A room without books is like a body without a soul. – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Back in December I published “My Favorite Things”; Part One listed my favorite movies, and Part Two my favorite albums and musicians. In the comment thread for the first part, regular reader N/A requested a sequel listing my favorite books; I promised to provide one, but told him it would require a lot more thought. Well, here it is at last! As I think I’ve mentioned before, I have a lifelong preference for short fiction; as a lass I often read short novels (especially in the summer), but I tended to eschew longer ones unless they came highly recommended or I was already fond of the author from reading shorter selections. This is because for me, a large part of the pleasure of a book is the mood it sets, and if that mood is disturbed I can’t enjoy it nearly as much. Short stories are quickly consumed, and even novellas or short novels can be read in one extended sitting. But with the exception of episodic novels (which are almost like series of connected stories), I have always tended to avoid very long books except at those junctures in my life when I knew I would be uninterrupted for long enough to finish them, even if it took a couple of days. When I started whoring the long-established preference for short fiction grew even stronger, because I knew that at any moment I might be interrupted by a phone call from a client and have to run off.
The main reason it took me so long to get around to doing this list is that I had to define the word “book”. For example, the volume in which I first read H.G. Wells was named Seven Science Fiction Novels; however, in 1967 there was a boxed paperback set of the same seven novels with the same group title. Is that one book or seven? Finally I decided that if I liked many or most of the books in a series, I would list them as one book even if I had never in fact seen such an omnibus edition; that broke my mental logjam and the rest was easy. I simply listed all the books I’ve read more than twice and would read again if I had the time, with a couple of exceptions I’ll explain. I excluded nonfiction because to me it would be comparing apples and oranges. The books are listed alphabetically by author; I have provided PDF copies of #1, 6, 8, 11, 12 and 13, but the others are not yet in the public domain (see notes on #6 and 9).
1) Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott
Though this slim little book is indeed a fiction, it was written to explain the 4th dimension (not time, but rather the 4th physical dimension), and it does so brilliantly and entertainingly in only 54 pages. If you are interested in science fiction, physics or math to the slightest degree you owe it to yourself to read this book, which has the distinction of being the single title I have given as a small gift most often.
2) The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is among my favorite authors and this my favorite of his titles, just edging out Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dark Carnival. The Illustrated Man is a collection of 18 short stories of dark fantasy, horror and science fiction woven together by a frame story in which the narrator meets a tattooed stranger and discovers to his shock and fascination that during the night the “skin illustrations” move and tell the stories that comprise the collection. It’s been in print continuously since 1951, so you won’t have any problem finding a copy in any bookstore.
I’ve written before of my love for Burroughs’ work, and the Mars series is my favorite. None of these novels is very long by modern standards; the first three, telling one story, would certainly appear as a single volume if first published today. And though those first three are the best of the series, the fifth, seventh and eight approach them in quality and sheer reading pleasure. They were among the first books I purchased with my own money, despite having read them before, and I’ve read the entire series at least three times since that purchase. They were my husband’s first introduction to Burroughs as well (I loaned him my set while we were dating), and well-known writers including Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Carl Sagan have praised them as inspirational. Don’t bother with the failed blockbuster which distorts the story nearly into unrecognizability; just read the books. I wish this omnibus edition really existed, but I’m afraid the best you can do is a boxed set of all 11 or the 4-volume omnibus set I’ve linked here.
4) One Thousand and One Arabian Nights translated by Sir Richard Burton
I’m sure everyone knows at least a few of these tales, and most of you have read some retellings; that was certainly my only experience with them until the day early in 1997 when I discovered that the Jefferson Parish Library owned the entire Burton translation…all 16 volumes. I’ve only read the entire thing through once, but my husband bought me the Forgotten Books edition for Christmas of 2010 so I plan to read it again before too much longer. It’s an amazing work, full of magic, spectacle and wonder, and though the famous ones like Sinbad and Ali Baba are all there, there are many other adventures, fables, comedies, philosophical discourses, romance and even smut, and Burton translated every word plainly and literally, caring not if he offended the English sensibilities of his time.
5) Magic in the Alley by Mary Calhoun
I discovered this enchanting book, in which a young girl discovers a box full of magic that leads her and her best friend into a strange adventure every time they enter a new alley, when I was about 9; I remembered it so fondly that years later I borrowed it again as an adult librarian, then a few years ago bought a copy for myself. I cannot explain why I love it so, except perhaps that it reminds me of a time when summers were for exploring and I could still believe in magic if I tried hard enough.
6) The Annotated Alice by Lewis Carroll
This is a combined edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with annotations by Martin Gardner. Observant readers knew the Alice books would be on this list; I have used more quotes, pictures and references from them than from any other source except the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I first read Wonderland in second grade and Looking-Glass about two years later; if I had to pick a number one favorite on this list, this would be it. I’ve included PDFs of the original books, without the annotations which are still under copyright.
7) The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
by Will Cuppy
Probably the funniest thing I have ever read; it’s a series of comedic takes on historical figures from ancient Egypt to the 18th century. I keep it right next to 1066 and All That, another hilarious take on history.
8) The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This is another book observant readers knew would be here; I have loved the tales of the great detective since discovering an illustrated edition of all the short stories when I was 17. If you only know of Holmes from movies and television shows, you don’t know him at all; brew yourself a pot of tea, find a comfortable seat and dive into this collection of his adventures, as inimitably chronicled by his friend Dr. Watson. The game is afoot!
9) Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
Another book I discovered in fourth grade, the year I began exploring libraries on my own. I’m supplying an online copy rather than a PDF because I could not find one which included the illustrations, and as Alice asked, “what is the use of a book without pictures?” – especially when those pictures, drawn by Kipling himself, are almost half the story. If you buy this one, mind you get an older (pre-1960s) edition; modern editions shamefully bowdlerize a few politically-incorrect words without any notification.
10) Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber
I discovered this book by accident because the edition in which I first read it was published during the ’60s gothic romance craze, and the cover made it look like one, thus attracting my attention when I was on my own gothic kick a decade later. To fully appreciate it you must remember it was written for a male audience in 1943, a time when women’s lives were largely a mystery to men: Leiber expertly builds on the paranoid premise that all women use witchcraft, but hide it from men. And here he thought he was writing fiction…
The grand master of cosmic horror was known to a very limited audience in his lifetime, but most modern writers of true horror list him as an inspiration. Some modern readers find his complex sentences and baroque adjectives off-putting, but there is no other writer who can evoke the terror of cyclopean vistas of space and strange aeons of time haunted by alien gods of unspeakable loathsomeness as the Old Gentleman from Providence could.
Before Lovecraft there was of course Poe, the creator of the horror genre as we know it. I honestly don’t feel I need to say much about him, as I can’t imagine anyone who grew up in any Western country not having read him. But if you are from a land in which he isn’t known as well, or just missed out on him due to the unforgiveable negligence of teachers who should be walled up in a dank cellar for the omission, open up this PDF and start with “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Black Cat”.
13) The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This book was given to me by a nun when I was twelve; it’s a sort of fairy tale that can be read by children but is really for adults, and concerns a little boy who lives alone on an asteroid and sets out on a quest to discover the meaning of the strange feelings inspired in him by the arrival of a rose. You can read a religious or spiritual meaning into it if you like, or just take it as a parable of where we place and misplace our priorities, but if you’re unwilling to accept for the sake of a story that birds can migrate through space, it isn’t for you.
Tomorrow: My favorite authors.
One Year Ago Today
“Dr. Schrödinger and his Amazing Pussycat” will either be the strangest column of mine you’ve ever read, or it won’t. Or both simultaneously.
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