If you’ll tell me your favorite novel…

Posted By on Mar 26, 2012 | 90 comments


I’ll tell you mine, because I really want some new stories these days.

On the bus ride out to class this morning, a friend asked me how I choose the next book I will read. This became a discussion on the various book lists we both always have running of “read,” “to read,” or for me, simply “best beloved in all the world.” Right before I left for Oxford, I jotted out a list of my favorite books at the request of the Summit students I mentored. I meant to post it then, but forgot. Jetlag and all.

I’m posting it now because I’m hoping it will encourage you to post a few of your favorites in return. I greatly enjoyed the writing of this list because it was an informal, books that I love, read before you die sort of thing. There’s no rhyme or reason to this list beside love. That’s probably why it starts with stories. (I’ll post the nonfiction half later.)

So please, I need some new gems at the moment, novels in particular. If I share mine… drop me a comment with your best beloveds?

Fiction

  1. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger. Some of the best and quirkiest wordcraft I have read. Characters who are frail, tough, and funny all at once, and a story that wrestles with sin and grace. Also modern. I tend to like authors whom I could only meet in heaven so its nice that this one is actually alive.
  2. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Human nature in all its darkness, in all its yearning, and the way that grace is always enough to meet it. A world of a book with whole sections that read as the deepest, hungriest thoughts of devotion.
  3. That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Last in the Ransom Trilogy (I was recently lectured by my tutor on why this ought never to be called “The Space Trilogy”). I like the strangeness of this book, and the invasion of the ordinary by the planetary powers, each embodying some aspect of power or beauty. Also, a story with elements just bizarre enough to stab you awake to the way modernism can put your heart to sleep.
  4. Island of the World by Michael O’Brien. One of the most beautiful books I have ever, ever read. I’ll warn you – not for the faint of heart. The story of a boy in the Balkans at the end of WWII. This is the story of how love grips us, and if we will let it, turns all things to beauty in even the worst times of grief. It is also that rare book that follows a life from opening all the way to its close in old age. The arc of innocence lost and regained is part of the power of this story.
  5. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. One of the goals of my life is to make a Pilgrim’s Inn – an actual house where the hungry and hurting, the exhausted and yearning, can rest and be restored by beauty on the high road journey toward God. This story pictures that shelter.
  6. Lilith and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald – both of these are a little strange – they are fairytales, with all the wildness of fairy tale imagery, but George MacDonald’s worlds are always spiritual truth enfleshed. These two are my favorite.
  7. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. An aching book. A true book. A humble book. Just the life of a Kentucky housewife. The cultivation of land, and soul, and community. But a book to make you realize the things that you have lost. When I went to read this a friend cautioned me not to start it casually. It was, she said, too precious. I agree.
  8. King Lear, and Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare  – Everyone needs some Shakespeare. Read Much Ado aloud with a friend (especially if that friend is in love). The language of Shakespeare is so crammed with whimsy, so woven and twined with meaning and image. Just reading a bit changes the way you view language.
  9. The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Myth. This is an epic – epic beauty, epic journey, epic grief. An epic in the oldest sense of embodying eternally true things in a single story. A book to which I will return the rest of my life for my love of its characters, its lands, its story.
  10.  David Copperfield by Dickens.
  11.  Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. A father searches for his lost son in South Africa. One of the best stories I have encountered in which irreversible grief and a brokenness that cannot be healed is met by Christian grace. There is nothing trite here.
  12.  The Chronicles of Narnia. Required reading. That’s all.
  13. The Wind in the Willows. Described to me recently as the perfect children’s book, but just a golden tale of friendship, belonging, nature, and the importance of loving your corner on earth. So lovely.
  14. Middlemarch, by George Eliot. I say it’s like the Bible because of the heights and depths of human nature it presents within a village life in England.

 

 

90 Comments

  1. I will have to come back to this post with a pen and notepad in hand! I’m always looking for new stories to read. One I came across last summer that stayed with me is The Saving of Cee Cee Honeycutt. Of course, I can’t remember the author at the moment, but it was just a wonderful read! :)

  2. I was hoping to find a book or two I’d never read. Instead I found a list very close to my top ten favorites. I truly love every book on this list. Although I’m a little sad I didn’t find anything new, I am reassured that Sarah and I have the same tastes in books as in so many other things!

  3. for light reading, I have been enjoying the Hannah Swenson series by Joanne Fluke. They are murder mysteries but they are very fluffy murder mysteries. There are no details and it is all about falling in love with the town and it’s people while solving the murder.

    I read a lot of books on autism; currently I am reading The Explosive Child.

    I also just read Sheet Music by Kevin Leman….great, marriage changing book.

    I have a whole stack of books I want to read too; C.S. Lewis, Beth Moore, etc.

  4. An all time favorite of mine is Michael O’Halloran by Gene Stratton Porter.

  5. The Heaven Tree Trilogy by Edith Parteger is amazing! The beginning is a little slow, but once you get into it. . . Oh my!!!

  6. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander and The Box of Delights by John Masefield :-)

  7. If you loved LOTR, you have to read Silmarillion, the prequel. And not as good as The Brothers Karamazov, but exquisite nonetheless, Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. On the light and lovely side, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim is my favorite. I just finished A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. Surprisingly, the film versions are almost as good as the books, and better in the sense that they’re a sumptuous feast for the eyes!

  8. Great list! One I think you may enjoy immensely (as I did) is North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A little slow in the beginning, but is so worth it in the end!

  9. My favorite book is “A Girl of the Limberlost” by Gene Stratton-Porter. I read it every Summer during high school & found it to be very encouraging & inspirational. Before you read this, though, read the prequel–“Freckles.”

  10. I love lists like this one, and wrote down a reminder to buy Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Peace Like a River is on my top favs list too. I suggest Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Emma by Jane Austen (delightful humor), Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Excellent women by Barbara Pym. I am a librarian and a writer, and my second book will be released this week.

  11. I will be writing each of these suggestions down. I can tell that I will enjoy these suggestions, because all my favorites are listed too. I notice that they are mostly old books, because they tend to be the best books, but I have a recent publication that took me by surprise and swept me into preWorld War II England. It is called, The House at Tyneford, by Natasha Solomons. It is quite a story. The descriptions of the English countryside and coast played like a movie in my mind. Then the ending wraps up the whole story with such art, that I am still pondering it.

  12. I’m guessing you have, but if you’ve not read Marilynne Robinson’s books Gilead and Home I wonder if you might like them. Your description of Cry, the Beloved Country reminds me of Home, especially–brokenness that cannot be healed met with Christian grace. It is a book that makes your chest ache (well, at least mine it did).

  13. A Thousand Splendid Suns. Khaled Hosseini (sp?)

    The Scent of Water. E. Goudge

  14. Oh, thank you for this post! I found it through your mom’s post. :) I have Google searched book lists many times, and they are usually disappointing. I knew I could trust YOUR list! Took it with me to the library and ended up with Hannah Coulter. What a precious, spellbinding book. Many, many thanks.

  15. I am a British reader of your blog and I love all the books of Miss Read. She is an English writer, who wrote roughly one book per year from 1955 to the 1990’s, set in two fictional villages in Oxfordshire, Fairacre and Thrush Green. Her first book is called Village School. They are hard to find new, but they often turn up in charity shops and vintage book shops. I think you would love them.

  16. I LOVE Francine Rivers – especially the Mark of the Lion trilogy. I have only read a few of the books on your list, so I’m excited to catch up with some fun reading.

  17. I realize this post is rather old, but I just can’t go away without recommending a few (often under-appreciated) favorites:
    1. The Linnet’s Tale by Dale C. Willard: a charming tale about an endearing community of book-loving fieldmice. Includes affectionate parodies of classic works such as Treasure Island and Tarzan.
    2. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton: By a strange series of events, poet/policeman Gabriel Syme secures a place on the board of a secret society of anarchists. Syme must discover whom he can trust and how to stop the anarchists before they madden the world. A wild ride careering between the whimsical and the profound. Plenty of felicitous turns of phrase!
    3. Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White: a murder mystery/thriller/romance set in early-1900s England. Wonderfully suspensful, with flashes of British wit to lighten the mood.

  18. These are great suggestions…I hope this will stay open for a long time to come… the reminders, the new names because of their context can be trusted. A welcome contrast to some other lists I’ve perused, Just finished The Blue Hills by Elizabeth Goudge for the first time. It may also be known as Henrietta,s House. It is never too late for the rescue and salvation of souls..The ways in which this cam happen are never too small a detail to be overlooked.

  19. Just read Dragon’s Tooth, book one, by N.D. Wilson . . . super . . .

  20. I just absolutely LOVE The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim. I read it last summer and hope to read it again. Mmmm.

    Thank you for this list. I’m expecting to have lots of summer reading time this season and was wondering what books I should pick up.

    Thanks!

