Musing Mondays

12th April 2010

Today’s MUSING MONDAYS post is about the ‘best’ books’.

There’s been some discussion on my blog this week about what should or shouldn’t make a ‘best’ books’ list. What elements do you think lands a book in that ‘best’ category?

Anyone who knows me – who really knows me – knows that choosing “best” or “favorite” things is like torture to me. And choosing the best five books? Oh my goodness, this post may never get published.

That said, I think the elements that make an unforgettable book are much the same as any other book. However, what gives a book its staying power – whether contemporary or classic – is the combination of those elements. For example, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer almost made the list, but I felt toward the end, he lacked a strong editorial presence. The characters are memorable, yes. The story is endearing and goes beyond simply fun to speaking about humanity and its beauty and brutality. However, it fell short because it lacked a good ending. By good ending, I don’t mean happy or well rounded or the way I thought it should end. It simply seemed to stop.

A more recent read for me, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon similarly has an excellent, flawed cast of characters struggling to make a life amid prejudice and sorrow and disappointment. Here, the ending is good, but Chabon’s “voice” was a little too present. I felt his conceit constantly while reading this book, and it annoyed me.

My list, then, reflects those books* that I truly think are the best. They have that magic combination that makes me, as a reader, consider these to be lifelong companions, books that have formed me in some way and that I will read again and again in order to take the joy and pain and beauty they have to offer:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I read this book for the first time way too young. I didn’t know what a “rendezvous” was or how to pronounce it. Nor was I treated cruelly as a young child. But Jane’s story, that of an independent (though somewhat meek) young woman who knew herself so well, was incredibly moving to me. I have read it dozens of times and still re-read my favorite parts a couple of times a year. I love that Jane spoke up when others would have been quiet. I love that the wildly lovely and flirtatious women have no hold over Mr. Rochester’s heart. Jane Eyre is probably the one story where I let cynicism of love subside and simply enjoy the story.

  • The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

You can read my post from a couple of days ago on this stirring book, but I love it for so many reasons. I love Zusak’s not-so-subtle study of words and their inherent power, both beautiful and frightening. Death’s humanity (there is no other word for it) brings me to tears. This book will stay with me for many more years (I read it several years ago), and I love sharing it with anyone and everyone.

  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Many of the books I love are simply about ordinary life and ordinary people living that life. This book is one of them. What makes it so extraordinary, then? There is no one “ordinary.” Steinbeck so masterfully creates his characters that the reader realizes that a simple farmer, a servant, a wayward son all have moments of intense art in a single life. Read Matt’s review.

  • Sula by Toni Morrison (or almost anything by Toni Morrison, for that matter)

I think it is a testament to this book (as well as Medea and “The Yellow Wallpaper”) that after spending a year writing my Master’s thesis over it, I still love this book so well. Toni Morrison writes women with compassion but certainly without rose-colored glasses. The women in Sula are devious, loving, maternal, sexual, independent, capricious, insecure and unfaltering. Sula herself makes space in a very small society for women who don’t quite fit the mold, but the book also shows the consequences of and prevalent attitudes toward such change.

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Magical realism at its best. This story is of a young girl who sees with different eyes and lives in a slightly different world. After witnessing a death in childhood, Clara stops speaking, believing her words are responsible for the death. The story spans Clara’s life and the life of her family, full of desire and deceit as well as love and hope. The story, to me, is epic and not easily forgettable.

[I know I have listed five, but I have to include at least one more and may update later, as well.]

  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I hate when people use the phrase “it changed my life.” It’s cliche, and I really don’t like cliche. Therefore, I’ll say this novel completely refocused my perspective. Many have never read it, but I argue it is a must for any American literature course. It receives comparisons to Black Boy by Richard Wright, but I would argue that it’s better and that it’s totally different. Invisible Man is certainly about race as the main character is African American, and it is set during the Harlem Renaissance. It is an important novel about race and the coming-of-age of young men of the South in the changing climate of the North. As much as I am interested in the story for that alone, the story spoke to me on another level as well. It spoke of identity and personal responsibility. It still speaks of these things. The words “personal responsibility” get a bad reputation these days, but I don’t mean them in the political sense but in the sense that you should know, at all times, who you are and what you believe because we are a changeable people in changeable times. I believe this novel is and could be revolutionary, and I am always saddened when readers have never heard of it.

So there are my five six “best” books and the reasoning behind them. Have you read any of these? What are your “best” five books? If you participate in Musing Mondays, leave your link in comments. I’d love to check out your blog.

And, of course, thanks to Just one more page… for this weekly post!

*I feel I need to qualify these selections. They are adult fiction, standard novel. I do not include personal essays, graphic novels, etcetera in these top five because my brain may literally explode.

  • I’ve only read Jane Eyre and I couldn’t agree with you more on that one. It’s one of those books I love rereading and I even own a book by Sharon Shinn: Jenna Starborn, that’s a scifi retelling of Jane Eyre. And tomorrow is the release day of ‘Jane Slayre’ by Sherri Browning Erwin. a version where Jane is also a vampire slayer’. I must get that one too!

    • I have never heard of either of those! Of course, I’ve read Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, but it’s a very strange book.

  • ok, I think I have read three of the six, but they are all interesting choices. It is fun to see what others pick.

  • What a fabulous list. I didn’t put Jane Eyre on my list of “bests,” but it certainly is up there.

    I’ve got East of Eden on the back-burner, which just means I’m reading it very slowly. I’m about 1/3th of the way through, and I felt like it started very strongly, but it’s gotten rather “plottish.” Know what I mean? Your words on it has me hoping that it picks back up soon.

    • I can see that. There were portions of it that simply did not read quickly, but keep going. I certainly think it’s worth it. It was one of those books, for me, that gave me a lot to think about during and after. Let me know what you think of it!

  • love love LOVE Jane Eyre! Good choice 🙂 Haven’t read your other choices, except for The Book Thief, which I didn’t find entirely great. (Perhaps because it had already been hyped up so much.)

    I would also include The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupery (if that’s how you spell it) and Little Women, and Playing Beattie Bow and The Princess Bride and also Junky by William Burroughs.

    I find that the majority of my alltime favourites are so different to the books I read now, that I wonder if our favourite books aren’t so much the book itself, but the age/time/place we are in when we read it?

  • I can’t make a choice, it would be like ask me to choose between my children. [Here’s Mine].

    • It was really, really difficult for me, too. I did my best, but others have occurred to me throughout the day.

  • Favorite five – what a tough list to put together! I do know that The Book Thief has become one of my all-time favorite books. So good.

    I should do a re-read of Jane Eyre. I read that maybe 15 years ago and it’s really been too long.

    • Oh, it’s so good. And I’m glad to know there is another Book Thief lover out there!

      Sent from my iPhone

  • Consider the similarity and mutual preference, I need to get on with The Book Thief, which has been making so much noise all over the blogsphere. As to the best books, I cannot agree with you more on East of Eden, which, although is a conventional story, is not ordinary. It’s a story about love and how one perceives love—some people have totally had it wrong and never found it, others were enlightened just before it was too late. Sula and Invisible Man are equally important works.

    • I’d love to see your opinions on The Book Thief.

      So important. I’m so glad to know you’ve read them. They were really pivotal for me.