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The Fifty

Not long ago I was pointed to a peculiar book. This guy asked independent booksellers around the country to work up lists of their fifty favorite reads, the books they feel most passionate about hand-selling. The results were published in a collection called Read This! Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores.

Some of you might know I have a weakness for lists. In the back of the book, the editor, Hans Weyandt, invites the reader to list their own fifty favorites. I couldn’t help myself. My list is below.

A few notes about the list that follows.

• There’s a difference between “best” and “favorite.” To make a list of the 50 best books in English, I’d have to think about what has done the most to expand the possibilities of literature and what stories have had the deepest cultural impact. That’s hard. It’s much easier to figure out favorites; you know something is a favorite if you get excited thinking about reading it again. It doesn’t have to have deep cultural impact. You just have to love it.

• I’ve organized the books in alphabetical order, by author. It was just too much effort to try to put them in order of preference.

• I have not included graphic novels. That feels like a different list.

• I have included books by people I’m related to. Look, the people I love have written a lot of remarkable books, books that deeply shaped how I think about story myself. To leave them off would require dishonesty, and if yer gonna be dishonest about something like this, why even do it?

• One of the following choices is a big fuckin’ cheat. It has been noted. As the old song goes, it’s my list, I can cheat if I want to. Also, I would (and do) argue that the cheat is possibly the most important selection on the whole list.

Here goes:

The Fifty

Case Histories • Kate Atkinson

The House With A Clock In Its Walls • John Bellairs

Josie & Jack • Kelly Braffet

Wonder Boys • Michael Chabon

A Christmas Carol • Charlie “Chuck” Dickens

Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Essays • Joan Didion

The Collector • John Fowles

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders • Neil Gaiman

Lord of the Flies • William Golding

Marathon Man • William Goldman

I, Claudius • Robert Graves

Warlock • Oakley Hall

The Short Stories • Ernest Hemingway

The Friends of Eddie Coyle • Geroge V. Higgins

Jesus’ Son • Denis Johnson

The Haunting of Hill House • Shirley Jackson

The Liars’ Club • Mary Karr

Double Feature • Owen King

The Dead Zone • Stephen King

The Shining • Stephen King

The Green Mile • Stephen King

Under the Dome • Stephen King

One on One • Tabitha King

To Kill A Mockingbird • Harper Lee

Swag • Elmore Leonard

The Assistant • Bernard Malamud

The Complete Stories of Bernard Malmaud

The Fixer • Bernard Malamud

Life of Pi • Yann Martel

I Am Legend • Richard Matheson

The Border Trilogy • Cormac McCarthy

Angela’s Ashes • Frank McCourt

Atonement • Ian McEwan

Lonesome Dove • Larry McMurtry

Terms of Endearment • Larry McMurtry

Cloud Atlas • David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet • David Mitchell

The Aubrey-Maturin Novels, books 1 – 4 • Patrick O’Brian*

Animal Farm • George Orwell

True Grit • Charles Portis

The Harry Potter novels • J.K. Rowling

The Riverside Shakespeare **

The Grapes of Wrath • John Steinbeck

Slayground • Richard Stark

Dracula • Bram Stoker

Dog Soldiers • Robert Stone

Ghost Story • Peter Straub

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again • J.R.R. Tolkien

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer • Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn • Mark Twain


* I’ve only read the first four books in the series, but it’s already the best continuing series I’ve ever come across. The rest of the O’Brian books could suck (they won’t) and I’d still think these first four are some of the most magnificent things I’ve ever read.


** Okay, so this is the cheat. But it is a single book, and if I started picking my favorite works of Shakespeare, 20% of this list would be Lucky Bill. Besides: I say to you honestly that I think the Riverside Shakespeare is the one book that ought to be in every home. It isn’t a holy book, so it isn’t limited to believers in one faith or another. You need only believe in stories and that language can be beautiful.

There’s a comment section below… plenty of room for you to list your own best fifty. No one’s more innerested then me, so go right ahead.

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