3. Pride and Prejudice

For those who have known me and my love of books for a long time, there’s a burning question, perhaps an angry one: Why is Pride and Prejudice now number three on my top ten list after nearly a decade at number 1? Rest assured that my affection for Pride and Prejudice has not diminished; in fact, it’s probably grown over the years.

Here are a few reasons why:

  • If I were to teach a class on dialogue, Pride and Prejudice would be my text of choice. What Jane Austen does with dialogue is stunning. We are entertained and amused by the conversation. We learn about characters and their personalities as they speak. We learn about plot through these interpersonal exchanges. Yet not once while reading Pride and Prejudge have I ever stopped and thought, “People don’t talk like that,” which is the ultimate test of dialogue. The dialogue is believable.
  • Pride and Prejudice is the closes thing to a perfect novel humanly possible. Length, dialogue, setting, character, etc. they’re all perfect. There are very few changes that could improve the story. The only point of improvement I would suggest is that Jane Austen should have put more of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s engagement scene in dialogue. Austen’s dialogue is superb, but at this one critical point she fell to telling rather than showing. The way the 2005 film captures this scene, using dialogue, highlights this one failure. Beyond this one mistake, the book is practically perfect.
  • Pride and Prejudice is transcendent. It was written in the 1800s, but it could have been written yesterday. I expect that people will feel much the same way in another two hundred years because the human romantic experience doesn’t change that much. We are all still living with our own pride and prejudices, while compromise and growth are essential parts of romance.
  • Pride and Prejudice makes the reader feel happy, which stands is stark contrast to many other romances like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karinena, Gone with the Wind or even the more recent The Time Traveler’s Wife. Pride and Prejudice is romance without tragedy. This is a complex story that leaves readers feeling good.
  • I identify with Mr. Darcy. If you’re into the whole Myers Briggs personality test, I’m an INTJ (Introvert, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging), a type that includes 2% of the population. Famous INTJs include C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and Jane Austen. Fictional characters, supposedly, include Gandalf, Severus Snape, and Fitzwilliam Darcy. All that being said, Elizabeth is great, but I understand Darcy, flaws and all.

So why is Pride and Prejudice only at number three on my list? The answer is simple. Atlas Shrugged, and The Count of Monte Cristo are simply more epic works. Take length alone: Atlas Shrugged is 561,002 words, The Count of Monte Cristo is 389,180, and Pride and Prejudice is 160,993. For what it is, Pride and Prejudice is near perfect, but to put it on the same playing field as the other two works would be disingenuous. However, if you want one final proof of my affinity for Pride and Prejudice, let me simply point to the name of my first born child, Eliza, and the middle name of my second born child, Austen.

4. Peter Pan

Why is a children’s book ranked fourth in my favorite books list? It’s simple really: Peter Pan isn’t a children’s book, much as Gulliver’s Travels isn’t for children. Unfortunately, when most people hear the title of J. M. Barrie’s book, they think of the Disney animated rendition, or worse the movie, Hook.

I fell into this camp until a little over seven years ago, content to keep my knowledge of Peter Pan purely theoretical. Then I started talking to, flirting with, and dating this young woman whom I later persuaded to marry me. Abigail was planning to do her master’s thesis on Peter Pan (though I think choosing to write a thesis on something indicates both that you love it and don’t want to love it anymore). Of course, I did the one thing any intelligent suitor would have done; I located a copy of Peter Pan and started reading. Continue reading “4. Peter Pan”

5. A Tale of Two Cities

I generally do not consider myself to be a fan of Charles Dickens. I’ve read a number of Dickens stories including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations and can’t claim to have especially enjoyed any of them. For my twenty-first century taste, Dickens can be boring and longwinded. Still, A Tale of Two Cities is the book I’m encouraging my wife to use as the novel for her literature course.

A Tale of Two Cities takes the best of Charles Dickens—his ability to capture humanity—and makes it succinct. Even though the story spans decades, the plot moves fast, and because the story takes place during the French Revolution the narrative carries more weight and resonance than the typical Dickens story. Continue reading “5. A Tale of Two Cities”

6. The Lord of the Rings

Virtually everyone with a literary palate knows that The Lord of the Rings is extraordinary. It’s impossible to deny its impact in both literature and cinema. Name a fantasy book or series that was written afterward and we can highlight a vast number of parallels or points of influence, direct or indirect.

Because The Lord of the Rings is so well known and frequently scrutinized, I’m reluctant to spend time analyzing the story. I’m not a scholar, and I don’t have anything new to add on that front. I’ll say simply that my father loves the books. Consequently, I was introduced to the story at a young age, and my appreciation has grown. What I would instead like to focus on is Tolkien’s writing process.

I have this reoccurring emotional response every time I get to the end of The Return of the King. I feel sadness and loss that the journey is over, but I am also incredibly disappointed that Tolkien didn’t write more books. I feel like the world missed out because The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are all we got of J. R. R. Tolkien. Continue reading “6. The Lord of the Rings”

7. The Things They Carried

I first ran across The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, during my junior college Introduction to Literature course where we read the first chapter. I was unaffected. Most likely I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate what I was reading at the time. However, to my credit, as an adult I bought the book and it resonated with me, so much so that it’s become one of my favorite works.

The Things They Carried is a collection of essays written by a Vietnam veteran. We learn about the author’s experiences fighting in the war, being drafted, returning home, his childhood, and even revisiting Nam later. It’s not a particularly long book, but it does an incredible job of capturing the experience. Continue reading “7. The Things They Carried”

8. Catch-22

Imagine you’re watching someone draw. The artist starts with a few black lines and shapes. He fills in more detail, adds new lines, and reshapes space. He reveals something new, only to go back and fleshes out the picture, adding extra features. He shifts angles, starts to add in color, and little by little the drawing becomes complete. At the end, you’re left speechless.

This is how Catch-22 works. The story is nonlinear, and the reader gets large pieces of story or little bits here and there. The tale has a habit of doubling back on itself and meeting up with old narratives. Each new passage adds a greater understanding to the whole story. Continue reading “8. Catch-22”

9. The Family Nobody Wanted

A 1954 memoir, The Family Nobody Wanted is more than it appears to be on the surface. The story follows a childless couple, Carl and Helen Doss as they pursue their callings and dreams. As a businessman in the Great Depression, Carl feels called to sell his new painting company, at a loss, so he can go to school and become a pastor. Meanwhile, Helen longs to adopt.

The young couple does both. Carl goes to seminary, and though poor, the Dosses adopt their first child. Then, in the process of trying to adopt again, they discover that there is a category of orphan that nobody wants. Certain mixed ethnicity children (for instance, Chinese/Japanese) aren’t wanted by either people group. Consequently, the Dosses compassionately start building this incredibly racially diverse family, as they adopted one unwanted child after another. Continue reading “9. The Family Nobody Wanted”