My Top 10 Books of All Time, and Why You Need to Read Them
In my first article for Her Culture, I thought it would be fitting to write about books that have changed my life and shaped my world views in one way or another. My mom was a journalism major, so I guess I could say I got my love of reading from her. She used to read to me every night as a kid and imparted the importance of good literature to me. As a sociology major currently, these were very formative books in my adolescence that not only challenged certain misconceptions about the world, but allowed me to think in a more macroscopic way by reading different perspectives and experiences as well. I put my favorite quote from each book, if it had one, underneath each title—hopefully those will be enough to give you the general gist of each book. These aren’t listed in any particular order, but they are all relatively equally important to me, and it was incredibly hard to narrow it down (stay tuned for honorable mentions at the end):
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
When I think of this book, I have so many fond and nostalgic memories of adolescence. Even though it was not too long ago, I think this book was really my turning point to begin truly questioning the social facts that govern our society. Although the novel is relatively short, the story holds a much-needed allegory for some of the major plights of Western society: elitism, greed, class, consumerism, etc. I would call this book a buffet of sorts; I say this to mean you can take a plethora of different meanings from Fitzgerald’s relatively straightforward tale. Moreover, I recently learned that Fitzgerald was an Irish immigrant, so the concept of Gatsby’s relentless pursuit to be from East Egg is similar to his own trials and tribulations of fitting into American society—and invariably, not being able to in the end. I really love the imagery and the language in this book as well; essentially, Fitzgerald paints an exquisite portrait of the problem of the consumerist God we worship in America. My favorite imagery in the book is probably the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelburg; that’s one of my favorite images ever in literature, actually.
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
“Fear no more the heat of the sun”
This book reminds me of the conversations I’d have with my best friend in high school every day after AP Literature. We’d get coffee and drive around and talk about the various existential topics the book discusses. The book takes place over the course of 24 hours, it essentially covers a middle-aged woman’s retrospective meditation of her life and past decisions as she prepares to throw a party. Although it seems like a simple plot, it delves into ideas about purpose, free will, and even the profound effect strangers can have on your life. I loved the interpolation of other people’s narratives into the story as well; it made the story richer than just Mrs. Dalloway’s narration. Furthermore, I like the stream of consciousness style that you don’t see in many critically acclaimed works, but it makes it feel all the more intimate. Not only do you feel for Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus, and others, but the power of this style of writing makes it seem like you are in that character’s predicament. It reminds me not only of the fragility of life itself, but of the gravity of what you would consider menial everyday interactions can have—the butterfly effect.
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
“If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
My mother is specifically to thank for reading this book. She suggested it to me the summer before senior year, and since summer had always been my prime reading time in high school, I read it. Toni Morrison is one of the best writers of the century, without a doubt, and this book is all the proof you need to believe this claim. She created an intricate masterpiece, intertwining various double-entendres—especially with the names of characters, time periods, storylines, and more. Her language is vivid, and every word is meaningful; she has no fillers. Every aspect of the story adds to the jigsaw puzzle that is solved at the end of the book. I’d hate to give any of the plot away, but one of the characters is named Guitar because he’s instrumental to the development of the protagonist, but that’s just one example of her mastery. It explores race, ancestry, colorism, and the power of self as well. This is one of my top favorites of all time, and if I were to order them, this one would without a doubt be close to the top.
Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keys
“I don’t know what’s worse: to not know what you are and be happy, or to become what you’ve always wanted to be, and feel alone.”
When I first read this book, I was relatively young, but it still had a profound impact. I think it challenged me to think about the power of sentience and that it’s one of the many things we take for granted. It reminds me a bit of some themes in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (an honorable mention), but in my opinion, it’s less cliché in a way. Although it’s technically supposed to be a young adult novel, I would say it has a lot of adult themes, so it was a good stepping stone into adult tragedy. Charly’s connection to Algernon is one of the most poignant relationships in literature, and I do feel like this book gets overlooked frequently when we discuss the greats. On another note, it also caused me to evaluate the power of interactions and relationships with others, as humans are innately relational; this book does a fantastic job of capturing that aspect of life.
Jazzy Miz Mozetta – Brenda C. Roberts
“Okay, young cats, let the beat hit your feet.”
This is the only children’s book in my top 10, but for a good reason. This is another book my mother introduced, but way earlier than the others she suggested, as she would read it to me at night. She’d read it probably 3-5 times a week because this was one of my favorite ones. When I see this book, I have so many fond memories of my mother tucking me in with my matching pajamas and warm milk at night. To this day, I appreciate this book as one of the most incredible children’s books of all time. Roberts’ incredible vision of music, color, and sound made me proud to be black at such a young age, in a world that doesn’t want you to feel comfortable in your own skin. Moreover, you don’t see many children’s books with black protagonists, and this was such a fantastic representation. Especially because I also love music, she did such a good job of creating that through the illustrations. It emphasizes community, music, and living life to the fullest.
Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt
“Don't be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don't have to live forever, you just have to live.”
