I was recently inspired by Glen @ Scenic Writer’s Shack, who blogged about his 50 favorite books. It got me to thinking about what mine might be. We think we know these things about ourselves, don’t we? I certainly thought I did. Some of these titles come up right off the top of my head. Others have a way of lingering in the background, where they get rediscovered time and again, but seem somewhat less persistent about being noticed until it’s their time to shine.
This was a tough list to build, and admittedly, I cheated a bit. I have “Collected Works” ebooks for a few of these authors, so I wasn’t forced into some unseemly choices. There are a some series in here as well, but they only count if they’re done by the same author(s). I drew the line at whole franchises, so you will not see any Star Wars, Star Trek, or Indiana Jones. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. As much history and biography as I read, I’ve found that it’s not so much a single book on a subject that does it for me, but rather a number of books are needed. And so, with few exceptions, you won’t see many non-fiction books on this list, no matter how highly I regard both subject and book. Again, I’m as surprised as anyone by that. It’s also inevitable that I’ll come up with several others later that should be on this list. It’s pretty much the law of the omniverse.
Since I don’t see the point in building a list like this without at least a little discussion, it’s safe to say you’ll need to settle in for a long one, ladies, gents, and gender non-conforming friends. If I’ve reviewed a book for the site already, I’ll link back to the original review wherever possible, in case anyone’s interested.
One last note before I begin… the first two entries are the two top spots; everything after that is completely subjective and interchangeable in regards to number order. Ok, fellow bibliophiles. Let’s dive in!
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
My favorite book of all time. It’s the tale that keeps on giving: the ultimate quest to undo the ultimate foe. My buddy reader, Libromancer’s Apprentice, and I went through this book chapter by chapter for our Silmarillion Blues Tolkien project.
Phantom by Susan Kay
My favorite book about my favorite classic monster, The Phantom of the Opera. Leroux’s original covers only the last six months of the story. This is the novel for the true Phans who want the entire story from birth to death and beyond. Some of this material later found its way into the reworked backstory of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, such was its influence.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The world’s first science fiction novel, and beyond doubt one of the most influential horror novels ever written, Frankenstein is also the most eloquently written of the classic monster novels. If you’ve only seen the movie versions, you don’t know the story. Not by far.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Owing much to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (which didn’t make this list, but deserves honorable mention), Stoker’s Dracula casts a long shadow on vampire lore. As with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre after it, everything after Dracula is written as an homage or in an effort to not be like it. Either way, the tale holds sway. And no wonder. It’s an amazing book. The first four chapters alone are some of the world’s most perfectly executed Gothic fiction.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
This is the first one that Libromancer’s Apprentice and I went through for our Silmarillion Blues Tolkien project. Rightfully so, as it’s the one that starts the entire journey through Middle-Earth for most people as well as the entirety of the modern fantasy genre.
Easily the world’s most influential poetry, these books rank up there with The Bible as the foundations of Western civilization. They’re part of an even greater (and unfortunately lost) whole, and as such need to be experienced together for purposes of comparison and contrast. And make no mistake… they are to be experienced.
The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Another buddy read project, The Game is Afoot!, this time with BrokenTune. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t create detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes is the first name in the genre that anyone thinks about… for a reason. Four novels, 56 short stories, and enough character to make the largest part of the world throughout the generations believe that Holmes was a real person means that there is something for everyone to be found in these pages.
The Annotated Shakespeare by William Shakespeare (A. L. Rouse)
Yet another project, this time without a buddy reader, and moving oh-so-slowly… but with feeling! This particular copy of the collected works can be seen the Ready Room of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. If it’s good enough for Sir Patrick Stewart, it’s good enough for me. What more need be said here? It’s Shakespeare, after all.
Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
From my first fully-painted copy of “The Masque of the Red Death” (which I still proudly own), I’ve been drawn back time and again to the prose and poetry of ol’ Edgar. Yes, much of it defines “dark” as we know it, but this is also where detective fiction begins, and there is more variety in here than most might at first suspect. It’s just that the stories we all know happen to be those stories, the ones that haunt our nightmares.
