As you know, I’m a big advocate of writers reading a lot of good books, a lot. I’ve often been asked what my favorite books are. I have decided to devote this post to some of my recommendations, along with my editorial comments.
One caveat: this is by no means an exhaustive list. By next month I’ll probably have added to it, but that’s what it’s all about: reading lists should grow and be dynamic, just like you.
Just as modern dancers began with ballet and Elton John learned classical music first, you must build your reading and writing foundations with the classics in literature.
Yes, I know, they’re “boring.” (Not.) Trust me: reading for fun and edification is completely different from reading because Mrs. Johnson (name of my twelfth-grade English teacher) or some college professor made you read. And think of the Alzheimer’s prevention benefits.
If you can’t get into a book after fifty pages or so, set it aside and find another author to read. Here are a few authors I’d recommend (notice the inclination toward late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century British writers):
Dickens. Need I say more? My favorite: A Tale of Two Cities. Nothing beats it. The first paragraph alone is worth the price of the book. Great Expectations is another winner; in fact, it makes me want to use the cliché “achingly beautiful.” Sorry. In any case, get your hands on any of his books. Two other popular ones: David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.
Hardy. True confession: I am not a big Hardy fan, although I’ve read several of his books. Many people love him, and he definitely deserves to be on this list. Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles are the most well-known because they were turned into movies, but check out The Return of the Native, which is one of his best-known novels, and The Mayor of Casterbridge as well. If you are going to pull out all of your fingernails without anesthetic on Monday, and are going to jump off a roof on Wednesday, you might want to read Jude the Obscure on Tuesday.
Austen. I like Jane Austen. Some of her observations are hilarious, and you’ll find many of them, if quaint, right on target. I’ve read several of her books, and so far Mansfield Park is my favorite. However, she’s written so many other great novels: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and others. Take your pick and settle in for a treat.
The Bronte Sisters. Lots of talent in the Bronte family. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte) is one of my favorite books; I’ve read it many times. Emily Bronte’s only book is Wuthering Heights (a three-hanky novel), and Anne Bronte’s first of only two novels is Agnes Grey. Those will give you a good start.
E. M. Forster. Another confession: I failed the AP English test with A Passage to India (in Mrs. Johnson’s class). However, I reread it recently and loved it. Forster, by the way, wrote a book on writing, Aspects of the Novel. A Room with a View is probably his most well-known work, thanks to the movie version with the gorgeous actors as well as the magnificent Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. He also wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread.
Joseph Conrad. Now here’s a real man’s man. It takes me a long time to get into his books, but once in, I enjoy them. I confess I’m not always that patient, and sometimes his books are relegated to bathroom reading. Here are three to start with: Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and The Secret Agent. Among these three, I read the latter most recently; I even reread certain parts of it, as he’s a bit wordy and my mind wandered the first time around. The most amazing thing about Conrad is that he was not a native English speaker. Nevertheless, his prose is first rate.
Contemporary great literature
William Broderick. Broderick is my current favorite author. I’ve read three of his novels, all part of a series, and can’t wait to read more. His prose is outstanding and his plots complex. The first in the series is The Sixth Lamentation, and my favorite is The Day of the Lie. Broderick is a former Augustine friar who became a barrister, and the series’ central character is a former barrister who became a monk. The books combine history with mystery. They are incredibly human and the characters are brilliantly drawn.
Anna Quindlen. All of Quindlen’s novels are spectacular. Still Life with Bread Crumbs, which I’ve mentioned before, is her lightest; Black and Blue her most depressing. Her prose is simply brilliant. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times, and she has written as many non-fiction books as she has novels.
Sue Monk Kidd. Anything by Kidd is worth the read, but I especially liked The Secret Life of Bees, her first novel.
- Annie Proulx, The Shipping News. One of my five favorite novels of all time.
- John Grisham, A Painted House. Grisham’s best. It isn’t one of his lawyer novels; this is the real deal. Serious and well-written; a good, solid novel.
- Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy. Originally meant to be one gigantic novel, it was, thankfully, split into three separate books. As it was translated (beautifully) from the Arabic, I must give both the author and the translator kudos. The first, Palace Walk, is my favorite of the three.
- Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief. Unusual in a good way. Amazing and original book and plot. An unconventional World War II story, narrated by an unlikely character.
- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’ve written about this book as well. It’s not structured like a typical novel, and is very well done. Idiosyncratic in a good way. Great story. In some ways, it reminded me of a 9/11 version of The Book Thief.
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. Can’t wait to read her prequel, Go Set a Watchman.
Kids and young adult books worth reading
These are a few of my favorite modern classics for the 12-16 crowd, but I’ve listed them so you can read them too:
Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved
Irene Hunt, Up a Road Slowly
Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows
And I say that with love. The following are light but well-written novels, short stories, and non-fiction. None of them contain gratuitous sex or swear words that take away from the prose.
- Alexander McCall Smith. Smith has three series, all of which are worthwhile to read. His most well-known is The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. His other two, the Isabelle Dalhousie series and the 44 Scotland Street series, are even better. And don’t miss La’s Orchestra Saves the World.
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle wrote more than just Sherlock Holmes. His short stories reflect his interests in spiritualism, history, and science fiction. I especially enjoyed his historical fiction.
- Anne Tyler. This talented writer (another Pulitzer winner) has produced almost twenty novels. Her characters are quirky in a good way, and she has been recognized for coming up with the most interesting professions for her characters. Close your eyes and pick one.
- Helen Hanff. The late, great Helen Hanff rose to fame for her autobiography-in-letters, 84, Charing Cross Road. These were followed by The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Q’s Legacy, and Underfoot in Show Business. All of them focus on different periods in Hanff’s life, and they are all a joy to read. A thread of melancholy runs through all her books, as she never really made it as a top-tier writer, though certainly not for lack of talent.
- Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I loved this book. You will not be disappointed. It’s just so good.
- Tracy Chevalier, The Virgin Blue. Super well written. I didn’t like her Girl with a Pearl Earring, but this one’s a winner. I’m planning on reading her other novels, as historical fiction is my favorite genre.
There you have it; Deena’s list. Now I have a request: Please let me know in the comments what your favorite books are – I’m always interested in expanding my list, and I’m sure other readers are as well.
Coming soon: All the “great” novels that I hated.
Happy writing and reading,
Want to improve your writing in 5 days?
Get a FREE email mini-course
- Writing techniques
- grammar that doesn't bite
- inspiration for the writing life