100 Favorite Books of All Time (10-1)



I’m nervous about making this post as now I have to declare to the world what are my ten favorite books of all time.  I fear I’ve forgotten something important or I’m revealing too much about myself.  Certainly the little blurbs I have describing these books are inadequate to describing their greatness.  As I’ve mentioned before, this ranking is not a scientific enterprise.  When determining the rank I decided that twelve different books could be number one, so really books 1-12 are a tie or have very small increments between them.  The rest of the hundred or so books are in 4-5 tiers of clustered ranks.

So for better or worse, here are my top ten favorite books of all time.

10    The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’ve read a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories in my life, including many not written by Conan Doyle and I’ve loved them all.  In a high school production of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” I portrayed Watson.  I loved the Jeremy Brett series of Sherlock Holmes adventures.  So one day back in 200o I decided to read every single Conan Doyle story  back-to-back.  I was richly rewarded and think everyone should read all of Holmes’ adventures at least once in their life.  It’s great to see Conan Doyle’s story evolve and the friendship of Holmes & Watson that is the heart of the

9    In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz

This book is an absolute classic of historical archaeology literature. Deetz examines what small, seemingly insignificant artifacts can tell us about the lives of people of the past and complement — or even contradict — what is missing from the written historical record. My favorite chapter on the evolution of headstones in New England cemeteries and how their evolution reflects changes in religious belief.  I also once met the author, a larger-than-life historical archaeologist, on a tour of Flowerdew Hundred in Virginia.

8    The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel by Jasper Fforde

I’m cheating again, because I’m not recommending just one book, but a whole series of five (and counting) books about the Special Operations agent Thursday Next.  She lives in an alternate universe of England in the 1980’s where people love literature so much they need a police unit to prevent book crimes, where time travel and regeneration of prehistoric creatures is commonplace, and the Crimean War never ends.  The books are full of literary allusions yet they are also the most original thing I ever read.  And also  very, very funny.  So if you’re into detective/sci-fi/literary/satirical/humor books, I guarantee you can’t go wrong.

7    Jazz by Toni  Morrison

This is a complex novel in which story lines are repeated and improvised much like a jazz piece. It’s also a unique novel in which the book itself is the narrator.  It’s fun to read both for its creative style, interesting storytelling, and even its humor.  I also have fond memories of writing a kick-ass paper for a college course in which I found a quote from Morrison that proved me write and my professor wrong.  Very satisfying.

6    Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

A magnificent novel in which the mundane, the everyday are given great significance. It’s a work of art that beautifully illuminates humanity and human relationships. It also makes for a good walking tour as I have fond memories of the day my wife and I spent following Clarissa Dalloway’s footsteps through London.

5    Song of Solomon by Toni  Morrison

So there are two Toni Morrison novels in the top ten, and the thing is, there  probably should be more.  She’s that good.  This novel is about many things including people learning to fly, and more importantly about the protagonist finding his “people” and place in the world.  This also is one of the more accessible Morrison novels so I recommend it if you’re reading her work for the first time

4    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger

I haven’t read a more honest novel about the experience of being a teenager, one’s childhood slipping away and the realities of adulthood losing their luster when you realize things are more complicated than the grown-ups ever told you.  This is a really moving and funny story of Holden Caulfield running away and wandering aimlessly around New York for a couple of days that change him, and the reader, forever.

3    The Once and Future King by T.H. White

This is the absolute best modernist adaptation of the Arthurian legend. Written in the context of the Second World War, White offers a commentary on the extremes of humanity: peace, beauty, and love versus war, treachery, and hatred. If you’ve seen the Disney film “The Sword and the Stone” adapted from the first book of this work, dismiss it from your mind. White’s novel is a deeper, darker and thoroughly more rewarding work.

2    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this book in three different courses in college and it got better and more revelatory with each reading. The story is a journey of awakening of Janie from her childhood through three marriages, through joy and tragedy, and ultimate self-realization.

1    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I have a feeling that people are going to get to this point and think that this is just like listening to the top 100 songs of all time on the classic radio station only to hear “Stairway to Heaven” at number one.  Again.  What can I say about this book?  It’s probably the best canidate for the Great American Novel.  It’s a novel about awakenings, growing up, the racial divide in America, and the core of humanity.  Among other things.  And that only begins to explain why it’s the best book I’ve ever read.

So that’s it.  I hope you enjoyed this list and get some good reccomendations out of it.

If you liked reading this list, I ask that you take a moment to write a comment below and include the name of one of your favorite books of all time.

100 Favorite Books of All Time (20-11)

Heading into the stretch run.



20 Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

An excellent and thoughtful book on the spiritual parallels among the Buddhist and Christian faith traditions. Reading this book actually encouraged me to resume going to church at a time I wasn’t going. Hanh’s writing on the beautiful mystery of the Eucharist was especially moving.

19 Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

Mahler revisits the tumultuous year of 1977 in New York City focusing on the clashes between Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo in the race for mayor, and Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson for dominance over the New York Yankees. In addition to this Mahler captures the essence of the city in politics, SoHo art galleries, punk rock, Studio 54, and the Son of Sam murders. The book moves along in illuminating if episodic chapters until the devastating central section where in clipped, police report style prose Mahler recreates the horror of the blackout of 1977 and the looting and arson that erupted in Bushwick and other neighborhoods. 1977 is a transformative year in New York history (and its hard to believe all of this happened in the same year), and definitely the moment when New York hit rock bottom. I found myself oddly nostalgic reading this book. Not that I miss the widespread violence and hopelessness of the time, but the names and places remind me of the old New York of my childhood and the good things that were lost in the yuppification of 80’s and 90’s.

18 Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

As the title suggests this is a story about a man making a circuit accompanied by a refrigerator. The odd premise was born in a drunken bet, and Hawks makes the best of it with a hilarious travelogue. Few books make me laugh out loud and this one made me chortle, chuckle, and explode with laughter on each page. It must be read to be believed.

17 Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella

Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growing up and this is one his best books. Adapted into the wonderful film “Field of Dreams”, the book is even better including a more thorough back story, JD Salinger, and the oldest living Chicago Cub! Plus no one tops Kinsella’s voice for baseball magic realism.

16 Watership Down by Richard Adams

I stayed up all night reading this book instead of studying for my Calculus final my Freshman year at college. I failed the Calculus test but was totally mesmerized by the fantastic yet realistic world Adams creates for his rabbits. This is a great adventure and a wonderful story of life.

15 We Can’t Eat Prestige: The Women Who Organized Harvard by John Hoerr

The history of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, founded in the 1970’s and built on feminist principles. This books follows the epic quest of the organizers to gain acceptance and help the workers have a voice at the university. Finally, after 17 years the union is approved in a dramatic vote. 4800 members strong, the HUCTW is a model for the 21st-century union, one that works for problem solving and the respect and dignity of everyone in the workplace. Harvard works because we do!

14 Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

This graphic memoir captures the funny and touching life story of the author where she tells of her eccentric family and draws parallels to literature and social movements of the time without being one bit pretentious.

13 The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A.J. Jacobs

This book could’ve been a mean-spirited parody of religion, or an insufferable diatribe of the true believer but it works so well because the agnostic Jacobs tries so hard to be faithful to his quest and respectful to those who follow the Bible, even when realizing some of its great absurdities.  There’s a lot one can learn from this book about religion and religious as well as the non-believer and really all of humanity in this very human book.

12 To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read this book in college and while I don’t remember the details now, I do remember the feeling of beauty and insight in what may be Woolf’s best novel.

11  The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This excellent novel is both disturbing and inspiring as it tells the story of Celie, a young black woman who grows up in abuse and subjugation but is able to find love, independence, and an awakening of her own creative self. Compared with the movie, the book is much more detailed and nuanced and deals with lesbian themes the movie only hints at. On the other hand, parts of the novel seem a bit contrived, like Nettie’s letters. Still this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Next Friday I’ll count down the <gulp> top ten favorite books of all time!

100 Favorite Books of All Time (40-31)

Egads! Getting closer and closer to my favorite book of all time.  So hard to rank these.  It’s like picking among one’s children



40    The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg by Richard  Handler

If you’ve never had the surreal experience of reading an anthropological study of culture of your workplace, you may not understand why I love this book.  Excellent mix of criticism of how history as taught at CW, but also sympathetic to the challenges museum educators face.

39    Seeing Things by Seamus  Heaney

The only work of poetry in this list is by my favorite contemporary poet. I particularly like the verses when he talks about playing with a bicycle wheel in a mud puddle.

38    Iron and Silk by Mark  Salzman

Mark Salzman came to speak at my high school and I was enraptured by his engaging speaking style and positive view of life. I immediately got this book and devoured it. It is a memoir of Salzman traveling to China to teach English and study martial arts. There is a lot of great insight about cultural differences and it is a funny and heartwarming story.

37    The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I enjoy the concept of time travel and this novel entertainingly takes on the paradox of time travel in the life of one man (a librarian no less) who has no control over when he jumps to a different time.  This sci-fi trope is well-used in an excellent book about relationships between the time traveler and the woman he loves.

36    Under the Net by Iris  Murdoch

A few days in the life of a London slacker named Jake and the eccentric people he meets in his travels about the city.  It’s hilarious, bizarre, and apparently an exploration of existential philosophy, and an amazing bit of writing by Ms. Murdoch.

