Friday, December 4, 2015

Top Ten All Time Greatest Reads

A personal experiential selection from Yours Truly …

About a week ago Little One and I were discussing literature. Cheap books, timeless classics, and everything in between. She has a voracious literary appetite and is insatiably curious. I like to pontificate endlessly on the written word. Thus, we are a quite the self-entertaining match.

Anyway, she’s long known my top three books. I’ve written about them many times here on the Hopper. These three books are important for me in different ways. They are, in order:

The Bible, particularly The New Testament

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and, to a lesser extent, The Hobbit)

It, by Stephen King

“Important”, to me, can mean anything from completely life-changing to an overwhelming experience that takes you out of the world to an expert piece of prose that influences your thinking and writing. Just pondering them raises the bumps on your arms, causes your heart to race (as if in love), and immediately removes doubt, fear, and worry in totality from your mind as you contemplate them.

Books are very important to me. I’ve read a lot, and some of what I’ve read, a very, very select few, have the above qualities to me. And, I hope, some will have the same to my children, and maybe even to you.

I’ve read probably just under a thousand books cover-to-cover. (I actually think it’s about 850, and I have a good idea what each and every one was.) There’s a list of My All-Time Top Hundred Reads over there to the left of the web page. It’s a fluid thing I wrote a few years ago; you could probably take ten off and add ten news ones from my readings since.

But last week Little One asked me:

“Dad, what are your Top Ten books of all time?”

A wonderful question! And one I’ve found extremely difficult to answer over time. However, I gave it much thought over the past couple of days and came up with a list, and put it in a pretty good order, too.

The Top Three do not change. The following are the books that, in my experience, round out the seven remaining selections of the ten most important works I’ve read.

10. The Spinner, by Doris Piserchia

Why is this novel not better known? Why is the author not famous? I’ve read three of Ms. Piserchia’s books – and they’re all great. A perfect mix of horror and science fiction, I first read this one on the cusp of puberty during an extended family vacation on the Jersey Shore. For several days I was riveted and could think of nothing else except the Spinner, a merciless spider-like invading alien entity that ensnares an entire city. That an Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelization, read about the same time, introduced me to the power of imaginary horror, a power almost as potent as the real thing.

Runner-up: Killerbowl, by Gary K. Wolf, read about the same time

9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

Hands down the funniest thing I have ever read. Ever. I marvel at Adams’s quick wit and the incredibly insanely weird scenarios and situations he brought me during the reading of this “trilogy” of five books. Clever, satirical, gross, self-deprecating, every single page holds at least one laugh-out-loud joke or observation. I burned through all five books the summer of 1989 and passed them along to several friends. Should I ever come down with a life-threatening medical diagnosis, I am taking Dr. Norman Cousins’ advice on laughter and re-reading these books.

8. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Ah! Read this one in sixth grade. Carried it around with me everywhere – parks, baseball fields, down to the local brook, in the trees in my backyard. Read it everywhere, but mostly out-of-doors in the spring-day sun. The adventures of a homeless warren of anthropomorphic rabbits with all its (barely understood) geopolitical analogies pulled me in for the couple of weeks it took to journey through the 500-page book. No other work created such a real world for me, save Tolkien. Re-read it about two years ago and discovered it stands the test of time.

7. “The Wall”, by Jean-Paul Sartre

A long short-story (or a short novella), “The Wall” absolutely terrified me reading it as an undergraduate student. The first work that brought the inescapable fact of my mortality, my eventual, inescapable death at some point in the future, home to me. Three men, captured during the Spanish Civil War and none necessarily guilty, are awaiting execution by firing squad the following morning. What thoughts run through men’s minds at a time like this? Sartre masterfully dissects the cold, sweaty fear of impending death in the light of how one might have or should have lived. A literal shock to my system.

Runner-up: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, by Leo Tolstoy, read around the same time.

6. The Bicentennial Man, by Isaac Asimov

One of the first works of science fiction I’ve read, given to me by my parents (part of the Asimov “Five-Pack” I got one Christmas morning), perhaps the best selection of his short stories. The ending of the titular tale choked me up. All the other stories are good and memorable. I read a lot of Asimov as a kid, at least ten, maybe more, of his short story collections and novels, and it’s probably because of him I write science fiction to this day. A prolific writer of over 500 books of fiction and nonfiction, at least one Asimov should be read by every child by age 10.

5. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

If Asimov planted the love of science fiction within me, Bradbury nurtured and pruned it. My literary master! I’d like to flatter myself and hope that my writing has a hint of the poeticism contained in each and every one of his works. No better spinner of allusory exposition – just one deceptively simply Bradburian phrase could paint a picture paragraphs long in the hands of lesser writers. Every short story in the Chronicles, arguably his most famous output, is a lesson in creating masterpieces. I have a copy of this book autographed by Bradbury himself, given to me by the Mrs. on the eve of our wedding.

4. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis

Read this right after reading the Bible cover-to-cover during my conversion in 1992 – and this solidified and perfected the utter change in my life back then. No longer an idiot, no longer actively self-destructive, it helped me become a better person. Written in the form of a dialogue between you and Christ, and more often than not, as long sermons spoken by Christ directly at you. Short and potent. If the Bible took that lead vest off of my chest, the Imitation gently took my hand and helped me rise from the ground.

While compiling this list I realized that I had reach each and every one of these important books before the age of 25. This somewhat disconcerted me. I am now closing in on 50 in a couple of years. Have I changed so substantially? Or have I read all the books appointed to me that matter? Is there anything else out there that I need to seek out?

No comments: