This is a list I update every year, and every year the first question I have to answer is what I want this list to be. When I started it back in 2008 the answer to that question was closer to “my favorite books from the last year or so,” but over the years, the list has changed. If you’re looking for recent favorites, let me direct you instead to my best books of the year lists for 2017 and 2016.
For this list, I looked back at every book I can remember ever reading, and I compiled my favorites. From there, I narrowed it down to 25 books that were not only enjoyable to read, but somehow influential to me and my reading life. I have more than 25 favorites, of course, but this year, these are the books that I’m feeling the most grateful to have had in my life.
Side note: I’m not going to give 25 synopses. Instead, I’m going to talk a little about why each book is important to me, which will probably include a brief snapshot of what each book is, in a nutshell.
Also, I started trying to order these by favoritism, but I have loved these books for such different reasons and at such different times of my life that I couldn’t find a way to rank them adequately. So I’ve organized them by date read, from earliest to most recent. This list will take you on a tour of some highlights in my reading life.
- The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. This is the first book (chronologically) in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which is the first fantasy series I read. This book introduced me to alternative realities. Ordinary children discover something extraordinary– a doorway to other worlds that most people aren’t aware of, don’t believe in, or maybe can’t even imagine. This book taught me about the power of perspective, and the vast possibilities in storytelling… at the ripe age of 8.
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until I was 10 or 11, after the 5th book had been published. I could say so much about the merits of this series, but I’ll just focus on the reason this one stood out: Hermione’s Time Turner. This is the book that introduced me to the concept that time didn’t have to be a fixed constraint in literature, and that opened doors for me. Books can have their own worlds, their own rules, and as long as they follow their own code, anything is valid.
- The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen’s novels reminded me as a teenager that it’s okay to be whoever you are. This one in particular made me feel better about something that’s always plagued me: perfectionism. I recently reread this book, and even as an adult it made me laugh, it made me feel, it made me appreciate that made-up stories can carry real messages that can help real people.
- Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. When I first read this book, I loved it for it’s romance, the fantasy love story that’s more about friendship and trust and just appreciating another person for being themselves than about all-consuming love. But as the years pass, I still reread and adore this book for that and so much more: it’s emphasis on the importance of peace and acceptance, the characters’ willingness to sacrifice and fight for the greater good that they believe in… It’s a powerful book, all the more inspiring for being written by a teenager.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan. This was the first adult book that I read (other than Stephen King who’ll be making a later appearance) and I remember being afraid that I would find it boring. I didn’t, which opened up new literary avenues for me to explore. Furthermore, what I liked most about this one is that it tells a story that didn’t happen, even within its fictional bounds. It tells a what if, in my first brush with metafiction, which I loved for the same reason as Hermione’s Time Turner.
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. A friend recently told me she excluded this one from her favorites list and discourages people from reading the book because watching the movie provides basically the same experience. I think it’s not the fault of the book if the film makers did a good job, and I also think that the book gives more nuance to the characters. But primarily, this one makes the cut for me because it was the first classic that I read (as a high school freshman), and loving it enabled me to take more literary chances.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’m not one of those people who hated all of their mandatory reading assignments in high school, but I was surprised to appreciate this one as much as I did. This is fiction that acknowledges it’s fictional nature in a fascinating way. It highlights the horrors of war even while outright admitting to the lie in its narration. That blend of a real issue told through creative fiction is something that has fascinated me ever since, and the classroom discussion about this book is one of the few group talks I actually enjoyed in school.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here’s another school assignment book from the same year (high school sophomore) and the same class. This is a book that reminded me 1) that it can be fun to read about children even when I didn’t feel like one anymore (haha), 2) that there are very readable classics out there, and 3) that some books carry transferable messages despite how very different the characters’ lives may be from the reader’s own. This was the book that cemented my interest in those deeper themes and topics behind the main plot; after this book, I rarely wanted to read a book for entertainment alone.
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I read this book for a college project for which I was able to choose my book; I thought it would be too zombie-like and I would need that extra push. It turned out to be much more about morality. The commentary about correcting/accepting the choices one has made, especially choices that affect other people, is a widely applicable narrative. Feeling pity for Frankenstein’s monster changed the way that I live and read, making me more aware of other peoples’ perspectives and motives outside of my own experiences.
- A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I generally think that I don’t like politics, but I think my problem is that in the real world I feel too insignificant in that realm. A Game of Thrones helped me see that even at the level of power that operates on words and laws, it all boils down to individual motivations. What I love most about this series is that the reader can choose sides, and all sides are valid– Martin doesn’t use any stock characters, they’re all unique, morally gray, and undeniably human.
- Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I read and enjoyed quite a few mandatory books for various college classes, but this one has stuck with me the longest. It affected the way I think about money– how important it is, what’s worth doing to keep it, how it can drastically change a life if one has too much or not enough. It’s scary how much money can alter a person and their choices, and I want to be self-aware enough not to take anything I have for granted, no matter what changes I encounter in my life.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This is a fictional novel that reflects a bit of the author’s real struggle with mental illness. It is the book that made me aware of how powerful a story can be, when it comes from an author who has experience in that area (“Own voices” was not a familiar term back in 2013). By this point I had read surprisingly few books about real issues that I could apply directly to my own life, but I found a sort of kinship in this narrator that made me feel less ashamed about being occasionally depressed or morbid or just generally feeling outside of humanity. I think I just have a normal level of weird thoughts, but this is the book that sparked my interest in reading about psychological elements.
