I own about two thousand books, and I’ve read a whole lot more, so making a list like this is a real challenge for me, narrowing it down. There are hundreds of books that I love and have read more than once that don’t make the list, because even though I enjoyed them, nothing in me changed from the reading of them. I’m not including the Bible in this list, being that it is actually sixty-six books.
1. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.
This is my favorite book by my favorite author. This book propelled me to begin writing fiction, after I read it for a second time. I love the scope of the novel, the themes of light and darkness, and the hopeful tone of this towering work. Nobody writes a paragraph the way Steinbeck does. His words sing to me.When I read the book for the third time, I was so utterly humbled that i considered not writing any more, because I could see I would never attain that level of excellence no matter how long I strove to perfect my craft.
2. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.
I read this one in Junior High for the first time, and Copperfield was the first character I read as a kid that I completely identified with and rooted for. Uriah Heep was loathsome, terrible, and surly and I had to keep reading to see him defeated. I read it again back in college, and the love story appealed to me more then, and the arc of character development. Dickens, like Steinbeck, is a master of the paragraph, with ornate descriptions and a cadence and music to his language.
3. A Farewell To Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
This book made me fall in love with Hemingway’s writing, although the ending made me want to hurl my paperback across the room. I read this one in my early twenties, and it led to a Hemingway binge. I devoured everything, from his brilliant short stories like The Green Hills of Africa and A Clean, Well Lighted Place, to another of my favorites, To Have and Have Not. Hemingway’s dialogue slays me, the way he can convey a tremendous amount of information and emotion in so few words. His use of metaphor and simile, and lean style appeal to me, although he and Steinbeck are almost opposites, Hemingway sparse, with much in between the lines, while Steinbeck is prone to longer sentences, and flowery descriptions. I reread To Have and Have Not last year, and I couldn’t write for a week because Papa is just so damn good.
4. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
My father read this out loud to our family when I was in Junior High. (He read to us almost every night. He was in law school at the time and had abolished the television. The stories he read were infinitely better than the Dukes of Hazzard and whatever else was on back then. Anyway, Lucifer’s Hammer felt real, a nightmare which could actually occur with almost no warning. The book is full of darkness, but of course, in the end it’s about community and the triumph of the human spirit, and these are themes that I will always be drawn to and fascinated by. Reading this book led to discussions about what we would do in the event of the apocalypse. And that, way back then, was formative in my own writing. I write apocalyptic literature in large part because of those discussions we had as a family back in the early eighties. The idea of a societal breakdown, and the chance to get it right the next time around, despite the hardship and death, is intriguing to me.
5. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.
I read Irving for the first time back in my songwriting days in Nashville. His books were so good, I felt compelled to write a paper about them, just for the heck of it, and because I am truly a nerd. Irving’s language is reminiscent of Dickens, a more modern version of it, and his characters are unique, nuanced, and lovable despite their flaws. This is my favorite book by Irving, though I loved The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, as well. Owen Meany has a kind of light about it, a sense of wonder, that I enjoyed.
6. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien.
This is the best book about war I’ve ever read, and I’ve read hundreds. O’Brien should have won the Pulitzer for this one, although he did receive a great deal of acclaim at the time. It’s one of the definitive books about the Vietnam war, written by someone who served in the infantry. O’Brien is brilliant, his language masterful, his characters quirky and memorable, the action scenes intense and visceral. I read this book just last year for the first time, after somehow missing it. I read it in a day, then read it again about a week later because it is that good. The structure of the story is complex, and the story packs a tremendous emotional punch. If you haven’t read this one, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
7. War, by Sebastian Junger
Junger is a journalist, and has been embeded with American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. This novel is the true story of soldiers at a remote outpost, high in the mountains of Afghanistan. Junger is a fine writer, his prose is lean and taut, and he transports the reader to another world with this incredible book.
8. Dune, by Frank Herbert
This sprawling saga made me believe that science fiction could also be literature. The scope and intensity of this book left me dying to read the next one. The first three Dune Books stand apart in my mind, ambitious, risky, and compelling. Herbert’s world-building is second to none. I haven’t read these books in more than a decade. I might put them on my list again this year. Paul Maudib is one of my all time favorite protagonists.
9. The Lord of The Rings, by J R.R. Tolkein.
Because I’m a nerd, and reading these books, I’m in nerd heaven. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the series or watched the films, but I’ve spent many a snowy day or sweltering afternoon reading these books, and it’s always like seeing an old friend I’ve not seen in too long. We pick up right where we left off, and remember why we were friends in the first place.
10. Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
I was never a fan of westerns, and I’m still not really a fan of the genre. I make an exception for Lonesome Dove, and anything by McMurtry. My father gave me this book for Christmas a few years ago, and I flew through it, and then the sequels, and then everything else McMurtry had written. He won the Pulitzer for the novel back in ’85, and he deserved it. This isn’t just a western, it’s a masterpiece. His descriptions and love of the landscape ring from the page, and his heroes are some of the best in fiction of any kind. Alex and Gus are my heroes, and although I’ve never met them, I feel like I know them.