Some of my friends believe that I read a lot. I don’t really – I just read more than they do, or perhaps more than most people do. I’m a slow reader and read maybe 15-20 minutes most evenings before I turn out the light. On weekends I will often get in a couple of hours – usually on Sunday morning – my day of rest and recovery. That gets me through about 2 books a month.
Most of my reading is from either literature, or leadership/personal development, or history/biography. And often I have a couple of books going at a time – from different genres. That said, I prefer by a large margin – literature.
Great literature speaks to the heart and the soul, through fascinating and believable characters experiencing and struggling with their life’s story. Their story is always different from my story, but by experiencing their story with them, my own story is expanded and enriched. In great literature, their story – the pathos, the agony, the ecstasy, the dilemmas, the tragedies, the decisions, successes and failures speak to the heart and the soul of my story – which I’m still struggling to understand – and make better.
So here are my Top Five favorite pieces of literature – most of which I’ve read at least twice. They are listed in the order in which I’ve read them; ranking them one through five would require an interesting but time consuming examination of criteria. My criterion for selection of these books was pretty simple: Did the book speak to my mind, body, and soul in a powerful way that left me stunned at the end, saying to myself, “Wow!” – and wishing it weren’t over? Did it leave me wanting more and to continue the experience? These are books that I not only read, but experienced deeply.
These books will not be everyone’s cup of tea – that they are my Top Five probably says more about me than about them. I will refrain from beginning each very brief description with “I loved this book,” though for each of them, I could. For more of what I thought about each of these books, I provide a link to my review.
- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevski I read this first at University after reading the the classic story of the Grand Inquisitor, which is simply one chapter in the book. The Brothers Karamazov are four brothers, living in Russia toward the end of the 19th Century, each representing a different variant of the soul of man. One brother is an emotional and passionate sensualist, one a rational and analytical intellectual, one is spiritual and selfless, and the fourth, full of anger and smoldering resentment. Included in the story are a number of very powerful supporting characters, including the manipulating reprobate father of these four brothers, the saintly and spiritual Father Zossima, and several very interesting women. What an amazing story from long ago and far away, exploring human nature, good and evil and how we live together. I would recommend the translation by McAndrew. My review of The Brothers Karamazov is here.
- Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis. This has been one of my favorite books since I first read it nearly 50 years ago – I’ve read it several times since and will read it again. It is told from the perspective of an introverted intellectual young man who is trying to understand life and the world by reading, thinking and writing about it. He hires the charismatic and middle aged Zorba to help him manage a project he has inherited on the isle of Crete. Unlike our protagonist, Zorba is a man of the people, academically uneducated, but very experienced in life’s hardships and tragedies – and yet is bold and filled with exuberance in everything he does. His goal is to milk all the joy he can from life with all its tragedies and disappointments, while still being a man of honor to his friends. Eventually he converts our narrator into also becoming more actively engaged in life. The movie is a good adaptation of the book. My review of Zorba the Greek is here.
- All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren This is a thinly disguised novelized version of the life of Huey Long – the populist demagogue governor of Louisiana in the 1930s who was planning to run for President against Franklin Roosevelt. Willie Stark is a charismatic character who while young and idealistic, learns the hard way about how politics “really” works, and after being victimized by his enemies, decides to beat them at their own game. The story is told from the perspective of one of Willie Stark’s personal assistants, and much of the story is about this young man’s moral development as he deals with his own issues, while watching and participating in the deterioration of integrity and morality in the interest of political power. Regarding the quality of the writing, note that Robert Penn Warren was once Poet Laureate of the US, All the King’s Men won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1947 and Warren won two additional Pulitzers for poetry. It’s not surprising that All the King’s Men is beautifully written My review of All the King’s Men is here.
- Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner Another Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction (1972) Angle of Repose, like All the King’s Men is a novelized biography of a real person. Stegner built his novel around the outlines of the life of Mary Hallock Foote and included quotes from her actual letters and from her own autobiography in the novel. The story takes Susan Ward – the main character in the novel – from her upper middle class upbringing in New York out to the frontiers of America in the 1870s/80s with her new husband, and with her, we experience the challenges of any young couple trying to raise a family. But these challenges are compounded by the uncertainties, isolation, significant risks, and lack of support associated with life on the frontier, out on the edges of civilization. It is a very personal inside look at American life in the west at the end of the 19th century, which is very different from what we’ve grown up with on TV and the movies. After reading Angle of Repose, I enjoyed doing fairly extensive research on the life of the real Mary Hallock Foote, which enriched my appreciation of Stegner and this book. My review of Angle of Repose is here.
- Shantaram, by Gregory Roberts. This is my most recent addition, read within the last year. It is not a literary masterpiece, and not a candidate for a Pulitzer, but it is a fascinating book and a lot of fun to read and like most of the books in my Top Five, it is also roughly based on a true story. It is an autobiographical novel written by an Australian who tells his story of escaping from a maximum security prison in Australia, and then disappearing into the criminal underworld of Bombay, India. Reading this novel is like a rollercoaster ride, as our protagonist tries to hold on to his integrity and honor while becoming a kingpin in one of Bombay’s most successful criminal enterprises, finds himself wrapped up in money laundering, drug dealing, document forgery, supporting guerrillas in Afghanistan, and more – all while struggling to maintain a relationship with a mysterious and disturbed woman. Our protagonist was a philosophy student before he became a criminal (that’s another interesting story) and accordingly, this book is filled with anguished perspectives, thoughtful insights and rationalizations that I found fascinating. I’ve never read anything like it, and couldn’t put it down. A lot of it is true, but we don’t know how much. My review of Shantaram is here
In deciding on my Top Five, there were a number of books I considered that I also loved, and though they didn’t make that short list, I would certainly consider including them in my Top Ten (or Twenty.) I plan to read many of them again – just to re-experience the joy I had in reading them the first, and for several of them, the first AND second time.
Some of these other favorites include: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, Shogun by James Clavell, From Here to Eternity, by James Jones, Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Dancing at the Rascal Fair by Ivan Doig, To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, The Alchemist by Paolo Cuelho.
If this little blog post inspires you to read any of these books, please let me know. It would please me to no end. Thanks Bob