I know a decent number of these numbers are going to appear random, or somewhat so. At first you might think that this is the list of the 33 best books I’ve read of all-time. This is not so. That list would be some sort of amalgam between the list that follows (the 33 best books I’ve read in the last 11 years) and the original list of the 25 best books I’d read to that point, which was the summer I was 22. That list actually probably has no right to call itself the “original list”, either, since I wrote a really original list four years prior, the summer before going to college. I’ve been making lists of books for a long time. This one happens to be exactly eleven years and three days after the last one I personally made, though I’ve of course been compiling a cumulative collective top list (most recently updated to 1,276 total books) here ever since.
In 1999, when I posted the 1998 list to my fledgling website, I wrote that “I’m sure that in 20 years, this list will have completely changed, excpet maybe the top ten.” It’s not 2018 quite yet, but the top ten didn’t even last four years. Tales of the Night, a book of Peter Høeg short stories, cracked the list at 6th in 2002, displacing the rest of the books. And John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany debuted there at 8th, causing further disruption. I’m reading a John Irving book currently, as I was for most of my trip west (which I should probably post about at some point). It is no Owen Meany. Nothing Irving has written comes close, in my opinion, though my second book on his list is A Widow for One Year. I’m currently meandering through Last Night in Twisted River. It may well be the last Irving I read. Irving, like Sherman Alexie, is a writer that gets worse the more of his books you read. Read 2-4 books and you think he’s brilliant. Read 5 or more and you start to realize he’s repackaging the same story and themes over and over again in increasingly tired ways. These concerns will not apply if you haven’t read Owen Meany yet because, despite the appearance of these same cornerstone themes, that book is special.
All of the books below are special. Probably only the top three are worthy of discussing in the company of the top ten from years past, though the overall top twenty-five would face significant alteration from the 33 upstarts below. I should probably consider compiling that updated top twenty-five, but it would be hard. And I want to let this list breathe a bit and have its day for a while too. How many times can you look at Watership Down, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in order? A lot, if you’re me. But it doesn’t tell you anything new.
This list below is new. Not all of the books, of course. A decent number were written in the 11 years in which they were read, but some are much older, like selection #2. I can only imagine that I’m going to get some flak for my #1 choice, but it wasn’t really even close for that spot. And probably even more flak for #2 being such a classic and being upended by such a young and oft-trivialized book. But I don’t care what people think, any more than I did when I declared my 1998 list “The Hundred Best Books Ever Written”. That’s kinda how I roll.
So here we go, 33 from the last 11 years – three for each year (though that’s not how I read them… I’ve actually included, with almost guaranteed accuracy, the year which I read them because online tools and a few of my files have helped track that information). Each year is represented at least once, though 2004, 2010, and the current year (really a half-year), 2013, are represented only exactly once. It’s harder to tell the impacts of things that are extremely close in temporal proximity, which may explain why 2012 is over-represented with four books (including two in the top five and three in the top ten) and also is ironic given the title of 2013’s entry. 2004 really barely made the list with its lone entry at 31st (I only read 7 books that year, probably my all-time low in my life) and 2010 may be suffering a bit from how awful that year was for me, though I also spent much of it reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which may well be 34th and just out of this list. (Honestly, if I’d never learned that the whole last section was basically lifted from reality rather than actual fiction, it would probably be in the teens.) Meanwhile, 2005 and 2008 lead the pack with five entries each. Four from 2005 are in the top twenty, including #1 and #8. Given how long ago 2005 was, these have some real staying power. All right, enough analysis, on to the list!
1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (read in 2005)
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2007)
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (read in 2011)
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (read in 2012)
5. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (read in 2012)
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (read in 2006)
7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (read in 2005)
9. The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (read in 2012)
10. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (read in 2007)
11. White Noise by Don DeLillo (read in 2010)
12. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (read in 2008)
13. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (read in 2006)
14. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (read in 2003)
15. Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley (read in 2005)
16. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (read in 2003)
17. July, July by Tim O’Brien (read in 2002)
18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read in 2005)
19. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2011)
20. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read in 2012)
21. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2006)
22. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (read in 2007)
23. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
24. One More for the Road by Ray Bradbury (read in 2003)
25. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (read in 2009)
26. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (read in 2013)
27. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2008)
28. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (read in 2008)
29. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver (read in 2002)
30. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2002)
31. Let’s All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury (read in 2004)
32. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2005)
33. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (read in 2009)
It’s no surprise to see DFW lead the pack with three offerings (and his miniscule This is Water was in late contention for the list as well), in a tie along with old favorite Kurt Vonnegut. Though Wallace’s #3, #7, and #23 substantially outpace Kurt’s #21, #30, and #32. New friends (to me) Dostoevsky, Atwood, Murakami, and Rowling are joined by old friends Huxley and Bradbury with two each on the list. And I have no doubt that people will question The Pale King soundly out-ranking Infinite Jest, but I will defend that decision extensively to any who question it. Infinite Jest is surely a brilliant work of our time, but The Pale King has deeper and more poignant insight into the human condition, often speaking more incisively through its humility than the former does with its absurdity. Both, of course, are stellar.
Really, all of these books are worth reading, of course. And before I get to questioning too much too much more, I should just put the list out there and let you consider it for yourself. Happy reading! Or, given my taste, should I say… Thoughtful reading!