Last month I mentioned on Facebook that I’d feel satisfied with my life if, in the future, there’s a library named after me. This prompted someone to ask what books would be the first on the shelves, which would be the books I’d recommend reading most.
I’ve been thinking about it: what would the core of that collection be? Not my own desert island books, necessarily, but the ones I think that all other people would enjoy the most and derive the most value from.
I decided to pick the twelve categories most important to me, and pick one for each. They are all absolutely wonderful, and I think they would meet that criteria above: they are important, accessible, and worthwhile. Here they are. in alphabetical order by category:
Children’s: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
A masterful allegory that delights and inspires. Fun, short, cute, and genuinely powerful.
History: Heroes of History, Will Durant
Durant’s choices for figures to honor is amazing enough, but the way he tells their life stories is one of a kind in its sheer beauty and power. An amazing classic.
Humor: Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
There are so many funny books I’d want people to read, but the Jeeves and Wooster stories have a special place, and everyone should try them. There’s just nothing else out there like these. Truly, a singular joy. Really, anything by Wodehouse would be good here.
Literature (classic): Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
And there are so many more classics than humorous titles I’d love to share! But this one has to take the cake. From the profoundly brooding tone, which no one else has touched in terms of sheer stark glory, to the generational saga of ruin and redemption, to the narrative ingenuity of it all (at one point, there’s a story within a story within a story, all told in distinct and vividly arresting voices), Wuthering Heights has the best of it all.
I don’t care it if supposedly inspires Twilight. It’s still awesome, and I still love it.
Literature (contemporary): Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
I don’t think any work of the last generation has impressed me or touched me as truly as this one did. It can only be recommended in breathless tropes: a soaring, searing paen to the human spirit, majestic in its earthy, folk tradition.
Mystery: An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
A long, detailed historical murder mystery that deftly weaves fact and fiction. So mysterious that for much of the time, you don’t even know it’s a mystery, until the threads all start coming together. One of those very long books that you’ll wish was ten times longer.
Politics: The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet
Mamet’s explication of his political conversion and the subsequent re-evaluation of the various values underpinning our current ideologies is perfect. Nobody has explained it all better.
Religion (LDS): The Book of Mormon
Nothing better shares the vitality and depth of this faith than its foundational text itself. Often plain and prosaic on the surface, it nonetheless offers a unique epic narrative, with revolutionary (and surprisingly humanistic) theology. Its constant, frankly moving calls to charitable reformation are couched in rhetoric that frequently evolves its approach, and thus repeatedly registers deep in the universal psyche. A journey not to be missed, or taken casually.
Religion (non-LDS): Essential Writings, Thich Nhat Hanh
Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and one of the most wonderful personalities I’ve ever met on paper. I’ve read plenty of metaphysical shysters, but this man knows it and means it. His words are soothing and moving in the best and most lovely of ways. A treat for the soul–pure joy.
Science Fiction/Fantasy: Dune, Frank Herbert
Yes, everyone knows of this one, but I think fewer have actually read it than should. Its achievement is so different from what we’re already used to just two generations later: a sweeping, immersive creation that never panders to stale conventions. Indeed, there are no robots or explicit space travel in its hundreds of pages of gorgeously sprawling sci-fi spectacle. Everybody really should read this.
Self-Improvement: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
I still read a lot of this genre–I’ve found a lot to like in Laura Vanderkam and Gretchen Rubin in recent years–but just as every action movie in the last quarter century or so seems to be a copy of Die Hard, every self-help manual is derivative of The 7 Habits. It might be too this or too that, but it does have the virtue of working. You want to actually live without regrets and do that whole bucket list? Start here.
Travel: Charles Kurault’s America, Charles Kurault
A homely work by a calm old man, this is still the best thing I’ve read about the people and places all around our amazing land. Kurault has a gift for taking you with him and making you experience all five senses’ worth of the trip. I’d love to follow his footsteps on this one someday.