My Favorite 100 Books Out of 1,004 Read

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, September 17, 2017

I’ve read 1,004 books since 1983 when I began my second reading log. I kept another log in the early 1970s where I read 495 books during an 18-month period when I dropped out of college trying to find myself. I read then mostly a mountain of science fiction which provided little enlightenment. I often read a book a day during my K-12 years. I wish I had kept a reading log of them. I guess I’ve read between 2000-3000 books since 1962. But how much did they add to my life? I’d guess 10% affected me in a lasting way. Which suggests I could cut out 90% of my reading, but I’d truly miss another 10-20%.

Looking over my current log I find many forgettable titles. A few hundred were great books, and another few hundred were entertaining page-turners, but the rest were time wasters. My father often yelled at me when growing up, “Get your goddamn head out of that goddamn book and go out and goddamn play.” He was probably right most of the time.

My Life With Bob by Pamela Paul

Pamela Paul has a book out, My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues where she writes about her reading list. Bob is “Book Of Books.” I wish I had written a book about my reading history. She started her list in 1988, so we cover roughly the same time period. I haven’t read My Life with Bob yet because I’m waiting on the Audible edition that comes out on the 26th. From reading the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon, and reviews I can tell we’re kindred spirits. I’ll be listening to her book at a great time because I’m reevaluating my own life-long reading habits.

I’m trying to develop a refined approach to reading and buying books. I’m choosing to read fewer books. I love being a bookworm, but I need to use my time wisely, now that my supply of remaining years is dwindling.

I’ve been studying my list of 1,004 books and I have reduced them to the 100 titles that mean the most to me. Some books are written by favorite authors and represent a jumping off point for many additional titles. Even though I read these books from 1983-2017, they really represent time traveling across the last two centuries.

There were another fifty books I wanted to cram into my Top 100, but I was ruthless. I could write a blog post or chapter of a book about each of the novels below. In fact, I started to do just that, but then I realized I would have taken me months. So, all you get is a list.

The titles below represent who I am. Reading them is how I’ve programmed myself since my early thirties. I’ve read many books by most of these authors, and I’ve read some of these titles below more than once, some many times, and will reread them in my waning years. I’ve listened to most of them on audio.

There are a few titles that made a great impact on me years ago. I just had to list them, but I won’t reread them because they are dated. Over time this list will distill into another list because my memory can only handle so many books. In five years it might only run 75 titles.

The biggest surprise was in an early draft I had six books by Bart D. Ehrman on Christian history. I’m an atheist. But those six books model studying history wonderfully. If I had drawn up this list in the year 2000 it would have been mostly novels, and most of them would have been science fiction. My soul is slowly shifting to nonfiction and classics.

[I’m going to link certain titles to essays I’ve written or books on Amazon which explain why these books are worth reading, or just a link to the book on Amazon.]


