I knew it would happen eventually when I saw it on a friend’s Facebook page. Now it’s already been a few weeks since a former NMHS colleague invited me to share my ten favorite books, and I’ve been tagged twice more since then. What can I say? I’ve been busy. But the task has been there at the back of my mind and I’ve actually been looking forward to identifying the titles that have meant the most to me over many years of reading.
I spent a bit of time putting my list together. I decided to consider only books I’d read as an adult – the ones I loved as a child will get their own list some other time. I liked how my friend Terry had annotated his books (it made me want to read them), so I did that too. I wrote it all up in a Word document. It was kind of long, so I thought I’d post it on Facebook as a note. I hadn’t posted a note in a long time. Funny thing, when I opened up the note function, I noticed a note I’d added five years ago: my ten favorite books.
Seriously, I have no recollection of posting that list. In 2009 I included childhood reads, but if you take those out, all that remain are books that also made the new list with one exception: Atonement by Ian McEwan. I had just read that one in 2009 (yep, I checked my Goodreads account), and while I still consider it an excellent novel, it doesn’t make the top ten. Just goes to show you need to wait a while before you decide on “best evers”. It also reminds me why I should never get a tattoo.
So never mind about Facebook, that place where I post things and then forget all about them. I’m putting this on my blog where I hope it will stick a little better. These are my books, as of 2014, in no particular order (drum roll, please):
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
I’ve loved cooking from the time I was first allowed to help out in the kitchen. My father presented me with a copy of Julia Child’s book before I went off to college in 1977, and that volume (now wrinkled and stained from years of active service) provided the foundation for many successful dinner parties over the years. One Berkeley summer I even tried cooking my way all the way through it, as Julie Powell later did in the Julie/Julia Project – unlike Julie, I didn’t get to the end, but I learned a lot in the attempt.
Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Why do I like this book so much? I guess it has something to do with my interest in all those pioneer ancestors. I spend a lot of time poring over sketchy wilderness settlement histories, census records, gravestones, and other dry data trying to piece together the stories of my people. This book vividly depicts the joys, hopes, and loves of a pioneer woman and the undying optimism that makes a life of hardship seem like the only reasonable choice.
Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks
There aren’t all that many memoirs written by former weird and lonely kids. This one, by one of my favorite scientist-authors, recounts a childhood that was extraordinary and unique. And having been a weird and lonely kid myself, it resonates. Too bad my parents never bought me that chemistry set I wanted.
The Darling Buds of May (Pop Larkin Chronicles) by H. E. Bates
This is my comfort read, actually a series of short novels which I own as a bound volume. I love the 1950s English countryside setting, and I adore the Larkin family characters. Those familiar with the books might be slightly appalled by this statement, but I look to the Larkins as role models. These people have got their priorities straight. Love, laughter, abundant food and drink, fun, family, friends – essential. Keeping up appearances and paying your taxes – not so much. I want this to be my family. Come to think of it, it’s a lot like my family in some ways.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
This book was recommended to me in college by my physical anthropology professor Vincent Sarich. It’s well argued and entertaining, and for me it explains a lot about human behavior. Just because it’s unsavory and politically incorrect doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.
Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
The first Harry Potter book came out when my sons Nik and Kosta were 9 and 10 years old. At that time I was working in a book store, and one day on my lunch break I read a Publisher’s Weekly article that said the UK was going wild over this new children’s book by a previously unknown author. I checked the shelves and found we had just received two hardcover copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I bought one to read aloud to the boys. The rest, as they say, is history. My family eagerly anticipated the release of each subsequent book, sharing the excitement of the unfolding story together over the next nine years. And now I wish I’d bought both copies.
Let’s Go Europe (1978 edition)
After our first year at Berkeley, my boyfriend and I donned our new hard-framed backpacks and took off for a two month journey through western Europe. Our copy of Let’s Go Europe, purchased at the university book store, was our trusty companion as we navigated the trains, youth hostels, museums, beaches, parks, and budget restaurants of that thrilling summer of ultimate freedom.
Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama
While there are many books that have helped shaped my thinking, I can point to this book as one that directly influenced my behavior. When Barack Obama announced his candidacy in 2007, I didn’t know what to make of him. Hilary Clinton was a known entity but to me Obama was a mystery. After reading his memoir I felt I understood quite literally where he was coming from. As a result I have great admiration for Obama’s perseverance, intelligence, and integrity. I have tremendous faith that he has the best interest of the American people at heart. So I voted for him, both times.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
One book per month, I work my way through a long list of “should have read” titles. I didn’t get to this one until 2011 but it instantly became a favorite. A neatly constructed plot, sympathetic characters clearly drawn, and such a satisfying sense of justice – it is a perfect novel.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I don’t often read a book more than once – there are so many I want to read, and I’ll only get through half the number if I start rereading them. But I liked this one so much the first time, when I read it as a book club choice back in Oregon, that I had to see how it looked to me after moving to Ethiopia. It was absolutely worth it – the story was still engaging, plus I had the added fun of recognizing the scenes, the settings, and even some of the people (true fact: John Melly, a minor character in the book, was a real person who is buried in a little cemetery on the UK embassy grounds).
Every post needs some pictures, so here are some photoshopped images I put together as part of our celebration of International Literacy Day this year. These are some of my colleagues sharing their own favorite books.
I’ll admit my reading runs more to newsfeeds than books these days, but if I had to pick a Top Ten, I’d probably reserve the first five places for “Tale of Two Cities.” How do you feel about Dickens?
If the challenge had been to name eleven books, the last one would have been David Copperfield. It was very hard for me to edit that one out.