There is, of course, no agreed upon list of 100 best books, and no way to even choose which books are my 100 favorite. The top 50 or so would probably make the list on any day, but the others could be pushed off if I were in a different mood. Still, if I had to commit to only reading from the list I developed today, I could live with that.
My top 10:
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I thought I hated Steinbeck, and indeed, most mid-century male American writers. The year I spent living in Riga, I got membership at a small English language library. Pickings were slim, and I read a number of books I wouldn't have otherwise. Two pages in, and I was eating crow. This book is magnificent.
2. The River Why by David James Duncan
While I've only read The Grapes of Wrath once, this book I've read easily a dozen times. It was definitely a case of the right book at the right time--I read it as a young adult, and it is a fantastic coming of age novel. It starts out humorous and moves into philosophy without leaving any readers behind. It's also set in familiar places. I have loaned this book out repeatedly, and my beloved 25 year old copy shows how many times its been read. I haven't actually re-read it in the past ten years or so--I'm almost afraid to. The Brothers K, by the same author, also rocked my world.
You know why I love this book. My favorite story about it is a friend of mine whose daughter read it in 7th grade, 10th grade, and then again in college. "I've always loved this book," she told her mom, "but I wish they'd let us read the full version in middle and high school instead of the abridged version." Her mom explained that she had actually read the full version all three times, but was bringing so much more to the story now that it seemed richer to her.
Oh, Tess. This was one of my first classics. Far From the Madding Crowd has a happier ending, but sometimes heartbreak is the way to go. It is, of course, frustrating to read this as a modern woman, but if you accept that people do things differently in the past, it has that sense of tragic inevitability.
And again I go for the local author. Le Guin has written so many books that I love, but the audacity of imagining a world in which gender fluctuates at each "time of the month" makes this one brilliant. Plus, it's ends up being swooningly romantic, as two tough and private people let down the walls between them.
I can't believe more people don't know this book, and it's sunnier prequel, The Good Master. War, anti-Semitism, courage, growing up--plus gorgeous illustrations and a look at life on the Hungarian plains. Kate and Jansci learn more than children should have to, but luckily have wise and loving parents to help them process the horrors of WWI.
So, Dickens is not particularly subtle, and this is probably not his greatest work from an artistic standpoint--or maybe it is, how the hell would I know? But after being introduced to Oliver Twist around age 10, this was the next Dickens I encountered, the summer after my freshman year at high school. We had studied the French Revolution, and here was this incredible novel about--get this!--the French Revolution! I am a complete sucker for learning history from novels, and the book just blew me away.
Sci Fi about a woman in a dystopian society who falls in love with a golem. In other words, I can't actually explain this book, but I loved it. Incredibly moving and fierce.
More feminist sci fi, yay! It's occurring to me that many of these books I read between the ages of 18-25. I guess I was old enough to really GET serious literature, and young enough to be BLOWN AWAY by encountering it.
Okay, so my 10th spot was a complete toss-up between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Anne of Green Gables, Far From the Madding Crowd, Angle of Repose, Snow Falling on Cedars, Martian Chronicles, City of Thieves, Blueberries for Sal, The Monkey Wrench Gang, etc. etc. But this book contains a scene where the protagonist is learning about the atrocities that caused another character to flee Nicaragua in the 1980's. She says something like, "I wouldn't want to live in a world where those things happen," and he replies "But you already do." It gave me chills then, and it gives me chills now. Just because it's not happening TO ME doesn't mean it's not my problem.
If you like the list, let me know--I can do top 10s in categories too...