Friday, November 11, 2005

There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.

Books This post is for Keri Metje, and indeed, any reader.

For books are more than books, they are the life
The very heart and core of ages past,
The reason why men lived and worked and died,
The essence and quintessence of their lives.
~Amy Lowell

I've decided to compile (or rather, recompile,) my Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time. It's a hard list, for I am a voracious reader, and could name at least a hundred titles that are near and dear to my heart, and at least half of those that have changed my life. I confess I've never understood a person who doesn't want to read a book more than once; although I understand the number of great books I will never read is infinite, my favorite books are like good friends. I love to revisit them because they are comforting and I always learn something new.

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. ~Mark Twain

This list contains only novels; when I started adding nonfiction it got too hard to narrow it down to ten, so that list will have to be made separately at a later date. So, without further ado, and in no particular order, Jamie's Top Ten Favorite Books of All Time:

  • Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. One of the best opening lines in literary history: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Besides that, there's a lovely ensemble "cast," a complex love interest, a spunky heroine, and lots of quirky family. Classic Victorian and beautifully-written prose.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. I'm a complete sucker for children's literature in general and British children's fantasy in particular. It was so hard to pick from the likes of His Dark Materials, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and The Hobbit, so I couldn't make a favorite list without The Chronicles of Narnia because I've read them the most times and I think they are, as a unit, probably one of the most formative literary works in my childhood reading. I even did an honors research project on them in college colloquium. I can't possibly pick one of the seven so I'm cheating and lumping them in as one. My favorite would probably be either The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. These stories are so layered-- My child-eyes read them as fantasy, my teenage-eyes as allegory, and my adult-eyes as truth. Many of you know that one of my own personal soap-boxes is that the American press Harper re-ordered the books in chronological order as opposed to the order in which they were written (and meant to be read by the author). It takes away so much of the magic to know where the lamp post came from before you realize its significance. If you've never read them: first, go to the bookstore right now and buy them, before you even finish reading this list, and second, make sure you read them in this order: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, The Horse and His Boy (which is actually a story someone tells INSIDE of one of the others; I think it's the 1st or 2nd), The Magician's Nephew (or Genesis), and The Last Battle (Revelation).
  • Brave New World, Adolus Huxley. This book was in a string of social commentaries I read (or re-read) fairly lately, which included 1984, Anthem, Farnheit 451, Animal Farm, We, and Oryx & Crake (which might actually be a superior book on the subject but not as formative in my personal reading history). It's a bewitching story of a post-modern society (A.F. 632) in which society has been divided into a caste system of leaders (Alphas and Betas) and workers (Deltas and Epsilons). Babies are born in hatcheries and conditioned in the "womb" to crave heat by subjecting them to colder temperatures, so they will never stray from their government mandates, which have dominated and practically eradicated the soul of mankind. One man resolves to find out what life has to offer besides Utopia. It's a searing commentary with a grippingly prophetic plot. One of my favorite things about this book is its title, which is ironically taken from my favorite Shakespeare play, The Tempest, when Miranda lands on the island and is confronted with Calaban for the first time, and gasps, "O brave, new world, that has such creatures in't!"
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. Another fantastic opening line that grabbed me right from the start: "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice, not because of his voice, nor because of he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. Irving is unparalleled in creating real characters-- interesting, flawed, and completely sincere characters. This is a book about faith, and Owen Meany is one of my favorite characters ever, not because he is heroic, which he is, or because I want to know him in real life, which I do, but because he is true and faithful and unwavering. I've read this book at least 10 times and it never ceases to make me laugh and cry (but not at the same time).
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. This book can truly be labeled "The Great American Novel" in my mind. Set in Depression-era Alabama, it chronicles both toughly and tenderly race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up, all seen through the eyes of a child, as it follows the trial of a black man's alleged rape of a white woman. Our heroine, Scout, is a rugged and innocent narrator, always simultaneously funny, wise, and heartbreaking.
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel. This book was so imaginitive and unforgettable that I almost skipped an $85 dinner cruise in the San Diego Bay. It's about a young Indian boy named Pi, who observes the religious practices of his native Hindu, as well as Islam and Christianity, "attracting religions the way a dog attracts fleas," because all he wants to do is love God. Pi's parents sell their zoo in Pondicherry and set off to find a better life in North America. On a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada, the ship capsizes, leaving Pi on a 32-passenger lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-lb. Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. What happens next I shall not unfold here, but it's a tale of adventure, survival, and faith that will keep you turning pages until there are no more to turn, and then you will probably cry, like I did, not because it is necessarily sad, but because it is over.
  • Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding. This book, pre-Renee Zelwegger, (although I adored her in the role), introduced me and possibly the world at large to an entire new genre of fiction: chick-lit. Like most genres, some of it is smart and well-made and some it is cheap and horrible, but Bridget Jones is warm, funny, human, completely likeable, and infinitely relatable. It's a loose remake of Pride & Prejudice (see above), even down to the male lead's name (Darcy). This is a sincere and enjoyable book for anyone who has ever had a mother, a boyfriend, or a boss.
  • Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins. I've read all seven of Robbins' books and I'm crazy about his work in general, but this was my first and absolutely my favorite. It's about immortality, and perfume, and hosts a memorable cast of exotic and real-life characters, including an ancient king, a pagan god, and a Seattle waitress. Robbins is a beautiful writer; each sentence could be a poem. He weaves intricate tales with interesting characters, but always comes back to stun you with a really great line of truth like "a truly great teacher knows that life's lessons can never be taught; they can only be learned." My favorite line in the book (and the time you can open your candy~ *wink*) is as follows: "Philosophists have argued for centuries over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but only a true materialist knows that it depends on whether they are jitterbugging or dancing cheek-to-cheek." Robbins is a reader's writer.
  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver writes a beautiful and terrible tale of a fiercely evangelical Baptist preacher who takes his wife and four daughters, incredibly unprepared, to Christianize the Congo in a time of political instability (late 50s, right before the Belgian sieze). Kingsolver tells the story alternately through the eyes of each character except the father (which is important to note) and it spans many years. The language is beautiful (the mute daughter says "It is true that I do not speak as well as I think, but that is true of most people, as far as I can tell") and the story is a compelling tale of morality.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabahn, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the yet-to-be-released untitled seventh in the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling. There's not much I can say here about these imaginative, heroic books, because if you are interested you have already read them and if you're not then I probably won't change your mind. But Harry Potter and friends have held my heart and mind for several years, and I have a feeling I will never tire of reading them, not even after I've read them to my children and my grandchildren.

So there you go. As Mortimer Adler said, "In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you." I hope you have a list of books that have gotten through to you.

Love, Jamie.

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