As a passionate bibliophile, it was immensely difficult compiling this list of my top 10 books. What I ended up with is not the most original catalogue of favorites, but hey, the majority of these novels are universally adored for a reason. I’ve decided to omit plays, volumes of poetry, series, and books of short stories from this list, as it would have been literally impossible to decide what to include in such a limited space if I’d been choosing from such a wide variety of literary works. I would have never been able to compare John Updike’s shorts against Tennessee Williams’ plays, or Allen Ginsberg’s poetry to Harry Potter without my brain hemorrhaging. So, for the sake of my mental wellbeing, I’ve decided to feature on this top 10 list, books which are either standalone novels or memoirs.
10. Paper Towns
Author: John Green
Published: 2009, Speak
Quote: “It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined.”
Blurb: This book gets my number 10 spot for its smart, well-paced plot; clever, relatable, realistically flawed characters; quotable dialogue; and John Green’s incredible ability to articulate the visceral emotions encompassing young adulthood.
9. On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Published: 1957, Viking Press
Pages: 320 (original published version)/ 416 (original scroll version)
Quote: “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
Blurb: Jack Kerouac’s largely autobiographical account of his time spent “on the road” during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s is quite literally the book that defined a generation. Kerouac explores the ideas of uniformity, belonging, and purpose in this vibrant and candid staple of the Beat Generation.
8. Franny and Zooey
Author: J.D. Salinger
Published: 1961, Little, Brown
Quote: “It’s everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so — I don’t know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you’re conforming just as much only in a different way.”
Blurb: Franny and Zooey originally appeared as two separate novellas published by J.D. Salinger in The New Yorker. The book is one of many stories Salinger tells about his fictional Glass family. Taking place over the course of two days in the Glass home in Manhattan while Franny is having a nervous breakdown, Salinger is able to create an honest and thought provoking narrative. The book’s themes focus heavily on spirituality, modernity, and self awareness. The titular characters are so realized, it feels as if you’ve grown up in the Glass family yourself.
Author: Ian McEwan
Published: 2001, Jonathan Cape
Quote: “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”
Blurb: This book broke my heart, and I still adore it. The novel, set in predominately in England during World War II, tells the story of Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis, whose lives, and everyone’s around them, are altered when Cecilia’s young sister, Briony, sees something happen between the two of them that she doesn’t fully understand. The book explores the consequences of small actions, lies, and secrecy, with larger themes of forgiveness, guilt, perseverance, and time.
6. The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published: 1925, Charles Scribner’s Sons
Quote: “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Blurb: One of the most famous and acclaimed novels in American history, this book flawlessly captures the power of hope and the American dream, as well as the dangers of living in the past, and the dark pitfalls of excess and obsession.
5. The Bell Jar
Author: Sylvia Plath
Published: 1963, Heinemann
Quote: “I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”
Blurb: Sylvia Plath was first an foremost a poet. Her novel is infused with lush imagery and inspired metaphors full of depth and veracity. The novel follows Esther, a young college girl, as she deals with mental illness (namely depression) and coming to terms with her place in life and how this affects the quest to forge her own identity.
4. Your Voice in My Head: A Memoir
Author: Emma Forrest
Published: 2011, Other Press
Quote: “Time heals all wounds. And if it doesn’t, you name them something other than wounds and agree to let them stay.”
Blurb: Emma Forrest is an acclaimed young writer who created this memoir as a sort of thank you letter to her late psychiatrist, Dr. R, who passed away in the early 2000’s of cancer. Having not told any of his patients he was terminally ill, he continued seeing them up until the last week of his life. Emma Forrest’s memoir explores her relationship with his man who knew her more completely than anyone else, who she loved dearly, and who taught her more about herself than anyone else ever could. It wasn’t until he was gone that she realize the person she felt closest to, she’d known nothing about at all. Forrest’s memoir reexamines her life after the passing of the most important figure in it, as she learns how to help herself by dealing with her mental illnesses alone, all thanks to Dr. R.
3. A Clockwork Orange
Author: Anthony Burgess
Published: 1962, Heinemann (UK)
Quote: “The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.”
Blurb: Anthony Burgess is a genius. He uses a young man, Alex DeLarge, his somehow protagonist AND antagonist, as the mode to explore the concept of good and evil, and what it means to be a moral human being. Besides the finesse with which this immense topic is dealt, the most impressive element of this book is the dialect in which it is written. Burgess, who in addition to being a novelist was also a linguist, used Slavic influences to create Nadsat, the register spoken by Alex and the other teenagers in this book.
2. Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Published: 2005, Faber and Faber
Quote: “What I’m not sure about, is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.”
Blurb: This book was nearly first on my list, but alas my number one is unmovable. This book is a dystopian science fiction novel, but above all, it’s a love story. Not a love story between two people, but a love story between humanity. The main question the book presents is What does it mean to be human? This novel made me think and feel more than any book I’ve ever read. The story centers around Kathy H., a clone, whose purpose is to provide sick members of society with her vital organs before she turns 35, after which she will ‘complete’ (to put it harshly… die). The story is beautifully thought provoking, and though the genre is technically science fiction, it always feels surprisingly real. The themes explored in the book are decidedly existential ones, and even after you’ve finished reading it, it will never let you go.
1. The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Published: 1951, Little, Brown and Company
Quote: “Among other things, you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.”
Blurb: I’m not entirely sure how I could ever possibly articulate my immense love for this book. I think part of connecting with a book has to do with where you are in life when you discover it. I first read The Cather in the Rye when I was 16, the same age as the novel’s protaganist, Holden Caulfield. It was the first time I read a book and felt like it was speaking directly to me, and the first time I realized I wasn’t the only person to feel a certain way. The themes in this book include alienation, growing up, and “phoniness”. While this book wasn’t the one to make me ponder existentialism (Never Let Me Go) or decode a fictional language (A Clockwork Orange) it was the most powerful, as it reminded me that I am not alone, and as long as I read, I never will be.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen