Other blogs are doing it, so I may as well join the fray. The idea is to pick the top ten books that have most impacted you and to explain why. Narrowing the list down to ten has proven to be a challenge, but here goes (in no particular order):
1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Here was the first book of literary quality that gripped my attention right from the opening sentence. I was young at the time, 20 years old, and my idea of a good writer back then was Stephen King. The books I read for English classes were good, but they certainly weren't popular novels. Reading them was work. Celie's voice was real to me; her experiences were all too real for me; and though now as a more mature reader I find parts of the book strike me as contrived, it's still a good read, and I often teach the novel because Celie speaks powerfully to so many female students.
2. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. You simply aren't well read unless you've read most of the plays and the sonnets. Though getting all the nuances requires spending just as much time reading the footnotes as the actual text, the payoff is tremendous and Shakespeare is also, well, a really funny guy. Shakespeare captures the human condition like no other. If I had to pick a single play, it would be King Lear. It's the most tragic of the tragedies because Lear's flaw is so forgiveable: immaturity. His development into a grieving, compassionate human being who has lost everything to childish impulses moves me still.
3. The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich. I'm not a fan of poetry. So much of it is inaccessible, but in this book, Rich wields her craft like a weapon.
4. The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous. This massive tome is in its 6th edition, and though the earliest parts were written in the 1930s (and read like it!), the message for alcoholics is clear, effective, and was radical for the time. We have a disease that no amount of willpower can overcome. It is only by relying on something--some force outside of ourselves, something greater than our own egos--that dependency on a substance can be licked. It doesn't have to be God--Group of Drunks, a Good Orderly Direction, or even Nature or a tree--can be your Higher Power, but if you put your life and care in the hands of something bigger than you, life will start making sense.
5. Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley. This isn't Smiley's most famous or best work. But, anyone who knows me knows I have an affinity for horses and horse racing. Smiley tackles that subject here, with biting satire yet genuine love for the animals. It's not a Black Beauty story--this is a book for adults and is positively x-rated in parts--but you will find yourself rooting for the horses Epic Steam, Justa Bob, Froney's Sis, and the others. Oh, and Smiley understands the racing industry.
6. The Liar's Club by Mary Karr. Mary Karr has mastered the art of memoir (don't miss her latest, Lit, either). Talk about your tough childhood. A crazy, artistic mother, a drunk of a father you still grow to love, a rape ... it would be easy to fall clumsily into sentimentality, but in Karr's hands, the story is gripping, funny, and never once does she feel sorry for herself. The bright, witty scrapper of a child grows up to lock horns with the best of 'em, and wins.
7. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Finally, a book about the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. The structure of the novel, loosely set up like a game of mahjong, also makes the interweaving narratives easy to follow. Just think: the stories of eight women, and sometimes the same story is told several times, only by a different voice. It's not a totally original idea, but Tan pulls it off without seeming like she was deliberately setting out to wow the literary critics. The scene with Lindo in the fortune cookie factory, trying to make sense of the fortunes, is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
8. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. One of the best books about the Vietnam War you could ever read. "Things," the selection of items, can reveal so much about a character and situation. O'Brien proves that the devil, and the truth, is in the details. Fiction, or the telling of lies, often reveals the truth better than, well, the truth.
9. The Hours by Michael Cunningham. I love Virginia Woolf. I loved Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham's book is the best tribute novel ever written. He apes Woolf's style of interior monologue (I prefer it to Joyce's stream of consciousness) yet modernizes the stories, all while making Woolf herself one of the characters and saluting her as the legend she is. The film version of his book is also brilliant.
10. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. A seminal (ovunal?) feminist text. It was actually originally a series of lectures in which Woolf asks the question, What if Shakespeare had had an equally brilliant sister? Her life would've been very different from his. With characteristic wit, she chastises the universities--and society in general--for closing doors to women and drives home the point that artists, yes, even women artists, need the freedom to make art.
There are, of course, plenty of other books that belong here, but this ten probably reflects my sensibilities pretty well. What are your favorites?