I saw that in honor of World Book Night 2012, the WBN site is performing a sort of democratic top 100 books list where you choose you 10 favorite books and the votes are all tabulated to create the master list based on popularity. It’s probably nothing new, but I like that instead of “Editor’s Choice” style top X lists that, at best, include a small sample size reader’s poll alongside the “real” list, this one is all audience-based.
I contributed but the more I looked at my list the more intrigued I was about what it said about me that these were the top 10 books I picked. Naturally everyone is going to bring their own criteria to such an undertaking which is partially why it’s interesting at all, but my selection method was that I went for books that I felt had some sort of actual impact on my life or my perspectives and—this is critical—that each was a book I liked enough to read again. Maybe for chronic re-readers that doesn’t sound like much of a narrowing factor but I hardly ever re-read books. My thought is, there are so many books out there I haven’t read yet, I’d rather try something different than revisit one. Even one I loved the first time through.
Curiously I think this also means that some books I didn’t think I cared for at the time I may enjoy now; or that books I really liked once upon an idle hour wouldn’t stand the test of time. Still, if I have re-read or would actually consider re-reading a book, it must have stuck out to me as particularly noteworthy so it helped to narrow down a lengthy list of possibilities. I’m annotating the list here because as I mentioned I think this list seems to reflect a bit about me and perhaps my rationales enhance that reflection. As an aside, you can also view this list as “Top 10 Topics of Conversation With Paul (Provided You Don’t Care That He Never Shuts Up).” Also, these are in order (as best as I can remember) that I read the books, oldest to newest.
- 1984 – George Orwell
I read Orwell’s oft-cited dystopian nightmare in high school and despite having the haunting closing line spoiled for me with less than 25 pages left to go, it struck me as the rare kind of novel that I appreciated even at the time for its instructive value but also that such pointed social critiques and cautionary imagery could be incorporated into an otherwise interesting story. It was the first time I think that I truly grasped what fiction could do. Also, practically every human on this planet needs this book as a reference point or you’re unlikely to ever understand any serious debate about a government, privacy, liberty or the future.
- Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
I’ve always thought of myself as a science fiction kind of guy, but when I was younger I think it was mostly just because I liked Star Wars and Buck Rogers and Metroid. Ender’s Game is kind of entry-level SF, but when I read it as a 19 year-old working at a mall bookstore, it cemented in my mind exactly why SF is awesome. Someone too clever for their own good pointed out that Ender’s Game appeals to nerds everywhere by being the geeky underdog equivalent of a fairy princess story to chubby little girls, and that’s true, but EG still has all the things that SF novels need to be great: A world you wish you could visit, a protagonist you can’t help but love, more than a few “neat ideas,” a sense of order and justice that appeals to those struggling with the genuine uncertainties of real life and an ending that is exactly right.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Honestly, I had no idea that narrative fiction could be truly funny until I read HGttG. I knew people could be funny in their writing because my dad used to get a lot of Dave Barry books that would get genuine LOLs, but the idea of being funny for reasons other than just comedy didn’t occur to me until I found Douglas Adams (also while working at that bookstore). This is one of those that I have read several times, and it’s still hilarious even when you’re prepared for the jokes. What I didn’t remember until after re-reading it a few years ago was that the story hidden in the absurdity is actually good, too. I’m not sure if the jokes or the story could exist apart from each other, but then again, I’m glad they don’t have to.
- Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson
Right after I got married (12 years ago, yikes), I went on a journey into the heart of geek culture. As the Internet was exploding into popular consciousness, I was diving into the thought processes of the kinds of people who had started laying the groudwork for it (literally and conceptually) years before. As part of that nerd event horizon, I began to read books recommended by the kinds of people who wrote code that made the Internet function. I’m not talking about guys who started Google or Amazon, I’m talking about the guys who wrote the HTTP specification, who were instrumental in developing DNS. Those kinds of guys. Anyway, one recommendation that kept coming up was Snow Crash.
