Another “ten” books on my all-time list of favorites in a segment where there’s a lot of cheating going on. Technically, there are 15 books in this segment alone.
30 The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party & The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Kingdom of the Waves by M. T. Anderson
This epic work tells the story of a young African boy raised as something of a lab rat by a group of Natural Philosophers in Colonial Boston. Octavian comes of age during the Revolution coming to terms with his status as a slave and the conflicting notions of liberty. The first book is a masterpiece while the second drags a little, but you’ll want to read them both to see Octavian through to the end of his fascinating account.
29 A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
A Prayer for Owen Meany is a great book about many things: family, friendship, religious belief, childhood, the Vietnam War, illusions gained and lost. If there’s one flaw in this book is that the center part drags on a bit too long with much to much buildup to the ultimate conclusion. But the beginning and end of this book are stellar.
28 Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz
Tony Horwitz travels through the South meeting with people who have a devotion to the Confederacy that borders on insanity at times (“Cats of the Confederacy” is the best). Yet, Horwitz patiently and sympathetically lets the people he meets speak their peace and really allows their humanity to shine through. This is a very insightful, funny, and sometimes frightening book about America today.
27 The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
Most of Irving’s early novels tie together bears, hotels, and Vienna. This one does it best. A multi-generational eccentric family follows their father’s dream of opening and living in a hotel with often comic, frequently disturbing, and sometimes tragic results. There is a film adaptation of this book too which is pretty good too. This is my favorite of Irving’s novels.
26 Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood & Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi
A pair of graphic memoirs tell of Satrapi’s childhood coming of age during the Iranian Revolution, living abroad in Europe as a teenager, and returning home as an adult. The mix of words and images, reality and fantasy bring a human touch to lives that may only be seen as news headlines in the US.
25 The Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit by J.R.R, Tolkien
I’m one of those rare people who never read Tolkien as a child, waiting until I was 18 when a friend told me he wanted to “read Tolkien again for the first time.” I did and was captured by the great storytelling and invention of Tolkien’s own world of Middle Earth. I’ve since read it again, and really can’t imagine reading them any other way than all four books one after another, so I count them here as one.
24 Ball Four by Jim Bouton
This is the classic baseball “behind-the-scenes” book. Bouton is a thoughtful, insightful writer and incredibly funny. Plus this diary is an artifact of the gone and almost forgotten Seattle Pilots. I read the most recent edition which is almost twice as long with Bouton’s updates on his career and life. But it’s all the more fun, because Bouton is a character I want to know more about and the further you read into the book the more you feel, as Bouton puts it, like family.
23 A Clearing In The Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski
An excellent biography about a remarkable man. Olmsted carved out democracy from the landscape, and shaped the values of the American city. I learned a lot from this book.
22 The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Eliel
This is a fascinating book that acts as a quadruple biography for four American Catholics – Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. All four are tied together not just by their faith but by the ways in which they write about Catholicism in a distinctly American way. Even though the four subjects didn’t really associate together much beyond correspondence, Elie masterfully ties together their parallel pilgrimages into one coherent narrative. Interestingly, only O’Connor was born Catholic, and the conversion stories and reasons for conversion for Merton, Percy, and Day are fascinating and surprising. This is one of the most inspirational and just plain good books I’ve read in some time.
21 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
This is an epic book and a thick one at that, but I plowed through it in 2 weeks (at a rate of 100 pages per day) when I was 16 just after seeing the musical adaptation. It was that good that I just couldn’t stop reading. The novel is full of tangents where you may get 100 pages of history of the Napoleonic Wars just as background to a simple plot point. But those tangents are wonderful and you just want to go down those roads with Hugo. Reward yourself by setting aside some time to read this book. Take it to the beach. Seriously. Just make sure you put on enough sun block because you may just lose track of time.
20 or so books to go!