Every year in February I update my list of Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time.
I scroll through past lists (check out my Top 25 from Feb. 2016!) and my reads from the last year, combining old choices with new for one master list that best reflects (for one year, at least) my favorite books of all time. My goal is to eventually produce a solid, unchanging list, and it certainly gets harder every year to narrow it down to the right number, but every year I end up with books that I think are my all-time favorites but end up being easily replaced the next year. Don’t get me wrong–favorite books of the year are important too (check out my faves of 2016), but I’m aiming for something more permanent with this list.
It’s also difficult to avoid accumulating a list of the most influential books in my life when I’m looking at long-term favorites, because there’s also a difference between beloved books and books that have made an impact–not that the two don’t overlap in places, but again, not what I’m aiming for with this list. I don’t currently have a compiled list of most influential books, but that’s something that I’m anticipating compiling this year.
A disclaimer: I love these all too much to sort my list in order of favoritism, so I’ve listed them loosely in order of age range, starting with middle grade books and ending with adult books and classics. With that, here’s my 2017 list of Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time.
- The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia was the first fantasy series I read, way back in 2002 (and a few times since), and it will probably always have a home on this favorites list. This first book (chronologically), has always been my favorite of the seven in this series because it shows a beginning for Narnia as well as a glimpse into so many other worlds that exist in this system. I was outraged that the movie makers skipped this book when they started making Narnia films.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. Last year I had a different J. K. Rowling book on this list, but I think it’s time to admit that nothing will ever truly surpass Harry Potter as a favorite. It’s so obvious, but… it has to be here. I’ve also jumped around through the series trying to decide which of the seven books to list, and this year I’ve landed on the third. Sirius Black is one of my favorite characters, and I love books that play with time, so The Prisoner of Azkaban seemed like an obvious choice.
- The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. This was my first Dessen read, at age 12, and although I’ve had other Dessen favorites, this one has always been at the top of that list. There may be other great YA contemporaries, but Dessen’s characters always feel so imperfectly real and learn lessons about individuality and perfectionism, as in this book, as well as other relatable challenges teens face. It’s an ordinary story, but an extraordinary read. Also, Dessen does this cool thing where old characters take mention in new books; two of the main characters of this one do appear in a later Dessen story, as well as other small honorable mentions.
- Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Here is another fantasy book I read early in my life, and I still reread this one almost every year because it’s so short and sweet and contains a little of all of my favorite story elements in bite-sized doses. It teaches the value of equality and peace, but it’s also a fun read full of powerful and exotic characters with dark pasts.
- Burned by Ellen Hopkins. Ellen Hopkins was an author who showed me as a teen that some teens have had it a whole lot worse than I did–a reminder I needed in my days of teen angst. Her books are brutally real and don’t shy away from pain, tragedy, and betrayal. The world is an unfair place; Hopkins’ books display that facet of life, and they do it in verse. I loved the layout of this book, and the way it was told, but even if this hadn’t been my first Hopkins read it undoubtedly would’ve always been my favorite. When the sequel was released unexpectedly years later, I bought it immediately and loved it almost as much.
- Looking for Alaska by John Green. Not only was this Green’s first book published, but it was also the first of his books that I read. It motivated me to read every other book of Green’s published since then, but none of them have hit me quite the same way. This book is a masterpiece of character and grief, adventure and love, and it’s definitely had a lasting impact on me. This is one of the first books on this list that I would reread if I had to pick from among these 25 favorites.
- The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This book–and its entire 4-book series–were nothing like I expected. I decided to give the first book a try based on its popularity, and ended up reading all four books as quickly as I could fit them into my schedule. I love books that mix reality with the impossible, and this one does that perfectly. Each character is perfectly mined for depth, and their shared goal is unique and as fun as it is frightening. The plot never quite goes where the reader thinks it will, and the quirky writing makes the narration feel like a meandering stream–it will certainly reach its destination, but it will take its own path getting there.
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I put this one off for a while because I didn’t think I knew enough about video games and 80s pop culture to do this one justice. However, after picking it up I decided I knew just enough, and that the plot more than made up for any references that didn’t connect for me. Despite its popularity, I never would’ve guessed that a book about the ultimate video game would be so immersive and addicting.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan. Although much of this story sticks with me, it was the metafictional element that initially struck my interest with this book. It is easy to become swept away in the romance and tragedy of this storyline, but my favorite part is that one of the characters inside the book admits that its a fictional story and explains why–but even her explanation is fictional. This foray into metafiction is an example of an influential read in my life, but the fact that I still remember the plot and would love to experience it all over again nearly ten years later is all the proof I need to see that this one is also a favorite.
- Golden Son by Pierce Brown. It was Brown’s assertion in the acknowledgements at the front of his first book that readers would “bloodydamn love these books” that convinced me to read his Red Rising trilogy. I didn’t have to read far to know he was absolutely right. The characters in this series are some of my most-loved characters of all time because they’re so layered and complex. No one is clearly good or evil, but they’re all involved in a whole lot of action. Despite the crazy cliff-hanger at the end of this one (or maybe because of it) this second book stood out to me as the best of the bunch. These are the betrayals I hate to love but can’t resist.
- The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. I rediscovered thrillers last year, and in so doing, unearthed a new favorite author. I will henceforth be buying every single one of Ruth Ware’s new releases. I had such a difficult time choosing between the two already published for this list, and in the end I chose the one that had the warmer setting–it was that arbitrary a choice between this one and In a Dark, Dark Wood. This one was tense straight from the beginning, and unlike many thrillers, I would definitely read this one again, even before I’ve forgotten the plot twists.
- The Girls by Emma Cline. This is another book that didn’t go quite as I expected. I had thought there would be more of a thriller or at least mystery aspect to this one, but in the end I was glad that the story leaned more toward a testament on what it’s like to be a girl, and how someone can become mixed up in danger without even trying. There’s always more to a person than meets the eye, but with this book I was both compelled and disturbed to realize how much I may have in common with someone who has led such a distinctly different life–at least on the surface. Becoming involved in murder never seemed so easy.
- Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. I love layered stories–characters and plots that seem to have nothing in common suddenly finding an unexpected common thread. This book weaves very distinct characters’ lives into one story as layered as an onion. Also, it takes place around the turn of the 20th century, one of my favorite time settings to read about. New York was a dangerous place then–and full of wonder. I’m not sure whether I was more drawn in by the carnival show, the asylum, the backstreets of the city, or the abandoned baby who brings everything together.
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King. A little horror fiction is a nice change of pace every now and then, but truly my favorite Stephen King elements are often the science fiction ones–like this mammoth novel about a time-traveling English teacher and his attempts to thwart the Kennedy assassination. The protagonist of this one is possibly my favorite Stephen King protagonist ever, though there are certainly some interesting ones to choose from.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I’m not sure I would’ve believed a science fiction thriller could be this good if I hadn’t seen it for myself. On top of the compelling characters, this one poses some great ideas for reconsidering the way the world is perceived, which (much like books that toy with time) is an element I can’t resist. Unpredictable reads are the best, and this one certainly hits that mark. When presented with a forked road, the narration instead takes off into the forest, forging its own path–or perhaps climbs a tree or digs a hole to cirumnavigate the choice altogether. I could never see where this one was going, and I loved every page.
- Lying by Lauren Slater. This one examines the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction, presented as a memoir in which the narrator states outright that she is lying. Unreliable narrators always capture my attention, and the presence of one of those in a form that should ordinarily be as close to truth as possible is a fantastic exploration. The story is as compelling as the concept behind it. This is one school book I’m immensely glad to have been assigned to read.
- Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes. I loved You, the first book in this series. It was like nothing I’ve ever read before, and I never knew which direction it would take next. But this sequel took the whole premise of stalking/murdering protagonist to a whole new place, and left me starved for more. I cannot wait until the next sequel is released, because the cliffhanger at the end of this second book reassures me that a third novel will only take this series to new great heights. It doesn’t seem like there’s much uncharted territory left in fiction, but this sequel definitely found some.
- The Secret History by Donna Tart. The premise of this modern classic almost gives away too much, but the beauty of this story lies instead behind the how and why of murdering a friend rather than the fact that it might happen in the first place. I was drawn in by phrases like “secret society” and “hidden murder,” but it was the characters that held my attention through the ups and downs that led to a cruel murder and its concealment.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. This wasn’t my first Atwood read, nor was it my last, but it certainly stood out as a modern classic in a dystopian world that didn’t feel as foreign as it once might have. The premise of this book is horrifyingly interesting, but it was the fate of the main character that sealed the deal for this book receiving a spot on this list. There’s a little room left for speculation at the end–a favorite move of mine–but I have my own opinion on which way it was meant to go.
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As one of the first classics I read, I was surprised by how much I liked this one for its plot and atmosphere–it was the first classic I read that didn’t feel old or stuffy, and I’m continually reminded of how captivating the characters are each time I come into contact with this story. This book also contains my favorite final sentence of any novel.
- Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. Another mandatory read from school, I was surprised by my enjoyment of this classic, as well. With a bit of an American-dream-gone-wrong feel, this book is a cautionary tale as well as an entertaining one. Many books have a tendency to wrap up the ending so neatly that they feel unreal–and I live for fiction that has the aura of reality; so the ending of this one caught my attention and pulled everything together. Here are characters who don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going, and maybe they’ll never quite get to where they want to be, but that’s what makes them worth reading about.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Unstable minds are almost as appealing for me as warped time or other bends in reality. “Normal” is so close you can almost taste it in this book, but the narrator can’t quite seem to cross the line back into neutral territory. I think it’s worth remembering that trying so hard to succeed can just as easily drive one mad as lead to success. Having goals is one thing–pushing oneself to the point of breaking is quite another.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. As well as an intriguing look at science fiction monsters from the early 1800s, this is a timeless reminder of equality and humanity that every living human should read. Also, for those who’ve been saying it wrong without knowing, as I had mistakenly been, Frankenstein is the scientist, and “Frankenstein’s monster” is the only given name for his undead creation.
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. This was the first classic I ever read, as well as the longest book I had ever read for several years (I think it’s still the third longest). It gives a perspective on the Civil War I hadn’t seen before reading this book, and it was also the first book I read in which I didn’t like the main character much but loved the book regardless. Scarlett O’Hara is selfish and mean, but she’s supposed to be a little unlikable. She’s human. And she’s a survivor. She’s also a bit of a train wreck that it’s impossible to look away from.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Although it took me two tries to finish this one, and in the end Anna was one of my least favorite characters in the book, I still hold this love story close to my heart. Levin is a particularly compelling character, and even the people I didn’t like as much had great lessons in love and life to impart. The Russian setting is vivid and captivating, and demonstrated to me how much I love Russian literature. I haven’t read nearly enough, but it’s such an interesting place. This book motivated me to broaden my literary horizons, but it also took me on an epic journey through romance and character development that kept me entertained through the morals it had to share.
This has been my Top 25 Favorite Books of All Time–2017 edition. It seems a little counter-intuitive for my updated list of favorites to come so early in the year, but when I first started refining this list I thought it would be a one-time thing rather than an annual event. Every year, though, I go back to the previous year’s list and “perfect” it.
What do you do when someone asks about your favorite book? Can you narrow it down to just one? Do your favorites change over the years? Are any of these on your favorites lists?
The Literary Elephant