorite short story ever, “A Visit.” It tells of a man who visits an old college roommate in New England and meets his wife, a 2 foot bullfrog.

1. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

Unassailably my favorite book since the very first time I read it. It was certainly edgy for the 50′s but it’s tamer by today’s standards. Most people who haven’t read the book just assume it’s prurient smut about a pedophile. What it actually is is one of the most nuanced and emotionally complex novels ever crafted. It’s also quite funny. I firmly believe this is the greatest work written in the English language in at least the last century, and I will duel anyone who says otherwise.

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*Honorable mention – Given the chance to read it a few more times, I think Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies would jostle its way onto this list.