My friend, fellow writer, and really funny, insightful person Jennifer Luitwieler recently published her top ten favorite books and asked me to weigh in. Calling one thing my favorite always makes me feel like a traitor to all my other favorites. So, with apologies to some really great books I left off, here are the novels I’ve read over and over again, and/or novels that seemed to turn the course of my life.
10. The Fallen Man by Tony Hillerman
Hillerman is my beach vacation author. His Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mysteries staged on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico are temperamental and unusual enough to set them apart from most mysteries. And Hillerman describes the desert/mountain landscape so well it becomes one of the characters. The Fallen Man is my favorite because of the subtle play on the theme about how far we humans can fall and are fallen.
9. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Call me Eugene. It doesn’t have the same ring as Melville’s famous opening sentence, but I read Moby Dick right before I joined the Navy and set sail, so to speak, on my own quest to find out what my life was about. So, for me this is not just a story about killing a white whale. Ishmael, Ahab, and Queequeg opened my eyes to life as metaphor and the bigger struggles these metaphors may represent. Plus that scene when Ahab is tied by his own harpoon to the whale is of nightmare quality.
8. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Talk about symbolism and metaphor buried in a heart wrenchingly real story. Here it is. The oppressed Joads set out from Oklahoma to California in the 1930s in a futile effort to escape themselves. I can still see the picture Steinbeck draws of the black fly bumping futilely against a mercantile screen door where Tom Joad is buying gas or supplies. In that one description Steinbeck told the story of the Joads and all of us who have ever kicked against the goads of life.
7. The Light in the Forest by Conrad Richter
Set in the Pennsylvania Colony The Light in the Forest tells the story of “True Son,” a white boy kidnapped by the Lenni Lenape Indians. Adopted and raised by the chief whom he then considers his true father, True Son is about 16, when his father is forced to sign a new treaty promising to return all “hostages.” In the trouble that comes True Son winds up with no people, and no father, Lenni or Pennsylvanian. It is a beautiful, moody story. I read this when I was eleven, just after my father died, and I related forever with True Son’s feelings of loss and abandonment.
6. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
“Never give an inch,” is patriarch Henry Stamper’s motto. And he doesn’t. Not against the huge forest they log, the incessant rain of Oregon, the river that eats at their house, nor the union trying to force them to stop logging. This is a brilliantly written story of a family facing changes bigger than themselves and how they deal with them. Once again fiction provided insight on my own life and family.
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Thirty some years ago my wife Dee Dee gave me this short story collection. I was in seminary and was losing my mind reading about eschatology, supralapsarianism, and harmatology. Each night I read one Sherlock story before going to sleep. Instead of dreaming of damnation and death, I slept at ease with Sherlock and Dr. Watson–and, of course my much more real wife. But Sherlock may be the most real character ever created by an author.
4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Irving sets the entire story in the opening paragraph. Snap. John Wheelwright becomes a Christian because his friend with a horrible VOICE killed John’s beautiful mom with a baseball. From there the story wends and winds like a coil spring asking questions about war and faith and God and friendship and purpose and death and all big things in life. Then at the end every important clue and scene snaps into place when Owen . . . .
I don’t know anything about Irving’s faith. But he writes about faith like most “Christian” authors wish they could, sans the cussing and sex.
3. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Okay so they are really seven books. Skewer me. Tom Shippey called Tolkien “the author of the century” because he didn’t just write an epic (click here for more on this) story but he also invented an entire genre. Hard to argue with that. Further the prose is powerful and poetic, the story compelling, the structure amazing and complex, the characters as real as you and me, and the resolution true and satisfying. I’ve gotten as lost in these stories as Bilbo did in the goblin tunnels.
2. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This violent, vulgar but beautiful story of Agustus McCrae and Captain Call’s last cattle drive to Montana is the best western ever written. Sorry Zane, Max, and Luis. The euphemisms McMurtry uses for sex and the male anatomy are worth reading alone. But this is a story about men finding their way in a changing world. If more men’s stories were written like this, more men would read. I cried when Gus . . . never mind. The story, prose, characters, and theme earned McMurtry the Pulitzer.
1. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
“I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.” Leif Enger
Most novelists I know dream of writing literary fiction that also tells a moving story. They should read Enger and see how it’s done. Enger is a poet and a master story-teller. Peace Like a River is narrated by young Rubin Land telling about being born sometime in the 1960s breathless with asthma. This breathlessness doubles as Ruben’s struggle for faith while he watches his father Jeremiah Land do unlikely–even funny–miracles. When Rubin is eleven, his older brother Davey kills two boys and runs from the law. Jeremiah, Ruben, and younger sister Swede follow. On the road, Ruben discovers his own lack of character and faith while they face the harsh Dakota winter and eventually evil Jape Walther. But this is too simple of a synopsis. This book is like reading a dreamy, exciting letter from a friend who is narrating your deepest unasked questions.
Eugene C. Scott hopes C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling don’t feel slighted by not making his top ten. “I can be bribed,” he says. Join him in the year The Year of Living Spiritually. You can join the Living Spiritually community by following that blog and clicking here and liking the page. He is also co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church.