This has been - by far - my all-time favorite post to make.
The list you see here encompasses my whole life. These are the books that I've loved and admired, and returned to again and again, diving headlong into their pages in the throes of nostalgia. To write this post, I spent long, happy hours poking through old bookshelves and libraries and online bookstores, crowing with happiness at the discovery of a long forgotten tome, re-reading beloved favorites to discover them anew.
I've been looking for my childhood. And I've been finding it.
Readers of this blog must know that as the child of ardent book lovers, I grew up in a bibliophilic home, the kind that never knew the soft blue glow of a television's rays. The fact that I became a video producer was somehow both ironic and unavoidable. I desperately wanted a television as a child, and was famed for becoming instantly lost from the world as soon as one came into my eyeline, regardless of the program being broadcast on its screen. I once fell ill, but refused to call my parents to pick me up from school, since I didn't want to lose my chance to finish the movie I'd started at the house of the woman who watched me after school. By the time I my mother picked me up, I had run up a 104° fever.*
*for those of you curious, that movie was Hook. And I'd already seen it once before.
But even as I pined for the comforting drone of Farnsworth's ubiquitous invention, I still absorbed books with a zeal that passed "eagerness" and went all the way to "fervor." I wasn't just a voracious reader, I was a relentless one. My father was fond of saying that I read books "by mistake." It was true. I would come across a book and read it from cover to cover without the slightest provocation, even if it was in some truly inaccessible place, like the hands of someone else. I would slip books inside of other books at school, keeping a vague eye on the class's reading as I delved into Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island. A teacher once mentioned to my parents that "I never thought I'd see a child who read too much. And then I met your son." I often won the school's summer reading contest by a distance of a hundred books or more.
So while I'm sure most of you will skim this list with vague recollection and vaguer interest, remembering high school English classes or long car rides, to me this list is less a best-of and more a road map to a good deal of my life. I'm sure I've missed more than a few books that should be on here, certainly. I don't doubt that I'll come across a dusty paperback in a bookstore soon enough that smacks me in the face for leaving it out of the top twenty.
Until then, here are 100 of the best friends that I've ever had:
- Watership Down by Richard Adams.
One summer, while camping, my dad read the book aloud to me as a child. The moment as he finished, I picked it up and read it again. As soon as I finished, I turned back to page one and started again. I loved this book so much that when we visited England, we made a trip out to see the real Watership Down and take pictures.
- The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis.
I read my way through all seven of the Chronicles every year or so, but this one is by far my favorite. The most adventure-packed of the bunch. And I always loved Shasta best among his protagonists.
- The Princess Bride by William Goldman.
I love the film, and the screenplay and book are written by the same writer, but the book is better than the film.
True confession: the first time through, I didn't realize that the excised sections of the book were inventions of the author. I really thought he'd found and repurposed an old medieval text. But then, I was a naive child. I didn't even realize that the movie was a comedy. I bought the whole thing as pure adventure.
- I Want To Go Home! by Gordon Korman.
I never laughed harder at any book than this one. I wanted to be Rudy Miller. I still do.
- Redwall by Brian Jacques.
"He struck for Redwall! He struck for Martin! He struck as Methuselah would have wanted him to! He struck for the world of light and freedom! He struck unti his paws ached and the sword fell from them!"
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The second of three books in the top ten that my dad read aloud to me as a child. Despite how many times I've seen the films, when I read the book, I hear my dad's voice for Frodo and Sam.
- My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber.
America's greatest humorist is Mark Twain. Thurber is second. But nothing Twain wrote is nearly as funny as this.
- Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.
It makes you love baseball, and Iowa, and cornfields, and quiet fall evenings, and carnivals, and the smell of the dew, and J.D. Salinger. But baseball most of all.
- Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Carey.
Nothing like the movie. Thank God. One the highlights of my high school experience was to play Frank Gilbreth in an astoundingly horrendous production of the play that was buoyed in no way by my performance.
- The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones.
The first draft of this list had seven or eight Wynne Jones books. I think I've trimmed it down to three or four, though it was a painful thing.
- A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle.
Why the third of the trilogy? I loved all three, but this one is so epic, bouncing across millennia, tracing the lines of one family's story with the fate of the world in the balance. Normally that's the sort of theme I hate, but the whole thing is done so accessibly. I mean, we're guided through it all by a unicorn, for pity's sake. I'll follow a unicorn anywhere.
- Danny, The Champion of The World by Rhold Dahl.
There's some so warm and friendly about this gypsy boy's quest to help his father create the greatest poaching heist of all time. I wanted to learn how to poach pheasants after this, but I could never find a wealthy, self-absorbed landowner around who stocked them (if you find one, get at me).
- Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson.
"Willie, what is it? What is it? Be eyes for me."
