What are your favorite books of all-time? Here are my Top 20.

Posted: August 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

I’ve always love to read and, as many do, I learned from my parents. Mom and Dad were readers, my sisters were readers, and my son was reading books at a very young age. Hell, I remember many vacations where everybody was sitting around a beach house or on the beach with a book, just quietly reading.

I clearly recall reading books as I lay in bed as a kid. The Forest Fire Mystery and The Jinx of Payrock Canyon by Troy Nesbit, as well as The Call of the Wild by Jack London. I was absolutely mesmerized by The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and read it several times. With really good books it always seemed you could get more out of it the more you read it.

I even loved the smell of books, ya know? Still do to this day. For that reason I much prefer an actual book to a reading a book on my iPad or Kindle. I bet some of you feel the same way.

I always tried to pass my love of reading on to my students when I taught, especially when I actually taught Reading for a few years. So many kids hate to read and that’s a damn shame. They have no idea what they’re missing. I tried to tell them that the images your mind conjures up while reading a book is way cooler than anything you’ll ever see in a movie or TV show, and I believe that.

With all this in mind I decided to undertake the unenviable task of narrowing my favorite books down to my Top 20. Trust me, I had to eliminate some really cool books. Anyway, these are the books that have had the biggest effect on my life, in one way or the other. In many cases I’ve read these books up to 5-times or more.

I apologize for my brief descriptions of the books, which in no way do them justice. If you want more information, go to Wikipedia (never wrong, right?) or search it up on The Goggle. Bottom line, I highly recommend them all.

Here we go . . .

On the Road – Jack Kerouac (1951)

On the Road is based on Kerouac’s travels across America with his friends. It’s set in the post-1WWII United States, and it’s all about Kerouac’s anti-establishment and counter-culture ways and views of life. Oh, and if you don’t know what the Beat Generation is, this might be the place to start learning. I really believe my love of travel and being “On the Road” originated with this book. There are a couple other books with a similar theme on this list, but I think it all started with this one. Love this book.

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)

The Hobbit is a book that can be read as a kid or as an adult, and you can get something out of it depending on your age. My son read The Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy before he turned 11 and loved them all. The Hobbit was all about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his trip with Gandalf and the dwarves to reclaim the gold (and much much more) from Smaug the Dragon. In reality, it’s all about finding what’s really inside of all of us, and what we’re actually capable of achieving. Exceptional book.

The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (1951)

What young man can’t identify with Holden Caulfield, a guy who feels alienated from the way of life that has been led by his parents? I read this when I was around 17 years of age, and I completely identified with the character. Caulfield is rebellious against society, and this was not a mainstream attitude (or at least not verbalized) among teenagers when the book was written in 1951. As the 60’s approached, however, all this was about to change. Bottom line? This book, as well as On the Road, helped me to see that questioning what you thought you already knew was O.K.

Lord of the Flies – William Golding (1954)

Even as a kid I understood this book. It’s about a group of school boys stuck on an uninhabited island where they’re left to govern themselves, with disastrous results. And after being a teacher for 30-years, I can see the exact same thing happening in 2014. As a matter of fact, in today’s day and age the situation would undoubtedly disintegrate even more quickly. Somehow, someway, I convinced the powers that be at Greenfield Middle School to let me teach this book to 8th graders back in the mid-80’s.

1Ball Four – Jim Bouton (1970)

I first read this book as a freshman in high school, and it affected me in more ways than you can ever imagine. On the surface the book is based on a simple premise – it’s the season-long account of Jim Bouton, a professional baseball player for the Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros back in 1969. The book, however, is way more than that. Bouton was a liberal, anti-war and anti-establishment athlete who questioned authority at every turn. In the book he discusses everything from racial issues to the war in Vietnam, which influenced me tremendously. But you know what part of the book had the biggest impact on me? The part that would have an effect on me for the rest of my life? It was the part where he and his wife adopted a young son. It was an international adoption, and they got their little boy from Korea. Had I never read this book I may have never had the idea to do the same. Thanks Jim Bouton.

