top five

In high school I took every English class that was available, even the ones I didn't need.
I was an English major in college.
I taught Eighth Grade English.
I taught Journalism.
I taught Sophomore and Junior English.

And through all of that I read so very many books. I wish I had kept track. Some were assigned and I didn't care for them very much. Some were assigned and I loved them so deeply I've read them over and over. Some I picked up myself. Many were suggested to me. Some I taught because they fit my curriculum.

I've been a reader though ever since I was young. Very young. I have boxes of books from my childhood, and I thank my parents for giving me this gift. My mom held us on her lap, while we squirmed and giggled, and read us The Three Little Bears and Are You My Mother?. Often my dad read to my sister and I from whatever book he was reading, so we have stories tucked away from the Journals of Lewis and Clark, we know the detailed account of Jemimah Boone, and the winter at Valley Forge came alive as we were tucked under our covers and listening. Both my granmothers were big readers as well, and on visits to their houses I could be found curled up in Grandma Schoon's lap listening to Never Tease a Weasel, the pages worn from years of love, or under blankets on the porch with Grandma Ann hearing about a young Jewish boy during the war.

Reading, it would seem, is in my bloodstream.

I'm often asked, "What is your favorite book of all time?"
Sheesh. That's kind of like asking me which child is my favorite.

So here is a sort of answer to that question:
My top five-ish favorites.
In no particular order.

And you don't have to agree with me, just be gentle because these books are kind of like family. 

East of Eden
John Steinbeck

Steinbeck is definitely not for everyone. He is gritty and long winded. But oh how I love his work. I first read Of Mice and Men, like most high school students, and was shocked that a book could be so popular with such a cast of characters and such an ending. And then my senior year I read Grapes of Wrath and my love for Steinbeck was cemented [and I thought Of Mice and Men had a crazy ending?!]. You want to hug his characters, you want to hate his characters, you want to shake them and cry with them. But most importantly you know them.

I picked up East of Eden three or four years ago when my favorite book-loving friend [Brent's Grandma Pat] told me that if I liked Steinbeck then I had to read it. She even found a copy at a garage sale for me. I dove right in because when they woman tells you to read a book, you best be reading it.

Here is the blurb about the book from Goodreads:

Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence. 

Oh my word. Just reading that got my blood pumping again thinking about this book. I will say this: the best villain ever created in literature very possibly lies in the pages of this book. I remember finishing this book and laying back on my pillow and just closing my eyes relishing in the moment. Steinbeck said he believes every author really has "one book" and that all the books leading up to Eden were his practice--this was his book. 

I've read it twice and can't wait to read it again. Every page brought some form of satisfaction.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee

Just the thought of having a small moment to talk about this book right here, right now, makes me so happy. Harper Lee must have really believed that every author had one book, because this was it for her. And it is perfect in nearly every way if you ask me. I first read this book my freshman year of High School. I remember making Scout out of modeling clay for a project, trying to perfect her overalls and boyish hair. I read it again in college as a break from my other assignments. And then I had the complete joy to come back to it again when I was a teacher.

I have written about this book several times on my blog, like when I mentioned it was one of my favorite things or why I think I could connect with it at the level I do because of where I am from. Actually, it has it's own label on this blog because I've mentioned it so many times.

Here is the blurb from goodreads.com:

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbirdtakes readers to the roots of human behavior - to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.

You can ask any of my former students, and they will tell you that my love for this book runs deep. Maybe too deep? Not possible. It is truly a work of art and people of a variety of ages can read it and all will walk away with something different. Okay. If you made me pick right this second and there was only one book out of my top five that I could read over and over again, it would be this one. I'm pretty sure. I've read it at least 10 times and the depth at which I enjoy it never ceases. 

Laura Hillenbrand

Holy schmoly. This book. I really enjoy non-fiction and this one is simply stunning. The story of Louie Zamperini is one of those that is "stranger than fiction", and the way in which Hillenbrand writes his story is flawless. I had heard a lot about this book, and most people sang its praises, but I just never picked it up. Two summers ago though when the days were long and Blythe napped beautifully, I finally opened it.

It is the story of a man named Louis Zamperini, a young Olympic athlete who was drawn into the second great war as a bombardier. After his aircraft goes down in the Pacific, he is left to fight for his life with little more than a raft, an entire set of broken ribs, and his fierce and spirited resolve. Sharks, starvation, and the beating sun prove to be the lesser of the evils he faces, as the Japanese "rescue" him from his peril, only to beat him down further as a prisoner of war. Goodreads summarizes what he faces: "Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will." 

I started this book thinking it would be a bit of a labor to finish. I was soon proved wrong. I fell in love with Zamperini. I had a hard time putting the book down, because putting it down meant leaving Louie in some perilous situation-- the only way I could help him out was to keep turning pages. It got to the point I was taking the book everywhere I went: I would be pumping gas and hop back in the car to cram a few pages in before the pump clicked off, or I would read a paragraph or two while brushing my teeth. I took it to a wedding! [I didn't read it during the ceremony though]. I started reading it out loud to Brent just so I didn't feel bad not talking to him while we were in the car, and soon he was sucked into the story as well. 

The story of what he endured and survived is incredible, but I also love Zamperini's undeniable faith at the end of it all: "When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him." He doesn't stay "unbroken" after the war, and in his brokenness finds his ultimate salvation in Christ. It is a story of hope and forgiveness and the tenacity of the human will. I've only read it once because I checked it out from the library, but I'm buying it soon and will read it again! 

[side note: this movie is out in theaters now. Read the book first, please. The movie is well done though, but the entire story of his life after the war is only a blurb at the end and it is worth reading in its entirety]. 

The Book Thief
Markus Zusak

Three summers ago I was visiting a friend and saw this book on her shelf. I asked her about it and she couldn't stop telling me how great it was. A few months later I saw it on the shelf at a thrift store for 25 cents. 25 cents?! I snatched it up and didn't put it down until I finished it. Like the other books on this list, I felt so much when I read it. And like most of the books on this list I was moved to tears by the story and to goosebumps by the writing. 

It takes place in Nazi Germany and is narrated by Death. At first this is difficult to "get into", but as the story progresses it really works. The story follows Leisel, a young girl who can't resist the lure of books after her adoptive "papa" teaches her to read. It is a story about the power of words in a dark place; about the beauty and darkness of humans. And rarely will you read a book that is this well written-- that will make you want to re-read the same paragraph five times, even though you just want to get on with the story and know what happens next. I found a quote from Anne Fodiman that says, "If you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs." I believe I did all those things with this book. This book will make you think, it will make you question, and, if you're like me, will make you appreciate the beauty of the written word again. Someday when I am back in a classroom I WILL teach this book.

Another reviewer on the goodreads.com website captured it well: "I give this 5 stars, BUT there is a disclaimer: If you want a fast read, this book is not for you. If you only like happy endings, this book is not for you. If you don't like experimental fiction, this book is not for you. If you love to read and if you love to care about the characters you read about and if you love to eat words like they're ice cream and if you love to have your heart broken and mended on the same page, this book is for you." I couldn't agree more.

I once mentioned how much I love this book and a fellow book lover agreed and said she carried it around with her for a few days after she was finished because she just needed to still be near it for awhile. I felt just as strongly about it when I read it the second time.

And yes, there is a movie now. The movie is actually fairly well done, and captures the essence of the story and bits of the beauty of the characters. But PLEASE read the book. PLEASE. I beg you. There is SO much more that the movie just doesn't have TIME to tell. [Like many of these books turned movies]. 

And number five? I couldn't decide. Here are some that are probably in the running [if you click on them I have linked them to their goodreads review].

Khaled Hosseini

Abraham Verghese

Kathryn Stockett

C.S. Lewis

And what is funny is that some of my favorite authors aren't even on this list: Donald Miller, Ann Lamott, and Bill Bryson. And I love In Cold Blood [Capote] and Columbine [Cullen] and Jane Eyre [Bronte]…

I'm currently reading a few books [I used to never read more than one book at a time, but now I just keep books in different places of the house]: The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan, AHA by Kyle Idleman, Bringing Up Girls by Dr. James Dobson, and I just finished A Painted House by John Grisham [first Grisham book I've read and I loved it, though this one is different than his typical stuff I've heard].

I would love to hear from you: What would make your top five list? Or What are some good books you've read recently? Or What is on your to-read list this year? 

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Melinda Moss said...

Have you ever read Peace Like A River by Leif Enger? I love that one.

Mrs. Pedersen said...

I cannot wait to read "Unbroken". It's on my list for this year. "The Help" was amazing, and I've been thinking about readig "Mere Christianity" again. :)

*carrie* said...


Can you believe I've never read Steinbeck despite also being an English major and (briefly) teacher?

I don't think I can stomach Unbroken in either format.

I read Book Thief at your recommendation. Eric and I both devoured it.

I've got three books going right now, and many more in my pile, not to mention my overall list.