Monday, September 3, 2007


I've lurked or participated in Usenet genre- or author-oriented newsgroups for several years now, and when threads are on topic, two of the most frequent topics are "What are you reading now?" and "What are your favorite books?" I'll generally leave aside the "reading now" subject here, but I think I'm going, for my own enjoyment, to address the "favorite books" idea.

What makes a book a favorite, rather than just a good read? The things I look for in a book: interesting characters -- extra points if I like them -- who make believable and meaningful moral choices, suspense, the "sense of wonder" that thrills the SF wonk in me, humor (optional but desired), and writing that doesn't yank me out of the story. The extra something that puts a book over the top and merits consideration as one of my favorites is re-readability. Yeah, pretty much unquantifiable. That's why it's art, not science.

So, if I had to rebuild my personal library, these are where I'd start:

  1. Watership Down, by Richard Adams This is, and I say this with no hesitation at all, my very favorite book. I love the parallel civilization that the rabbits of Sandleford Warren are part of, their folklore, their psychics, their storytellers and leaders. These characters drive the story they are part of, not the other way around. The language of the book is often quite beautiful, and the England of the novel feels timeless. This story has been part of me since I read it in the 10th grade.

  2. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card This is one of the most celebrated SF novels, ever. It succeeds as a military adventure, a thriller -- I know several people, very well read and savvy, who simply didn't see the ending coming -- a dysfunctional family saga, and a tale of transcendence. Card asks the very pertinent question of how far a person, a group, or a species can, should, indeed must go when their very survival is threatened by someone or something with which no communication appears to be possible. And how one deals with the aftermath. I first read Ender's Game when I lived in Nashville, TN. My then wife and I moved there from Greensboro for my first programming job out of school. I didn't know at the time that Card lived in Greensboro, so imagine my surprise when I read references to Lake Brandt Road (the neighborhood my mother-in-law lived in was just off Lake Brandt Road), Greensboro, and Guilford County Schools! This novel won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, which meant that both SF fans and writers thought it was worthy.

  3. Watchers, by Dean Koontz This was my first Koontz, and it remains the best. Einstein, the golden retriever with the genetically enhanced intelligence, is one the most memorable, honorable, and enjoyable characters ever created; the Outsider, genetic mashup intended to be a horrifying solder, is an equally memorable character, but so very tragic. The main human characters, Travis and Nora, are people I'd love to have for friends. The themes of being open to wonder and happiness, of knowing that life also has moments of abject horror that must be endured to reach the sweetness, of reaching out to others and accepting responsibility resonate strongly in my life. This book was quite original and utterly unlike anything I had read up to that time. My daughter, my first child, was born a couple of months after I read it, and the new creations that are these events are closely linked in my mind and spirit.

  4. On Basilisk Station, by David Weber This is the first volume featuring Honor Harrington, a 41st century space military series based on Horatio Hornblower. It's purely a guilty pleasure.

  5. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee Novels do not get any more Southern than this. Nor do they have much more to say about what is right and noble in how to treat other people. Atticus Finch is my hero.

  6. The Ninja, by Eric van Lustbader This erotic thriller is a revenge tale. It's deeply concerned with the Orient/Occident divide within protagonist Nicholas Linnear, whose father was English and mother was Chinese/Japanese, and it's simply compulsively readable.

  7. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman This is the funniest treatment of the Apocalypse, ever. Have a nice Doomsday!

  8. The Plays of William Shakespeare, any edition Is there anything about the human condition not covered here?

  9. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien There aren't many works that are recognized as singlehandedly creating a new commercial genre. Because of LOTR, we have so many fantasy novels in bookstores. This is the first book that I remember hating to finish. I want the experience of crossing the plains of Mordor with Frodo and Sam for the first time again, and I can't have it.

  10. Harry Potter, all 7 volumes, by J.K. Rowling The commercial publishing phenomenon of pretty much the last millennium, this is exuberant storytelling with characters who grow, who love, who fight, who die, who triumph. I don't care if the prose was sometimes clunky. I don't care if there were logic holes in the story. I care that Harry and company made choices that, in their universe, mattered. I had more pure fun with these books than almost any others I've ever read.

  11. The Holy Bible I'm not the most observant or devout Christian, but it's the tradition I was raised in, I do believe, and this book is the foundation of my faith. It's also filled with beautiful poetry and meaningful moral instruction. Even if you don't accept the divinity of Christ, tell me that his story of sacrifice for others isn't relevant.


clare said...

Interesting choices, thanks for sharing.

Fifecat said...

I agree with several of your criteria, especially the characterisation and the re-readability! I also agree that To Kill a Mockingbird is a marvellous book. I'll have to pass on the science fiction though!

Off to see if I can work out how to put you on to my blogroll ...