80 Favorite Books

actually many more than eighty, but that’s what it set out to be

Readers like to share books.  Some readers collect them too.  One wall of the biggest room in our house is all books.  But there are as many more, altogether, lined up on random shelves in other rooms.

Beth and I are readers.  We each have some books that we will never part with, although we might lend them.  We pick up new ones almost every week — thank you, Hannaford! — and we haul out boxfuls now and then.  I’ve had the bad habit of bringing home extra copies of the ones I like best, in order to gift them.  If you want a copy of The Source, for instance, one of the best books of all time, just ask.  I may have one to give away.  (Other titles too.)

Besides the ones I’ve written myself, (they’re in the list), what follows is a list of my favorite books of all time; about 80 and the list is growing.  I wish there were time and space to explain each one.  If you want to know why one is on this list, just ask.

The numbers 1-8 are a sort of ranking by importance to me.  Those in the 1st rank are the ones I would read again and in many cases I have.  Something in the 8th rank may be just as readable and captivating but, for me, the content may not have had as much impact as a book with a higher ranking.  But they all had some impact.

Yes, I’ve read them all, some more than once.  And I can warmly recommend almost anything else written by any of the below authors; I just refrained from listing every work each one has written and which I have read.

There are exceptions to the anything-by-the-same-author rule.  Nothing else by Joseph Heller rises to the inspired genius of Catch-22.  But almost all of James Michener’s works are equally absorbing.  Almost all of Jack London, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens, too.

Then there are modern authors, whom I’ve read but haven’t even listed.  Maybe they will go on my next list of 80.  And collections of short stories — how I loved Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, which I subscribed to in the 1960s!  But what author gets the credit?

Which one is the best ever?  No other book glows with the beauty of the English language like Lolita by the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov, even though the story shocks many readers.  And Nabokov’s Russian roots conceal his acquaintance with the English and French languages during the early years of his life.  His early command of all three languages certainly contributed uniquely to his linguistic power.  As a man of faith, I can’t promote the subject matter in most of his work and so I can’t rate Lolita a ‘1’ overall.  Who is my second-favorite author in English?  I’ve listed only one title by O. Henry but absolutely everything by this author is a treat for a lover of language.

For fiction, though, I can’t pick just one book.  The entire group that I’ve rated a ‘1’ is the best fiction ever.

The best ever for non-fiction would have to be Big Bang.  And yet, anything by P. J. O’Rourke is the best non-fiction for sheer entertainment, and perhaps The True Believer is the best piece of social inquiry.

My favorite juvenile novel of all time, The Lion’s Paw, used to be hard to come by, but I understand that it was recently re-released.  I have a new copy which I obtained right after its very limited 50th-anniversary re-publication in 1996, but I originally read it in my youth.  Now I hear there is an edition published in 2008.

If you are looking for a book to read, you can’t go wrong if you choose from this list, although if you’re not “into” non-fiction, then I will not be responsible if you don’t enjoy, for instance, Big Bang.  But if you do enjoy non-fiction, I will be surprised if your reaction to Big Bang isn’t similar to mine — the most engaging, suspenseful, and possibly the most faith-restoring book I have read in a quarter century.

I am specific about the edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, by the way.  I fear that, over succeeding editions, important quotations will be deemed expendable to make space for later, and probably deserving, entries.  So, if you do obtain a later edition, pair it with the fourteenth (or earlier), and if you have the fourteenth and you obtain a later one, keep them both.

Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills did not covert me to the Roman Catholic church, but it was hugely edifying and faith-affirming.

I could add hundreds more books.  It pains me to leave some out, for instance William Bennett’s compilations under the titles of The Moral Compass and The Book of Virtues.  The truth is, I haven’t read both of those cover to cover, but they are essential to a personal library.

I could add several dozen books that are important to me but which don’t belong on a list of casual reading.  These would include titles that I found edifying or academically informative or useful in personal meditation.  The Bible, of course (New English Bible with the Apocrypha).  The Book of Common Prayer.  The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  Complete Field Guide to American Wildlife.  My shelves full of railroad books contain more examples, as are my books in other languages.  Perhaps, some day, I will turn my lists of books into a book unto itself.

I am certain that I have forgotten to include a few titles which, if I were to think of them, I would be chagrined to realize I have omitted.  When they come to mind I will edit this list.

And here it is:


1. Big Bang by Simon Singh

2. In the Empire of Genghis Khan by Stanley Stewart

2. The Great Evolution Mystery by Gordon Rattray Taylor

3. King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz

3. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

3. The Way of a Pilgrim by author unknown

4. Ken Purdy’s Book of Automobiles by Ken Purdy

5. The Code Book by Simon Singh

5. Common Sense and Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (often published in one volume)

6. Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich

6. The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

6. Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons

6. Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills

6. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton

7. The Best-loved Poems of the American People compiled by Hazel Felleman

7. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

7. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt

7. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White

7. Familiar Quotations, Fourteenth Edition compiled by John Bartlett

7. Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman

7. The Life That Lives on Man by Michael Andrews

7. Game Management by Aldo Leopold

8. Quotations from Chairman Bill by William F. Buckley, Jr.

8. Small Is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher

8. The Founding Fish by John McFee

8. Annals of the Former World by John McPhee

8. Babie Nayms by David A. Woodbury


1. Parliament of Whores by P. J. O’Rourke

1. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer

1. Maine Stories by Lew-Ellyn Hughes

2. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

2. One Man’s Meat by E. B. White

3. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon

3. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner


1. Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock

2. A Whole-Souled Woman by Susan Strane

3. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

4. Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour


1. Pogo by Walk Kelly

2. Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo


1. The Age of Steam by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg


1. The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

1. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

1. Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

1. The Enormous Room by e. e. cummings

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

1. The Lion’s Paw by Robb White

1. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts

1. The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clarkson

1. Penrod by Booth Tarkington

1. Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford

1. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

1. The Source by James A. Michener

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1. Fire, Wind & Yesterday by David A. Woodbury

1. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

2. Follow the River by James Alexander Thom

2. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

2. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

2. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

3. Roots by Alex Haley

3. Halic: The Story of a Gray Seal by Ewan Clarkson

3. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

3. Work Song by Ivan Doig

4. All Creatures Great and Small by James A. Herriot

4. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

4. Come Spring by Ben Ames Williams

4. Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

4. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

5. The Clover Street News by David A. Woodbury

6. Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

6. Papa Martel by Gerald Robichaud

6. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


1. Rolling Stones by O. Henry

1. Civil War Stories by Ambrose Bierce [especially “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”]

1. Tales to Warm Your Mind by David A. Woodbury

3. Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories by Jean Shepherd

5. A Fine and Pleasant Misery by Patrick F. McManus

Feel free to recommend more!