We don't mean "What's the most important book you've ever read?" – whatever that might suggest. Nor do we mean "Which do you think is the best-written book?"
No, we mean: What book has stayed with you, year after year, radiating its various simple or complex goodnesses through your heart and mind long after reading it? And maybe it's also the book you tend to re-read every now and then because you love it so …
Michael Schaub of Despair.com: No book has ever moved and excited me as much as Oh! by Mary Robison, who is America's most under-appreciated author. It's probably the most surreal novel I've read about an American family, which also makes it the most honest novel I've read about an American family. There was actually a movie version made, with Crispin Glover and William S. Burroughs, called Twister (not the Bill Paxton hurricane movie). I've never seen it for whatever reason (even though it has my favorite actor, Harry Dean Stanton), but the novel is perfect – and, sadly, out of print. (Someone bring it back! I'm looking at you, NYRB Classics.) Honorable mentions: Veronica by Mary Gaitskill; Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion; The Human Stain by Philip Roth; Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike.
Kathryn Rogers of Trouble Puppet Theatre Company: Oh, a favorite. That's so hard. Often, there's this one amazing thing about a book that just does it for me. Like there's this moment in E.M. Forster's Passage to India when Forster talks about art's ability to express our longing for connection and compassion: "The poem … voiced our loneliness nevertheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes yet is not entirely disproved." This articulation of an idea that means a lot to me makes the whole book a treasure.
Or the spontaneous combustion scene in Dickens' Bleak House! Krook spontaneously combusts in such a profoundly gross, greasy way. It's marvelous, immortal.
If I have to pick a FBOAT, I'd say Middlemarch, by George Eliot. First, it's a big book with multiple protagonists, and they're all orphans (grownup orphans). (Some people like explosions in movies; I like orphans in books.) No other book has captured, for me, the complexity of social life and of inner lives and how they rub together to create happiness, disillusion, calamity. I have an audio recording of it on my iPod; I lie awake at night and listen to it the way other people listen to their favorite albums.
Runners up are L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I read over and over as a kid, a quest with so many beautiful details. And, y'know. Infinite Jest. It's my generation's Middlemarch. Complex and witty and funny and harrowing. No other contemporary book speaks so humanely about suffering.
Matt Bucher of wallace-l: It's sort of cheating because it's 10 volumes, but my favorite book of all-time is Pepys' Diary. I've probably read it and re-read it more often than anything else (even DFW). I almost always have one volume of the Diary on my nightstand. When I'm reading something at night that is too stimulating or un-put-downable, I reach for the Pepys to bring me down ("and so to bed"). But more than a sleep-aid, the thing I especially love about it is trying to imagine living in London in the 1660s – no electricity, no Google, no cars, no calling in sick for work, how does "work" even get done? There is sex in it, there are book reviews in it, political intrigue, domestic drama, recipes, naval battles, it contains multitudes – and I'll never stop reading it.
Amy Gentry, freelance writer: That is super hard, Brenner. My first instinct is to jump straight for The Portrait of a Lady. But if it's really "all time" there are a bunch of childhood books that would be contenders, like The Last Unicorn and The Once and Future King and Alice in Wonderland. But there is a whole lot of other shit I would put on that list. Maybe I will start compiling a top-20 list.
David Jewell, poet: I think We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Because it inspired 1984 and Brave New World and probably a few others. Also, maybe, because it was my first favorite book of all time. But, I'll stay with it. I read it again last year, and it's brilliant. It's the best of those utopian nightmare novels, in my opinion anyway.
Mike Graupmann of The Encyclopedia Show: That book for me is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. Partly because I'm a secret comic-book nerd but also because it's one of the only novels of its size that has propelled my short attention span to finish it in a timely fashion. (My brain prefers short stories so much more!)
Chabon's use of historical fact to ground the fiction was so well done, I forgot sometimes that it wasn't a biography. And then the graphic novel that came out afterward in conjunction with the story! It's the kind of real-life intertextuality that really gets my blood going.
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