    :) Amber

  21. I just read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and it was exquisite.

  22. My one book I take when we evacuate for hurricane’s is Agnes Sanford’s Sealed Orders. I don’t think it would be considered a novel, but something in that book stirred my soul to see past what I am doing today and consider my life more of value for furthering the kingdom. It is her autobiography of being raised as a missionary child in China, her life through struggles, and going against the grain following her call.

  23. Sarah,
    Wonderful, beautiful site! I share your love of Lewis, McDonald, Tolkien, (I didn’t see Charles Williams on your list) and Chesterton. You are way beyond me in the rest of your library – in a good way, I wish I had read what you have read, however, I would not do what you have done, and ask for recommendations – I feel too obligated to read books that otherwise keep me from the ones most important too me.

    But since you asked… Augustine’s “City of God.” C.S. Lewis shaped my unconscious understanding as a child and young man of what it means to marry thinking to loving. The world of faith and reason is beautiful and intoxicating and the idea that we can use our minds to build our faith to seep unaffectedly into our split second responses – led by His Spirit unannounced and unnoticed (by us) is, I believe, our means to “taking every thought captive” and our transformation “by the renewing of our minds”… washed by the water of the Word… we don’t read, think, meditate, contemplate and then “think with our pens” to make our selves feel better about ourselves. It becomes, is, our daily, moment by moment fervent prayer and hopeful petition that He will make us completely into what we are becoming. We cannot but write… or speak, or get the burning thing out of us somehow… it does not want to stay put.

    As I said, Lewis, McDonald and Tolkien filled my childhood hopes and dreams – sleeping and waking. And, of course, on into adulthood. However, Augustine’s “City of God” changed a facet of the way in which I view all the scriptures – almost as if I’d been viewing His Word from a sitting position my whole life, and Augustine reached down, grabbed me by both my hands, and pulled me to my feet… and a whole world of understanding opened up simply by looking at the very same things from a different perspective.

    As a note of encouragement, if you think He is all philosophy and theology and history…and he is all that… please consider that he is those things (first rate to be sure) secondarily to something else much more enticing and engaging. I quite think he is entirely unaware of himself and writes as if he were writing with no audience in mind… so there is very little polish, and though he dives ever so deep, he never does so quickly… one gets the idea that a 6th grader could understand, if he stuck with it, as well as anyone.

    Now, my assessment could be entirely wrong…as I don’t pretend to know good literature from bad… I am looking for content… Augustine as a genius of rhetoric is heralded in every preface or introduction to his work that I’ve ever read. But if he is a master of the form and function of thought, I might conclude he meant to write precisely and deliberately in the way that he writes… only I don’t think he does. I think much of his work is a mix of stream of consciousness within the context of fairly rigorous structure… anyway… my point is that whatever is beautiful about his perspicuity must always live in the shadow of something more pressing and palpable…something requiring not an assent, or even praise, but a response. The terror of knowing that if you read on , you might have to do something about it, is uncanny, and grips me more powerfully than the awe I feel in the presence of greatness. I am in the presence of greatness when I read Augustine, but not Augustine’s greatness. That is the clincher. I read Lewis and want to write like Lewis, and think like Lewis. I read Augustine and want to be known by God the way Augustine is known by God. Now that’s unfair, to be sure. I get that from Lewis too. But not like I get it from Augustine.

    Samuel Winston

  24. Sarah,
    Wonderful, beautiful site! I share your love of Lewis, McDonald, Tolkien, (I didn’t see Charles Williams on your list) and Chesterton. You are way beyond me in the rest of your library – in a good way, I wish I had read what you have read, however, I would not do what you have done, and ask for recommendations – I feel too obligated to read books that otherwise keep me from the ones most important too me.

    But since you asked… Augustine’s “City of God.” C.S. Lewis shaped my unconscious understanding as a child and young man of what it means to marry thinking to loving. The world of faith and reason is beautiful and intoxicating and the idea that we can use our minds to build our faith to seep unaffectedly into our split second responses – led by His Spirit unannounced and unnoticed (by us) is, I believe, our means to “taking every thought captive” and our transformation “by the renewing of our minds”… washed by the water of the Word… we don’t read, think, meditate, contemplate and then “think with our pens” to make our selves feel better about ourselves. It becomes, is, our daily, moment by moment fervent prayer and hopeful petition that He will make us completely into what we are becoming. We cannot but write… or speak, or get the burning thing out of us somehow… it does not want to stay put.

