The Best Books

In yesterday’s wonderful post by Emily, she spoke about her mother-in-law who spent her life quietly serving her family. As I read how Emily honored this woman in her life, it brought to mind the last sentence of a novel I read years ago–Middlemarch by George Eliot:

.”. . . For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

And after ruminating over how perfectly Eliot (a Victorian novelist born in 1819, a woman born with the name Mary Ann but who took the name George the ensure that her readers would take her seriously) encapsulated Emily’s ideas, I thought to myself, “Hooray!” Because I was already planning on writing a post about the “best books.” The novels that have reached across time and distance to teach us or lift us up or give us insight into a corner of the world about which we would otherwise know very little. The dog-eared novels with the scribbles in the margins and the underlined passages. The books that keep us up late into the night because they’re so . . . dang . . . good.

The way yesterday’s post brought Middlemarch to mind was an example of how “the best books” connect us. Mormon women living in the 21st century can read Eliot’s words and understand them and respond to them. Even learn from them. Of course, this is why we read.

We read to be entertained, but we also read to learn about ourselves and the world around us. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that some people (women especially?) feel guilty about taking time to read good books. Maybe it’s because when you read, you sit down–or even snuggle in bed with the covers up around you. Maybe it’s because reading necessitates a certain isolation, a shutting yourself away from the world. Maybe, for some, they’ve decided that they have so little time to read that they should dedicate that time solely to the reading of the scriptures (which is the most important reading we do, but it doesn’t mean that the other kind of reading isn’t necessary). So for those who feel that if they’re reading at all, they should be reading out of their triple combination with a highlighting pencil nearby, I offer the following gem from Brigham Young:

“‘Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?’ says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.”

Ahh, I love that quote.

I’ve learned a lot about the world around me and the humans who inhabit it from reading good novels. I’ve learned spiritual lessons from books like Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead. For example, here’s a passage I underlined where the protagonist, a minister named John Ames, is pondering the story of Abraham and Hagar:

The story of Hagar and Ishmael came to mind while I was praying this morning, and I found a great assurance in it. The story says that it is not only the father of a child who cares for its life, who protects its mother, and it says that even if the mother can’t find a way to provide for it, or herself, provision will be made. At that level it is a story full of comfort. That is how life goes–we send our children into the wilderness. Some of them on the day they are born, it seems, for all the help we can give them. Some of them seem to be a kind of wilderness unto themselves. But there must be angels there, too, and springs of water. Even that wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s. I need to bear this in mind. (pg 119)

Beautiful, no? Gilead is packed full of so many lovely passages–so many meaningful spiritual insights–just like that one.

And then there are the novels that have taught me about other people and other places I’ve never visited. I’ve learned about Afghanistan by reading Khaleed Hosseini’s Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I’ve learned about 19th century China from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible taught me more about the twentieth century politics of the African Congo than I ever expected to learn. Cold Mountain opened up an aspect of the Civil War I’d never before considered.

Then there are all the books that have taught me about myself. Morrison’s Beloved. Goldberg’s Bee Season. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The list could go on, but I don’t want to hog all the good books. Because now I want to hear from you.

Which books are your “best books” and why? Give us a list or a quote or a reason. I’d love to hear the books that have taught you or changed you or simply made your world a more interesting place to live in.

(Oh, and a caveat: remember that some people have ideas about what is worthwhile that might not jive with your own. Just because a book is recommended here doesn’t mean it won’t contain some language or deal with difficult themes. If you check out any of these recommended titles, please do so at your own risk.)