Tuck Everlasting was one of the first books that really caused me to examine mortality in a secular sense. I went to church school once a week as a kid, and that was the only space where we discussed life and death in that way, so this was an important introduction to the concept of death altogether, in a sense. We’ve all heard about the fountain of youth at one point or another in our lives, and this novel explores that idea essentially. I also really like the tension between immortality and a normal life, somewhat reminiscent of the Greek myth of Eurydice when Orpheus goes back to the Underworld to retrieve her. This is another book connected to my mother actually, who read it at the same time as me so I would have someone to discuss my reading with and bounce off my ideas. I think this is part of the reason this book resonated so deeply with me; I had an adult to converse complex topics of mortality with.
The Virgin Suicides
“It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”
The above quote is relatively long compared to the rest, but it’s one of my favorite passages in literature. I love the effervescent, ethereal nature of this book. I almost feel nostalgic reading it, although I didn’t grow up in the 70s, but there’s somewhat of a vintage quality to it. These aspects are kind of similar to Lois Lowry’s book A Summer to Die. If you can get past the gruesome, macabre aspect of the actual storyline—young girls committing suicide—you can bask in Eugenides’ masterpiece. His syntax is honestly unmatched, as well as his symbolism. In my opinion, this is a much better version of the popular young adult novel 13 Reasons Why, as it goes into detail about what led to the suicides and you get a look inside the minds of the girls, but from an outsider perspective (as young boys are the narrators of the novel, along with an occasional third person narrator). As a male, Eugenides encapsulates not only youth but the experience of adolescence as a girl as well. The writing is just beautiful, and that’s all I can say about it. The interesting part is that although I guess this would be categorized as a tragedy and certainly has a melancholy tinge to it, you don’t finish the book feeling sad necessarily. I was unsettled, but I still wouldn’t consider it a tragedy per se. Eugenides’ genre-defying classic is one that needs to be acknowledged as the phenomenal work that it is. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve read a book like this one, in the best way possible.
Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.”
The way this book was introduced to me was as a book “about World War II and aliens,” and that is basically the most accurate summary I’ve ever read. It’s hard to say exactly what the premise of this book is because it really is about a wide array of topics, but it’s all connected, and it makes sense when you read it. It had a huge impact on me because I’ve never read a book as non-traditional as this one. I appreciate Vonnegut because he doesn’t subscribe to anyone’s rules—another genre-bender, one could say. It would be diminishing to this work to say that it’s about existentialism, but it is in a sense. The Tralfamadorians (the aliens in the novel), teach Billy how to look at his life macroscopically, and also about the deceptive nature of time. In Vonnegut’s words, “so it goes.”
Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
“Beauty lay not in the thing, but in what the thing symbolized.”
I can’t lie, I wasn’t the biggest fan of this book when I started it because I wasn’t sure where it was going. It has a Pride and Prejudice nature to it at the beginning before you delve into the plot that makes it seem sort of outdated, and although it is a timepiece technically, the actual message of the novel is timeless. There’s a lot more than meets the surface in this novel, and the imagery is also incredible. Hardy’s message is essentially about “crass casualty and dicing time” which is basically the notion that random things happen to us at random times and there’s nothing we can do about it. This also counters the notion of free will which is an interesting stance especially for the time this book was written. In fact, when this book was first published it was banned because of the depiction of rape and of secularism as well. At the time it was written (The Scarlet Letter era), the woman was the party at fault if she was raped, so it was met with generally negative feedback at first. Once I finished the book, I was a huge fan just because Hardy went against all norms to write such a tale. I specifically like the idea that Tess essentially saves herself in every scenario in the novel; Hardy knew even in 1891 that she didn’t need a man to save her.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
“Each morning, before Jackie started her studies, she wrote on a clean piece of paper: Tarde venientibus ossa. To the latecomers are left the bones.”
This book needs to be regarded as one of the best ones of our generation, as well as Junot Díaz as an author. Not only is this book timely, but it is also timeless. I really liked the integration of the actual history of the Dominican Republic into the novel, and also the acknowledgment of the intersection of race, language, history, and culture as the book is written in Spanglish. We don’t read many books in school or any books that garner any major media attention about Afro-Latino comic book nerds and their histories, so it’s important for a number of reasons. Díaz takes us on a long, vibrant journey through many genres, full of culture, and unrefined.
These are my top 10 books, at least as of right now, as the more books I read, the more the list changes. However, many of these will always remain at the top as classics to me. These are all must-reads not just because of how significant they were to me, but because of their respective contributions to literature. Outside of the fact that a few of them aren’t even categorizable into a genre, these books were truly eye-opening and formative for me. If you like to conceptualize the world and read about various topics from free will to mortality, I would highly consider reading at least a few of these, if not all.
Separately, I would like to think of this list as an ode to my childhood, and even more to my mother. She gave me this passion and this insatiable love of literature, so I truly thank her for taking the time to read to me, with me, and even for her suggestions. I can’t thank her enough.