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.
- Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
- John Steinbeck, East of Eden
- John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
- John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
- Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
- J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
- Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
- Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible