A quick book list

A few weeks ago someone asked if I’d compile a list of some of my favorite books. I sent him this list below, but I thought I ought to save the list for my own later reference. Here’s the email, below.

Here’s a quick list of my absolute favorites, all novels I’ve read multiple times because I love them so much - and books that I think have been important in my mental life. They’re ordered by ‘easy-to-read-ness’, but that’s just for convenience.  Some notes:



Book of the Dun Cow, Walter Wangerin. Kids book, barnyard animals, easy read.  But despite that, it is utterly beautiful and changed the way I think about the everyday things in life. Don’t write it off because it’s juvenile fiction.

Gilead, Marilyn Robinson.  A modern novel from just a few years ago.  Totally lovely, fascinating.  It’s a series of letters from an old pastor to his young son.  I think growing up in the church this had a special resonance.  It’s really, really, really good.  It taught me what people mean when they say a book is 'generous.’  

The serious books by Graham Greene.  These are, in order I like them: The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, and The Heart of the Matter.  Easy reads, and really powerful.  I can’t recommend these enough.

The Great Divorce, CS Lewis.  He wrote lots of stuff, but Mere Christianity and Weight of Glory are great introductions.  The Great Divorce is a novel, and not about Divorce, but The others (Mere and Weight) are my only deviations from fiction here, but his writing was really formative during my college years, and its stuff I still go back to.  If you like either of these, then there are dozens more like it.

All Hallows Eve, by Charles Williams.  Williams was this weird semi-christian semi-occultist dude who wrote what seem at first to be normal novels, but then take bizarre left turns into almost incoherent mysticism.  But if you can hang with him for those bits, it’s great.  He’s sort of an embodiment of a mystical side of Christianity that is obviously not a part of my upbringing.  His other novels are good too, but this is I think the easiest to get into.  Fair disclosure: I’m a little obsessed with him, and I’m on the board of the Charles Williams Society.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Flying Inn by G.K.Chesterton.  Chesterton writes novels that play with ideas, and while they’re not great novels, they are fun and clever. In Notting Hill, neighborhood pride among small pockets of London becomes so strong that wars are fought between Hyde Park and Notting Hill, and the city devolves into a kind of glorious feudalism.  In Flying Inn, the UK bans the sale of alcohol, so two rebels go on the run with a cask of rum and a wheel of cheese.  

- and getting into the older, 'classics’ -

David Copperfield, Dickens.  I hated Dickens in high school, and love him now. David Copperfield changed that.  But while the writing is great, his characters are the best thing Dickens does.  You have to remember that Dickens is so-so at plot, but he writes eternal characters, exaggerated people who seem as real and important as people you know in real life.  They don’t learn or grow like in a regular novel, but that doesn’t diminish them.  I think Bleak House is actually my favorite of Dickens, but Copperfield is where I started.

Moby-Dick, Melville.  While the plot is interesting, the triple pleasures of reading Melville are: 

1. The astonishing artistic quality of writing. You might call it the technical aspect. His turns of phrase are so well turned.

2. The lively characters he paints, with a really impressive depth of knowledge about people.

3. The off-topic, rambly, funny chapters about whaling and life aboard a ship.

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy.  It’s great, and gets better the more I read it.  Better than War and Peace.  Like Dosto, I feel like I’ve learned a TON about people by reading Anna Karenina.

Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky.  Lots of people dislike or can’t get through this, but once you get into Dosto’s rhythm it’s a great ride.  Fun, fascinating plot, and the most strange but lifelike characters.  I really get the sense that on some level Dosto understands the human soul, and varieties thereof, in a way I never will.

Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne.  This is a long, old, silly book, but if you can get past the ancient phrasing and antique words, it is hilarious.  It’s a postmodern ramble and was written in the 1700s.  Most people hate it.

The Sea Hates a Coward