My Ideal Bookshelf

I recently read this great blog post and decided to compile ten of my favorite books of all time. The original post didn’t give a limit but I liked the idea of a “Top 10 Favorite Books” category and the exercise really made me stop and think about the books I’d read both recently and in the past that have influenced me and changed my life. In no particular order:


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book I read again and again: This novel is my favorite of JK Rowling’s magical oeuvre, and I read it so often that my copy is well-worn by now. It still reminds me of being eleven years old and making my mother drive me to Waldenbooks first thing in the morning so I could pick up the book on the release date. It also conjures memories of growing up with Harry Potter and how the novels instilled in me not just a love of reading, but also the desire to become a writer.

Pride and Prejudice, the one I love the most: This one is a no-brainer. I love everything about it, from the sarcastic way Lizzy’s father treats the women in his family, to the absolutely abhorrent Mr Collins and how much I love laughing at him, to the perfect story arcs of Elizabeth and Darcy. So many people adore the love story but this book is about so much more. Not only does Austen indict the social strata that make Elizabeth and Darcy’s ultimate union difficult, but she also weaves into the narrative arguments about the tension between conservative and liberal politics and allows the reader to form an opinion without even realizing they’ve done it. Austen takes a normal subject—love—and manipulates the story in such many layered ways that there is something new to learn each time.

Wuthering Heights, my favorite book: This book gets me every time. Love the characters or hate the characters, no one can deny the charisma of Heathcliff, the beauty of the moors, the overwhelming atmosphere of mystery and danger, the way you kind of want to shake Catherine and tell her to stop screaming but you root for her anyway, and the way you kind of hate the Lintons for no reason. The love of Catherine and Heathcliff forms the basis of every obsessive love story ever told and ever hated, but this love isn’t supposed to be healthy: it’s supposed to consume, overpower, even poison you. Wuthering Heights is the ultimate catharsis and it’s always a pleasure.

Angel, the book that changed my life: This novel is a forgotten little gem by the less famous Elizabeth Taylor. It tells the story of a young romance writer in the early 1900s, Angel Deverell, whose arrogance and dissociation from reality result in her ruin and isolation. The character of Angel is meant to be an allegory for those authors of Taylor’s time whose florid prose and shallow plotlines made instant bestsellers but whose books were vacuous and insipid. Angel thinks she’s the best writer to have ever lived and is completely blind to criticism, insisting all others are jealous of her wit and brilliance. Taylor is fierce and unapologetic in her harsh treatment of Angel, and the book reads like a sharp and insightful social commentary. I’d say Elizabeth Taylor read a lot of Austen and took good notes.

The Crimson Petal and the White, the best book I’ve ever read: I’ve mentioned before how much I love this book. I love Faber’s direct address to the reader, his bold and brave descriptions of prostitutes and dirt and death, his four-dimensional depiction of late Victorian London, and most of all, his unbelievable, believable characters. Sugar, a fiercely intelligent young prostitute with a reputation for granting any wish or desire, is one of the most indomitable characters I’ve ever met, and one of the most emotionally complex. William Rackham, an easily cowed man with unearned pride, is at times both pitiful and fearsome. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, will make you want to go back in time and give every Victorian woman some feminist literature. There are so many more characters who make this book live and breathe every time I crack open the cover.

East, the book that made me who I am: East isn’t your typical YA novel. Based on the story East of the Sun and West of the Moon, East also borrows from Beauty and the Beast: it tells the story of a Norwegian girl whose faith in her family fails after she learns her superstitious mother has lied to her all her life about her “birth direction.” Birth direction is a spiritual belief that the direction in which one is facing at birth determines his or her fate. Furious with her family, Rose takes the opportunity to leave when an enchanted bear offers her family riches in return for kidnapping Rose. The character of Rose and the northern setting instilled in me a love of the North that has not abated since my early teen years. It has also inspired me to learn about Norse mythology, which has indelibly affected my writing and my interests.

Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is my favorite poet, save perhaps for Tennyson. This collection houses all of his major works, from The Duino Elegies to selections from his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This book has so many tabs sticking out of it from my years of reading and marking my favorite passages and lines that nearly every page is marked by now, and as an added bonus, this is the best translation of his work I’ve ever read.

I Capture the Castle, the book that makes me cry every time: Dodie Smith also must have read Austen. The plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice in subtle ways but with deliberate differences: two sisters meet two brothers (whereas P&P features close friends) and the ensuing love triangles and unrequited loves form the backdrop of a larger narrative of one girl’s coming-of-age. Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist, is the younger sister of a close-knit, eccentric British family living in an old castle in the late 1940s. Cassandra is a charming and naïve narrator, yet she shows a strength and courage that are inspiring. During the novel, she grows in ways that are familiar to any woman who has experienced the joy and despair of falling in love for the first time.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The nearly definitive Anne Boleyn Bible. Eric Ives is a meticulous biographer and holds no [discernible] bias for or against Anne, but lets the facts speak for themselves. From his book, not only do I have an in-depth account of Anne’s major life events and a rough sketch of her complicated personality, but I also know exactly how much she spent on clothing, what the toddler Elizabeth I wore, and what her wardrobe expenditures would have totalled had she reigned for a lifetime rather than for her three short years. This book is a testament to the strong, intellectual force Anne truly was and does the best job in dispelling the “femme fatale” persona that Anne Boleyn has fallen victim to repeatedly.

A Room With A View, my favorite book: My favorite books seem to be populated with strong female characters, albeit the character of Lucy was not always so in my favorite Forster novel. Really, this book is a romp. The British Lucy Honeychurch and her stodgy old chaperone visit Italy intending to enjoy a prim, proper, tour-guided vacation and instead stumble upon a thoroughly uncouth George Emerson and his absolutely appalling father. George falls in love with Lucy and kisses her most inappropriately; Lucy, upon her return to England, finds it impossible to forget the dashing yet shy George Emerson and finds that Emerson has kindled desire within her. Just thinking about this book is enough to make me sound like the author of a comedy of manners, but that’s what this book is. It’s a book about stodgy old England and how Italy makes us lustful. And it’s a novel about defying societal expectations and following your heart.

Runners-up: Ella Enchantedwhich I read when I was nine years old; Inkheart, also a YA I read as a teen with a great protagonist and a lot of bookpornThe Virgin Suicides, which still haunts me every day; and Lolita, enough said.

So what’s your ideal bookshelf? Give it a try, and you can post a link to your own ideal bookshelf below.

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