Staff Picks: 10 Most Important Books
On the heels of the Facebook trend “10 books that have stayed with you in some way,” we decided to generate our own top 10 list because unsurprisingly we are all pretty geeky about books. While the Facebook trend veers between most beloved and those that have stayed with you (overlapping, but not necessarily the same), we went with the ten most important and encouraged our staff to share a little bit about why the book is important to them. Notably, according to The Atlantic’s compilation of the top 100, only one graphic novel, Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, made the list at 87. While none of us picked The Watchmen, you will find several graphic novels and comics on our lists. We hope you will enjoy our list and consider adding your own in the comments section.
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh – Harriet learns a valuable lesson about spying, but she also gives great tips on writing. Until I read this (let’s say around age 8), I didn’t realize you could choose to be a writer when you grew up. I played Town dozens of times after finishing this. As well as starting a spy route in the neighborhood.
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – It doesn’t get any more romantic than brooding on the moors for someone that died years ago. Also, revenge can be sweet, but you need a solid plan to make it happen.
- Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – Clockwork Orange taught me that society will crush you if you let it. Also, that you can create an entirely believable language in a fictional world.
- Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut – My first look at how powerful a short story could be.
- Collected Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov – Every story is lucid, delicately worded, harsh, and very Russian. Plus I am a quarter Russian and found that Nabokov’s work made me feel connected to that part of my heritage.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Beyond the examination of racism, sexism, and justice is a story about the end of childhood. This book is so bittersweet that I cry everytime I read the final chapter.
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt – Tartt’s portrayal of the inner workings of the mind are so insightful that many of the phrases she used have never left me. “Beauty is terror.”
- What It Is by Lynda Barry – This book taught me to be fearless in art and writing, and that every single person is capable of great art.
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – She applied literary analysis to her own life, drawing comparative parallels between her experiences and the classics. It made me consider subconscious patterns in my own life and introduced me to a few psychological theorists.
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – The way Woolf could break down a moment into a million significant splinters has given me a standard to work towards for the rest of my life.
Honorable Mention: What Book!? – A collection of traditional and experimental Buddhist poems that showed me how powerful poetry could be, as well as introducing me to Buddhist thought.
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
- Mama Day by Gloria Naylor
- Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
- 158-Pound Marriage by John Irving
- Dies the Fire by SM Stirling
- The End of Alice by AM Homes
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Habibi by Craig Thompson
- DMZ by Brian Wood
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Honorable Mention: Cock and Bull by Will Self
- War with the Newts, Karel Čapek. A riotously funny, genre-bending dystopian satire that at age 11 swept away all my preconceptions of what a novel could be. Still relevant 80 years after publication.
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand. The book that convinced me I like creative non-fiction, and that any topic — including the car market of early 20th century San Francisco — can be fascinating.
- Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki. Is it strange that I’ve taken so many cues on compassion, empathy and grace in the face of the ending of an era from a twenty-year-old shonen manga? If you read it at the right age, you too will understand.
- American Born Chinese, Gene Yuen Lang. Though Yang writes from a Chinese American perspective, there’s so much here that resonated with my own experience as part-Vietnamese.
- D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. I had the Norse one too and loved it, but this is the book I credit with awakening my interest in mythology.
- The Queen’s Thief series, Megan Whalen Turner. Just as Turner’s seemingly straightforward prose reveals layers and layers of meaning, so her series builds organically from a fiendishly clever but light-hearted romp to a complex drama with flawed but admirable heroes who have to grapple with the constraints of society, of politics, of their bodies and sometimes of the gods. Oh, and the love story gives me all the feels.
- Spider-Man: Coming Home, J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr, et al. My entry point into American superheroes. Some Doctor Who fans have “their Doctor;” this is “my Peter Parker,” a quick-witted, compassionate grown-up both relatable and aspirational to my geeky teenage self.
- Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Incisive and uncompromising, yet warm and never cynical. I only read it this year but I can tell it will stay on this list for a long time to come.
- The Trial, Franz Kafka. It’s not so much that I liked the book as that it’s the purest textual distillation of a physical sensation I’ve ever encountered. Just writing that made my skin crawl with claustrophobia.
- The Westing Game, Ellen Rankin. Tough, tomboyish, clever Turtle Wexler was my role model as a kid; as I grow older I find more and more to love about her sister Angela, too. I also enjoyed being bamboozled by the mystery.
Honorable mention: A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking. I read the first four chapters at summer camp after fourth grade, but then I had to return the book to the library and go home. Though I eventually procured a copy for myself it’s become this talisman of possibilities, and I can’t bring myself to actually finish it.