Daniel DeFoe Robinson Crusoe 1719
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice 1813
Mary Shelley Frankenstein 1818
Henry David Thoreau Walden 1854
Charles Dickens Great Expectations 1861
George Elliot Middlemarch 1871
Jules Verne The Mysterious Island 1874
Anthony Trollope The Way We Live Now 1875
Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina 1877
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island 1883
H. G. Wells The Time Machine 1895
Bram Stoker Dracula 1897
Theodore Dreiser Sister Carrie 1900
Edith Wharton The House of Mirth 1905
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes 1912
Zane Grey Riders of the Purple Sage 1912
L. Frank Baum Patchwork Girl of Oz 1913
Ernest Hemingway The Sun Also Rises 1926
D. H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover 1928
Olaf Stapledon Last and First Men 1930
George Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four 1949
George R. Stewart Earth Abides 1949
J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 1951
Ralph Ellison Invisible Man 1952
William Golding Lord of the Flies 1954
Isaac Asimov The Naked Sun 1957
Jack Kerouac On the Road 1957
Robert A. Heinlein Have Space Suit-Will Travel 1958
Truman Capote Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1958
Philip K. Dick Confessions of a Crap Artist 1959
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird 1960
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar 1963
Jerzy Kosinski The Painted Bird 1965
Larry McMurtry The Last Picture Show 1966
Paul L. Briand, Jr. In Search of Paradise 1966
Robert Sheckley Mindswap 1966
Samuel R. Delany Empire Star 1966
Charles Portis True Grit 1968
John Brunner Stand On Zanzibar 1968
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 1969
Robert M. Perzig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 1974
Stephen Weinberg The First Three Minutes 1977
Gregory Benford Timescape 1980
Tracy Kidder The Soul of a New Machine 1981
Stanley Karnow Vietnam: A History 1983
Gabriel García Márquez Love in the Time of Cholera 1985
Ken Grimwood Replay 1986
Richard Elliot Friedman Who Wrote the Bible? 1987
Dan Simmons Hyperion 1989
Alexei and Cory Panshin The World Beyond the Hill 1990
Harold Bloom The Western Canon 1994
Philip Pullman The Golden Compass 1995
Mary Doria Russell The Sparrow 1996
Robert Zubrin The Case for Mars 1996
Barbara Goldsmith Other Powers 1998
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 1999
David Sedaris Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim 2000
David Hajdu Positively 4th Street 2001
Sue Monk Kidd The Secret Life of Bees 2001
Yann Martel The Life of Pi 2001
Steven Pinker The Blank Slate 2002
Richard E. Rubenstein Aristotle’s Children 2003
David Maraniss They Marched Into Sunlight 2004
Bart D. Ehrman Misquoting Jesus 2005
Jared Diamond Collapse 2005
Bill Bryson The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid 2006
Lee Smolin The Trouble with Physics 2006
John Matteson Eden’s Outcasts 2007
Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan 2007
Malcolm Gladwell The Outliers 2008
Ellen Ruppel Shell Cheap 2009
Gail Collins When Everything Changed 2009
Kristof and WuDunn Half the Sky 2009
Paolo Bacigalupi The Windup Girl 2009
Robert J. Sawyer Wake/Watch/Wonder 2009
Edmund de Waal The Hare with the Amber Eyes 2010
Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns 2010
Oreskes and Conway Merchants of Doubt 2010
Oliver Sacks The Mind’s Eye 2010
Rebecca Skloot The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 2010
David McCullough The Greater Journey 2011
James Gleick The Information 2011
Jo Walton Among Others 2011
S. C. Gwynne Empire of the Summer Moon 2011
Lawrence M. Krauss A Universe from Nothing 2012
Stephen Greenblatt The Swerve 2012
Alan Weisman Countdown 2013
Doris Kearns Goodwin The Bully Pulpit 2013
Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things 2013
Atul Gawande Being Mortal 2014
Celeste Ng Everything I Never Told You 2014
Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction 2014
Naomi Klein This Changes Everything 2014
Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century 2014
Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora 2015
Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me 2015
Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens/Homo Deus 2015
Nancy Isenberg White Trash 2016
Peggy Orenstein Girls & Sex 2016
Susan Faludi In the Darkroom 2016


5 thoughts on “My Favorite 100 Books Out of 1,004 Read”

  1. You’ve read so much more than me James.Many of the authors I haven’t even heard of, especially the more modern or contemporary ones.I noticed you chose only one book per author.Of those in your list, these are the ones I’ve read:

    Frankenstein Mary Shelley
    The Time Machine H.G. Wells
    Dracula Bram Stoker
    House of Mirth Edith Wharton
    The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway
    Last and First Men Olaf Stapleton
    Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
    Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
    Lord of the Flies William Golding
    On the Road Jack Kerouac
    Confessions of a Crap Artist Philip K. Dick
    Mindswap Robert Sheckley
    Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut

    The following would be my choice from those above:

    The Sun Also Rises
    Last and First Men
    Nineteen Eighty-Four
    Lord of the Flies
    On the Road
    Confessions of a Crap Artist

