I don’t believe in books because I sell them. I sell books because I believe in them. I sell books because I love them and have no qualms about the value I exchange for my customers’ money. But I don’t tell anyone what to read. There is no “You must” or “You have to” in my bookstore or my blog. Instead you’ll simply hear about books I’ve read and enjoyed and reasons why I think others might enjoy them, too. This is one bookseller’s opinion. Take it or leave it.
Most of us have done time in school, with plenty of required reading along the way, and there’s a lot of good in that system. It introduced me in high school to Crime and Punishment, The Scarlet Letter and several Shakespeare plays, to name but a few great works. I would probably never have read Moby-Dick if it hadn’t been required. An undergraduate college course called “History Through Literature” led me to regional classics I could easily have missed otherwise, like Ellen Glasgow’s Barren Ground. Graduate school reading in philosophy did not run to novels, but I fell in love with one philosopher after another (with a few I had more rancorous relationships) when reading their recorded thoughts and arguments. At the time, it was delicious.
Then I opened a bookstore and found, to my surprise, that uncounted numbers of people wanted to assign specific plans of reading to me! The most horribly memorable such customer (most are good-natured; this man was not), delighted to find Sigrid Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter on my shelves, asked me if I had read the trilogy, and when I admitted that I had not he shook an angry, chiding finger under my nose and scolded angrily, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” No, he wasn’t kidding. His scolding, however, somehow failed to surround the work with an aura of irresistibility for me, and although I’m sure it deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first awarded to a woman, my would-be taskmaster informed me hotly), I have yet to overcome my repugnance for the idea of reading this book, though I realize that my feeling is not the fault of the book but only my association with anyone who would “encourage” reading of any book on earth by shaming someone who hadn’t yet read it.
No one on earth has read everything. Even leaving aside “junk” (a lot of which has a valuable place in our reading lives), the best-read men and women have not read all the great books worth reading. Had my customer the Undset fan read all three of Kant’s critiques? Had he read Heidegger’s Being and Time? Had he read the Black Stallion and Island Stallion books and all of Georges Simenon’s Maigret mysteries? Did he have Jane Austen by heart?
We all have different tastes in books, and different books appeal to us at different times in our lives. If pressed, I will say that Joyce’s Ulysses or Morrison’s Beloved, while difficult books, are worth the time and effort it takes to read them, but I will never look down on anyone for not expending time and effort in those directions.
There is no book on this list that I have read for the first time in the last ten years, as re-reading for me is an important part of what makes a book a genuine favorite. The books are not in rank order, nor are they alphebetized. I'll add books as they occur to me, but for now here's a starter list:
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, by Jane Austen
Waiting for the Morning Train, by Bruce Catton
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith
Malabar Farm, by Louis Bromfield
The Last Time I Saw Paris, by Elliot Paul
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
The Trees, by Conrad Richter
Shantyboat, by Harlan Hubbard
The Zen of Seeing, by Frederick Franck
The Borrowers and The Borrowers Afield, by Mary Norton
Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley
The Horrors of Love, by Jean Dutourd
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
Another Country, by James Baldwin
Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame
Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky
The Little Prince, by Antoine de St.-Exupery
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau
The Silver Nutmeg, by Palmer Brown
Time and Free Will, by Henri Bergson
Journey to America, by Alexis de Toqueville
South of Superior, by Ellen Airgood