"Oh Mole, it's so beautiful. It's him, Mole -it's him." Gets me every time.
- Magic Kingdom For Sale – SOLD! by Terry Brooks.
My love for Brooks has faded over the years, but I still carry a soft spot for this one, especially Fillip and Sot, the cat-thieving gnomes.
- In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson.
Our first traditional nonfiction title. I don't know why a travel memoir about Australia is so entrancing, other than that Bryson is a very, very good writer.
- Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling.
Well, now you know which one is my favorite. The most consistently adventure-packed of the books, and it's nice to see Harry have a problem other than "Voldemort is out there somewhere planning stuff."
- Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.
A princess, bored with palace life, becomes the captive servant of a dragon - by choice. Turns fantasy writing on its head in the most fun possible way.
- All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.
For a short period of time, I desperately wanted to live in the Yorkshire Dales and be a veterinarian, which is testament to how magical this book is. I would be the worst veterinarian in the world. "No, I'm not touching your cat. It's sick." While in England, we also visited Herriot's house and peeked in the front window (this is beginning to sound like the most boring vacation of all time, which it absolutely would have been for people who were not us).
- The Diamond In the Window by Jane Langton.
Children are given dreams as gifts from a magical uncle, but an evil warlock haunts them and turns the dreams into traps. It's like Inception, but with less suicide-by-train (spoiler alert!).
- The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander.
I want a friend as loyal as Gurgi.
- Martin The Warrior by Brian Jacques.
I should've known that it would end sadly, but somehow I didn't. I remember how much this book wrecked me as a child.
- The Search For Delicious by Natalie Babbitt.
I like mermaids, and hidden doors, and good books with plots hinging on silly concepts.
- The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.
We used to read this aloud as a family every year - and up in New Hampshire, my family still does. Sometimes, I get to be up there for the end of it. And every year, I turn into Imogene Herdman, and fall in love with the Christmas story again.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
"Ford. You're turning into a penguin. Stop it."
- Grimbold’s Other World by Nicholas Stuart Gray.
I think I got a cat just on the off chance it could show me how to slip through to the night world. It couldn't. I may need a new cat.
- Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse.
"'Don't you like this hat?' 'No, sir.' 'Well, I do,' I replied rather cleverly, and went out with it tilted just that merest shade over the left eye which makes all the difference."
- Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones.
I'm powerless to describe the book in a short paragraph. There's a lot going on in this twisty, completely original fantasy story about a writer whose pointless essays control the fates of the gods.
- Don’t Care High by Gordon Korman."The girl's basketball team plays its first game in one week's time. Coach Murphy informs me we have no players. This is unfortunate, since the players are often one of the deciding factors in a basketball game."
- Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
I would be willing to commit felonies for the privilege of playing their zero-gravity war games
- The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.
The riddle scene in Gollum's lair is one of my favorite scenes in any book.
- Backboard Fever by Clair Bee.
I'm still hoping to pull off the out-of-bounds play at the end of this book sometime. Then I'll give my teammates hearty slaps on the back and crow, "what pluck!"
- Babe by Dick King-Smith.
I love Babe. He's so polite.
- The Wonderful O by James Thurber.
"The old man shook his head and sighed, 'I'm not as young as I used to be, and the years gone by are a mystery, but 'twas a famous victory." The sort of book only Thurber could have conceived or executed.
- Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.
I still feel bad for Johnny when he burns his hand. I love this book so much I love the terrible Disney movie from the 50's. That's dedication.
- The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.
Not enough books swash their buckles nearly so well. I'm 90% sure this is the only book on this list written by a baroness, too.
- Homer Price by Robert McCloskey.
I'm nostalgic for a time I never knew. So give me aw-shucks storytelling and charming illustrations. And donut machines.
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis.
It's like The Odyssey, but with children and magic ponds and dragons and an adventurous talking mouse. Reepicheep was the greatest character Lewis ever wrote.
- Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan.
I like smuggling, and I like sledding. What's not to love?
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.
This is - I would venture to say inarguably - the strongest book in the series.
- Mattimeo by Brian Jacques.
The only one of Redwall books where all the storylines were equally gripping. A map hidden in a poem, a vicious slaver, an underground kingdom, and a war between rodents and birds. I couldn't read it fast enough.
- Rinkitink in Oz by Frank L. Baum.
All the Oz books are endearing, though their quality varies wildly. This one is strange and fun and different. No one from Oz appears until the end of the book, because Baum wrote most of it years before he ever wrote an Oz book.
- Troubling A Star by Madeleine L’Engle.
Vicky Austin is L'Engle's best protagonist, and this is her best story. Intrigue in the Antarctic!
- The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink.
My family never traveled to Florida every winter to stay in a small motel run by a cheerful eccentric and take part in a local talent show, a fact I attribute to poor breeding.