    As I said, Lewis, McDonald and Tolkien filled my childhood hopes and dreams – sleeping and waking. And, of course, on into adulthood. However, Augustine’s “City of God” changed a facet of the way in which I view all the scriptures – almost as if I’d been viewing His Word from a sitting position my whole life, and Augustine reached down, grabbed me by both my hands, and pulled me to my feet… and a whole world of understanding opened up simply by looking at the very same things from a different perspective.

    As a note of encouragement, if you think He is all philosophy and theology and history…and he is all that… please consider that he is those things (first rate to be sure) secondarily to something else much more enticing and engaging. I quite think he is entirely unaware of himself and writes as if he were writing with no audience in mind… so there is very little polish, and though he dives ever so deep, he never does so quickly… one gets the idea that a 6th grader could understand, if he stuck with it, as well as anyone.

    Now, my assessment could be entirely wrong…as I’m not certain I know good literature from bad… I am looking for content… Augustine as a genius of rhetoric is heralded in every preface or introduction to his work that I’ve ever read. But if he is a master of the form and function of thought, I might conclude he meant to write precisely and deliberately in the way that he writes… only I don’t think he does. I think much of his work is a mix of stream of consciousness within the context of fairly rigorous structure… anyway… my point is that whatever is beautiful about his perspicuity must always live in the shadow of something more pressing and palpable…something requiring not an assent, or even praise, but a response. The terror of knowing that if you read on , you might have to do something about it, is uncanny, and grips me more powerfully than the awe I feel in the presence of greatness. I am in the presence of greatness when I read Augustine, but not Augustine’s greatness. That is the clincher. I read Lewis and want to write like Lewis, and think like Lewis. I read Augustine and want to be known by God the way Augustine is known by God. Now that’s unfair, to be sure. I get that from Lewis too. But not like I get it from Augustine.

    Samuel Winston

  25. Thank you for that reply, Samuel Winston. I agree about Charles Williams. The realities of how our choices add up to who we really become and are is presented in frightening terms and characters. But always with the alternative choice available for those “hunger and thirst after righteousness…My next choice will The City of God. You made it breathtakingly irressistable just as God does for us through our lives! He continually adds to the clarity of the picture of Himself or strips away the gunk that clouds as we are refined, whichever way works. Or some of both!

  26. The “Inkheart” trilogy by Cornelia Funke . . . Definitely legends for book lovers!

  27. Just seeing the name of “Peace Like A River” on your list made me tingly with happiness. And ache to read it again.

    I’ve been looking for Island of the World for some time now, but with no luck. Your recommendation of it has prompted me to try again — maybe I’ll just buy it for Kindle.

  28. I don’t read as much fiction as when I was a young woman. Then, I loved Macdonald’s “Gifts of the Child Christ,” and several others on your list. Now, I love memoirs, biographies. I love “A Tuscan Childhood” by Kinta Beevor, “The Big House” by Colt, and “The Flame Trees of Thika” and the others in the trilogy by Huxley. Also love “Country of the Pointed Firs” by Jewett. I love books that take me to place; I’m all about location.

  29. i came across this site as a result of an odd chain of random internet browsing clicks searching initially on CHOBANI yogurt…(like i said, random) I love the Eliot quote and it made me keep reading to see what i had stumbled upon I only got as far as your must read books- I must say you are an amazing writer and your personal and fiercely insightful remarks about each book and what they stirred in you make me want to read these books instantly. so just wanted to say – Well Done~! gotta love the internet- sometimes it’s like getting lost in the library shelves again.

  30. Try Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry the VIII. It is an impressive historical novel which gives Henry a voice, along with comments in counterpoint by his fool, Will Somers. George mastered the times and the details, and always remembers her first duty is to create a well-told tale. After having read some 30+ serious books and many scholarly articles on the Tudors, I think I can give a fair recommendation.

    But the real treat is in the prose. As a reader, and a non-fiction writer and editor of many years (and a neophyte wanna-be-a-novelist), I found myself admiring the structure and the writing in this fine book. Sadly, it was her first and also her best (so far). My wife, who is a professor of English, also really enjoyed it.

    By the way, speaking of fine, nuanced writers -meaning you, Sarah!- you have a graceful style that reminds me of the great M. F. K. Fisher. (She wrote about food, but W. H. Auden correctly observed that “. . . food is her metaphor” for life, and she remains one of the great American stylists?). Reading your posts is like sitting down to a fine meal. The aroma is so promising that I want to gobble the words down, but also prolong the pleasure of the experience and enjoy every bite. You do honor to our language by employing it with such skill and compassion. I eagerly await the great novel, and everything else. Believe me when I say that there are a lot of us who want to know what you have to say about a great many things. Finding your posted work made my week, and it is only Monday!