35    The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael  Pollan

This a life-changing book that makes me understand where food comes from and what is lost in the modern monoculture fostered by big agribusiness.  In Defense of Food is an excellent follow-up with practical advice for taking back traditional food ways.  I highly recommend these books for anyone who eats.

34    Life of Pi by Yann Martel

A beautiful novel that is part an adventure story about a boy on a boat with a tiger, and part an attempt to understand belief in God.

33    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee  Brown

This is a moving and engaging history of the fall of the aboriginal tribes of the western United States. It’s a tragic story, but an inspiring one as well. One of the best history books I’ve ever read.

32    The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S.  Wood

A well-researched and engaging historical work in which the great social revolutions (as opposed to the political one) of the American War for Independence are analyzed. The people of the time made some great lurches forward toward true democracy that in some sense has been lost and remains unrealized to this day.

31    The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

I love everything about the space program, and I love the movie that this book inspired.  But for a real in-depth look into the lives of the first American astronauts, this book is the ultimate source.

100 Favorite Books of All Time (50-41)



Before I count down the next ten books on my list, I have to deal with some erratum.  I was thinking of a book I really like a couple of days ago and wondering if it was on my top 100 list.  It wasn’t, which seemed unfortunate so I checked Library Thing to see how many stars I’d given it.  The book was not in my Library Thing catalog at all!  I checked my old spreadsheets and documents and it wasn’t there either!!!!   I read and loved this book just 3.5 years ago, yet I wrote down nothing about it.  This bothers me more than it should.

At any rate, this is not a scientifically ranked list, so let’s just make it my 101 favorite books list and slide this book into number 50.5:

50.5   Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

This memorable biography tells the life story of Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health and his tireless efforts for the preferential option for the poor.  Farmer’s work in Haiti and elsewhere is awe-inspiring, and Kidder captures Farmer’s story in an engaging and enlightening manner.

50    The Baroque Cycle by Neal  Stephenson

This is probably a cheat since The Baroque Cycle is not a book, but 3 books.  Or 8 books.  And I haven’t even finished reading them yet!  But it’s a masterful story of the birth of modern Europe that dabbles in science, finance, politics, cryptology, numismatics, black humor, and rip-roaring adventure.

49    Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay  Stevens

A fascinating history of the mind-altering drug and its use and effect in American society, arts, music, and politics.

48    Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara  Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich participatory study of what it’s like for the working poor in America.  Should be required reading for anyone who thinks the poor are lazy.

47    The Grapes of Wrath by John  Steinbeck

A classic novel of one family’s exodus to California during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

46    Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by David Garrow

Perhaps the most comprehensive biography of King and his contemporaries, it draws upon FBI surveillance tapes that allow for day-by-day, hour-by-hour exploration of King’s Civil Rights campaigns.  A great book for learning about the man behind the legend.

45    The Appalachian Trail Reader by David Emblidge

I really love hiking and this collection of stories approaches the Appalachian Trail from different viewpoints: history, poetry, naturalism and best of all the stories that hikers pass along to one another along the trail.

44    1939: Lost World of Fair by David  Gelernter

A beautiful and poetic telling of the fair as a utopian experiment and what it meant in the lives of some of the visitors of the time.

43    The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz

A great book that dismantles the romantic myths of rugged individualism in American history and shows that Americans have prospered best during times of communal efforts and government aid.

42    The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists by Taras  Grescoe

A voyage both humorous and depressing in which the author deliberately follows the beaten path to the world’s most touristed spots.  It’s part sociological and part cynical view of humanity’s need to travel.

41    Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass by  Lewis Carroll

Fantastic works of nonsense literature.  Not just for children, and not what Disney et al makes of them either.

10 more books next week, or maybe 11 or 12.

100 Favorite Books of All Time (70-61)

Continuing down the list.



70 My Life With the Saints by James Martin, SJ

A fascinating account of one man’s encounters with saints – canonized and otherwise – throughout his life.  It inspired me to try to do the same on this blog, but I’m not as good a writer as Fr. Martin.

69 Through a Window by Jane Goodall

One of my all-time heroes writes about her 30 years with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream.  It reads almost like a novel about a multi-generational family while offering insights on our own humanity.

68 Dead Certainties: (Unwarranted Speculations) by Simon Schama

Another great book about two historical events – the death of General Wolfe and the murder of George Parkman – but also the perceptions of the historical events of the people of the time and in popular history.  A fascinating book that once made me jump off a subway to investigate the scene of the crime.

67 Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

A book that Susan started reading to me while I was in great pain from a kidney stone.  It’s a great time travel adventure to Oxford at the time of black death, well done from a historical perspective.

66 The Princess Bride: S Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman

Hard to believe, but this book is even better than the movie. Classic adventure and classic wit go hand in hand in in this comical romance.