- Travel Far, Pay No Fare by Anne Lindbergh.
The characters escape into books, interact with the characters, and then get to take stuff home with them. My most prevailing fantasy as a child. Not anymore, of course. Now it involves a - well, never mind.
- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
One of the better concepts for a fantasy story I ever read. What if you got a bad gift from your fairy godmother?
- Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson.
The story of the Paul Revere from the point of the horse. I still love it when the horse realizes that he's a rebel, too, and renounces his British ties. I'm such a sucker for animal patriotism.
- The Twinkie Squad by Gordon Korman.
I think it's when Douglas wears clown pants lined with firecrackers while playing George Washington in the school production of 1776 that I really started dying laughing. "I am determined to save this play."
- I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier.
I did not see that ending coming.
- The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill.
I love the idea of a evil coalition of truck drivers being fought off by a rebellious pack of pushcart merchants.
- Innside Nantucket by Frank Gilbreth.
Because of this book, whenever I drink a Nantucket Nectar, I pull off the cap, read the fun Nantucket fact inside aloud, and then announce "I already knew that." I'm a fantastic lunch date.
- Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones.
What if you could buy a tour to visit a fantasy world? What if that world was contractually obligated to give you the full magical journey experience? What if you were in charge of running that business?
- Dave Barry’s Guide To Guys by Dave Barry.
Because this is how guys are. And only Dave is willing to admit it. "Think how much happier women would be if, instead of endlessly fretting about what the males in their life are thinking, they could relax, secure in the knowledge that the correct knowledge is: very little."
- The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.
Totally changed my perspective on Heaven, Hell, and salvation in every context. Think how angry John Piper would be if this book was written today.
- Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman.
This spoke deeply to me in my life as a willful, powerless girl in feudal England.
- The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander.
I want a giant cat to ride around on, too.
- Mossflower by Brian Jacques.
The villain in this is named Tsarmina, a name I used to pronounce "TISS-SAR-MINE-AH." But that's nothing compared to how I used to pronounce "hors d'oeuvres."
- The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl.
Despite many hours spent staring at playing cards, I have not learned how to read through their backs yet. But then, I haven't learned to use the Force yet, either. Doesn't mean I'm gonna stop trying.
- The Giver by Lois Lowry.
Why would you get rid of your colors? You're missing the wonder in the world!
- Private, Parents Keep Out by Austin Stevens.
I learned how to build a tree house and a pond and an ice rink and an underground room and all sorts of things I never actually did. But I could dream.
- The Finch’s Fabulous Furnace by Roger W. Drury.
What if volcanoes were kind of fun to have around?
- The Devils’ Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.
This book gave me survivor's guilt. About the Holocaust. Which happened before my parents were born.
- Pigs Have Wings by PG Wodehouse.
"All that occupied his mind was the thought of what pests the gentler sex were when they got hold of a telephone. The instrument seemed to go to their heads like a drug. Connie Keeble, for instance. Nice sensible woman when you talked to her face to face, never tried to collar the conversation and all that, but the moment she got on the telephone, it was gab, gab, gab, and all about nothing."
- Bullwhip Griffin by Sid Fleishman.
You never hear about butlers accompanying people on gold rushes anymore. Pity.
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling.
I even love the epilogue. Go ahead and hate me for having uncultivated tastes! I like happy endings!
- Centaur Aisle by Piers Anthony.
It's an island of magic, and it moves with the centaur. Get it? One of the last solid fantasy books in the Xanth series before they dissolved into jokey, pun-themed children's books packed with peekaboo sexuality.
- I’m A Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson.
“There are things you just can't do in life. You can't beat the phone company, you can't make a waiter see you until he's ready to see you, and you can't go home again.” A collection of essays on Bryson's fish-out-of-water re-acclimation to American society. I would love to write a travel book someday, except I know it would end up sounding exactly like Bryson.
- The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle.
Kali's all wrong for you Adam! She's only interested in the secret work Dr. O'Keefe! Choose Polly instead! There are important themes at play here! And also dolphins.
- Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
Charmingly madcap and endearingly mathematics-based. We had an annotated edition at home that was very helpful.
- The Castle In The Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop.
I want a little kingdom hidden in my house, too.
- The Tough Winter by Robert Lawson.
My favorite bit is where Uncle Analdas absolutely loses it at the groundhog for seeing his shadow.
- Radio Fifth Grade by Gordon Korman.
"You can't do magic tricks on the radio, because no one can see what you're doing." "Maybe he could do his magic tricks, and you could describe them to the listeners."
- Quarterback Walk-On by Thomas J. Dygard.
A talentless. fourth-string quarterback at a major college program is suddenly promoted to starter. It's time for some trick plays, everybody!
- Animal Farm by George Orwell.
