Ah…a list of favorite books. The potential to embarrass myself. In my mind I see hundreds of jaws dropping as readers shake their heads in dismay and (perhaps) judgment. “He picked THAT?!? I hated that thing! Where was the plot? And who was I supposed to relate to?”
Recommending books is only slightly less risky than writing them. Both activities require putting your soul on display for the world to see, knowing that some who thought they “got you” didn’t. But alas, if no one recommended books (or wrote them, for that matter), what would we find to read?
So here’s a list for you to consider, then I’ll talk about a few of them. I list them in alphabetical order by author rather than order of preference—I suppose I still feel the need to hide a small part of my soul.
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Peace Like a River, Leif Enger
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin
About a Boy, Nick Hornby
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Straight Man, Richard Russo
The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
All Hallow’s Eve, Charles Williams
The Place of the Lion, Charles Williams
Joy in the Morning, P.D. Wodehouse
Why these? There are two things that I feel are absolutely necessary for any good story and one other thing that can elevate it to a “great” one:
1) characters that I wish to spend time with;
2) a structure that gets me from one place to another; and
3) a point.
These necessities need a short explanation, I imagine. Notice that in requirement #1 I didn’t say “good characters” or “noble characters” or even “characters I like.” I don’t have to like a man, let alone approve of him, in order to wish to spend some time with him. But I do have to be interested. Something about him must intrigue me.
Requirement #2 is probably the hardest to define, but it means that the story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many stories written over the last generation or two move along aimlessly until they stop arbitrarily somewhere along the way. The excuse for this shabby storytelling is that it’s more like “real life” than those antiquated tales that actually have a conclusion. Two objections to this argument. First, who says life doesn’t have conclusions? As Christians we certainly believe that justice will prevail, love will conquer death, and peace will reign. Second, even if you aren’t thinking metaphysically, we still want stories to come to a satisfying conclusion because life, at times, doesn’t feel like it does. Stories shouldn’t imitate the mundane, they should rise above it. This sounds contradictory because of the switch from long-term thinking to short-term thinking. In the long run, all of creation will come to a resolution. In the short run, it doesn’t feel that way, so we need stories to remind us of justice and grace. Perhaps we’re hardwired for this, so stories that go against this drive leave us dissatisfied.
Requirement #3 is hopefully self-explanatory. A story should say something about big things. The meaning of life, the sacrifice of grace, the power of love. More importantly, give it to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
So, onto a few of these books. Some of them have fairly obvious Christian themes, like
Still others on this list don’t seem to have any ties to Christianity other than their being about right and wrong, love, joy, and, in one way or another, truth. Grace seems to be a theme that runs through most of these stories as well. I think grace, even more than redemption, softens us up and changes us. The ending of
And then there’s humor. I love to laugh. I think there is something ennobling about humor. To look for opportunities to laugh is inherently a humble pursuit of wisdom (although it can be twisted at times). Straight Man and The Princess Bride are both “laugh out loud” books, as is anything by Wodehouse. I picked Joy in the Morning almost at random. Anything from his
That’s about all from me. Don’t judge me too harshly. Or at least keep it to yourself. Ha! As if that could happen on the internet.