A caveat before I begin here: I have a B.A. and a M.A. in English. I have read quite a bit in my lifetime, but my years as a college instructor meant I spent more time agonizing over hundreds of pages of student writing than reading books. Because of that, I became rather stingy about how I spent my precious reading time. The following list is a conglomeration of years of books read, both for my studies and for pleasure, boiled down to a list that cannot begin to encompass all of my preferred reads accurately, but, nevertheless, these are titles I felt compelled to share.
My basic criterion for this list: these are books that I would read/have read over and over again. Period. Many of these I read at least once a year.
This list is in no particular order:
- Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
I’m the SG covering all things Outlander for a reason. One could quite literally read the series’ eight books at least once a year and it would take most of the year to get through the absorbing and extensive tomes that Gabaldon has created. The story of Jamie and Claire and the ever-evolving cast of characters is so absorbing that I’m reading the series yet again and I first read them all in 2007.
- Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer
I’m sure that a contingent of readers will roll their eyes at this choice. The series has been derided for its melodramatic elements and the at-times mediocre films, but it became popular for a reason: the rush of first love and the choices that come with growing up. It just happens to have a fantastical setting that makes it easy to dismiss. In terms of young adult literature, this series – as well as Harry Potter – made it possible to have the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and so on.
- Shopgirl by Steve Martin
Perhaps better known as the father in the Father of the Bride movies in the 1990s and as the guy who played a banjo and stuck a fake arrow on his head on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, Steve Martin is a writer in addition to being an actor and comedian. Shopgirl was his first novel and it quickly became one of my favorites. The attraction came in Martin’s frankness in addressing the underlying currents going on between the characters in this chronicle of a May-December romance between Mirabelle and Ray Porter. It’s a witty story that both tells and analyzes the relationships between all of the characters at the same time. Martin’s style in this novella is one I wish I could emulate as a writer, but find it hard to duplicate without being overt in the attempt.
- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
In the same vein of frankness as Shopgirl, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility cloaks its bluntness in the genteel language of the early 19th century, but Austen spares little in her portrait of a family in mourning dealing with the realities of being women unable to work for their livelihood and totally dependent on the intricacies of perception over reality in society. My two favorite Austen visual adaptations are both of this book (the 1995 film and the 2008 BBC miniseries). While Pride and Prejudice might garner more popularity because of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, the smoldering between Elinor and Edward Ferrars is far more relevant to those who have experienced feelings for someone that is out of reach. The giddy romantic sister Marianne will also be familiar to readers who have that one friend who loves love and doesn’t care a fig about what you think about her.
- The Position by Meg Wolitzer
The Position focuses on the Mellow children, two boys and two girls who one day find the sex book their parents have written and find their lives forever changed. Sex takes on another layer of meaning for each child, but that layer informs each life in a different way. The book fascinates me still, especially watching how Wolitzer weaves the children’s individual lives (as well as their parents’) through the narrative with minimal tangents.
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
This novel about the lives of geisha in the years before and after World War II is stunning in its detail; it’s technically historical fiction, as Golden interviewed a famous geisha in order to garner enough background information about the culture to write Sayuri’s story. Admittedly, like much fiction, it romanticizes geisha culture to some extent, but it did lead me to begin researching the culture in more depth. I have read several books on geisha post-Memoirs, but this book remains one of those that I enjoy reading at least once a year.
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
I read this book in high school, but I didn’t appreciate it until I read it again as an adult. Something about the story of a desperately poor farmer who builds a family of great wealth from the dirt of his father’s land is compelling every time I pick it up.
- Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve
I first read Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife and then went on to pick up more and more of Shreve’s books when I could find them on the bargain table at a bookstore or in a library. Like several of Shreve’s novels, Fortune’s Rocks is set in a former convent that is converted to a beach house on the New Hampshire coast. I first read it right after college, but, as I grow older and evolve, I discover something new about it each time I pick it up. The emotions the main character Olympia Biddeford feels in her evolution over the course of the novel are familiar to me in different ways depending upon the phase of life I’m in.
- What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson
This one gets a spot on my list because of its timeliness in my particular story. When I first read this, I was unhappy with the job I had, but was uncertain about how or when to change. This book chronicles Bronson’s interactions over time with a number of people who desire to change what they’re doing in their lives. Sometimes it’s careers and other times it’s context, but, whatever the circumstances, Bronson explores each person’s story and the myriad difficulties that come with change. Most of his subjects do make changes, yet he also selects a few stories from those who desire change but then back away from it. The book is not meant to be a self-help tome as the title might suggest, but a frank exploration of the experience of a change that many of us may seek, but aren’t sure how to execute.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
I read this book three separate times as an undergraduate and graduate student, each time with a different purpose for reading and exploring Morrison’s text. The subject matter is disturbing, but the story needs to be both told and consumed. Rather than shying away from discomfort, Morrison encourages readers to explore the story of a former slave woman who killed her child in order to keep that child out of slavery and then encounters a strange woman that she is convinced is the incarnation of that murdered child. After so much time living with it as a student, I find myself now fondly rereading it rather than avoiding it as I had in the immediate years after graduate school. It reminds me that, as a reader, I can’t always just stay with the safe and the known: sometimes I need to be pushed into an uncomfortable place to experience truly the power of reading.
What do you think of this list? Which books are you thinking about picking up?