65 Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder

Another book that appeals to a fascination with a place, the immigrant “slum” of Five Points.   Anbinder shows that Five Points wasn’t always as bad as its reputation and often was the home of a hard-working, multi-ethnic community making their way into the American society

64 Joshua: A Parable for Today by Joseph F. Girzone,

This book is a bit hokey, but I found it inspirational.  This novel tells the story of what may happen if Jesus returned in human form to a contemporary American town.  There are several sequels as well.

63 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

A well-written novel from the perspective of an autistic boy.  He attempts to solve a mystery but unintentionally reveals the sad domestic squabble between his parents.

62 The Devil in the White City : Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

A history of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 that shows the hopes (the White City) and horrors (mass murder) of the coming 20th Century.  Two seemingly disparate stories are tied together well in this narrative.

61 To Say Nothing of the Dog Willis, Connie

Something of a sequel to The Doomsday Book, this is a more comic novel of time travel.  This hillarious comedy of errors takes its protagonists on a shaggy dog adventure from the future to the Victorian Era and war torn Coventry of the 1940’s.

Come back next Friday for 10 more books.

100 Favorite Books of All Time (80-71)

The countdown continues.



80    How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart  Brand

A unique book that discusses what happens to buildings once the architect is finished.  Brand provides an interesting perspective of why some buildings fail and others succeed.  Also studies the lifecycle of buildings as they grow, change, and are readopted

79    The Guns of August by Barbara W.  Tuchman

Tuchman’s work is a much-praised historical account of the first month of the First World War.  I had high-expectations going into reading it and was still blown away by her powerful writing and research behind it.

78    The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763-1834 by Paul A. Gilje

I read this for a college course and found it unlike any history I’d ever read previously and very illuminating.  For one, I like any book that deflates the myth that society is degenerating and things were better in the good old days.  You can’t make that case when colonial and early Federal New Yorkers rioted on a regular basis.  Secondly, it was fascinating to learn that these riots were organized and seemingly were ‘democracy in action’ to enforce social change.  They even rioted to protect morality!

77    Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

It’s been a long time since I’ve read this novel, but I’m still can remember the powerful emotions I felt reading this story of a Polish survivor of the Holocaust and a young man from the South who befriend one another in Brooklyn in the late 1940’s.  It’s both laugh out loud funny and incredibly depressing, tragic yet inspiring.

76    Amphigorey & Amphigorey Too by Edward Gorey

I’d like to think that I discovered Edward Gorey before he was fashionable, but it’s more like I discovered Gorey before I knew he was fashionable.  His macabre, surreal drawings and writings attracted my teenage self as I looked for something that stood out from the ordinary.  Oddly, I’ve been remiss in reading anything other than these Gorey collections.  Something I should address.

75    Silent Traveller in San Francisco by  Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee, a Chinese expatriate published a series of travel books from the 1930’s-1970’s from various locales including London, Dublin, Boston, and my personal favorite San Francisco.  As title states, Yee is not one of these extroverted travellers striking up conversations at will.  Instead he quietly and comprehensively observes and recounts in his poetic style.  Yee sees things the locals miss and writes in a positive and light-hearted manner.  If you plan to travel somewhere see if there’s a Silent Traveller account for that place for a unique perspective from a different time.

74    A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Terrific social history work which examines the life of a typical American woman in the early Federal period through her diary. Wonderfully written and illuminating this is a must-read for anyone interested in American history beyond the typical “great men” stories.

73    Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter

What sets human beings apart from other animals?  Not much.  Walter chips it down to 6 traits: Big toes, opposable thumbs, the pharynx, laughter, tears, and kissing.  Written in a fun and lively style, this is an engrossing read about what makes us human from an evolutionary perspective.

72    Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Kevin Baker specializes in historical fiction that appears to be written to appeal specifically to me.  Paradise Alley is about Five Points and the New York City Draft Riots.  Dreamland contains immigrant life in the Lower East Side, labor struggles, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, and the golden age of Coney Island.  All of these elements of New York City history fascinate me and Baker incorporates them into his work in great detail, and yet the history does not weigh down the fiction with fully-realized characters and original plotlines.  This is the type of book I’d like to write.

71    Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike by Angus K. Gillespie

Travelling on the New Jersey Turnpike on family vacations as a child I was fascinated by it’s massiveness, it’s chaos, and it’s paradoxical structure.  As a result I found this book fascinating and times frightening. Who knew what control the turnpike authority had over the people who use the road? The turnpike itself is an engineering marvel, the triumph of function over form, and its route through the ugliest parts of the state encourage New Jersey’s bad reputation. Yet, the turnpike has also inspired poets, musicians, and artists.  Crazy, wonderful stuff.

Next Friday, ten more books!