If you follow me at all at this blog, you’ll know that I’m a major fan of using lists as way to guide, and inform, my reading habits. Since I was a kid who loved to read (everything and anything), I knew that as I got older, I wanted to be one thing: well read. I knew that this meant reading “the classics,” but also all the books considered “great,” and “famous,” and “influential.” I wanted to be plugged into this world, fill myself with these thoughts, and live what I imagined to be a richer life informed by talented writers and wonderful books.
To do this, I turned to lists. It’s a natural choice. Wondering what books to read in your quest to be “well read”? Well, let’s find a list titled “Books to Read if You Want to be Well-Read”, and start there. In the beginning, I started by writing/typing-out these lists in Word documents and saving them to my computer. Later, I began saving them here, at Paperback Fool. But beginning in high school, I began making a conscious effort to read “great” books outside of the classroom in order to educate myself, and expose myself to as many great books as possible. Being an English major in college helped, though I will admit that my syllabi were less classics-based than you might think.
Through it all, I relied very much on the lists I found in magazines, books, and on the Internet, all guides on the path to enlightenment and smarter reading. If you’ve browsed the “Reading Lists” section of this blog before, you’ll know that I frequently update these lists with new books I’ve read. I also keep track of this information in my Reading Stats spreadsheet.
I won’t lie: it’s a little bit of a challenge and game to me. I like to see how many, out of how many, books I’ve read on a certain list, and how many I still need to read in order to “finish it.” Many lists, I understand, I may never finish. I may eventually read all of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, but will I ever finish Time’s 100 Greatest Nonfiction Books? Probably not. Because game or not, I also understand that these lists are meant to serve as a guide more than anything else. And, I know that there are hundreds of excellent books still out there not on lists (yet), books that are just itching to be discovered. That’s why I look for quirky lists with unexpected, yet quality, recommendations, like 65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20’s.
Which brings me to today: My Big Accomplishment. You see, one of the very first reading lists I ever found, wrote down, and then began following was a little list called 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25. I can’t remember which year it was, but it was more than 10 years ago at this point, because I was still a teenager (probably 16-17 years old), and it was in Seventeen magazine. The magazine’s editors had put together this list alongside then-First Lady Laura Bush – the only Bush I ever liked, largely because she was a librarian. This may have been the list that started it all, and oh, what a list.
The reason I fell in love with this list then, and why I still believe in it now, is because of the sheer quality of books that comprise it. These are, truly, great books, people. And despite the fact that this list was originally published in a teen magazine, this is not your typical “YA”, easy-reading fare. These are impressive, heavy, difficult, yet ultimately, amazing books. These are books that are meant to scare you, challenge you, and force you to think about the world in a dozen different ways. These are books that are meant to introduce you to some of the world’s greatest stories and storytellers, from Edith Wharton, to Daphne Du Maurier, to Leo Tolstoy. There are award-winners, novels, and presidential biographies. Many of these books have become some of my favorite books of all time.
Why am I writing all this, then? On January 18, 2015, I turned the last page in Fyoder Dostoyoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov – the very last book I had to read on the 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25 list. I am now 28 years old, so I’ve missed the quarter-life milestone.
And yet…and yet. I can’t help but feel a great sense of pride upon finishing this list, so much so that now, hours later, I’m still buzzing. (Is that weird? I think it might be.) I’m proud because I finished the list, which is a big deal to a gal who finds great satisfaction in checking major milestones off the life list. But I’m also proud, and overwhelmingly content, because of the books I read. Looking back, these truly were some of the greatest books I’ve read in the past 10 years, and I know I wouldn’t have discovered many of them if not for this list.
I haven’t wrote my review of The Brothers Karamazov yet (oh man, that was a doozy), but I thought it might be appropriate in this case to look back over those 25 books, and remember the places I’ve been:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- This was the easiest to check off the list, as I read it (like many young people) early in my high school career. I feel I need to read it over again, now that 9th grade English is so very far behind me, but I think the inclusion of this book, while a bit cliché, is entirely appropriate.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
- Wow, Atonement. I remember reading this book and feeling so emotionally wasted at the end of it, it was that powerful. This book also introduced me to Ian McEwan, who is an utterly wonderful British author. I should probably re-read this book as well, as it’s been awhile since I first read it. But first, I’ll need to prepare my heart – oh, the feels!
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
- This was the first “non-classic” that I a) had never heard of before hearing about it here, and b) purposely went out and sought specifically for this list. I’m not sure if it ever “caught on” among the reading public, but I do remember how the story introduced me to a very new culture, and how it was probably the most “original,” unorthodox reading choice I had ever made up to that point. The first of many.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
- I will admit that I liked The Age of Innocence better, because what I do remember from Ethan Frome is that not much happened. That’s probably not the best sign, so I think this one needs to be part of my Re-Visiting the Classics Project. Still, it is her most famous work, and I was introduced to it very early.
Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote
- This is where this reading list started to change my life. At some point in high school, I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was never a fan. In Cold Blood was to come much later on, so during the early years of high school, I wasn’t sure if I liked Truman Capote. Then, this list got me to pick up Music for Chameleons which is, truly, one of my favorite books of all time. Truman Capote shines in this collection of stories, and I love to devour each one.