- The Black Stallion – Walter Farley
- Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret – Judy Blume
- The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Stand – Stephen King
- Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets – David Simon
- Our Bodies, Ourselves – The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective
- Daredevil: Guardian Devil – Kevin Smith
- Starman – James Robinson
- Secret Six – Gail Simone
- Bossypants – Tina Fey
Honorable Mention: Richard Scarry’s Best Storybook Ever
- Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks – This was the book that convinced me to be a feminist: I read it my first year at college and again when I wrote my thesis on accessible feminism.
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – I’m not sure how much I actually understood when I first read it at a young age, but I re-read it annually and it’s the most accurate portrayal of human emotion I’ve ever seen.
- The Dark Tower series (is that cheating? If so, then The Gunslinger) by Stephen King – Say what you will about King, I was more invested in Roland Deschain’s life than in almost anything else in high school.
- Tithe by Holly Black – I wrote to Black in middle school, fangirling over her teenage speculative fiction action romance, and she wrote back in a couple weeks with the warmest encouragement to follow my dreams.
- Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce – First fantasy book I read and still one of the most girl-empowering stories I have come across.
- Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich – The first Erdrich book I read, which was swiftly followed by all of her other works.
- Maus by Art Spiegelman – This is an incredibly emotional graphic novel about the Holocaust and I laid in bed crying after it was done.
- The Girl Who Played Go by Shan Sa – Absolutely heartbreaking, and I recommend it to people constantly.
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – My grandmother read this to me every night before bed; we sobbed together over Matthew’s death.
- I and Thou by Martin Buber – The book that made me want to become Jewish all over again and fall in love with the world.
Honorable mention: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
- The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam – I’m a bit of theory nerd and this book manages to do all the things good postmodern, queer theory should do.
- Unbearable Weight by Susan Bordo – Helped me to understand my relationship with my body in so many empowering ways
- The Companion-Species Manifesto by Donna Haraway – I think about this book a lot in how I interact with dogs and the pet advocacy work I do.
- The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – Ripped my heart out. It blurs the line between memoir and fiction, memory and fact in ways that still resonate with me.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – A book where the medium is in such perfect pitch with the story and it just gives you perspective.
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – I have “I am, I am, I am” tattooed across my heart.
- Emma by Jane Austen – Jane Austen geek here, but Emma is my fave. She’s so flawed and Emma really is what Austen does best.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Feminist dystopia, need I say more?
- Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – Anne just gives me all the feels.
- Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – I love Katniss, and I love Collins take on revolution. Again, it’s that great balance of the personal and the political that I always appreciate.
Honorable Mention: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente
- Catch-22, Joseph Heller – It’s rare that I can make it through a day without being reminded of this book in some way, whether it be a quote, or a moment, or flies in my eyes.
- Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell – This is the only real classic movie that I have watched and will watch over and over. And I love the book just as much.
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – I didn’t truly appreciate this grade 10 read until I saw Demolition Man. Thank you, Sylvester Stallone.
- Batman: Knightfall, Dennis O’Neil – This book made me truly understand and appreciate Batman, not as a hero, but as a psychotic freak who toes the line of bad guy by not killing the people who are only slightly crazier than he is.
- RG Veda, CLAMP – CLAMP showed me that happy Hollywood endings are boring, and good and evil are in the eye of the beholder.
- Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Randall Frakes – I usually avoid movie adaptations, but I was obsessed with Terminator. This book featured a moment in the saga I have been dying to see on film, but have forever been denied.
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin – I love character driven stories, and I simply cannot get over the characters in this book, and their relationships. Oh Nahadoth and Sieh. All my feels.
- Moondust and Madness, Janelle Taylor – My sister had a big collection of romance novels and I decided to sneak in and steal one. Trust me to find the one cheesy scifi adventure, that I will forever hold dear to my heart.
- Everything by Octavia E. Butler – I started with Lilith’s Brood and cannot get enough. Even when I don’t necessarily like the stories, I love the thoughts that have spilled from this incredible mind, and lament her loss.
- The Pokey Little Puppy, Janette Sebring Lowrey – I loved little Golden Books as a child, and still do as an adult. I often share my favourites with new parents, and make sure they are regular reads on my daughters’ bookshelves.
Honorable Mention: Prince of Thorns, Mark Lawrence
- Witch of BlackBird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare – I read this book back in the fifth grade and it resonated with me as the isolation that the main character, Kit, felt within her own family was something I could relate too as well.
- Green Angel by Alice Hoffman – Another strong family story that I read as a child but one of tragedy and change that really connected with me.