- The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. If I had known this was nonfiction when I picked it up, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Fiction is my art form of choice. But this one covers several topics that intrigue me: the turn of the 20th century, architecture, invention, and true crime, and once it grabbed my attention it reminded me that it’s important to step outside of my reading comfort zone now and then, to take the time to give new things a chance. It also piqued my interest for learning about lesser-known moments in history.
- You by Caroline Kepnes. Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to find really unique stories anymore with all the books that are already out there. But then I find someone like Caroline Kepnes. Her books are weird, yes, and I don’t love everything about them, but I will say that I never know where they’re going next and I’ve never read anything like them. If you want to talk about most-anticipated sequels, I have been dying for the third book in this series for over a year and there’s still no word on when it will be released. Some cliff-hangers are truly cruel.
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I thought that knowing the ending of the story would make the journey less interesting, but that was before I read this one. I used to get so anxious about book endings that I would let myself read the last page before I got there, but I haven’t allowed myself to do that in years. I’ve really turned against any sort of spoilers. But this is the sort of narrative that emphasizes the importance of the journey, and while it does that it also examines the psyche of a killer, who seems shockingly sympathetic.
- Golden Son by Pierce Brown. You may have noticed we’ve gone past the books that inspired the most personal growth and change in me now. By the time I read Golden Son I was more actively on the hunt for surprising books because my personality was pretty set by this point and I had read so many books that I was occasionally falling into ruts where everything seemed repetitive. There is nothing repetitive about Golden Son. I wouldn’t say generally that I’m a big sci-fi or dystopian reader, but I will read anything Pierce Brown writes at this point. Books like this remind me never to discount an entire genre– the right author can make anything worth reading.
- Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. This is the book that cemented my interest in adaptations. I’ve always been drawn to book-to-film adaptations, but more recently I’ve been interested in retellings, in old stories told in a new way. I didn’t particularly like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but this book redeemed the original for me in a big way. It’s fascinating to see which elements carry over in adaptations, which parts from the original seem the most important to another artist. It’s a whole other way to have a conversation about art.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I’m back to talking about stepping outside of my genre comfort zone. I didn’t think I was particularly interest in sci-fi, so I was a bit skeptical picking up this sci-fi thriller. And it constantly surprised me. I have never met such a twisted book, and with this one, the subject matter is real enough that it also inspired an interest to learn more about the topic.
- The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s been surprisingly little YA literature on this list, and the reason for that, sadly, is that YA just doesn’t surprise and impress me much anymore. But this one is an exception. It covers tough topics (rape, abuse, alcohol) in realistic, unromanticized ways. There are some admirably strong friendships in this book, a fast and intriguing plot, and so many important messages about strong women, fighting for justice, and the importance of teen voices. I wish this one had been around when I was younger.
- Persuasion by Jane Austen. I do love a good classic. I have not yet read all of Austen’s novels, but this is my favorite so far from her list. I appreciate the message of making one’s own choices. There’s nothing wrong with taking input, but in the end you are the one who has to live with your decisions, and they should at least be your own.
- A Million Junes by Emily Henry. As with The Female of the Species, it came as a relief to discover that there are still YA books that I can appreciate. This one also deals with real topics (grief, disillusionment of one’s parents, loyalty) in unique and helpful ways. It’s also one of the only magical realism books that I’ve enjoyed, which again goes to show that even one’s least favorite genres contain some gems, when they’re approached by the right authors. This is a book that reminds me not to believe everything I hear– but that even the most outrageous stories can contain a kernel of truth.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I have many favorites from King’s oeuvre, but the absolute top of that list is this nonfiction volume, which reveals a bit of King’s own life and is also highly encouraging for wannabe authors. I think there are some valuable lessons in here for anyone who wants to create, but as an aspiring writer this book felt particularly tailored to my life. King is an absolute inspiration, not just as a writer but as a person who achieved his dream because he just kept chasing, even when it would’ve been so much easier to give up.
- Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Have you noticed that almost all fantasy stories are in some way advocating equality? There’s just something uniquely compelling about seeing that fight in imaginary worlds, with imaginary species and castes, even though the basic lesson is one we can (read: should) apply to our own world. I have a feeling book 2 is going to usurp this one for me, but in the meantime I love these characters and their unique backgrounds, and I love that they’re trying to do what we’re all trying to do: level the playing field without getting lost along the way.
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker. There is a quickly growing number of great books about racism (and misogyny) out in the world now, but this is the one that has most impressed me. It’s full of shocking grit and resilient spirit, and it felt encouraging to me on so many levels. It acknowledges where society has gone wrong (albeit southern US 1930’s society rather than modern days), but instead of lecturing from there it empowers.
- The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but this is the kind I like to read: a whimsical, yet heartrending story that also encourages readers to reach for their dreams, no matter what their background. This is such a unique story, but it’s one that’s also widely applicable. I like real stories that are shocking but also uplifting. I want to be enabled. And as much as I like picking out the little nuggets of truth and wisdom from fiction, sometimes a higher dose is necessary.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and I’m impressed by your list-reading stamina. (Skimming is all right too, that’s why I made the titles bold.) Every year this list fluctuates because I’m not always looking for the same things from my reading life. Nevertheless, a few titles have been steady in my favorites list for several years now, and someday I might actually know what to say when people ask what my favorite book is. 🙂
What are your favorite books? Which of these books have you read?
The Literary Elephant