About Angela

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

27 thoughts on “The Best Books

  1. I loved the book Labyrinth by Kate Mosse because it explores in such a delightful way the Search for the Holy Grail with a woman as the main character. Unusual, in Holy Grail quest fiction!
    The Kite Runner was one of the most moving books I have ever read. I have learned more about repentance and forgiveness from reading that book than a dozen sermons on the topic.
    I love Alexander McCall Smith’s books because they are gentle, funny and moving. I love how he pokes fun at the academic world with his German professor. I love Mma Ramotswe.
    Elizabeth Peters delights me with her fantastic characters, archealogical background, and fun stories.
    Anne Perry always makes me think about important issues and the way they impact people in their daily lives. I also love the way she examines the lives, hopes, feelings and dreams of people who are being investigated. She deals with them so compassionately.
    L.M. Montgomery reminds me of the delight, adventure, and humor that is to be found in the ordinary moments of small-town and country living.
    Willa Cather challenges me to think about the struggle of an artist as they develop and reminds me how extraordinary the pioneers were.
    Madeleine L’Engle reaffirms my faith in God in ways that are wonderful.
    And there are so many others. But I’ll give others the chance to share their favorites!

  2. Tiffany, thanks for all the great recommendations. I love Willa Cather, too, and have a soft spot for Montgomery. And L’Engle has been a favorite since I was a kid.

    But only one comment? One? C’mon folks, I know that you have your favorite books. Tell us about them!

    (And that’s enough shameless begging.)

  3. This is just my shortlist:

    I loved pondering the theories and discoveries of Levin in Anna Karenina. I also loved becoming more aware of the plight of women in Iran and remembering to be grateful for my freedoms from Reading Lolita in Tehran.

  4. We talked about this at our last book club when we discussed Reading Lolita in Tehran. But it’s hard for me to come up with just a few titles that have influenced me because there are so many, and they’re always changing. Some books that were very influential when I was a teenager (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Tisha, A Town Like Alice, Life and Death in Shanghai, The Awakening, Blood Brothers, A Gathering of Days) are all still some of my favorites, but they probably wouldn’t make my short list now. And I have trouble focussing on just novels too; there’s way too much non-fiction I love.

    E.L. Konigsburg has long been a favorite, along with Lois Lowry and Chaim Potok and Susan Cooper. More recently I’ve come to love Ella Maillart and Aminatta Forna and Elizabeth Wayland Barber, although she’s not a novelist. In the last few years there have been a lot of good books, and since you begged, I’ll leave a list. :)

    Return of the Native
    House of Mirth
    The Good Earth
    A Thousand Splendid Suns
    A Dream in Polar Fog
    Yellow Star
    Snow
    Guests of the Sheik
    The Reindeer People
    Suite Francaise
    The Thirteenth Tale
    Dzhan (Soul)
    A Midwife’s Tale
    Wild Swans

    But the most influential? I know it’s odd, but probably the cookbooks by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. They are a family who lives and travels the way I like to live and travel, and half of what I make for dinner comes from their cookbooks. I am a different person because of their books (even though the writing isn’t spectacular- I go somewhere else for the sheer pleasure of the words).

  5. I find myself echoing Amira. Different books have their place in my life in each of its different seasons.

    I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife- I read it as a newlywed and the love story resounded with me.

    I delight in C.S. Lewis’ work and his grappling with the same topics that lead many to join the church.

    I could read Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher again and again because I love the journey the protagonist takes.

    I love learning about new cultures, as well, so I loved The Red Tent, The Kite Runner, Like Water for Chocolate, The Good Earth, 100 Years of Solitude, and Girl With a Pearl Earring.

  6. Barb, I forgot about Rosamund Pilcher. I love her books, but it has been many years since I have read her. Will have to check a Pilcher novel out.

    Dalene, you have mentioned Lolita in Tehran a couple of times so I am thinking I really need to read it. It sounds like an important book to read.

  7. I remember fondly many of the books listed. I find my favorite book is usually the one I am currently reading. However, there are some from the past that stand out.
    Perhaps my favorite author is Connie Willis. She writes feminist science fiction, but more subtly than Ursala LeGuin (whom I also like). Willis’ The Doomsday Book was lifechanging. A young woman travels back in time (from our future) to the days of the Black Plague. It’s a serious, though provoking and sometimes heart wrenching work. Her novel To Say Nothing of the Dog is hilarious satire–another time travel, but this time to Victorian England. When my mother was dying, and in much pain, I recommended this book to her. It was the last book she read, and she loved it. Willis also has some wonderful short stories.

