It’s always hard to do a list of “best books,” and you might have very different ideas about the best books to read. But this book list isn’t only about quality, but also about stories and ideas that had a big effect on me. Since it’s fun to compare book lists and talk about reading, and I am really curious about other people’s best-loved books, I figured I would give this a go!
I haven’t included any spiritual or religious books, because I feel like that kind of thing is both private and potentially divisive. This list includes some of the best novels I’ve ever read as well as nonfiction books that have taught me a lot or that just blew my mind.
These are in no particular order, and I’m sure I’m leaving some important ones off the list!
1. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien.
I won’t have a long story for each of these books, promise! But I do for this one.
When I was nine years old, I had a slumber party for my birthday but only two girls came, because I was wildly unpopular. My parents gave me the boxed set of the Lord of the Rings books that I had asked for, and I was so excited I kept reading them instead of having fun with the other two girls.
I wonder why I was so unpopular? Haha.
Yes, I was a small nerd with almost no social skills, but as I read these books, I literally thought, “I feel like I’m catching fire.” And I was. They started a lifelong love of fantasy and epic, heroic, good-versus-evil adventures that still brings me joy every day.
2. How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie.
This 80-year-old classic isn’t quite as dated as you might expect. The titles, in particular, read like contemporary Internet clickbait headlines: “Do This and You’ll Be Welcome Anywhere,” for instance.
This is just as much about getting along with people as it is about persuading them in any way. Some of the advice is common sense, but that doesn’t mean we actually follow it. It also contained tips I never thought of before… but as I said, social skills are not my strong suit.
I think it’s a brilliant book, and maybe the most life-changiest one on the list.
3. GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict, Debra Dixon.
I recommend this book so often, people probably think I wrote it under an assumed name or something. It shows you how to interweave plot and character, and it’s my favorite fiction writing book ever.
I gave away a copy of it to one of my newsletter subscribers a few days ago. (Incidentally, my newsletter goes out 5 -6 times a year, and sometimes I do giveaways, so sign up here if you want to!)
4. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison.
When I started reading this in college, I immediately knew that I had never read anything else like it. It’s surreal, nightmarish, and addictively lyrical, with indelible images and sensory details.
The female characters are stereotypes, which may or may not serve a literary purpose, but Invisible Man expanded my horizons both as a lover of language and as an American citizen.
5. Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert.
This is a book about how the brain works and how we aren’t even always that good at predicting what will make us happy, or for how long. It has a lot of good information that has actually helped me to be happier.
One point I found particularly interesting: we are much too likely to assume that our happiness is different from other people’s, and so when we make decisions, we too rarely ask other people about their experiences and what’s made them happy.
6. Bel Canto, Ann Patchett.
7. The Secret History, Donna Tartt.
If I ever write a literary type of novel, it will be because of writers like Ann Patchett and Donna Tartt, who prove that you can write elegant sentences, deal with interesting ideas, and have an exciting story! So many contemporary literary novels have weak plots or slow pacing. Not these.
Bel Canto is about a hostage situation in a South American country. It’s romantic and would make an incredible movie. In fact, I think they were going to make it into a movie, but it got held up in production or something.
The Secret History has murder and magic in the plot. The former is not a spoiler; it’s in the first sentence of the prologue. The latter made Publishers Weekly sniff that the book “suffers from a basically improbable plot.” Whatever, PW: it’s a fantastic book from an author who went on to win a well-deserved Pulitzer for The Goldfinch.
Ohhh, do I love this book. It’s all about setting and achieving goals that really make sense for you, and it helps you identify self-defeating behaviors and beliefs. It’s just incredibly motivating. I re-read it before every New Year, but let’s be honest: your Best Year Yet could begin on any day of the year. 🙂
9. Thief of Shadows, Elizabeth Hoyt.
When people who haven’t read romance ask me for recommendations, I often suggest this. To me, this Georgian romance-slash-superhero story is best in class.
Its hero — selfless, virginal at the beginning, and a complete badass — is almost the antithesis of the rich, bossy, womanizing jerks who are the heroes of so many books in this genre. The sophisticated and unapologetically sensual heroine is far from typical herself. It’s an emotional story, and both the action and the sex scenes are terrific.