Travels With Charley: In Search of America – John Steinbeck (1960) 

Yep, another book about traveling. In this one, Steinbeck decides to take a trip with his dog Charley and a camper he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He basically does a tour of the US, keeping a diary as he goes, documenting the people he meets and the situations he encounters. I loved it. Just the thought of traveling, stopping in strange towns, little restaurants and diners, and meeting people from all around the country just intrigued the hell out of me. Steinbeck even visited the south during the height of integration and has some interesting observations. Good stuff.

Animal Farm – George Orwell (1945)

Who couldn’t love a book about animals leading a revolt and taking over their farm? Orwell was an outspoken critic of Stalinism and used this book as a tool to illustrate his views. He said it was his first book “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole”. I read this when I was really young and again in college, so it was fascinating to see it on two completely different levels. Make sense? No? Well, tough. It does to me.

Rant – Chuck Palahniuk (2007)

This is an awesome book that is virtually impossible to describe in one paragraph. There are 1twists and surprises at every turn. The setting goes from the future to the present to the past in various stages and it takes awhile to get used to, believe me. However, once you get into the rhythm of the writing it’s addictive as hell. Completely confused? I told you it was impossible to describe. Just read the damn book.

1776 – David McCullough (2005)

This is, in my opinion, the best book ever written about the Revolutionary War. It’s so good that at one point I was 99% certain we were going to lose. Not even kidding. As I used to tell my students, had George not decided to turn around and attack those damn Hessians on that morning of December 26th, 1776 we all might not be sitting here today. Anyway, ’tis a riveting book. History, folks! This stuff actually happened for realz!

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West  – Stephen E. Ambrose (1996)

Quite possibly my favorite book of all-time. Just an amazing account of Lewis & Clark’s journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. These guys were rock stars in their time. They encounter all sorts of strange and unknown animals, including grizzly bears, buffaloes and prairie dogs. At one point in the journal of Lewis, he writes that he’d love to capture a grizzly bear and take it back to President Jefferson. He changes his mind when they finally encounter one and it nearly kills them. At the time, the American West was like another planet to these guys. Yet despite the dangers they made it. Incredible story.

Outside Valentine – Liza Ward (2004)

This quirky, odd little book is a fictional account of the son of two of Charles Starkweather’s victims. Starkweather was an infamous spree killer back in the 50’s, and the book entails how the brutal murders still haunt him into adulthood. Ward, the author, is the granddaughter of two of Starkweather’s victims. So the book is fiction but it’s based on real life events. I love it because it just has a dark, surreal feel to it. Right up my alley.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote (1966)

The first book I ever read that made me lose sleep. It really, really freaked me out. The book details the brutal 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter, a successful farmer from Kansas, his wife, and two of their four children. The murderers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, had hatched the plan in prison when they heard Clutter had money hidden in his house. They show up one night, invade the house, and all hell breaks loose. They are eventually caught and are hanged, which incidentally is a really creepy scene in a great movie made later that was based on the book. I read this when I was 12, and it was the reason I always made sure our doors were locked before bedtime. Spooky.

1Modoc – The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived – Ralph Helfer (1998)

I swear to God I cried at least 3-times while reading this book. It’s the story of a boy and an elephant and their fight to stay together across three continents. Modoc and his owner Bram have this almost psychic connection, and were in fact born on the same day at the same hour. They survive attacks by rebels, a shipwreck, a gunshot wound, an evil and abusive trainer and owner, and much, much more. This is simply one of the most amazing stories you’ll ever read. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you love animals you will LOVE this book. Highly and eagerly recommended.

Sons of Mississippi: The Story of Race and its Legacy – Paul Hendrickson (2003)

In this book Hendrickson tracks down the sons of some of the most famous figures from both sides of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 50’s and early 60’s. It’s a fascinating insight into how people view the same set of circumstances through completely different perspectives. Intriguing, interesting and thought-provoking book.

Hemingway’s Hurricane – Phil Scott (2006)

This book tells the story of the 1935 hurricane that hit Key West, Florida, and the people whose deaths it caused. Those people included 600 war veterans that FDR had sent there to help build a highway from Florida to Key West. These men were living in flimsy shacks, and the two men responsible for getting them out before the storm hit didn’t act quickly enough. Earnest Hemingway was living in The Keys at the time and he was outraged. This book includes his efforts at getting to the awful truth.

Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe  – Laurence Bergreen (2003)

Just as the title says, this is the amazing story of Magellan’s trip around the world. He didn’t make it, and he wasn’t the only one. The voyage started with 237 men and finished with 18. That, my friends, is how difficult of a journey it really was. In fact, after this voyage nobody did it for another 60-years. Magellan and crew encountered hostile natives, icebergs, and even reported seeing giants. Better than any adventure a screenwriter could ever make up.

The Johnstown Flood – David McCullough (1968)

An absolutely stunning account of one of the greatest tragedies in American history. It tells the story of the 1889 flood that killed 2,209 people. Ninety-nine entire families died in the flood, including 396 children. One hundred twenty-four women and 198 men were widowed and 98 children were orphaned. One-third of the dead (777 people) were never identified. The flood was caused by the failure of The South Fork Damn, which was maintained by The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose members included many rich industrialists of the time. The club had been warned that the damn needed widened, but they refused to do so. When the damn broke due to heavy rainfall, the entire lake basically came down the valley and descended upon the town. I’ve been there, and there are still water lines high up on some of the old buildings. Just an incredibly tragic, compelling story.

Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation – Philip Norman (1981)1

Trust me, I’ve read about a zillion books on The Beatles, and this one is the best. It’s just a beautifully written account of their lives and the music they made. This book is must-reading for not only Beatle fans but fans of rock music in general. READ IT.

The Autobiography of Malcom X – Alex Haley (1965)

I first read this book in the late 60’s when I was 13-years old, and believe me when I say it blew all the stereotypes this southern Ohio youngster had heard out of the water. In addition, at the time I’d had no idea that Malcom X had completely changed his world views in the last months of his life. Hell, I’d be willing to bet that many people today aren’t aware of the cosmic shift he went through after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Incredible stuff, even when reading it today.

We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi – Seth Cagin & Philip Dray (1988)

This book should be required reading for every American. It’s an in-depth study of the Civil Rights Movement, with a detailed look at the killing of the three workers in 1964 and the trial of their murderers. It’s a chilling account, and you can’t read it without being impressed with the courage of those who went south to fight for the freedom of their fellow Americans. Interestingly, many of the Freedom Fighters were trained in Oxford, Ohio at Miami University. Bottom line? If you haven’t read this book you should put it on your list immediately.

Just missed the cut: Helter Skelter, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Naked Lunch, Catch-22, Into Thin Air, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Fordlandia.

So there you go folks. The most influential and interesting books that I’ve read (so far) in my lifetime. In fact, some were life-changing for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good adventure or thriller as well. I enjoy authors like Stuart Woods and I particularly like John Sandford’s Prey series, it’s just that the above 20 books had a much deeper effect on me in one way or the other.

In addition, I’m fascinated by what others read. So let’s hear it. What books have had the biggest impact on your life?

Note: Let’s exclude The Bible. Too obvious a choice, folks.

  1. Oh my! Some of my favorites are your favorites too. Probably because we suggest books to each other or share. Will make my list soon.

  2. Chapman's General Store says:

    We share some common picks; Catcher in the Rye, Travels with Charlie, Malcolm X, 1776, & Lord of the Flies. Grapes of Wrath and most other Steinbeck works are high on my list. Also Roots, Trinity, 1984, Brave New World, and so much more.

  3. Well, I was always pretty much a bookaholic. One of my early favorites was”Lassie”, which my mother actually read to me a chapter at a time! Then “My Friend Flicka” and all the subsequent horse books, Then there was “Little
    Shepherd of Kingdom Come”–A little later on I fell in love with “A tree Grows in Brooklyn” and certainly was mesmerized by — Oh shoot! what’s it called? the one made into a movie with Gregory Peck. I did not like the movie,’cause the characters were different than the ones I created in my mind.(Addison/ Scout, etc)One of my favorite recent authors is Nicholas Sparks–(The Longest Ride was wonderful) but guess I’ve read nearly everything he’s written. It’s disappointing when I do not like a favorite author’s book–happened with him recently and also with another of my favs. (William Paul Young) Gosh, I really hate that!

Gimme a holler.

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