- The Stranger by Albert Camus – What made this book was the climax as it was so powerful turning an otherwise overly ordinary person and making the reader – in this case me – realize he was extraordinary not because of some perceived specialness but because of his own unwillingness to play a mindless gear in society game of personal expectations.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding – What a powerful story of chaos, this book is one of the reasons I want to become a writer myself.
- Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya – This series really helped me growing up, filled with life lessons that aren’t preachy or overly dramatic the sincerity was real and it’s a series that always stayed with me growing up.
- Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews – The original YA novel before YA was a full fledged genre I loved the gritty horror of this tale and it was one of the few books me and my father could talk about.
- The Iliad by Homer – I love – no adore Greek myths and this is top of the list from the storytelling, to the characters, to the setting everything about this book I love it and it’s the basis for my love of mythology.
- Wicked by Gregory Maguire – I don’t like Maguire’s overly vague writing style, yet I love his storytelling and characters that play fluidly with gender and sexuality.
- Rurouni Kenshin by Nobuhiro Watsuki – One of the best stories I’ve ever read hands down Kenshin’s story of redemption and change has always inspired me even now
- Young Avengers by Allan Heinburg and Jamie Cheung – I’ve always been a lover of comics but I this is the series that actually dragged me head first into the fandom and writing about comics.
- The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas – The first time I read this I was ten. I keep coming back to it as an example of how to write an excellent adventure: characters with distinct personalities that you genuinely care about, a truly chilling villain (Milady) and an absolutely unflappable chief antagonist (Richelieu), and proper historical context.
- Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding – Hilarious, perfectly on-point satire aimed at the general female reading public. I reread this at least once a year.
- Enchantment by David Morley – A poetry collection that reaches almost heart-stopping heights of beauty, with linguistic and thematic incorporation of Morley’s Romani heritage.
- First Cities: Collected Early Poems 1960-1979 by Marilyn Hacker – Hacker is basically a wizard when it comes to arrestingly passionate formal poetry. Since these are her early works, they have the rawness of relative youth, which brings the passion directly home.
- D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire – This is ostensibly a children’s book, but the violence, strictures and pre-Christian morality of Loki (including the bit where he turns into a female horse and gives birth to Sleipnir) that you get in Norse myth are all here. I first read it when I was six, and am saving it for my future children.
- Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman – Yes, it’s a Dragonlance book, but it was the first book I read that I could bond with friends over. In middle school, my two best friends and I read the heck out of Dragonlance and would write notes to each other with our Dragonlance character code names (I was Crysania, because I had black hair and crushed hard on Raistlin, the mean asthmatic wizard).
- Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn – The first Star Wars EU book I ever read, but more importantly, my introduction to Mara Jade: an SFF heroine who was, at least at first, wholly defined by her personality and ambitions – not by her sex appeal or romantic/sexual relationships to men.
- Batman and Son/Batman: The Black Glove/Batman R.I.P., by Grant Morrison and various artists – I’ve been a Bat-fan from way back, but this run gets at the heart of what first drew me to Batman: the idea that even if you’re sad or depressed or have dark feelings, you can still do great things and make a difference for good. Some people credit All-Star Superman with helping them when they were depressed; for me, it was Morrison’s Batman.
- Dark Tales from the Woods by Daniel Morden – Written versions of Welsh gypsy stories told by Morden, a super-awesome storyteller. They’re all great, but one story in particular (“The Squirrel and the Fox”) explores jealousy and the cost of maturity with truly unsettling insight – plus there’s an illustration of a young man holding his own eyes in his hand that will haunt your dreams.
- Othello by William Shakespeare – Thanks to an excellent professor, Othello’s own crisis of self helped me sort out my confused racial identity in college by pinpointing exactly why I was confused. It gets more and more heartbreaking and personal every time I go back to it (the last time I read his dying speech, I nearly cried), which is what all great literature should be able to do.
Honorable Mention: Martin the Warrior by Brian Jacques – My introduction to epic fantasy, through the heroism of small woodland creatures. Even at nine years old, I respected Jacques’ commitment to not holding back darker narrative elements while still remaining child-appropriate.
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis – The first in what will be a sequence of being required to pick one book from a beloved series is of course this nautical adventure story from CS Lewis. It has everything I love: ships, adventure, my favorite Chronicles of Narnia characters. The lessons I learned from VotDT are legion, from realizing that people can grow up and out of being insufferable, to the way consumer temptation can hurt personal relationships, to the importance of facing down a challenge with courage and conviction.
- The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster – Even as a kid I loved wordplay and grammar jokes. Getting lost in a world where rules are based on spelling, homonyms, and basic algebra seemed like a dream come true.
- Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery – I can say without hyperbole that I thought of Anne Shirley as my best friend growing up.
- All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriott – The book that restores my faith in humanity, and smooths even my most ruffled feathers. I’ve read it more times than I can count — at least once a year for the last twenty years — and it still makes me laugh and cry and wish I could run away to the Yorkshire countryside with a quirky group of coworkers of my own.
- Watership Down, Richard Adams – I can’t even say this book is a favorite, but it’s stuck with me since I first read it as a child. Something about it haunts me.
- Questions About Angels, Billy Collins – My favorite book from my favorite contemporary poet.
- The Circle, Gail Simone – When I get a tattoo, it’ll be a quote from this book.
- A House Like a Lotus, Madeleine L’Engle – It was hard narrowing the L’Engle books down to just one, but Lotus got under my skin in a quiet, permanent way. Polyhymnia O’Keefe remains one of the characters I most relate to.
- Redwall, Brian Jacques – This whole series. Particularly, the attitude towards the death of loved ones and grief still informs my own grieving process.
- Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Paterson – The first book to consciously make me begin to consider perspectives other than my own.
Honorable Mention: Many Waters, Madeline L’Engle; The Giver, Lois Lowry; The Gold Bug, Edgar Allen Poe
In no particular order:
- Snow White, Blood Red, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling – My first exposure to the idea of rewriting fairy tales. Once I read this, something just clicked and I needed to read ALL the fairy tale books.
- The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter – After Datlow & Windling’s series, this showed me just how dark and visceral you could get with fairy tales (spoiler: pretty dark).
- Tithe, Holly Black – This is that story a lot of kids tell themselves, that they are princesses or fairies and are lost from their true homes, but Black showed all the facets of that, including the bad.
- Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock – I’ve held onto this book for years, probably because of an implied promise in it of the reality of magic, just out of sight, just waiting for the right person to find it.
- Threshold, Caitlin R Kiernan – This lady taught me a more subtle horror, and I draw upon it heavily when I’m running a horror RPG.
- Dangerous Angels, Francesca Lia Block – I only wish I’d had these books when I was younger. Underneath all the hints of magic and glitter is a lot of the pain felt when growing up.
- Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey – This is a series I reread every year. Well written BDSM fantasy with a super smart, sexy courtesan/spy. Siiiiiiiiiigh.
- The Ivory and the Horn, Charles de Lint – More magic, but this time it’s in the city. I love Newford, and the characters feel like friends.
- The Thief of Always, Clive Barker – Oh, the terror of being a child, when you really believe in monsters. Lovely language as well, especially the descriptions of the seasons.
- Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman – There are two stories in this book that really speak to me, and I actually got to see the play version: Troll Bridge and Snow, Glass, Apples. They both invert the usual narration of classic tales (I totally don’t have a theme here).
Honorable Mention: The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin. Totally blew my mind with the different social structure of the Gethen people.
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – I considered putting Alias Grace since that is my favourite Atwood novel. But the challenge asks for books that have stayed with you and in that sense The Handmaid’s Tale is the clear winner. This probably one the first books I read that was unabashedly feminist and it has coloured how I’ve viewed politics surrounding women’s bodies ever since.
- The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood – If the Handmaid’s Tale make me look at politics differently, The Edible Woman challenged how I looked at everything else. Honestly I could have made this entire list out of Atwood works. No one writer has affected my worldview more.
- Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall – The first book I read with a young queer character. I felt like I found so much of myself in Eve and the other characters in this book.
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – Yes I’m cheating here but I can’t pick just one. This series had been a part of my life for so long I can’t imagine myself without it. It made me believe in magic and that anyone can be a hero.
- 1984 by George Orwell – The novel that brought us the terms “Big Brother” “doublespeak” and indirectly “Orwellian.” In our current political climate it’s hard not to think about Orwell’s predictions.
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson – I wrote a whole blog post back in 2013 about how this was the book that changed my life. Basically I found this book at a time when I couldn’t had needed it more. To quote myself “It was hope in a paperback novel.”
- Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley – Like Atwood it’s hard to choose just one book by Timothy Findley for this list. Not Wanted on the Voyage wins because I read it over a decade ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
- Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs – This book is both emotional and hilarious. It made me laugh and taught me a lot about mental illness.
- Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides – This book is so epic I can’t even begin to count all the reasons it has stayed with me.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel – It made me reconsider the idea of spirituality and how I viewed religion and was a big part of why I went on to study religion in university.
Honourable mention to: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Watership Down, Cloud Atlas, and Anna Karenina.