The Most Important Novels in My Life


I have set myself a task for 2020: re-read the ten most important books in my life. To qualify for the list, the novel (or novella or short story collections; I’m including those also), must meet one or more of the following criteria:

  1. It was so profound and meaningful to me that I’ve read the novel multiple times.
  2. It significantly influenced my own development as a novelist.
  3. The experience of reading the novel is inexorably linked to and illuminates a moment or period of time in my life.

It’s going to be challenging to pick the ten books. I’m not concerned that I’ve forgotten any important book, because if I have, then that book by definition wouldn’t qualify for the list. I’ve started with 25 titles, from which I must cull down to ten.

I’m interested in how the passage of time and accumulation of life experiences, as well as my own evolution as a writer, have changed how I feel about a book that I once placed on a high pedestal. Has the book stood the test of time? Have I? What’s changed?

For now, I’m listing my initial list of 25, in no particular order, and without explanation. When I get down to ten, I will provide context as to why I chose each one to read again.

UPDATE: I’ve re-read some on this list of 25 and updated their status below.

UPDATE 2: I may not get the list narrowed to ten, but am offering reviews of those I have re-read.

  1. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, John Irving. Prob won’t crack the top ten. I think I liked THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY better.
  2. AMERICAN PASTORAL, Philip Roth. THE HUMAN STAIN could also be on this list.
  3. SELF-HELP, Lorrie Moore. So important to my start as a writer.
  4. A FARWELL TO ARMS, Ernest Hemingway. Feelings of nostalgia keep this novel on the list.
  5. A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, Jennifer Egan. Top ten, incredibly original. Love that shifting time and connected stories.
  6. THE SLAP, Christos Tsiolkas. Utterly compelling, daring, and original. Top ten.
  7. THE EXORCIST, William Peter Blatty. Quite a read, terrifying, but not the best-written book.
  8. DUNE, Frank Herbert. Fantastic world-building, but I’m not a huge sci-fi guy.
  9. CAT’S EYE, Margaret Atwood
  10. THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, Milan Kundera. Such an important novel back then. I still appreciate its influence on me.
  11. THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy
  13. LITTLE CHILDREN, Tom Perrotta
  14. SMILES ON WASHINGTON SQUARE, Raymond Federman. My introduction to experimental fiction. Belongs on this list.
  15. 10:30 ON A SUMMER NIGHT, Marguerite Duras. Off the list, didn’t stand the test of time. Pretentious, obtuse, overwritten.
  16. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, J.D. Salinger. Timeless, because coming of age is timeless.
  17. A PALE VIEW OF THE HILLS, Kazuo Ishiguro. As mysterious and haunting as ever.
  18. LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Likely top ten. It’s the writing, stupid. Many have imitated, but there’s only one GGM.
  19. BELLEFLEUR, Joyce Carol Oates. A long gothic novel I put down one-third of the way through on a second reading. Maybe I was influenced the first time around by my love interest who so recommended the novel. Still, Joyce Carol Oates is legendary.
  20. THE HOURS, Michael Cunningham. Top ten. A pattern here: it’s the writing. And the structure.
  21. LEGENDS OF THE FALL, Jim Harrison. Specifically, the novella “The Man Who Gave Up His Name.” Grandfathered onto this list.
  22. THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, Tim O’Brien. Just an incredible and authentic work. Also: IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS.
  23. MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, Ron Hansen. Likely top ten. The writing and language are incredible. The setting of the convent is like another world.
  24. THE ACCOMPLICES, Georges Simenon. Certainly not a great novel, but it is a short, fascinating character study that made a strong impression on me.
  25. WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, Raymond Carver. Like Loorie Moore, Carver was a big influence on me when I started writing. The title story is one of the best I’ve read, full of meaning and pathos on so many levels. Carver changed the way short stories were written upon the publication of this collection in 1981.

Potential new additions over the past two years: THE OVERSTORY (Richard Powers), STONER (John Williams).

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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