I was lucky to grow up with family members who loved to read and loved to teach me to read. I was read to before I could talk, and I started reading pretty much before I could spell my middle name (which has only five letters, but was somehow challenging for me as a kid). I essentially haven’t stopped since. At any given time I’m circulating between two or three books, and I often tote a paperback in my purse for when I’m stuck in long lines. I haven’t read near the number of books as some bookworms, and I’m looking forward to reading my way through many more decades. In my 29 years, however, the following five are, as of now, my favorite:
1) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway’s last work to be published while he was alive, and I believe it is his best. On the surface, the book is about an old fisherman who finally hooks a giant marlin after 84 fish-free days, but then struggles to reel it in and not lose it while heading home. Guised in that simple tale is a much deeper message about a humble, determined, prideful and strong man who refuses to give up or give in, despite continued hardships and seeming defeat. It is about the journey rather than the destination, and about having an optimistic outlook on life despite whatever obstacles arise.
2) The Giver by Lois Lowry
Many a Miss America contestant has stated her wish for the end of world suffering. As ideal as that sounds, Lowry’s “children’s novel” implies that a lack of pain and strife—by converting to “Sameness”—really wouldn’t be all that fantastic. The book starts off in an orderly-run society in which husbands and wives are matched according to their personalities, jobs are assigned based on skill, and everyone lives in harmony. Oh, and no one has any emotions. Which is, of course, the catch. Without the ability to feel pain or sorrow, how can anyone know happiness or joy? The members of the Community don’t seem to mind and are content (or, more accurately, apathetic) with how things are run. Until the hero, an eleven-year-old boy named Jonas, is assigned the job of “Receiver of Memory.” He is to become the sole keeper of the memories the Community has before the conversion to Sameness. When Jonas meets The Giver, the man whose job he will soon take, he is exposed to a world he didn’t even know could exist. A world far surpassing that of the bland, boring Sameness in which he grew up, and one in which I bet most Miss America contestants would actually prefer to one without world suffering.
3) Flags of our Fathers by James Bradley
In this heart-wrenching, intense and honest narrative of arguably the most iconic image from World War II, Bradley—the son of one of the six American soldiers who raised the flag at Iwo Jima—describes the anti-climactic flag raising that was merely coincidentally captured on film, and the harsh realities the three flag-raising survivors faced after returning home. Though Bradley has had no personal war experience, Flags of our Fathers is especially poignant as he is able to describe with such detail and accuracy how the photo itself—and what the American civilians believed it represented—affected, haunted and immortalized the three men, his father being one of them. Due to my affinity for war accounts (in film or book form), I have been exposed to a decent number of war chronicles—some firsthand accounts, others more removed like Bradley’s, and others mostly fictionalized. None has left as indelible of a mark on me as Flags of our Fathers. I read it just once, but I fear scenes and lines will forever be imprinted in my mind.
4) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
If I could have penned any book in the world, I would have wanted to write one exceptionally similar to Zafon’s marvelous masterpiece. The story is infused with clandestine love, murder, war, espionage, intrigue and more, and is beautifully written. What else could one want from a novel? It opens with Daniel, a young boy, being taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. He is permitted to select one and, not surprisingly, chooses The Shadow of the Wind. After flying through it, he sets out to find more books written by the same author. What he finds, however, is that in his quest he becomes highly involved in tracing the author’s entire life, at which point all of the aforementioned aspects of what make for a fascinating book come into play. Zafon’s novel is riveting, intriguing and unforgettable, and it is one of my favorite reads.
5) Columbine by Dave Cullen
No, it’s not about flowers. Yes, it’s about the horrific shooting that took place at the high school of the same name in Colorado in 1999 that left 15 dead (including the two teenage shooters who committed suicide after going on their murderous spree) and 24 injured. And families in devastation, a community in mourning, and a nation whose focus on guns and gun control grew even more intense. Cullen, who claims to have spent 10 years on Columbine, sought to dispel the myths and uncover the truths regarding the massacre. He also wanted to know why Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed their classmates, and what became of the survivors. It is painstakingly researched, rife with information that was rarely disseminated to the public—if at all—and expertly written. Cullen takes as close of a peek inside the minds of the killers as one can imagine is possible, and offers his thoroughly thought-out reasons for why they committed the atrocity. It is riveting, upsetting and tragic. I won’t likely pick it up any time in the near future, but I won’t need to; the first and only read through was memorable enough to last quite some time.
Have you read any of the books on my list? What are your top recommendations? Let me know in the comments; I’m always looking for great reads!