I recently set up a little bookcase in the living room and packed it with the greatest hits of my reading life. Plucked from my basement library, these 75 novels aren’t necessarily the best I've read, but they hold the stories, the writing or the ideas that jolted or inspired me the most as a reader and a writer.
The top shelf starts with Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men.” Based on outrageous Louisiana governor Huey Long, this novel dazzled me with its politics and poetry. After finishing it on a night train hurtling through Thailand, I immediately started scribbling down the idea for the first novel I ever tried to write.
Nearby, on this same shelf, are the two Northwest novels that rocked me as a teenager -- Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction” and Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” Farther down is Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” which slapped me with its first page and soon had me forcing it on college friends. Drop down a row and there's my favorite provocative novel of 2012, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain.
Gathering all these books together in one compact bookcase felt like a reunion. Hey, “Ironweed”! I hadn’t even seen the cover of William Kennedy's novel in decades but his story about some irresistible bums sticks with me like it’s my own. And there's Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice.” That movie was so powerful that people forget the book was even stronger.
I have kept in touch with many of these books through the years, such as “The Great Gatsby”, which I cracked again the other night just to re-read its final six pages. I’ve reopened Pete Dexter’s “Paper Boy” several times to study the tense realism of his dialogue. And I’m looking forward to re-reading the daring opening to Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto."
They’re all here together now. And browsing back in time on the bottom shelf, I see “Being There,” Jerzy Kosinski’s brilliant satire, which felt so illicit to this 14-year-old. And back further, there’s “Conan”. Yes, I loved that pulp fiction series, and I'd still argue Robert E. Howard was a gifted vivid writer. And before him, there was Wilson Rawls and his story of an Ozarks boy and his two hunting dogs. “Where the Red Fern Grows” was the last book ever read aloud to me. I considered leaving it out of this bookcase, but it belongs too.