What follows is a list of books that have meant something to me, either just as a good read or in some deeper way as well. The list is entirely based on personal preference and is subject to radical change at any time (I should rethink it at some point), but these books have for the most part been with me for a while, and I expect that they'll remain favorites for some time. The order that the books are listed here hardly corresponds at all to "order of preference"; really, the order is probably due to connections between the books (which makes me think of which) as much as anything else. Actual rankings would be difficult: I enjoy books from many different genres, and I find it next to impossible to say "this apple is better than that orange."
I want to insert a bit of philosophy here that occurred to me while writing the entry for Les Miserables. Fantasy, science fiction, and realistic fiction differ more than anything else in the amount of responsibility that the author has in designing the world described. In fantasy, the world and its history are entirely the author's creation. In science fiction, the world is the author's invention, but it relies fundamentally on our own world for its background details. In realistic fiction, the world described is our own, at some point in its history; the author's world-designing responsibility lies in filling in the details relevant to the story at hand. For this reason, the three genres are very different, and they should not be held to standards of judgement designed for the others: they aren't meant to have the same focus, or at least they don't have to.
Having said that, I should also say that none of them can afford to be bad at the others' areas of strength, either: poor writing is poor writing, wherever it is found. A realistic novel that never describes the scenery or the habitat of its characters seems empty or even forced, and one that never refers to the history and society of the world beyond its pages seems isolated and uninteresting. Similarly, a fantasy novel that does not involve deep, believable characters who develop and respond to the events around them seems meaningless and dull. (Examples of this abound.) My point is that the focus of the story may be different in different genres, and there's nothing wrong with that.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
(This essay says a little about how I started reading Tolkien.)
One of the very best books in the English language. While Tolkien is often criticized for a lack of character development, it's important to remember that Middle-earth itself the story's center of attention as much as any handful of its inhabitants. The result is the most fully realized fictional world in literature, with magnificent history and detail that shimmers in the background throughout The Lord of the Rings. Even with that focus, Tolkien's characters make those of most fantasy look like cardboard cutouts: neither they nor the story's moral outlook are as simplistic as many suggest. If you read no other fantasy book, read this one. I have claimed in the past that Tolkien played a substantial role in my moral development, and I strongly recommend reading LotR for children and adults alike.
Other Tolkien books.
See my Custom Tolkien Book List for a recommended reading order tailored to your own tastes and interests and many other comments. Did I mention that Middle-earth is absolutely amazing and wonderful?
Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly.
The only fantasy novel other than Tolkien that I still routinely recommend to those who aren't fantasy fans. Although an outline of the plot could easily make it sound like a typical pulp fantasy novel, Dragonsbane is anything but: its characters are continually faced with hard choices, whether they are trying to balance conflicting responsabilities or striving to understand what they want out of life. Jenny's struggles to decide how central a place her magic should have in her life bear an uncanny resemblance to my own struggles to balance my life between science and, well, everything else. This book does a superb job of placing fantasy into a setting that could very easily be someone's real, everyday life, even if it doesn't match anything in the world's true history.
The Blue Sword and The Hero and the
Crown, by Robin McKinley.
Fantasy aimed at children, but good enough that I still reread them periodically. Both of these books are great stories, and both share to some extent a theme of finding one's place in the world. The Blue Sword was a Newberry Honor Book, while The Hero and the Crown won the Newberry Medal. Fairly easy reading, but very good; share them with any young people you know!
Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card.
One of the most intense books that I've read, Ender's Game will grip you so tightly that you can't set it down (if you are at all prone to such involvement, at least). Beyond the sheer pace of the story's development, this book has deeper content as well. First of all, it gives a very accurate image of childrens' view of themselves (intelligent children, at least): the way the younger characters thought was quite familliar from my own childhood. In addition, it raises some interesting questions about war and what it justifies. A must-read, even for non-sci-fi fans.
Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card.
The sequel to Ender's Game, this book has a substantially different tone. It lacks the intensity of its predecessor, but it more than makes up for that lack in its deeper characters. Where Ender's Game is an ideal plot-driven story with interesting characters and ethical issues on the side, Speaker for the Dead is driven almost exclusively by its characters and the issues they face, and its plot is in no hurry to rush you on before you have a chance to really understand them. I have finally come to the conclusion that I prefer this book to Ender's Game, despite the apples and oranges problem that I mentioned at the top of this book list. Incidentally, the strong characters in this book make it another must-read for sci-fi fans and non-fans alike.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The
Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the
Universe, and Everything, and So Long, and Thanks
for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams.
The good four books of Adams's renowned Hitchhiker Trilogy. These books are very funny on a great many levels. The best part of the books, from my perspective at least, are the countless little details and unresolved comments scattered liberally throughout them. Amazingly, they all seem to tie together: out of the blue, a reference will appear to some side comment from two chapters (or two books!) back. It keeps itself going, too: even as one loose end is tied into the fabric of the story, a half dozen others are introduced. (Incidentally, that's why Mostly Harmless isn't on this list, and why I sometimes jokingly pretend it doesn't exist: after reading it, it seemed like all of the loose ends had been tied up, and no new ones had come to take their place. Somehow, the "joy in the strange and hidden structure of the universe" that made the other books so good just seemed to be absent from the final book of the series.)
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.
I haven't read it in French yet, but I've read the book several times in English. I appreciate the breadth of its canvas, which approaches Middle-earth in its scope: very few authors outside of fantasy end up giving such good descriptions of so many parts and aspects of the world that they describe. On the other hand, Les Mis has far better characters than are to be found in most fantasy, and it deals with moral and philosophical questions that every educated person ought to consider. Some characters are disappointing in their shallowness, but most are very vividly drawn and really seem like human beings.
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
At least for now, this book's characters are for me the standard by which the characters of all other books are judged. (I made the mistake of reading some "light" fantasy that I'd been fond of for years right after reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time, and I was absolutely repulsed by the empty characters and contrived dialog.) The book also contains many good philosophical discussions and a good story, but my god, the characters are incredible. An excellent book, well worth reading. Especially for its superb characters.
I don't have as much of a list here, because I don't have many strong "favorites" in non-fiction, not yet at least. So I'll mention a few things that stick out at least a little, some of which will be authors or even genres rather than specific books.
- Stephen Jay Gould's essays on biology, evolution, and society.
- Loren Eiseley's almost poetic essays on nature (like those in The Immense Journey).
- Einstein's Universe, by Nigel Calder, and A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking, two books that helped me choose to be a physicist. (Though The Exploding Universe contributed a lot at a much younger age.)
- Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, has always fascinated me (even though it gets pretty repetitive at times), but reading it has the bad effect of making me want to play Civilization III (or worse, write my own version).
- Even a few general history books, when the mood takes me (an interesting textbook that I've recently read part of is Inventing America, which focuses on the role of innovation in American history).
- The Chicago Tribune (we get it most days each week), and often at least some articles in the New York Times (on the web).
- Books of philosophy and religion (not about philosophy and religion), though I haven't made as much time for them recently as I'd like.
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