Truthfully, I can’t tell if I love this book to death or hate it with a fiery passion. There are so many awesome ideas packed into it, even Stephenson himself couldn’t keep them contained. When you get within about 50 pages of the end and there are still amazing revelations coming that can’t possibly be fully explored in the remainder of the novel, you’re in for heartbreak. And the heartbreak is entirely Snow Crash’s end: Both that the ending is somewhat disappointing but also that it has to end at all. It’s not just great science fiction, it’s also funny, thoughtful, provocative and prescient literature. Read Stephenson’s description of the Metaverse, written in 1992, and then think about social MMOs like Second Life and, to an extent, Facebook and Twitter. You’ll see what I mean.
- Breakfast of Champions – Kurt Vonnegut
I read Slaughter-house Five in high school and thought it was pretty interesting but it wasn’t until I was a know-it-all aspiring bohemian twenty-something that I could finally get a real sense of the fatalism and the defense mechanism of wry humor in the face of life’s ceaseless absurdity that Vonnegut lampoons. I honestly don’t remember many specifics about BoC, but I know that it colored my whole perception (and, you can ask Nik for verification, made me an absolute pain in the neck to live with for the next couple of months as I cynically dissected all of modern society with what passes for my own meager wit). I only let myself read Vonnegut once every five years or so, just so I don’t become completely insufferable to everyone around me in a permanent sense. BoC stands out as the first time I felt like I really heard another person’s perspective on life and truly understood how someone who wasn’t me saw the world.
- Watchmen – Alan Moore
It seems almost trite to say Watchmen is one of my favorite books. I always liked comics and superheroes, but like so many other things, I never considered that kind of story could elevate into art and not just effective but valuable social critique. It goes beyond even being remarkable for being, essentially, literature in graphic novel form. The depths and layers of story that happen in this volume are like a self-contained class in genre deconstruction, multi-tiered storytelling and pacing. Here’s the true genius of Watchmen: Even without the poignancy, the emotional depth, the allegory, the social commentary, you’d still have a remarkably complete and well-crafted superhero story. What makes Watchmen great is that even without the parts that make it so great, it’s still great. The movie was okay, but I don’t know that it was ever something that was going to make the leap to another medium fully intact. It would be like a Watchmen novel: Ultimately, it kind of misses the point.
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
Where Vonnegut first made me see the world from someone else’s perspective, Thompson in Fear and Loathing was first to show me that the more perspectives you have, the more you need just to hope to make sense of anything. Thompson also revealed to me that breaking rules, while never without consequence, is sometimes just the right thing to do. And Fear and Loathing gleefully destroys every rule it encounters: Thompson’s drug-addled prose flips a very considered bird to narrative structure and organization while also sneering derisively at the pretense of unfiltered stream-of-(altered)-consciousness; the descriptions of wanton recklessness, lawlessness and only the barest of perfunctory nods at responsibility and duty not to mention the way the novel revels in the dirty corners were all eye-opening. Those dirty corners aren’t just physical places, the dank mildews of seedy hotels and dusty niche sports, but also societal corners as far removed from proper civilization as can be. Fear and Loathing reminded me that books can be dangerous things, in the best possible sense.
- Neither Here, Nor There – Bill Bryson
A few years ago when I read this book I was operating under the following false impressions: One; non-fiction books were always dull. Two; travel books were for suckers who couldn’t afford to travel themselves. Three; examining facts is the most efficient way of learning. Bill Bryson demolished all those impressions in one single volume. Neither Here, Nor There is lively, funny, artistic, educational and a worthy read regardless of personal travel experience. True, the book makes one desperately want to visit Europe (I would assume an effective travel book would do nothing less than inspire one to visit its subject) but Bryson goes well beyond that and details the purpose of travel, showing the necessity of broad horizons and experimentation outside the confines of pre-packaged tours. Bryson’s theory of travel seems to be “show up, try to blend.” He visits museums and landmarks and such sometimes, but about as much as a local might. Mostly he tries to get a sense of a place, to contextualize its history with its present and to think about what it means to him and how his presence in that particular spot is significant. The truth, it seems, is that wherever you are is always significant.
- Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
This is the book, when I read it earlier this year, that finally kicked me into gear to try in a serious way to write myself. Nabokov’s loathsome protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is drawn incredibly by Nabokov through nothing more than the power of his beautiful, poetic prose as inexplicably sympathetic. This is an astounding feat because neither Nabokov nor the narrating Humbert shies away from his detestable nature or actions. Neither are proud nor defensive of the monster that is Humbert and yet Nabokov is able to reveal the human beneath the cur and the result is astounding. Nabokov writing in his non-native English is a technical wizard, enviable in his seeming casual ability to paint a vivid portrait of a scene, a feeling, a subtlety in such a way as to be both beautiful and horrible by turns, or simultaneously. This is a writer’s book that showcases what writing can do and, for me, just makes me want to practice and practice until I come into the same zip code as the word-craft on display here.
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver
This is a book I read only very recently and while the few forays into Hemingway I’ve undertaken have never given me a true appreciation for minimalism (go ahead and laugh now, longtime readers), Carver finally did it for me. Carver’s ability to say volumes by specifically not saying something is wondrous to behold and his peculiarly dry, grim view of people, relationships and really the world at large are served so well by his genuflection to the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps. Some of the stories in this collection are fragments, barely qualifying as stories at all and yet the snapshots they create are in many ways like art: A single photo or painting can’t always execute a narrative but then they don’t need to. Carver’s writing is like the accompaniment to those captured moments and I learned from this book about the power of brevity.
And yes, I can still hear you laughing.
- Blue Like Jazz – Donald Miller
No other book before or since has permitted me to make huge leaps in my ability to reconcile my often conflicted thoughts on human spirituality and the role of God in our lives. Donald Miller’s introspective, often rambling account of his own spiritual journey is honest-to-a-fault, funny, insightful and in many ways beautiful. He actually helped me understand the very terrestrial nature of jazz music as well, and solidify the notion of altruism and how it can be practically applied. BLJ didn’t quite make the cut mostly because I don’t know that I would feel the need to read it again but it may be telling that I vividly remember long passages from this book better than some of the others that appear above. A great book regardless of its status in my top ten and one I’d recommend to just about everybody (regardless of spiritual orientation).
- Moneyball – Michael Lewis
Even though I’m a born and bred San Francisco Giants fan, I don’t have the sort of juvenile loathing of the across-the-Bay American Leaguers that are the Oakland Athletics some do. Unless they’re facing the Giants in the World Series, I guess. Anyway, I never really followed the A’s that closely but I paid enough attention that it was kind of cool to read a behind-the-scenes book about them. Then about 1/3 of the way through I realized Moneyball isn’t about the A’s or even really about baseball. It’s about solving problems that people think already have solutions. It’s about not accepting that closed systems have to remain closed. It’s about not listening to the old guard just because they exist. Moneyball is a well-written, strangely exciting book for what amounts to a pseudo-biography of an otherwise unknown ballplayer who did nothing more than keep a perennially underfunded ball club competitive just by thinking outside the box (scores). Moneyball barely missed the cut just because, like any moment-in-time nonfiction book, the real-life epilogue was so much more disappointing than the book’s finale.
- Where The Red Fern Grows – Wilson Rawls
I read this book in fifth or sixth grade and to date it is the only book that has ever made me have to put it down because I couldn’t keep reading through the tears. I’m not sure what it says about me that the death of two dogs moved me to tears where even the most emotional demise of a human in other books could not, but I know it says in part that this is a beautiful account of the relationship between best friends. Rawls’ tale of Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann and their raccoon hunting adventures is poignant, poetic and obviously more than a little sad. I left it off the master list because it’s one of those that I don’t know if I want to revisit not because of how it affected me the first time but because I’m afraid it won’t stand up. I kind of want my one truly emotional connection to remain untarnished by my now-adult’s viewpoint and that kind of disqualifies it from the list on a technicality.
- The Odessa File – Frederick Forsyth
Somehow I managed to get assigned this book in high school and was delighted to find that in spite of most assigned reading books being dull and plodding, this was a modern thriller with a spectacularly cool hero, a riveting mystery of a plot and, you know, Nazis. This is one book that fell off the list because I actually did go back and re-read it, fairly recently, and found that while it was still pretty good it wasn’t as devastatingly brilliant as I recalled it. I guess context was everything and while I still find no true fault with the novel, my memory elevated it beyond its status as just a really good thriller into this kind of idealized adventure. In truth, it’s more like The Da Vinci Code, if The Da Vinci Code was written by someone with a working command of creative writing skill.