    Another author I like (though some of her work more than other) is Isabel Allende. Shortly after my mother died I found the Allende novel Daughter of Fortune on my mother’s bookshelf. It’s the story of a young girl from Chile who travels to San Francisco over a century ago. My mother grew up in San Francisco during the 20s and 30s, and the story really puts you in the place–beautifully written.

    I have had a love affair with the written word since I was old enough to hear my mother’s voice reading to me as an infant. As she once wrote in her journal, “Reading was always my greatest love. If I didn’t have some time for reading every day, I felt cheated.”

  8. I also love to read and read a ton (shameless plug–if you go to my blog and click the label “books” I write reviews of what I read). Anywho, one book that comes to mind is Possession by A.S. Byatt. I read it shortly beginning my final year of my undergraduate degree and I found myself wrapped up in the story of a researcher and what he discovers about the past. It’s a story about finding the truth and discovering how to read texts with new eyes. I hadn’t had much experience with academia before, and while I now know a little more, the process seemed so romantic to me. Then I ended up in a class with a professor who finds women’s writing from centuries ago and ended up helping her translate a play and then I ended up going on to grad school. And now I’m starting a PhD in Comp Lit. Partly because I read Possession seven years ago at an important time in my life. I’ve reread it a few times, but it’s a mystery so nothing is as good as the first time.

    A few nonfiction books that have really opened up my worldview are A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power, Random Family by Adrian LeBlanc, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup.

    I also would say that I mostly avoid Mormon Lit until my husband took a class in it at BYU. The single book which changed my mind was Angel of the Danube which is fabulously written and so true to my mission experience. Then he had several classes from Dean Hughes and we started reading his series about WWII and it’s sequel series, and I love both of those as well. Another fabulous Mormon author is Virginia Sorensen.

    I could totally talk about books all day long!

  9. I think Barbara Kingsolver is brilliant! I loved her “The Bean Trees” even more. I also loved “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. The writing is brilliant– there was very little dialog… and it really works within this story. It had me thinking for WEEKS after reading it… and then wanting to get more food storage! “Peace like a River” by Lief Enger is beautifully written! Then there is the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” . I just LOVE Atticus!

    I have highlighted passages from each of these books… they are wonderfully written, and speak to me. I could go on and on… but I want/need more suggestions of good books!

  10. I’ve just discovered Elizabeth Gaskell (somehow I missed her PBS/BBC miniseries renaissance a few years ago) and I loved reading Wives and Daughters. Now I’m reading Cranford and already bought North and South to read next. They’re great Victorian novels, full of insight and humor. She’s like Dickens (whom I also love), except more people die.

    I would also second Coming Home, Mrs. Dalloway, and Angel of the Danube.

  11. It’s been great to see all your recommendations. And so many books I haven’t read yet! Dalene, you’re right about Goodreads (although I don’t keep up-to-date there nearly as much as I’d like to.) But it’s a great way to share books and reviews.

  12. I just discovered Elizabeth Gaskell too! And I have a degree in literature. I have no idea how I got through 4 years of college without cracking open one of her books.

    North and South is excellent and I love, love, love the film! Margaret is a very unique Victorian heroine.

  13. Threadjack here to themotherboard–everytime I see your name, I think of the PBS series, Cyberchase, which my kids love. Is that by any chance the genesis of your screen name?

  14. I am reminded of a friend who loved to read D. H. Lawrence. Not because of what he had to say, but because he said it so beautifully. In the end she decided that it was a corrupting influence after all and gave him up.

