Bethany’s Top Thirteen (and a Related Reading Challenge)

Back when I was teaching, people asked me all the time what my favorite books are. English teachers are expected to have answers to that question right at their fingertips, just as kids are supposed to say what they want to be when they grow up and pregnant people are supposed to say what they plan to name the baby and pretty much everyone is supposed to say what kind of music they like to listen to. (I had hoped that requirement about the music would go away after I finished college, but no dice. I’m 36 years old, and people still ask. And if I answer honestly – which I usually don’t – people still laugh, no less than they did back in seventh grade. Am trying to work up the courage to reply WHAT?? CAN’T HEAR YOU, SONNY!)

I actually do know what my favorite novel is: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, hands down. No problem. That title has been securely in place since probably 2003. East of Eden is an obvious second as well, and I also feel confident about The Grapes of Wrath and Franny and Zooey as numbers 3 and 4. After that things get slippery. I tried to put together a Top Ten List, but I couldn’t narrow the list down quite that far. Then I tried for a Top Twenty or even a Top Fifteen, but I found myself padding the list with titles I wasn’t quite sure deserved to make the list. So Top Thirteen it is.

Please note that this is a list of my favorite novels. If short stories, plays, poetry, and nonfiction books were included, this list would definitely be different. But I’m keeping things simple for now.

Please also note that this list is quite different from the much longer one that I’ve posted under “Our Great List” – an ongoing project here on Postcards from Purgatory to put together a list of what we believe to be the best books we’ve ever read. That list is much more eclectic. This list of thirteen includes only books that both I and the Powers That Be in the literary canon believe to be great.

Between now and the end of 2013, I plan to reread each of these books – most of which I’ve already read many, many times (and I’ve taught all of them except East of Eden, Disgrace, and Crossing to Safety – and if you’ve ever taught literature you know that there’s a whole separate level of intimacy between teachers and the books they teach) – and write about them here on Postcards from Purgatory. I suppose part of this task will be to “justify” why they are my favorites, but much more to myself than to anyone else. I am absolutely open to the possibility that the list may change over time too – we’ll see.

  1. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  2. John Steinbeck, East of Eden
  3. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  4. J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
  5. John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
  6. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
  7. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  8. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
  9. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  10. J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
  11. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
  12. Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
  13. Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible
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13 Responses to Bethany’s Top Thirteen (and a Related Reading Challenge)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    The Age of Innocence is on my list of books I started but never finished…. I will read it when you do. And East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are on my list of books I probably should have read by now.

    • lfpbe says:

      Jill–are you still going to read Gatsby next month? If so, tell me when and I’ll read it with you.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        I was going to read it in December. The movie comes out in Xmas, right?

      • lfpbe says:

        I don’t know – I go out of my way not to know things like that. But I’ll take your word for it – December it is.

      • badkitty1016 says:

        I just double checked release date of The Great Gatsby–got pushed back to May 2013. So I guess I won’t be reading it until April or May of next year. I’m ashamed to not have been up to date on this information…

      • lfpbe says:

        In that case, I’m going to read my list in reverse order beginning in November, probably skipping December because I have another little challenge in the works for that month. That places Gatsby in February.

  2. Maria says:

    Pretty interesting list. I especially find it interesting that this is a list that must be embraced by the canonizers of literature. (Who are they, by the way?) Would your list be different if it did not have to be canonical? I loved the Poisonwood Bible more than any of Kingsolver’s other books. I loved Franny and Zooey when I read it years ago. I could not make a list of canonical literature that I could honestly say were my favorites. Unless jane Austen is on the list. Or possibly Michael Chabon. Louise Erdrich. I have a feeling you are a person much more willing than I to go deeper into life and literature.

    • lfpbe says:

      I think Jane Austen, Michael Chabon, and Louise Erdrich are all fair game for a top-whatever list. Ultimately I think anyone who chooses to make such a list can set the rules for him/herself. And Maria, you will TOTALLY laugh if I tell you what kind of music I listen to! It was my frequent interactions with musicians between 2004-07 that taught me never to answer that question truthfully. And you know who the snobbiest ones were? Violinists! 🙂

  3. Maria says:

    By the way, what music do you listen to? I promise I won’t laugh.

  4. Cool list. Song of Solomon and The Things They Carried are in my top 10 as well. Can’t wait to read your posts on them.

  5. Pingback: The Frou-Frou Diaries (and a Threesome!): Thoughts on Parts One and Two of Anna Karenina (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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