    “Frankenstein” was a seminal novel that influenced the later development of SF.Hemingway of course, is an excellent author, and I don’t think there’s anything I’ve read of his, I haven’t enjoyed, even though that one didn’t leave any colorful impression.”Last and First Men” is a powerful novel, but I think it pales in comparison to “Star Maker”.Of course, we will have our own choices.I can’t argue with you about “Nineteen Eight-Four”, but I’d have probably chosen “Animal Farm”.His “Coming Up for Air” and “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” also seem excellent contenders, as do his non-fiction books, such as “The Road to Wigan Pier”.

    You are obviously very limited when only selecting one book per author and a single choice is difficult and probably invidious.William Golding probably never wrote a better novel than”Lord of the Flies”, and “On the Road” might be Kerouac’s best novel, although I’ve only read one other book of his,”Lonesome Traveler”, which however I didn’t consider any better than the other one.”Confessions of a Crap Artist” is an excellent modern mainstream novel, but I would have chosen one of Dick’s SF novels, as this one was written early in his career and took 16 years to be published, during which time, he matured as an author and would give us so much more in the next decade.

    The remaining list:

    The Time Machine
    House of Mirth
    Catcher in the Rye

    I never liked “The Time Machine” or “War of the Worlds”.I could never get on with Wells stuff.I think it was his style I didn’t like.I find “Dracula” far less memorable than “Frankenstein”, which can’t be called SF, but both emerged from the Gothic cannon and still left an impact on modern SF. I did enjoy “House of Mirth, but gray areas seem to remain, as it can’t remember much about it.”Catcher in the Rye” is a very popular book, which is probably why I don’t care very much for it, but it falls a long way behind “On the Road”.”Mindswap” wasn’t bad, but there are better novels Sheckley wrote, and I’d also prefer his collection, “The Wonderful World of Robert Sheckley”.”Slaughterhouse-Five” is a very good book I suppose, but it’s difficult to make comparisons to other SF books written about the same time, and it’s actual structure I find uncomfortable.

    Overall, a hundred best novels is a difficult and very specified list to make.Having read so widely, I suppose you could afford to leave out so many SF books, which probably doesn’t say much for SF, I don’t know.Considering the excellence of so many of its books compared to mainstream literature, I’d have been more generous.

    I’m pleased to have read such an excellent post though.

    1. Richard, it was hard sticking to just 100 books and limiting one book per author. For Kerouac, I wanted to list ON THE ROAD/THE DHARMA BUMS/BIG SUR as one book since the three make one great story.

      I almost put LORD OF THE FLIES on the list. It was 102. But I already had ROBINSON CRUSOE, THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and EARTH ABIDES with similar themes.

      I hate stories about vampires, but I truly admire the writing of DRACULA. Both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN are much better stories than their cheesy filmed versions.

      MINDSWAP is both a good and bad book. However, it has lots of personal meaning for me. And I really love hearing Sheckley narrated by a good audiobook narrator.

      1. That’s what I said James, it’s difficult to make a list of 100 books from such a definite and limited number, and then only choosing just one book from more than a few good ones per author.

        Don’t you mean you almost didn’t put “Lord of the Flies” on the list?

        My memories of reading “Dracula” are very vague, which is why I haven’t listed it as a favorite but I’m sure I liked reading it at the time.Yes, both are much better than filmed versions.

        Yes well, Sheckley is a very good author.There will be different preferences.

        I’ve found this post to be both intellectual and fun.I intend to get my own list of 100 best books to you, based on your criteria.

  2. An interesting list. I found that I had read 25 of the first 30 books on your list, those with the earliest publication date, but only 3 of the last 30 on your list, those with most recent publication date. I wonder why that is.

    1. There are less than 100 famous books from the 19th century, so the odds are if you’ve read any, then we’re likely to overlap. From recent years there are thousands of popular books, out of millions published. So we’re less likely to overlap.

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