    Right now I am trying to be entertained, and am to some degree, by Jodi Picoult. Is it suspenseful, yes. Do I want to know what happens, yes. But I can’t stand the language and the subject matter and I doubt that even D. H. Lawrence could have presented the same issues in a beautiful manner. She belabors some of the seamier parts of her story far too much. I don’t really need to know the entire sexual back ground of the accused rapist. All I need to know is what is in his present. Maybe I will have to skip to the end.

  15. The book that changed my life, IOW made me think I could be a ‘reader’ was “Little Women.” I read that book when Sweet Valley High was the only novel I could finish and ‘Archie and Veronica’ were my two best friends.

    I loved it enough to force it on my future daughter if/when she comes along. Although the one book my mom begged me to read (Secret Garden), I never did. So, she’ll probably refuse and hate the thought of it for the rest of her life. But, I will try….I will try.

  16. Dalene: Yes. I’m on goodreads. I don’t update nearly enough… but it is a great way to get recommendations!

    TiffanY: I wish I were genius enough to say that is where my name came from… but its not… i don’t think anyway. my son started calling me TheMotherboard several years ago… and he calls his dad bossman(El Jefe). I think he was thinking of “the mother ship” but said themotherboard, Jefe laughed his head off and it sort of stuck.

  17. oh man, I have dishes to do and my legs need shaved, but, shoot, I’m takin’ the bait.

    My first crush was Holden Caulfield, no lie. I know CATCHER gets trashed on pretty good in LDS circles, but I’d kiss Jerome Salinger’s feet. I think his story “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” was the first fiction to break my heart. It was spring time in ninth grade.

    The books that kill me still: Old Man and the Sea, Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying. I go back to them and cry again and again.

    Jarhead, of all things, shook me profoundly. As did Anne Enright’s The Gathering. I love them both and would recommend them without apology.

    I wish I’d written Housekeeping, The Known World, A Hundred Years of Solitude. (Angela, I wish you would be a lamb and write my thesis for me!)

  18. So many of my favorites have been mentioned… Montgomery, Austen, Byatt, Lewis, L’Engle, Alexander and Tolkien and so many more. I learned from Cry the Beloved Country, The Good Earth and Life of Pi. I cried over To Destroy You Is No Loss and Night and Left to Tell.

    I loved the loss and humor in The Dogs of Babel and the charm of the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I remember discovering the humor of Oscar Wilde in the 9th grade and being delighted by the Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve always loved Dave Barry’s books. He is a silly genius. I also love books I probably shouldn’t love, because they are funny but foul, like memoirs from Burroughs and Sedaris.

    There are so many more. I love books, and very good books are like dear friends, who I love and know intimately.

  19. Claudia, I can’t speak for all of D.H. Lawrence, but “The Rocking Horse Winner” was one of the first short stories that I read as a grown-up that blew my mind a little. I wouldn’t give up on him, although not all of his stuff is for everyone, that’s for sure.

    Oh, Maralise! The Secret Garden! I loved that book sooo much when I was young. I can close my eyes and see the illustrations. I think if you read it now you would see how beautiful it is. And now that I’ve extolled the virtues of The Secret Garden . . . I’ve never read Little Women (gasp)!

    Brittney, I remember reading Catcher when I was about 19 and feeling really guilty for liking it so much. But there you have it.

    And Sue, To Destroy You Is No Loss is on my list of books to read right this very minute, so I’m glad to hear another good recommendation.

  20. Such great suggestions, thank you.

    I love-
    My Antonia (since reading it in high school I’ve loved Willa Cather, good to find other Cather lovers)

    The Book Thief (recent read, not just another WW II book amazing writing technique.)

    Cry the Beloved Country (writing to drool over)

    Shadow of the Wind (The way Latino writers blend the everyday with the surreal makes me want Spanish citizenship. )

    The Last Sin Eater (Don’t watch the movie! the book will help you see the atonement in a new way.)