When I worry about how much my work in progress breaks the rules of the romance genre, I think of this novel.
10. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.
It’s so difficult to convince people this is fun to read. Nobody ever believes me. Look, it’s got parties and war and love affairs, what more do you want? The writing is so good!
It’s the best book I ever read, mostly because of Tolstoy’s psychological insights into people. When I got halfway through, I turned back to the beginning and read the first half again because I didn’t want to be done. And I am not the kind of person who does stuff like that.
I will admit that I skipped the second epilogue, which is a philosophical essay. What the hell, Tolstoy?
11. 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, Laura Vanderkam.
This book kicked my ass. Honestly, I should re-read it. While Ms. Vanderkam is a little privileged, she makes a lot of brilliant points. This made me believe I could fit a lot more into my life, and it motivated me to use my time much more wisely.
12. Persuasion, Jane Austen.
I think it’s her best and most emotional book. It breaks my heart that it was published after her death. It suggests how difficult it is to make the right decisions in life, asks the question, “Is it too late?” and answers it with, “No.”
13. The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron.
I never actually did the program laid out in this book, though I know many people who have done it and loved it. Ms. Cameron’s perspectives on how to be a productive, sane, and fulfilled creative person have had a huge influence on me.
I enjoy her books Walking in the World and The Vein of Gold as well, and her memoir Floor Sample — about her marriage to Martin Scorcese, her recovery from alcoholism, and her growth as a creative person — is a great read.
14. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Jared Diamond.
Diamond destroys any racist notions anyone might harbor about white superiority. He delineates the environmental factors that determine if and when hunter-gatherer societies transition into agricultural ones, which it turn leads to cities, advanced technologies, and higher immunity to disease.
Guns, Germs, and Steel made me see cultures and political conflicts in terms of the environmental and geographical underpinnings. In the best way, this book blew my mind.
15. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson.
This short 1959 horror novel is beautifully written and just… so creepy. Stephen King and pretty much everybody else recognize it as one of the best horror novels ever. It was great inspiration when I was writing my haunted house romance, Sole Possession.
I bet nobody expected this one 🙂 I read my share of history books, and I almost always enjoy them, but this one depicted a slice of medieval civilization that captured my imagination and didn’t let go.
The paranormal romance trilogy I’m writing features a modern-day secret society that was founded in Granada, Spain, in the tolerant and intellectually curious era described by this book.
17. Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens.
I know this isn’t Dickens’s greatest novel, but it’s the one that stuck with me the most. Mark Tapley is one of my favorite characters of all time — a cheerful person who sometimes wishes for grimmer circumstances, just to prove how cheerful he really is. He’s kind of my hero. I also loved John Westlock’s friendship with Tom Pinch and his courtship of Tom’s sister Ruth.
18. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg.
This is a fantastic, wide-ranging study of why we form habits and how we can change them. Although the case studies often involve large groups of people, the principles also apply to changing habits in your own life.
I have a personal bias toward this book, because it discusses Target Corporation and their direct mail data mining during the time that I was the creative manager in charge of direct mail at Target Corp. I wasn’t responsible for any of the data mining and clever algorithms, of course — that was Andrew Pole and another individual who goes unnamed in this book. Both of them, like me, had worked at Hallmark, Inc. before coming to Target. I went back to Hallmark fairly quickly.
19. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks.
I love reading about neuroscience, and this book is to blame. Mr. Sacks’s case studies make you think in new ways about beliefs, perceptions, and reality. I enjoyed An Anthropologist on Mars just as much, and I appreciate the fact that Mr. Sacks, like me, suffered from face blindness.
20. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I’ve read this novel three times. What really gets me is the use of visual imagery — the multicolored shirts, the green light at the end of the dock, the all-seeing eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg from the billboard.
I identify with Jay Gatbsy’s ambition and self-invention in a way that is probably about the opposite of what the author intended. Or is it?
The Great Gatsby suggests that glamour and youthful passions are all empty illusions. But we can’t help but be beguiled by those very things, because what isn’t an illusion, in the end?
What books have stuck with you or changed your life? Let us know in the comments — I would love to hear! Thanks for reading!