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She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. [1]

 

You can trace my life's journey through the books I’ve held. Like footprints, the lightest and darkest moments of my life can be traced along the inked impressions and faded curvatures of lines under select passages in books that line my library walls. 

I am an avid reader and book collector for the same reason that drives Umberto Eco’s collection of over 30,000+ volumes in his library:

‘He separates visitors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of those books have you read?’ and the others -a very small minority- who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.’ [2]

Unread books are tantamount to a foreign path forking into a strange wood, or an untried exotic dish, or evocative images of a distant country one has yet to visit. Read books are conversations with contemporaries (if you are reading any author, regardless of era, it is an intimate, contemporary conversation). Regarding these read books, I, like many voracious readers who experience a book or poem that ‘takes the top of your head off’ (Emily Dickinson), I want to share, I want my friends to experience the journey. Below you will find a growing collection of my most treasured reads, be they poems, short stories, novels, food writing, essays, or art books. Unlike Art Garfunkel, who has kept track of every book he has ever read, I have not kept record and, though many books are seared in my mind, for some I must find recourse in the tramontane territory of memory but I hope to keep slowly adding to the list.

One important note: for a bibliophile, book lists are polarizing. Read any ‘Top 100′ booklist (100 Best Novels, Books of the Century, Best Fiction of the Millennium) and you’ll likely respond as I do: ‘How dare they not include [insert title]?’ or ‘How could they rate [insert title] first?’. Favorite books or stories are as polymorphous as the human race, splintering into multiple branches of genres, tastes, predilections, and personal appetite. ‘Favorite books’ are as particular as ‘favorite food': what I love you might hate, what you might be in the mood for now is not what you’ll be in the mood for later, but what we will both find is adventure in the attempt tried for ‘every reader is either a pausing wanderer or a traveler returned’ (Alberto Manguel).

This list also represents a failed attempt at compiling my favorite one hundred books. Failed, because my brain short-circuited over the deliberation. What if, upon finishing the book I am currently reading (All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren), I decide it belongs on my list? Due to the constraints of only one hundred, I must constantly compare Tolstoy against Dostoevsky, Frost versus Eliot, Vidal against Buckley, or Stegner versus Faulkner. The constant addition and subtraction led to endless bickering in my head; instead, I chose an indolent escape: a booklist in perpetuity.

Book lists and personal libraries illuminate subterranean characteristics. David Bowie is clearly a lover of language and eccentricity (no surprise). Art Garfunkel is voracious and versatile; Neil Peart, cerebral and curious. More than once I have been at an estate sale, purchasing books from a previous owner’s library and as I peruse their shelves, I begin to know them: some collect medieval literature or books on Catholicism, most have a penchant for particular authors or specific genres. Book passions are as revealing as DNA. If you were to suddenly inherit my library, you would possess classic lit, well written modern lit, food books, art books (Impressionism mostly) scads of compilations of short stories, essays, and memoirs, many books on poetry, creativity/writing and history, philosophy and spirituality.

Ultimately, a favorite book discussion is a medium of exchange, a quid pro quo transacted in private conversation, so please consider this my part of the verbal exchange: ‘Have you read … ?’ or ‘You must read … !’ (I hope you let me know if I tipped you off to an exotic locale or a sublime dish you’ve never tasted and also, in return, tell me of the books I should read as well). And bear in mind Francis Bacon’s counsel: ‘Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and digested with diligence and attention’.

Books I recommend (in random order; these are not affiliate links):

  1. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
  2. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  3. Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
  4. The Red and the Black, Stendhal
  5. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  6. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  7. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry
  8. Silence, Shusaku Endo
  9. House Made of Dawn, N. Scott Momaday
  10. Godric, Frederick Buechner
  11. Holy The Firm, Annie Dillard
  12. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  13. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  14. Selected Poems, Cszelaw Milosz
  15. Complete Poems of Robert Frost
  16. The Collected Poems, Zbigniew Herbert
  17. The Creative Process, Brewster Ghiselin
  18. The Art of Eating, MFK Fisher
  19. The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner
  20. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
  21. A Passage to India, E. M. Forster
  22. The Poems of Dylan Thomas
  23. Dalva, Jim Harrison
  24. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
  25. Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, John Donne
  26. Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard
  27. The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos
  28. The Professor’s House, Willa Cather
  29. Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson
  30. Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck
  31. Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon
  32. Suttree, Cormac McCarthy
  33. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
  34. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  35. All the Live Little Things, Wallace Stegner
  36. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  37. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  38. The River Swimmer, Jim Harrison
  39. Blood, Bones, and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
  40. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
  41. Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
  42. Kafka on the Shore, Huraki Murakami
  43. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
  44. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  45. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  46. Don Quixote, Cervantes
  47. The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesteron
  48. Father Brown Stories, G. K. Chesterton
  49. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  50. Collected Fictions, Borges
  51. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  52. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
  53. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  54. The Raw and the Cooked, Jim Harrison
  55. Our Story Begins, Tobias Wolff
  56. Night, Elie Wiesel
  57. Descent Into Hell, Charles Williams
  58. The Collected Stories, Eudora Welty
  59. The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis
  60. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  61. Darkness Visible, William Styron
  62. The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
  63. Cancer Ward, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  64. Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
  65. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck
  66. Arguably, Christopher Hitchens
  67. Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace
  68. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, Christopher Hitchens
  69. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis
  70. Stories of Three Decades, Thomas Mann
  71. Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
  72. Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis
  73. That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis
  74. The Moon and the Sixpence, M. Somerset Maugham
  75. Collected Stories, M. Somerset Maugham
  76. The Complete Works of Isaac Babel
  77. Dubliners, James Joyce
  78. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
  79. The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
  80. Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
  81. Remembering, Wendell Berry
  82. Winter Tales, Isak Dinesen
  83. The Collected Tales, Nikolai Gogol
  84. A Moveable Feast, Ernst Hemingway
  85. New Collected Poems, Wendell Berry
  86. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
  87. Peripheral Light, John Kinsella
  88. The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges
  89. A Treatise On Poetry, Czselaw Milosz
  90. Slabs of the Sunburnt West, Carl Sandburg
  91. Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
  92. The Half-Finished Heaven, Tomas Transtromer
  93. Repair, C. K. Williams
  94. The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate (Editor)
  95. Against Joie De Vivre, Phillip Lopate
  96. Windrose, Brewster Gheslin
  97. The Stories of Anton Chekov
  98. The Complete Poems of Cavafy, C. P. Cavafy
  99. The Bars of Atlantis, Durs Grunbein
  100. In the Presence of the Sun, N. Scott Momaday
  101. Collected Poems, Frederico Garcia Lorca
  102. J. B., Archibald Macleish
  103. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz
  104. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda
  105. Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose
  106. The Penal Colony, Franz Kafka
  107. The World in a Frame, Emily Dickinson/Will Barnet
  108. George Catlin and the Old Frontier, Harold McCracken
  109. Burning the Days, James Salter
  110. United States Essays (Vol. 1), Gore Vidal
  111. On Writing Well, William Zinsser
  112. The Spirit of Writing, Mark Robert Waldman
  113. Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
  114. Secret Ingredients, David Remnick
  115. Breathing On Your Own, Richard Kehl
  116. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  117. Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  118. The Invention of Morrel, Adolfo Bioy Casares
  119. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Jean-Dominique Bauby
  120. Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee

 


[1] The Living, Annie Dillard
[2] Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

inSha