You’ve Got to Read This!

I invite you to send me a list of your favorite books (fiction and nonfiction), short stories, plays, essays and anything else that is meaningful to you.  I suggest that the list include no more than ten works.  You can either give complete descriptions (as I do below) or simply present the books and their authors without any comments (as Cy Rawls does below).  You can list old works, new works or a combination.  Most importantly, tell us WHY you have chosen those particular works if you give descriptions.  I am including a sample of some of my favorite works as a guide to how I would like your list to be formatted.  Send your list to me at, and it will be included in a future post.  I reserve the right to reject any submission that I deem inappropriate or too controversial for this blog.

Here are some of my personal favorites:

  1. Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – This, the first of over a dozen books that Fraser wrote about the cowardly, bullying womanizer (and those are his good points) named Harry Flashman, is a magnificent blend of fiction and history that I keep going back to time and time again.  When you get past the seemingly gratuitous sex and violence that may make this book seem like a perfect read for a randy teenage boy, you find that it’s also a true story about the first Anglo-Afghan war, and the retreat of 14,000 or so British troops, their families and their Afghan servants in the face of ceaseless sniping by Afghan warriors.  The stupidity and incompetence of the British commanders before and during the retreat will truly astound you.  Fraser was a meticulous researcher who couched history in novels about a make-believe poltroon who seems to have been involved in every important historical occurrence of the 19th century.  This should be your first taste of the Flashman series, but it certainly won’t be your last.
  2. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson – Jackson’s short story is included in almost every anthology of great American short stories for a good reason.  It is a chilling tale of what happens in a small New England town once a year for reasons that are difficult to fathom.  “The Lottery” will make you question the motivations and beliefs of those townspeople, and may even make you rethink your own, and that’s good.  After you read the story consider this: Jackson claimed to have dashed off this story one afternoon after a shopping trip in the small New England town where she and her husband lived.  Furthermore, she claims that it had no particular meaning.
  3. The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer – These epic poems credited to a man named Homer, who may or may not have ever existed, were recited or sung (we’re not sure which) for perhaps hundreds of years before the Greeks gained the ability to write from the Phonecians.  Now, over 2,500 years later, we still read them for their grandeur, and for the lessons they have to teach us about ourselves and everyone else on this planet.  It’s hard to believe that people ever had the ability to memorize such long works, and its equally difficult to believe that they contain so much that is still relevant about the human condition.
  4. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey – Owen Wister’s 1902 novel, The Virginian, may have been the first western novel ever written, but I would argue that Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, written in 1912, is the quintessential portrait of the quiet but supremely capable cowboy who doesn’t look for trouble but knows how to handle it when it comes his way.  It contains every cliché that would later be included in those cowboy movies that I loved as a kid.  If you like this story, you will want to read its sequel, The Rainbow Trail.  Caution: Grey’s portrayal of Mormons in this book may be offensive to some.
  5. The Complete Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne – Montaigne invented the essay form back in the 16th century, and he has perhaps never been bested in this form of writing.  He was a genius who wrote and in many cases rewrote his thought on an astounding range of subjects which included friendship, good and evil, the education of children, and cannibals.  Don’t expect to simply breeze through his essays.  Instead, set out with the idea that you will read one, savor it for a while, and then, perhaps, read it again in order to really reach its core.  If you ever read and understand them all, you’ll be my hero.  I suggest the translation by Donald M. Frame.
  6. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling – This set of seven novels written for children of all ages (including some of us who have never totally grown up) is a classic tale of good versus evil with more than a few fascinating plot twists.  Rowling’s spectacular imagination is what makes the series so intriguing.  Her novels are set in a truly magical world populated by witches and wizards; a strange game called quiditch which is played while flying on broomsticks; and magical animals such as hippogriffs, blast-ended skrewts and flobberworms.  Thankfully, we “muggles” have been invited to take a peek into Harry’s world.
  7. Othello by William Shakespeare and Otello by Giuseppe Verdi – It’s impossible for me to think of one without the other.  First, of course, came Shakespeare’s masterpiece, and then Verdi set it to music – and what music!  Each in its own unique way tells of the terrible consequences that too often occur when jealousy trumps reason.  Shakespeare wrote his play when he was in his prime; Verdi composed the music for his opera when he was an old man thought incapable by many of writing with such passion and dramatic intensity.  Do yourself a favor – enjoy both.  Read Shakespeare’s masterwork first, and then enjoy it with the added dimension of Verdi’s glorious music.
  8. The Art of the Short Story: 52 Great Authors, Their Best Short Fiction, and Their Insights on Writing edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn – The title just about says it all.  I’ve seen lots of short story anthologies, but this one stands out because each short story includes a biography of the author before the story, and an essay by the author after the story.  There are also a number of essays at the end of the book on subjects like plot, characterization, and point of view.  I’ve used this book to lead discussions on short stories, and the participants have always enjoyed the selections.  Authors include Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway, Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery” mentioned above), Zora Neale Hurston, Ha Jin, Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, and Yukio Mishima.  Undoubtedly this 926 page book is meant to be used in literature classes, but its $22.00 retail price is more like what you would pay for a popular book rather than a textbook.

_ _ _

Cy Rawls submitted his list of favorite books

  1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  2. The Gamble by Thomas E. Ricks
  3. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
  4. Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel
  5. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
  6. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
  7. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  8. Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph Lash
  9. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  10. The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield
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