  21. Thanks for all the wonderful ideas. I’m taking notes.

    Some of my favorites: The Good Earth, The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, Devil in the White City, The Worst Hard Time, Gone With the Wind,The Road, A Midwife’s Tale, and Cry, the Beloved Country. I love Thomas Hardy, Barbara Kingsolver (esp. Poisonwood Bible), Amy Tan, Mark Twain.

    My Favorite LDS history books are Annie Clark Tanner’s A Mormon Mother (polygamy), and Ronald Walker’s Qualities that Count: Heber J. Grant as Businessman, Missionary and Apostle.

  22. Can a guy get in on this?

    These are probably guy-ish books, but I offer them nonetheless: The Human Comedy by William Saroyan–elegiac and true, I mean, True; Spartina by John Casey–a modern day Moby Dick; A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving–have read it twice and the ending a third time in the stacks at Barnes and Noble frightening the women and children with my blubbering; My Name is Asher Lev by Chiam Potok–nearly destroyed me when a couple ladies in my wife’s reading group didn’t like Asher ’cause he was so selfish and mean to his parents; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon; Speaker For the Dead by Orson Scott Card; and Hilton’s Lost Horizon surprised me with its beauty of language and compelling story–so much better than the movies.

    I cross gender lines too: Pride and Prejudice has what I consider to be the best opening line of any book I’ve read–I laughed a lot reading that book; really enjoyed Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree and was terribly delighted by Shannon Hales’ The Goose Girl. George Eliot’s Silas Marner is moving and true; Jane Smiley’s 1000 acres was devastating; I’ve loved everything of Anne Tylers’ that I’ve read.

    There’s just not enough time to go on, but I could. We’ve barely touched on the juvenile books that I think are brilliant, and there are many.

    To cap this off, my favorite guilty pleasure–good ol’ trashy fun–is just about anything by Joseph Wambaugh. In fact, it’s just about time to grab another one; I’m plumb full of Steinbeck, Potok and Pearl S. Buck for a while. I think maybe Fugitive Nights will be next.

  23. Guys are welcome any time, Scott. I love Asher Lev. It is one of the most moving novels I have ever read.

    I’m in the mood for another guilty pleasure–I’ll have to check out Joseph Wambaugh.

  24. Scott, so fun to see you popping in at Segullah! Thanks for the recommendations. I haven’t read many of the books you suggested, interestingly enough (except, of course, Asher and P&P and Tyler and A Thousand Acres, which I loved loved loved 10 years ago but haven’t read in a while). So I guess I have read some of them. But I really do need to read John Irving–one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read and never have. And thanks for the Wambaugh warning :-).

  25. And here I thought I was well-read, but now I have such a long reading list and such a short summer left. Oh well, I will always make time for more reading. One book I think everyone needs to discover is Wish You Well by David Baldacci..(he mostly writes CIA-thriller pop fiction but don’t be afraid by his genre jump) he has crafted an amazing story that feels like a mix of Christy, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which are favorites of mine as well. It is well worth looking into, one of the most refreshing novels I’ve read in the last 7 years. That Good!

    As far as LDS writers, I am wary too, but have found James L Ferrell’s books The Peacegiver and The Holy Secret to be amazing and read at least 3 times to try and understand all the concepts, but still want to read more. He has an amazing style and way of wrapping the story around doctrinal ideas that doesn’t feel like I am being preached to. I strive to be a better person reading his books. Also Camron Wright’s Letters for Emily really touched me in high school and I still read annually; it opened up the world of poetry.

    Speaking of poetry, that should be read as well. Anything by Billy Collins is very accessible and enjoyable, esp “On Turning Ten” and “The Workshop”. He is delightful! Margaret Atwood’s “The Journey” is life-changing and rightfully belongs in the book, Ten Poems to Change Your Life. Randall Jarrell and his poem “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” continues to come to mind and cause me to examine my life and notice those around me. My all time favorite poem by Longfellow “A Psalm of Life” was even quoted at President Hinkley’s funeral. Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath are hauntingly beautiful. Let’s not forget poets in our love of reading!

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