15 (+1) Great Books


I did this viral exercise from Facebook:

Name 15 books that have made a strong impression on you. List them in 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to be books you love, just ones that you can’t shake.

I enjoyed doing this but as usual I couldn’t follow the instructions and instead listed 16. 15 is arbitrary. As far as a “good” number goes, I think 12 would have been a solid archetypal figure to pick. But I wouldn’t know how, after listing 16, to whittle it down to 12, much less back to 15.

I wonder if it’s significant the order in which the books popped into my mind. One book reminded me of another, and so it went. Whatever the significance, I’ve reordered them here into groups and annotated them.


Patterns. Three books of non-fiction found themselves on the list. All three attempt to answer the big questions by understanding underlying patterns.

Guns, Germs and Steel. Jared Diamond. This book was Number One on the list. Diamond asks the question, why did the Spanish conquer the Incans and not the other way around? And by answering, he traces the history of human civilization and finds some surprising patterns. Every now and then I re-read a random chapter and get something new out of it.

The Tipping Point. Malcolm Gladwell (pictured above). I’m reading Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, and love it. Like Diamond, he’s a master generalist, collecting eclectic research and presenting it in deliciously digestible form. In The Tipping Point, he explores how and why social trends start, looking at the factors that push a movement.

A Pattern Language. Christopher Alexander, et al. This architectural bible is about a million pages long and will cost you $60. Each page explains a building or planning archetype that has been repeated across cultures and eras. It’s both simple and deep.


Fantasy. It’s strange only one fantasy book made it onto the list because I’d read so many in my teens. But fantasy books tend to blend into each other and so there aren’t that many that I couldn’t “shake.”

A Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K LeGuin (shown right). This slim novel is the complete opposite of most fantasy books. It’s spare in its descriptions and the hero is often not heroic. It’s a tale of the hero’s journey, with big themes. At the same time, all the magic, dragons, and wizards are mere facts in this world, ordinary nuisances to be stepped over.


Magical realism. Two of my favorite authors. I enjoy their earlier works more than their recent creations. Sometimes I feel they’ve evolved beyond my level of comprehension, but I certainly love reading everything they throw out.

The Temple of My Familiar. Alice Walker (shown left). A soulful exploration of relationships, between men and women, animals and people, narrator and characters, writer and reader. All in that easy-going, mellifluous, but unshakeable voice of Walker. The story is fun too.

Sexing the Cherry. Jeannette Winterson. I sometimes get lost in Winterson’s experimental narratives. I couldn’t finish two of her novels. It’s a fine line. This book is just experimental enough to blow your mind, but not too much that you want to shoot yourself. I can’t even begin describing what this novel’s plot is. There’s a 17th Century explorer and his enormous dog-breeding mother. They sail around the world, time travel, and move through dimensions, in search of exotic fruit, and the 12 dancing princesses.


Short stories. These are droll, understated, tragicomic tales, written by enigmatic and eccentric writers.

Nine Stories. JD Salinger (at right). I once read a critical review of this book that said that each story represented a Buddhist path. So I reread the book looking for signs of enlightenment. I guess a case can be made for some kind of religious meta-narrative. But I still returned to the haunting themes of post-World War II nihilism.

Pangs of Love. David Wong Louie. I don’t think Louie has written a book since. Too bad, because these stories have the same haunting but detached atmosphere of Salinger.


Post-apocalyptic feminist science fiction. It’s easy to call a work of fiction feminist just because the writer is a woman and the main character is a woman. But these four novels actually imagine post-patriarchal societies. And it’s lazy to call a story science fiction just because it’s set in the future. But as LeGuin points out, science also includes the social sciences. And these novels re-imagine social systems.

Also noteworthy is that 3 of the 4 are set in California. I think I need to write a blog post all its own about that.

He, She and It. Marge Piercy. In this future, corporations rule city-states. The protagonist however lives in one of the few non-corporate enclaves in a community of robot makers. The story is brilliantly interwoven with a story about a Jewish Polish community under Nazi rule.

Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler (pictured above). A highly addictive drug that makes people into violent pyromaniacs has created chaos. A young woman makes her way up to Oregon along Highway 5, and develops a new religion.

Always Coming Home. Ursula K LeGuin. Another LeGuin book on the list. Self-described as “an archaeology of the future”, it envisions a post-industrial utopia in Northern California. There’s a main story, but the book is constructed as an anthology of articles about the Kesh culture. My copy even included a cassette of songs sung by the tribe’s members in their language.

The Fifth Sacred Thing. Starhawk. Another matriarchal utopia based in Northern California, under attack by a violent and autocratic Southern California society. It sounds like it could be a moralistic tale of contrived stereotypes and I avoided it for many years for that reason. But the world is vividly fleshed out and the intercultural dilemmas are played out in compelling philosophical dramas.

A Play.
Heartbreak House. George Bernard Shaw. This isn’t necessarily my favorite GB Shaw play. But it was the first one I watched (on PBS) and it made such an impression on me that I began reading all his plays and fell in love with his acid wit.


Poetry. Only Sandburg’s book can properly be called a book of poetry. But the other two, while invariably in the philosophy sections of bookstores, read like poems.

Honey and Salt. Carl Sandburg (above left). So earthy, so spiritual. I love Carl Sandburg. His words are like a brisk desert wind.

The Prophet. Kahlil Gibran (above right). Before a wise person sails away, the people ask him to talk about various subjects like love, money, children. I consult this book as an oracle. If there’s a subject I need clarity on this is where i go.

Tao Te Ching. Lao Tzu. So few words. Truth condensed down to its essentials.

There are so many great books that I haven’t been able to shake.  I was going to write a list of honorable mentions, but perhaps I’ll save that for another post.  What’s on your list?