The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
One of my early favorites from childhood, this story isn’t just about the novel for me. It’s also the radio broadcast, the films, the TV series, the oddball sequel here and there, the stage musical… you get the idea. There’s so much social commentary packed into this little book, but the method of delivery is so iconic, it just sticks with me for all the right reasons.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
As I said up top, this is my favorite of the classic monsters, and I would be remiss if the original novel didn’t feature on this list. It’s a bit of a mess, structurally speaking, but there’s so much in it that just lends perfectly to the deepest recesses of the imagination. As with The War of the Worlds, The Phantom, and indeed all of the classic monsters, are a multimedia experience for me. I grew up in a blessed age for that sort of thing. But in all cases, I have to pay homage to the source material from whence it all comes.
Complete Works of The Brontës by the Brontë Sisters
So far, I’ve gone through the poetry, a biography, one of Charlotte’s novels, Emily’s only novel, and both of Anne’s… and I’ve immensely enjoyed the discovery thus far. All that remains is the rest of Charlotte’s works, which beckon me on. Such incredibly gifted writers all around. It makes me wonder what they might have been capable of achieving had they lived longer and had experienced more of the world.
Dune (series) by Frank Herbert
To my mind, the original Dune series is science fiction’s answer to The Lord of the Rings. It may not be built on languages, but there is a history and a legacy there that is certainly suggestive of much more. The message is even more relevant today than it was in its own time: the planet and its resources are precious and must be treated with respect.
Wonder Woman by George Perez, Omnibus vol. 1-3
Sometimes a reboot works. After 45+ years in print, Wonder Woman got a revised origin story so powerful that even the author / artist fell in love with her. It’s easy to see why. These are the stories that made me fall in love with her too. These three volumes comprise the entirety of that first re-envisioned era, just over five years worth of some of the most compassionate and awe-inspiring storytelling ever seen in a superhero comic.
James Bond (series) by Ian Fleming
Another buddy read with BrokenTune, part of my 007 Mission Briefings. This original series is hit and miss with me, but I respect them as the foundation for everything that came after. Casino Royale especially remains a kind of oddball pleasure for me that I keep returning to time and again. It’s escapist fiction of its particular time and place, no more, no less, but as a springboard for greater, it’s perhaps unrivaled.
Howard Shore’s film scores were inspired directly from Tolkien’s masterwork and, while they are designed to compliment the film series, they truly do stand alone as well operate in conjunction with the novel. Doug Adams’ unprecedented access to the creative process has allowed this book to give film score enthusiasts an inside breakdown of the themes and their evolution, granting anyone who desires it to gain new levels of appreciation for the musical art form. It is, in a word, sublime. I truly wish there were more books like this in the world, for both film scores and for other classical works.
Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
I’ve been reading this book since I was a kid. The legends of Arthur and Camelot never cease to inspire me in virtually every form out there, save for the perhaps the most modern screen versions that try to strip this story of anything resembling quality. Having since expanded my appreciation of Tolkien, that appreciation has only skyrocketed as I now see Arthur as the last of the line of Aragorn and Arwen. What is seen cannot be unseen, and that’s not always a bad thing. There are earlier versions of this tale, but for me, Malory’s work is a kind of nexus point that allows me to move forward and backward through the Arthurian continuum.
The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson
It’s only in recent years that I gained a true appreciation for poetry. Combined with my love of Arthurian legend and the fact that Tennyson is an astounding creator, this book has quickly become a favorite. It’s just beautiful beyond words, the perfect encapsulation of the Victorian Gothic revival.