  31. Question: looking at a photo of books here. Noted the Loeb and related titles. Do you read Latin or Greek? Just curious.

    Which brings to mind:
    Recently, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura has been freshly translated into verse (Penguin Books) and an editor at Penguin kindly sent me a copy. It’s not a novel, but any one who has the talent to translate this into good verse, and the guts with which to see the task through, is worth reading. Likewise for Peter Ackroyd’s fine modern rendition of The Canterbury Tales (although the original is well-worth the initial struggle). (Again, thank you Penguin!)

  32. Why haven’t I done a post like this? Thanks for your wonderful list. There are some titles there I haven’t heard of and I’ll have to look them up. Peace Like a River tops my list too. Anyone with that at the top of their list must know good fiction. My second-favorite is The Secret Life of Bees. The writing is exquisite.

  33. Sarah,

    My daughter (and I) have recently enjoyed your devotional *Journeys of Faithfulness* and I took the initiative to look up your blog (again). I’m always inspired by your reading lists.

    One book that I remember as a young girl was *Christy* by Catherine Marshall. I read it every summer for many years and I still enjoy listening to the audio version or reading parts on quiet days. Originally, I found inspiration in the character of a young girl striding confidently into mission work; as I have matured into middle age, I’ve been inspired by the grace and wisdom of Miss Alice Henderson’s character. Many girls today don’t read this novel because they “watched the TV show”. While it was a good show — it is in no way a substitution for the book with its depth of characterization. What a loss.

  34. The Penderwicks is an all time favorite of mine… It has the feel of a modern day Little Women which I love!
    Other favorites include the Mitford Years by Jan Karon and The Mistmantle Chronicles by M.I. McAllister… Lovely!

  35. I love your book list! It has many of my favorites,too. I second Gilead and Home, wonderful prose. Another favorite of mine that I did not see mentioned is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Her descriptions of the New Mexico landscape are breathtaking. The story of a single human life lived simply in the desert amid trials and loneliness stayed with me a long time after I had closed the last page.

  36. Oh Sarah, reading your list here after reading your Bach post over at The Rabbit Room almost brought tears to my eyes. I do believe you’re a kindred spirit.

    I recently wrote a post about my top ten desert island books, though I cheated and included The Lord of the Rings and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books as one book each, so I could cram more books into my waterproof trunk :)

    If you don’t make it over to my site, here are the novels on my list that aren’t on yours (though I expect you’ve read them all):
    Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

    I included nonfiction and poetry, too, so now I’m going to think of ten novels to bring to my island. Fun!

    Thanks for this post…and for your lovely meditation on Bach and writing over at The Rabbit Room.

  37. I was never able to choose a favourite novel, and most likely I never will be able to. I could spend hours surrounded by ‘Pros & Cons’ charts and endless lists, and at the end of it I would shrug my shoulders with indecision. But I would like to share some of the ones I’ve read (and re-read… and re-read) just because they are good books. You have probably read them. If you haven’t, you should.
    The ‘Anne’ series (including ‘Rainbow Valley’ and ‘Rilla of Ingleside’), and to embrace my inner Canadian, ‘The Blue Castle’ by L.M Montgomery. ‘A Murder is Announced’ by Agatha Christie (the unabridged audio rendition read by Rosemary Leech is also good). ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen and ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen. And, last but not least, ‘The Penguin Complete Father Brown’ by G.K Chesterton.

  38. I am a voracious reader and enjoy many types of books. One of the most recent books I have read is Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is a wonderful read and is great for all ages! Another book I have read is The Trolls by Polly Horvath. My parents read it and loved it! It is funny and a great read for snowy or rainy and even sunny days! I hope that if you read these books that you will enjoy them!

  39. One of my favorite books is “My Name is Asher Lev” by Chaim Potok. It is a heartbreaking, beautiful book about a Hasidic Jewish boy who is born as a true art prodigy, which is in direct conflict with the strict rules and guidelines of his faith community, which looks at art as something that is foolish and from the “sitra achra” (or other side), and not of God. It looks at the concepts of suffering, atonement, and how faith interacts with life. For instance, it asks the question, “What if God has given you an amazing gift, but exercising that gift will harm the people you love? Do you have a responsibility to exercise that gift? Or should you repress it to protect others?” It is a novel rich with symbolism and history, and it is fascinating to learn about the world Asher is growing up in (Post WWII Brooklyn New York, in a Ladover Hasidic Jewish neighborhood). It is a heavy read but so worth it.

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