Almost three years ago, one of those chain letters was going around Facebook. Now, normally I don’t copy and repost those “what was your first cat’s name” questionaires, but I did complete this one because I thought it was a fun and interesting way to share books that have impacted my life. The challenge was to list 15 books that will always stick with you and have made a difference in your life. The other twist was to create the list without thinking about it for too hard or too long, but just to list the books that come to your head immediately. I reread my list recently, and found that for the most part, it’s stayed the same. I decided to substitute a book I read in the past five years for a childhood favorite that I had on my original list, but I thought I’d keep the rest as they have great staying power. Here are my 15; what are yours?
1. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
I first read this dystopian novel in high school; I’ve been a fan of both the genre and Canadian author Margaret Atwood ever since. Offred is a Handmaid living in Gilead, a futuristic society in what remains of Canada. For unexplained reasons, the population is declining, and only a few women–called handmaids–are able to reproduce. Offred is one such handmaid, and she invites us into her mind and her world as a woman held captive by the government and assigned to powerful men to produce offspring. It’s a chilling yet beautiful story, and ranks as one of my favorite books of all time.
2. Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Another great book from another great Canadian author, Anne of Green Gables is the timeless and wistful story of a little red-haired orphan who is mistakenly adopted by the elderly Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who had intended to adopt a boy, but take Anne in when the orphanage sends her instead. Anne’s imagination and love of life make for an infectious and endearing book that I enjoy just as much now as I did when I was a child. And yes, that’s my very worn twenty year-old paperback copy!
3. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
A stunning debut novel from Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things has some of the most lyrical and creative prose I’ve ever enjoyed. It’s the story of two fraternal twins, Rahel and Estha, who live in India with their mother and grandparents. All too quickly they learn of tragedy, loss of innocence, and the power dynamics at play in the caste system. It’s intricately crafted, beautifully told, and altogether unforgettable.
4. Small Island, by Andrea Levy
I love stories where the characters’ lives intertwine and crash into one another; they show how interdependent we are as human beings and how our actions and decisions affect others more than we realize. Small Island tells the story of four people: two Jamaican, two English. All four fall under the scope of the British Empire during WWII, and when the two from Jamaica move to England, their four lives are changed forever. Levy has great narrative talent, and I’ve read three of her books; this is her best.
5. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Before Stephenie Meyer penned stories of swoon-worthy vampires, the Brontë sisters cooked up the ultimate dark and moody romantic heroes in the pages of their novels–and they did it with style, class, and talent. I first read this passionate and wild classic as a young adult, and I’ve read it several times since then. In this breathtaking Gothic novel, Brontë’s impulsive heroine, Cathy, and her brooding hero, Heathcliff, carry out one of literature’s most haunting and tortured romances.
6. 1984, by George Orwell
Orwell’s classic is the final and most ominous look at a futuristic totalitarian government. I read it in high school before it was assigned and quickly found myself sucked into the world of Big Brother. Striking and terrifying, it’s one that no one who reads it can soon forget.
7. Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott
Traveling Mercies is a candid and never-preachy memoir of faith. Anne Lamott tells the story of her life that involved drugs, eating disorders, and unplanned pregnancies until her meeting with Jesus that helped pull her out of a downward spiral. This is by no means a typical story of religious awakening and conversion; it’s raw, blunt, witty and insightful. It has helped shaped who I am as a spiritual and thoughtful being.
8. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle
I taught preschool for a year, so there was a time when I could read this book without looking at the words. Reading this children’s classic to my students who asked to have it read over and over is a memory I will always treasure. If you have never had the pleasure of reading this book to a child, do yourself a favor and read it. You may find you’ll love reading it just as much as they enjoy listening to it: “…but he was still hungry…”
9. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides
I think my copy of this book has fallen into the abyss of Lent-Out Books. But if someone is out there enjoying this gorgeous saga, it’s worth the personal loss. This sweeping epic novel tells the story of three generations of the Stephanides family and their journey from Greece to Michigan. Calliope Stephanides is our narrator through the journey of a family’s travels and family secrets in a novel that’s hard to put down.
10. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
This is the only book I’ve ever read where I read Cliffs Notes. Don’t worry, I read the whole book, not just the condensed version; I just needed the help to understand what was going on in this brilliant novel. Faulkner’s masterpiece was a challenge for me as I tried to navigate the change in narrators and stream-of-consciousness writing. It was one of the most challenging books I ever read, but when I got it, it sunk in and never left. Its imagery and narration is hard to forget, as is its villain, one of the most deplorable in American literature.
11. Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis
This book was assigned reading in a world history class my freshman year of college. I read it in just a couple of days because it was so entrancing. C.S. Lewis retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche in a gripping tale that stuck with me long after I finished reading.
12. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo
This book replaced #12 in my original list from a couple of years ago. Its profound truth touched the core of who I am and inspired my life outlook. It’s a simple story of a Spanish shepherd who travels to Egypt in search of a great treasure. His journey is a life metaphor that holds nuggets of wisdom encased in a well-told and profound story.
13. Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman
This was one of my favorite historical fiction books as a young adult. It gives the reader an in-your-face view of the Middle Ages from the perspective of Catherine, a fourteen year-old lord’s daughter whose father is searching for a suitable husband for his daughter. Our headstrong and adventurous heroine will have none of this business, and she makes every attempt to scare off every suitor her father brings. It’s a detailed account told through Catherine’s diary, one that takes us through Catherine’s trials and tribulations and delivers a painless history lesson.
14. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
George Orwell made it on this list twice, my only repeat author. It’s a classic work that has been anthologized yet rarely fully appreciated by its teenage audience. I had a great English teacher in high school who taught the allegorical novella along with a full-fledged history on the Russian Revolution. Orwell’s satire relates history through a tale of farm animals who overthrow their masters in a humorous yet sobering way. This book contains one of the most shocking last lines I’ve ever read.
15. The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Golding’s shocking story of young boys stranded on an island digs into the core of human nature and the extremes of human goodness and evil. It’s an English teacher’s dream, filled with metaphors and symbols that explore the roots of civilization and society, with all their potential and downfalls. It’s a thought-provoking and terrifying look at humanity, a book that’s so haunting in its brutality and imagery, its message has never left me.