There are history books, and there are history books. This one is of the decidedly latter kind. Aside from its sequels from the same author, I can’t say there’s another book like it anywhere. It’s the book for people who claim to hate history, and really, it should be required reading for any historical fiction or fantasy writer. The reader is invited to use all five senses to experience this world. It’s the kind of book that enhances absolutely every other history book out there. Brilliantly written.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
I grew up on the different versions of the story on screen, but I was quite unprepared for what I found in the novel when I finally got to read it. The story of Quasimodo is only part of the backdrop. In Hugo’s time, there was a movement to tear down the old and push forward the new, and all that implied. This book is Hugo’s argument that the lifeblood of Paris was its history, to be found in the people, in the art, in the architecture, and even the cobblestones. It’s all connected. The stories of the present mingle with those of the past. In short, this was his plea to protect the great cathedral by helping his contemporaries connect to their own history. It’s difficult not to be moved by this book once you understand what it is.
Complete Works by Edith Wharton
I started with her ghost stories, and since then I’ve read a couple of her novellas, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. As with the Brontë sisters, it’s hard to come away from Wharton’s work with anything less than an appreciation for the eloquence of Wharton’s prose. There’s a quality to her work that lingers in the recesses for me. But there’s more to it. I think she might have been interesting to know, the type of person I could sit and talk with for hours on end about the goings-on in the world.
The Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes
For those in the know, these five tales are so much more than just second class riders to the Arthurian legend. This is the singular collection of tales that served as propaganda in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, ground zero for establishing the ideals of Chivalry and Courtly Love. Behold, the power of fiction to set a higher example.
The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George
When it comes to historical fiction, this book is the gold standard by which I compare absolutely every other historical novel. The depth of character, the wealth of research and accuracy, the attention to detail… this book has it all. I typically admonish readers for looking to fiction to learn history, and I admonish writers who bend it to their whims in pursuit of their own stories. This is the best of both worlds, where everyone plays, and everyone wins.
Zorro by Isabel Allende
Classic pulp heroes, written as top shelf literature with respect and class. People, I want more like this book. This is the origin story of Zorro in a way that the original Johnston McCulley tales could never pull off. It’s remarkable. I want to see all of the classic pulp characters given this treatment, and I’d love to have a sequel to this one. It won’t happen, but I’d love one.
The Dresden Files (series) by Jim Butcher
Urban fantasy bores the crap out of me. It’s trite, it’s typically underwhelming, it’s usually just badly told romance, and it’s all made worse by a complete misunderstanding of the creatures of the night or the elements of the paranormal. Enter: Jim Butcher. The Dresden Files is a gift to people like myself who are so steeped in the lore that few things can impress. You’ve got a leading man straight out of the classic pulps, a cast of supporting characters who are every bit his equal or superior in terms of character and dimension, incredible detail in regards to the research, all wrapped up in classic storytelling with humor and style that hearkens back to everything I love most about reading. It’s as human to the core as it is supernatural. There are very few people on the planet who write books like this anymore.
The Cinder Spires (series) by Jim Butcher
Ok, so there’s only one book in the series at this point, but The Aeronaut’s Windlass quite literally blasted out of the gates and one-upped Dresden at virtually every turn. It’s hard for me to say, but there it is. I loved steampunk, back before it became… well, before goths discovered brown and everyone got a hold of it. This book reclaimed it and brought it all back for me. Butcher has done for steampunk what he did for urban fantasy: he reclaimed it from the depths of the mundane and made it fun again.
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
Twain and I have some things in common. We’re not Christian, we’re not French, and we’re not in any danger of becoming either. And yet, we’re both fascinated beyond words with Joan of Arc. In Twain’s time, there was the legend, but not much scholarship. He had to do the legwork, and much of what he uncovered was not to be accepted by a novelist with zero historical credibility. And so, he wrote this novel, which has since proven to be more accurate in its scholarship than many history books you can name. But since it is a novel, Twain is able to bring that element of spiritual awe that Joan commands and inspires, the sort of thing he himself didn’t believe in, but still found it within her. That in itself makes this book worth reading. It’s unlike anything else in Twain’s catalog, and he considered it to be his finest work.
Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford
It’s part biography, part character assessment, and part examination of the music in context with the life and events of Beethoven. What more can I say except that it’s a must-read for anyone who appreciates and respects the work of the maestro. This is one of those books that you can expect to spend some time with, constantly revisiting the music as you go. I did, and it was an amazing experience.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
This is my gold standard for all history books. Extensively researched, brilliantly written, and engaging from cover to cover, this book covers quite possibly the most hellish century the human race has ever experienced. Think you’ve had a bad day? Read this book. It began with the Crusades, ended with The Hundred Years War, and was filled in by political intrigue, invasion, famine, and a little thing called the Black Death. If you walk away from this bored, you’re doing it wrong.
The Art of Peace by Morihei Ueshiba
In times of inner turmoil, which is pretty much every day, this little book is the foundational bedrock that allows me to stand and face the world and myself. It’s cumulative wisdom from the creator of Aikido, a martial art designed for personal defense that also allowed for one’s opponent to walk away unharmed. Think of this as the spiritual component behind the martial arts, which can be used with such studies, or by itself.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu (or Laozi)
For me, the teachings in this book build upon what I take from The Art of Peace, even though this is far older wisdom. When my world goes truly sideways, it’s this book that brings me a new sense of equilibrium.
The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers
Imagine a modern horror novel featuring the cast of literary giants at the birth of the Romantic era, and written in the style of that same era. Now imagine that the events of history as presented are 100% accurate, but the horror element within the story is woven between those elements so seamlessly as to become intertwined. To read this book is to revisit the works of Byron, Shelley, et al, and to see them through an entirely new lens. This book is incredible, the sort of thing that ruins me for a great many other historical or horror novels.
The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
One does not simply walk into Middle-Earth without an appreciation of the mind that gave it all to us. To read Tolkien’s letters is to sit in the mind of a genius, but it’s also to get to know the man on a level that biography simply cannot bring forth. It’s personal. It’s such a gift that we have these letters.
Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien
If you ever want to be shamed as a parent, read this book. Written alongside the ever-evolving Middle-Earth, the same level of genius, and a great deal of humor, is poured into these letters. The sum of it becomes a world building extravaganza. It’s the kind of thing that can be read in an afternoon, but it will live with me for a lifetime. A truly wonderful book.
Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler
There is almost no part of my life untouched by the magic of Walt Disney. It’s popular today for people to tear him down, such is the squeaky clean image he tried to cultivate, but the fact is that he was as human as the rest of us. To see him build his dream, to face his demons, struggle through hardship and heartbreak, and to emerge stronger for it is nothing short of inspirational. At the same time, a biography like this lends itself to the greater appreciation of the works I’ve admired all my life.
Trilby by George Du Maurier
This little book is a bit of a mess on the surface, but there’s something inexplicably charming about it that just reached in and grabbed my heart.
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
The older I get, the less recognizable my heroes become, and the more this book resonates with me. In terms of superheroic epics, this is truly the last great work, the one that prophecies everything that has gone wrong since.
Wonder Woman: The Hiketeia by Greg Rucka and J. G. Jones
There are many disparate sides to a character like Wonder Woman. She’s a warrior of the highest caliber. She’s an ambassador of peace. She’s royalty, but she’s somehow on equal footing with the rest of us. She’s created by divine forces, but she’s as human as the rest of us at heart, perhaps even more so. Greg Rucka, one of those top level Batman writers who absolutely gets what makes the Dark Knight tick, managed to write Wonder Woman to equal perfection in his first published attempt, and the result is jaw-dropping, especially when the two come together at cross purposes. I have extreme respect for this book.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Before the idea of deconstructing superheroes became popular and just as equally pointless, Alan Moore got there first and set the standard so impossibly high that it ruins all subsequent attempts. This graphic novel marks the pinnacle achievement in the year that comic books grew up. The more one understands the histories told within comics and the history of their evolution in our world, the more this book means. It remains in the top three comics of all time for me, alongside Kingdom Come and Moore’s other great early masterwork…
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Before Watchmen, Moore proved that comics weren’t just for kids. It was a medium that could express something more, that could become an outlet for true literary genius. Written in the early 80s as a fear-driven counterpoint to Thatcher and Reagan, this book seems to echo the fears of modern times just as much.
Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Derrick Robertson
This book is one part ridiculous, one part genius, and one part prophetic. It’s the tale of a crusading journalist in search of the truth in a dystopian future where neither journalism nor truth really means much, and marketing is everything. Spider Jerusalem is determined to be the enema a constipated world needs, and he’s duly armed with a bowel disruptor.
Anno Dracula (series) by Kim Newman
I’ve written a number of times of my insane love of the Wold Newton Universe, the literary crossover world that dwarfs all others. Think of this series as a parallel universe cousin to that, written by a man who not only understands horror and pop culture at insane levels that the rest of us can only dream of, he’s also a top notch pulp writer with a gift to make it seem effortless.
Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution by Rafael Sabatini
There are all manner of swashbuckling pulp adventures out there. For me, this is the best of the best. This story needs to be experienced for what it is.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The world’s first novel, told in two parts, ten years apart. Originally designed to poke fun at the concept of chivalry in an age when that concept really stopped meaning much of anything, it opened into something far larger and more poignant. It hits me where I live.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
This is one of the most eloquently written books I’ve ever encountered, and that’s in translation. I can only imagine the beauty of the original Italian. It’s the best Sherlock Holmes story written without that character, commenting on the modern world in a Medieval setting. It’s brilliant. More of Eco’s works are on my to-read list, but I was so blown away by this one, I keep shying away from such greatness for fear of the inevitable reading slump that will follow. It’s that good.
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words (trans. by Willard Trask) / Joan of Arc: Her Trial Transcripts (trans. by E. P. Sanguinetti
I have to put these books on equal footing as they do compliment one another so perfectly. Whether you’re a believer or a skeptic, the facts of Joan’s life are undeniable and cannot be as readily dismissed as some would like to think. This young woman lived one of the most fascinatingly impossible lives in her few short years, and she paid heavily for it. As many myths and legends are told about her, there’s nothing quite like getting her own words, which echo into eternity and continue to inspire. We’re fortunate to have them given the era and the great pains that went into destroying all that she was and stood for.
Paddington Bear (series) by Michael Bond
When I was a kid, this is the series that first introduced me to the idea of the British Isles as a real place, not just the fantasy setting of Camelot. In addition to simply being funny and endearing, these stories taught me about a foreign culture, and how similar it could be to my own as much as it was different. This one will forever have a special place in my heart.
The Book of Chivalry by Geoffroi de Charney
I’ve studied many manuals on Chivalry and Knighthood over the years, but for me, this is the one I kept coming back to in conjunction with my personal quest. It spoke to me. It continues to speak to me.
Who says history has to be boring? This book proves how terrifyingly inventive people can be. Before cannon, before machine guns, before nuclear missiles, the battlefield was ever the birthplace of some truly ingenious and scary weaponry. I find it something of a small miracle that we’re actually still here, to be quite honest.
The All-New Wild Adventures of Doc Savage: The Sinister Shadow by Will Murray (as Kenneth Robeson)
When first published, this story was decades overdue. At the height of pulp history, there were two names that topped them all. Doc Savage would go on to directly inspire Superman, while The Shadow would become the pattern for The Batman. In all of that time, for all of their stories, Doc and The Shadow never faced one another… until now. This book is amazeballs! Will Murray writes in the classic pulp style and delivers both of these characters at their absolute mind-blowing best. It’s bonkers, in the best way imaginable, and for me, it was a dream come true.
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And those are my top 50 books, the ones that my mind and heart keep coming back to time and again for whatever reason. Please feel free to let me know what you think of my selections. Thanks again to Glen for providing the inspiration to do this. I hope some you out there will do the same.