Still, stories are what help us best understand why we are how we are. So after consulting people I admire and my own mental file, I included only novels that I believe you really ought to read. For a bucket list, it’s still pretty shallow. When it comes to books, a complete must-read list would be the depth of the Mariana Trench. In any case, here goes:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Did you go to high school? If so, you’ve been programmed to believe that this is a good book. The thing is, it is a good book, about justice and deeply held beliefs, right and wrong, and the agony of growing up.
2. True Grit by Charles Portis. I was once listing my favorite novels with the then book-editor for Newsweek, and I mentioned the then-obscure-except-for-the-John-Wayne-movie story of Mattie Ross and her quest for justice with the rascally sheriff Rooster Cogburn. The editor said, “Well, we’re talking favorites. Now, you’re talking genius.”
3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Lest you think that all my top faves are coming-of-age novels set among children challenged by painful realities — like Francie Nolan in this novel of immigrant poverty in prewar New York — oh well. Deal with it.
4. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor. If you haven’t read this novel of the Confederate prison camp in Georgia, and the prisoners who fought to survive there, I envy you. You have a treat in store for yourself.
5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the line that the statue was “the stuff dreams are made of.” The guy could write.
6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty. Two strangely literate Texas rangers who decide to become cattle ranchers, and out-Sundance Butch and the Kid, is the book that made me decide to write a novel.