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
- OK, this book I can say that I didn’t like – that I remember very distinctly. I’m not sure what it was about, but I know this: I didn’t like it. Moving on.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Well, this one surely goes without explanation. I mean, did I need a reason to re-read this – one of my most favoritest books of all time – for the 10,000th time?
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
- This was a new-ish book when this list was published, and probably one of the more “commercial” picks, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it was. So much so that I still look fondly at Ms. Kidd when I see her in bookstores.
Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
- Everyone should read Flannery O’Connor – everyone. She is truly a master, and one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Her stories are part of the American mythos, and deserve to be more. I read another collection of her stories for an English class, but this list encouraged me to pick up the Complete collection, and I’m so glad it did.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
- This was a book that I couldn’t stop reading … until the very end, when I got a bit confused and frustrated. And yet, it was still a great read for many, many reasons, unsatisfying ending notwithstanding.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
- OK, I’m making a point today to say: I need to read more Graham Greene. I really do, because, you guys, this guy is great. This was my first exposure to Mr. Greene, and given that I’ve never been assigned to read him for a class, it’s been my only one. This book was excellent, and I’m thankful for reading it, if only to inspire me to read more.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
- This was a relatively recent read, and I loved it. I didn’t think that I would enjoy a fictionalized account of the Roman Empire, but man did I ever. A complete surprise of a book that I’ve since “heard of,” but I’m not sure I would have actually picked it up had it not been part of this list.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- This is another shoe-in for “favorite book of all time”, and I’ve read this baby about 10,000 times as well. In fact, I kind of want to read it again. And watch the movie. Oh, Mr. Rochester…
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
- Again, another book that I might not have picked up had it not been on this list. This one has since made it onto many high school reading lists since I read it, and with good reason. This is a story that had a profound impact on me when I first picked it up, and has stayed with me for a very, very long time.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
- Because everyone needs an excuse to read about le petit prince.
My Antonia by Willa Cather
- This was a book I tried to read many, many years ago … had a hard time with it … thought I didn’t like it … gave it up (the first time I ever did that) … and then, just last year, I picked it up again and just loved it. OK, so maybe it’s not my favorite book on the list, but it’s still great, and Willa Cather is a seriously impressive woman that everyone needs to read.
Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough
- This was a new kind of book for me, and I’m oh-so-glad this list convinced me to try it out. This was my first presidential biography, and never did I have so much fun learning about Teddy Roosevelt. I need to read more David McCullough.
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
- This book … I can’t even tell you. I didn’t expect to love this book, but what I really wasn’t expecting was for this book to completely, and utterly, punch me in the gut and leave me breathless. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but this book touched me in a way I can’t even explain. A simply amazing, deep, profound story.
Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi
- This should be on everyone’s Required Reading Lists for Life. This book taught me about Iran, culture in the Middle East, Islam, as well as the sheer power of literature. This is a great true story, and it’s one that I love to read.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
- This book always stumped me because it always made those “great books” lists, and yet, it looked like a romance novel. Well, I just loved it, and it’s one of the only times I’ve admitted to being engrossed in a novel. High-quality escapism at its finest.
Ship of Fools by Katherine Ann Porter
- I admit that I don’t remember much from this book – it’s been a very long time since I read it; it may have been one of the first books I tackled from this list. It is an award-winner, however, and following the winner of the various literary prizes has since become a major guiding force in my reading life.
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
- I had high expectations of this book, and while it was very good, it wasn’t as great as I was hoping it might be. Still, exploring Indian mysticism from what is truly a classic of modern literature was a great experience, and was definitely worth the effort.
Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
- OK, if you know anything about Sophie’s Choice, you’ll understand when I say: wow. When I first read this book – because of this list, by the way – I knew nothing about it, nor William Styron. Nothing. You can imagine the sheer devastation that this book wrought on me, and how a part of me changed forever after reading it.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Would I have read Tolstoy’s masterpiece if not for this list? Probably. Would I have felt so motivated to do so sooner rather than later? Probably not. I attribute reading War and Peace with the creation of my Big Books Project; after finishing this behemoth, I felt thoroughly inspired to tackle more BIG books in the future, knowing that despite the time they take and the work they require, they’re awesomely worth it. Now, on an editorial note, I will criticize the list to say that Anna Karenina would have been a better pick, especially since this list is geared toward young women. And, I liked Anna Karenina better. But if you want to encourage young people to tackle a lifer novel, well, do whatever you can.
And finally… The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoyoevsky, which you’ll hear all about later. As you can see, this list meant a lot to me, and I’m super excited to have finished it. I feel like I just overcame a huge life milestone – like graduating college, or landing a dream job.
Still, it’s a little sad as well. This list was always one of the more manageable of my reading lists, which meant that finishing was always a viable goal. Having that goal within reach was exciting, and gave me something to look forward to. Now, I’m done, and I’m going to have to turn elsewhere for that driving motivation. Oh sure, I’ve got plenty of lists to keep me busy. But finishing this list is kind of like the end of an era … the end of a certain stage of my life. I started a teenager, and finished in the waning years of my 20’s – that’s an important time in anyone’s life, and these books largely defined it for me. I won’t forget them.
Plus, there’s always time for re-reading. For more on this topic, check out the post I wrote shortly after turning 25, when I still had 10 books left on the list: 25 Books to Read Before You’re 25: Did They Make a Difference?