On Facebook, Andy Bourgeois posted a list of books that had stayed with him, and suggested that several people, including me, do the same. Andy is a real-world friend of mine. We played basketball every week for about five or six years, and we’d often talk about books.
I love trying to come up with a list like this. On the one hand, it’s impossible. What about the books that just don’t come to mind immediately? How do I draw the line between number 10 and number 11?
But the sheer impossibility of it makes it fun because whatever I come up with is not the final word, not by a longshot. If I try to come up with a list tomorrow or a month from now or a year from now, other books will elbow their way into the top 10 and some on this list will fall off.
“The Violated” by Vance Bourjaily — I love all of Bourjaily’s novels. In this one, his opening pages describe a play that is being put on by several children. It gets interrupted, and I’ve been waiting ever since for it to resume. Also, this novel includes a character who calls God “the Big Crud” and another who watches his death come upon him in slow motion.
“How We Die” by Sherwin B. Nuland — This may be the most life-affirming book I have ever read. At its heart, Nuland says: The only good death is a good life. Death is coming so live, really live, each day.
“Daybreak: 2250 A.D.” by Andre Norton — Not great literature, but this science-fiction novel about a mutant teenager finding his way in the remains of a nuclear war was a beautiful story for me to read when I was a teen and, like all teens, thought of myself as a mutant.
“The Power Broker” by Robert Caro — Simply the best book ever written about a city.
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. — This wonderful science-fiction story contemplates the meaning of history, religion, science and humanity in another post-nuclear world.
“The Face of Battle” by John Keegan — In this book, Keegan was the first to look at war from the ground level. It was eye-opening, and the first of many great books by him about war.
“How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis — This is the best book I’ve ever read by a journalist.
“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans — Reportage as high poetry. Unique and utterly beautiful.
“The Warden” by Anthony Trollope — Trollope tells a great story, and he knows so much about what makes people tick.
“Nature’s Metropolis” by William Cronon — Simply the best book ever written about Chicago.
This list could be somewhat different on any given day although some, such as “The Power Broker” and “Daybreak: 2250 A.D.” would always be on there. Others that I wanted to put on the list include “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson, “The Greenlanders” by Jane Smiley, “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace, “An Armful of Warm Girl” by W. M. Spackman, and something by Muriel Spark, Norman Mailer, Edith Wharton and dozens of others.
Even as I finish this, I’m thinking of books that could have or should have been on this list. There’s Dorothy Day’s biography of St. Therese of Lisieux, and Grant’s Memoirs, and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, and…..and…..and….
Patrick T. Reardon