I've read quite a few "best-of" lists this past week or so: someone's best books of 2012, top goals for 2013, etc. A conversation with an online friend led me to think about what would be my top five books (i.e. novels) of all time. It was interesting to determine what criteria a book would need to fulfill to make this very short list. For me those criteria would be (1) re-readability and the sense of discovering something new each time the book is read, (2) emotional impact, and (3) just an excellent story and characters.
Here follows my list. (The book I list as #1 is my top book of all time, but the others I've just listed in random order because I couldn't quite rank them as easily.)
1. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott). I got this book for my birthday when I was ten, and I still have that same purple hard-covered edition (mine is much more battered than the one in the picture above!). I pull it out every few years to re-read it. For me, Little Women is timeless. When I was ten, I loved reading about the March sisters' various escapades and foibles, though I didn't really understand some of the more mature parts (such as Amy writing her will and Meg being chagrined by attending a ball). Later as a teen I enjoyed the romantic aspects, and had a lot of trouble accepting that Laurie and Jo wouldn't get together!
Now as an adult I really appreciate the spiritual foundation of the book. Each sister has to face her personal flaw or temptation and deal with it, and the mentoring and prayers of the March parents are instrumental in helping the girls grow and mature. I remember watching the movie version with Susan Sarandon as Marmee: the movie's feminist emphasis on personal independence just didn't seem to square with Alcott's vision of life as a Pilgrim's-Progress-like journey in which faith and prayer are essential ingredients. This very aspect probably makes the book very dated to many modern readers, but for me it's a big part of why I find it so re-readable and why I'm always touched by it when I read it.
2. The House of Mirth (Edith Wharton). This novel tells the heartbreaking story of Lily Bart, who wants to marry a wealthy man and live a life of luxury -- but because of a combination of circumstances and her own actions, she watches these dreams slip away. I think I like this book so much because Lily is such a fascinating character. She is beautiful. She is naive and worldly, selfish and kind, all at the same time. She deludes herself many times, yet clear self-knowledge is what prevents her from doing things that might bring her closer to her goals but that she knows in her heart are wrong. As a reader I can't help but sympathize with Lily even as I wish she would find a way to break free from the social web she is tangled in. Wharton is such a wonderful writer. She won the Pulitzer for Age of Innocence, but I think Lily's life of loneliness and yearning is much more interesting than the romance of Newland and Ellen in A of I.
3. Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier). I read this book every couple of years and I'm always amazed at how great it is. The youthful unnamed narrator, who marries a mysterious older widower and goes to live with him at his estate, is obsessed with the belief that her new husband still loves and misses his beautiful first wife. The young wife's insecurity and anxiety are painful to observe, but when the truth about her husband's first marriage comes to light, she is forced to grow up and confront the realities before her. The last quarter of the book is brilliant: so slow and suspenseful that it's as if you're inside the narrator's head, experiencing her dread and fear right along with her. And the ending -- just when you think everything's been solved -- is stunning. Most mysteries lose their impact after one read; after all, you've figured everything out, so why would you read it again? But du Maurier's depiction of the narrator's inner life -- which, I suppose, is what makes it so much more than "just" a mystery -- is so fascinating and moving that this book is, to me, worth many revisits.
4. Lord of the Rings trilogy (J.R.R. Tolkien). I think I could read this book a dozen times and still not begin to understand all of it. Tolkien creates the world of Middle-Earth, with its many different races and their histories, in such minute detail that it becomes a complete world unto itself. But for me it's primarily the story line that puts this book in my top five: the quest that Frodo, accompanied by his faithful friend Sam, undertakes in order to bring the Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. The interplay between the individual story of Frodo and the other hobbits, and the big story of the battle between good and evil forces, is so compelling. Ultimately this book suggests that what happens on the individual level not only affects the bigger picture, but actually IS the main story. This book also contains one of my life quotations: "Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.”
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (J.K. Rowling). This seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series is exceptional. Not only does it masterfully tie together dozens (hundreds?) of plot loose-ends, it makes some powerful statements about evil vs. good, life vs. death, friendship, and sacrifice. It also contains many beautiful, touching passages, like this one when Harry goes to his parents' grave and reads "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" on their gravestone:
But they were not living, thought Harry; they were gone. The empty words could not disguise the fact that his parents' mouldering remains lay beneath snow and stone, indifferent, unknowing. And tears came before he could stop them, boiling but then instantly freezing on his face, and what was the point in wiping them off, or pretending? He let them fall, his lips pressed hard together, looking down at the thick snow hiding from his eyes the place where the last of Lily and James lay, bones now, surely, or dust, not knowing or caring that their living son stood so near, his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, that he was sleeping under the snow with them.
I also think the scene with Harry and Dumbledore in King's Cross Station, before Harry decides to go back to Hogwarts and defeat Voldemort, is one of the most powerful I've ever read. Dumbledore tells Harry,
"You are the true master of death, because the true master does not seek to run away from Death. He accepts that he must die, and understands that there are far, far worse things in the living world than dying."..... "Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love."
- The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)
- A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula LeGuin)
- Sophie's Choice (William Styron)
- Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
- Emma (Jane Austen)
- The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
- Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
- A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
All great books, but when I ask what five books would I keep if I were only allowed that many, these five stand up to the test.
What are your top books?