What's wrong with you pigs? Don't you see what you've become?
- Castle by David Macauley.
Well, I like castles.
- The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth.
A hen lays an egg that turns out to be a triceratops. I'm simply saying that, uh, nature finds a way. A kid from New Hampshire gets to keep it as a pet. That could have been me.
- The Fragile Flag by Jane Langton.
There's some anti-Reagan nuclear nonsense here, but the meat of is a pack of kids marching down a highway, completely unsupervised, to try to visit the President.
- Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
I'm a sucker for dry, angsty wit. If you haven't heard him read "6 to 8 Black Men", you're missing out.
- Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis.
This has most of my favorite Narnia moments - Caspian gathering of the animals, the Pevensies' discovery of Cair Paravel, the awakening of the trees, and the freeing of Narnia.
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
I think this has developed a reputation as a girly book. That's nonsense. Magic gardens and helpful animals are always cool.
- The Mouse That Roared by Leonard Wibberly.
The political climate has completely changed - America is no longer terrified of Russian Communists - but the book remains as sharp as ever. I love the idea of attacking New York City with a few dozen longbowmen.
- Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman.
Klosterman is my favorite pop culture writer in any capacity, and this is his best work.
- The Marvelous Land of Oz by Frank L. Baum.
At one point, the characters build a living, flying creature out of an animal head, some palm fronds, and a pair of couches lashed together. I have built similar contraptions, but with less success.
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. C
richton had a remarkable ability to combine exhaustive scientific research with untethered imagination, and most of his books were so gripping that I couldn't bring myself to put them down. I imagine I'm not alone. Fourteen of his books have been made into movies.
- Dr. Doolittle's Caravan by Hugh Lofting.
I don't know which bit I liked better - the animal opera that they created, or how the animals spent their money once they became celebrities in London. Particularly "Gub-Gub's Eating Palace."
- Hatchet by Gary Paulson.Had the same thing happened to me, I would have died in about twelve minutes. But I like to pretend that I wouldn't.
- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.
I picked this up while wasting time at a Barnes & Noble. I'd read half of it before I even thought to sit down. His later works have been considerably less precise and are magnets for both justified and unjustified criticisms, but I'll defend Blink any day of the week.
- The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.
I can't top John Updike's review, so I'll just quote it: "While not quite so sprightly as Stuart Little, and less rich in personalities and incident than Charlotte's Web, The Trumpet of the Swan has superior qualities of its own; it is the most spacious and serene of the three, the one most imbued with the author's sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature."
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.
"'And now,' he continued, speaking to Milo, 'where were you on the night on July 27?'
'What does that have to do with it?' asked Milo.
'It's my birthday, that's what,' said the policeman as he entered 'Forgot my birthday' in his little book. 'Boys always forget other people's birthdays.'"
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
I was in Romania for a summer without any reading material, so anything I read needed to be stretched out as much as possible. That didn't stop me reading the whole thing in one night, the first night I arrived. A tremendous mistake and yet one of the most memorable nights of reading I've ever had.
- Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pierce.
This book made me want to stay up all night, on the vague hope that I might time travel after midnight. A theme in this list is "made me want to do something deeply unwise based on my fevered imagination."
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Far too clever a book to be just for ladies, though it has somehow gotten just such a reputation. Utter poppycock. A fantastic story of class and romance and pluck. "Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society."
- Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.
Arrived at a good point in my life, when I was just really beginning to question my faith, and wondering how to go about it.
- The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
Mole is one of my favorite characters in literature. "There is nothing--absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats."
- The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss.
This family gets to live in a massive tree house, raise animals, and set extensive booby traps. This is essentially all I've ever wanted out of life.
- The Magic Hat of Mortimer Wintergreen by Myron Leroy.
I like the idea of a tempermental magic hat.
- The Merry Adventures of Robin Hoodby Howard Pyle.
How come everyone gets to live in trees but me?
- Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates.
My mother and I took a trip to visit his grave once. Boy, our family trips are not coming off well in this post. Also, I'm beginning to think I might have read every book even tangentially related to New Hampshire as a child.
- Night Watch by Terry Pratchett.
I hear they're beginning work on a TV series based on these books. This fills me with trepidation. I can't imagine any actor portraying Vimes who could compete with my imagination (that sounds sort of dirty, but it's not). Then again, I probably would have said the same thing about Aragorn (ditto).
- The Black Stallion by Walter Farley.
I read all these books, but this was the one that got me into the series. Does loving horse books make you a girl, or what? I don't care. I adored all of these suckers.
- Journey To The Center Of The Earth by Jules Verne.
I've learned just a hair too much science to actually be a Vernian, but I would desperately like to believe that, should I tunnel into the earth's surface, I would find living dinosaurs. If you could convince me that this is correct, I would appreciate it.