16 Books

This one’s been going the rounds lately, so I thought I’d jump in. You can imagine it was pretty hard for someone with 30 cartons of books to come up with (or narrow it down to) a sweet sixteen.

The rules are that you’re supposed to do it in 16 minutes, but I can’t type that fast, even if I could think that fast. And no, I don’t get the 16 fetish, either.

Here are the (slightly bent) rules:

Don’t take too long to think about it. Sixteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First sixteen you can recall in no more than 16 minutes.

Here we go, in alphabetical order:

1. The Box of Delights, by John Masefield

My father loved this book as a child, and passed on his love to us by reading it to us every Christmas. I still read it every year. Written by Poet Laureate John Masefield, it tells the adventures of a boy coming home for the holidays who encounters unexpected magical adventures. Or were they?

Look for the unabridged copy if you pick one up. It’s important.

2. Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

McInerney captures the hedonistic 80s like no-one else.

3. The Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger

One of the two books not completely ruined for me by having to study it in school (the other being number 7). Holden’s voice still rings true to me after all these years, the same way it did when I first read it in my teens.

4. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo

Russo and I both grew up in Upstate New York, and most of his novels are set there. Besides my nostalgic enjoyment of the setting, I love his lyric prose and clever plots. This multi-generational tale is a great one.

5. Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

I first read this when I was in fifth grade. My teacher was a glamorous, platinum blonde Southerner, and this was her favorite book. I have no idea how many times I’ve read this, and it never fails to capture me from the first page. I’m back in the 1860s, watching Scarlett wreak havoc and break hearts.

6. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Every time I read the tragic tale of the beautiful Lily Bart, I hope it ends differently. But it never stops me from re-reading it. There’s no-one like Mrs. Wharton when it comes to witty social satire. Or descriptions of gowns.

7. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s ground-breaking “non-fiction novel” was both the making of him and his undoing. His life and career spiralled out of control after he published this unforgettable book, which chills and fascinates as much today as it did the day it was written. It affects me deeply for days every time I read it.

8. Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson

Truth is stranger than fiction, and the way Erik Larson weaves together history and the human experience (as he does again in “The Devil and the White City”) in the face of one of the greatest natural disasters in history is unparalleled. A real page-turner, all the more so for being entirely true and beautifully written.

9. Lucy Gayheart, by Willa Cather

“My Antonia” and “O Pioneers” are Miss Cather’s best-known books, but this is my best-loved of her works. It tells the story of a girl who leaves her small town prairie home for life in Chicago, with unexpected and tragic results.

10. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The divine Jane at the top of her form.

11. The Ripley Series, by Patricia Highsmith

Miss Highsmith’s novels all deserve more attention, but the series about the charming and lethal Tom Ripley demonstrate her great gifts of observation of human nature and her sly wit.

12. A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket

San Francisco’s own Daniel Handler shows great skill and cleverness in these small, beautifully written books about the unfortunate Baudelaire orphans. A delight to look at, and to read.

13. The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym

I love all of Miss Pym’s works, and wish there were more of them. This is the first one of her books I ever read, and still my favorite. She is a modern-day Jane Austen. Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil both named her “the most underrated novelist of the century”.

14. Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin

I read this series before I lived in San Francisco. When I moved there, I made a pilgrimage to all the places in the books. Living in San Francisco was as wonderful for me as it is for the characters in these funny, delightful books. They originally ran as a column in the “Chronicle” and scandalized the socialites it merry skewered.

15. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

It’s hard not to be moved by the saga of Tess. None of Hardy’s novels are particularly happy, but this one is particularly moving and is one of his best. I can just see Tess as I read it.

16. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

Looks like I have both of the South’s one hit wonders on my list. And Harper Lee accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, to Kansas to assist in the interviews for “In Cold Blood”. (Mr. Capote appears in “Mockingbird” as Dill.) Miss Lee’s novel is a remarkable gem, a beautifully written and moving small masterpiece.

There you have it. What are your favorites?