• The Renaissance Surgeon

My Favorite Fiction Books of All Time

I love a good book. I try not to start books unless I think I’ll like them. My desire to finish things I start makes it hard for me to abandon a book before finishing, though if it is really dire I won’t waste my time. As such, I highly value book recommendations. I have perused lists of top novels, such as those from the Guardian and Random House, which give a good selection of books. Many of these I read in middle school or high school (e.g. Great Gatsby, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Lord of the Flies, Gulliver’s Travels, Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye). There are three problems with this. (1) I can’t remember them, at least not well. (2) At that point in my life, how could I possibly have had the perspective to be able to appreciate a work as deep and complex as the Great Gatsby? A book can be like a bottle of wine – one’s enjoyment of it can be state-dependent. Many are familiar with the experience of drinking a highly rated vintage only to be disappointed. On the other hand, a cheap bottle shared with high quality people over a great meal can be some of the best wine one has ever tasted. So I suspect I may return to some of these reads of yesteryear, but for now there are so many books I still want to read for the first time.


(3) I consider all-encompassing lists such as those above to be analogous to randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in medicine. Researchers in scientific fields place the highest value on data from RCTs. That’s great if I want to know what’s best for a population of people, but I most want to know what is best for my individual self! “Research your own experience,” Bruce Lee tells us. Of most value are reading recommendations from those with similar reading tastes. Reflecting on which books I have enjoyed the most helps me pick out future reads. (No one else’s tastes could be more closely aligned with my own!) If perchance mine overlap with yours, I offer my picks below.


To pick favorites is difficult, but one sure indicator is whether I have read a book more than once, or at least plan to. The only books on my list so far to have achieved this status are the top 3, though on reflection, I am sure I will re-read the others, nearly all of which have seen at least ten years transpire since I last picked them up. (This also begs the question: have I not been reading great books for the last ten years? Or is this the opposite of recency bias? I guess that would be nostalgia bias?)


1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. This and the Aeneid may be the only books (apart from bedtime stories for my kids) that I have read thrice, and plan to read again. The Count of Monte Cristo is the ultimate character study in focusing on one’s own locus of control, taking radical acceptance of one’s present reality and concentrating one’s efforts on self-improvement. Wrongfully imprisoned in the Château d’If, Edmund Dantes transforms himself through study into the Count of Monte Cristo. As Viktor Frankl says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Identity is a choice from which flows our feelings and actions. We can choose to be the best version of ourselves. I’ve got to read this one again! I have read his other novels chasing the high of Monte Cristo, and although they are quite good, they don’t stand up to this masterpiece.


2. The Aeneid by Vergil. I have read this epic Latin poem primarily in Latin in academic contexts, first in high school, then in college and then in graduate school. (For English, I prefer Allen Mandelbaum’s verse translation.) I wrote my masters dissertation

Michael Day Thesis for the M.Phil (with English translations)
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on it, so suffice it to say I got REALLY into it. Combining elements of the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, this Roman epic is the ultimate hero’s journey narrative. I will be interested to see how it will read outside the classroom.


3. Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Hamlet is Shakespeare at his best. There are so many classic scenes and lines in this play that are familiar even to those who have not read it. My one lament is that I have not seen a stage production of this, though Kenneth Branagh did an excellent job on the silver screen.


You might be tempted to point out at this point, young reader, that my three favorite books are all revenge sagas, thus questioning whether some abiding angst disquiets my soul. Perhaps as a younger man, admittedly, this theme may have been part of the appeal of these stories, but I would currently contend that these works offer a depth of complexity that precludes such categorization. The characters are not so easily labeled as good guys or bad. In Darth Vader there is still Anniken.


4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. We move from revenge sagas to patricide! Though long, this might make it on the read twice list, primarily because I remember so little of it, other than that I really enjoyed it. I read it in early 2008 so a 15- or 20-year anniversary read is likely in the offing.


5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Wow (Wao), what a novel debut! This is such engrossing prose.


6. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Another classic hero’s journey in a world richly imagined.


7. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. This holds a special place for me because of its story intersecting with Oxford, England, a locale of which I am very fond. I found an old copy at a charity used book sale a couple years ago, and it is now sitting on the shelf in my bedroom, waiting to be revisited.


8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. For anyone that has ever had a romantic relationship, this offers a heartfelt rendering of the one between Anna and Vronsky.


9. The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. The epic denouement of Tolkien’s classic trilogy.


10. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. Again Allen Mandelbaum for the win with his verse translation. Have you ever had to go to a dark place, not really wishing to pass through, but able to report back on the good you found in the experience (“to retell the good discovered there”)?


It's hard to limit it to 10 books. Here are some other great reads:


Honorable mention:

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Iliad by Homer

The Odyssey by Homer

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


Yes, I realize that I have no book by a female author in the top ten and only one book by an author currently living (Junot Diaz). I offer no apologies for this. My education and reading history (and indeed Western culture at large) is not free of the legacy of patriarchy. I enjoy reading the work female authors and look forward to their inclusion in future versions of this list. The list is not meant to be authoritative, comprehensive or immutable. On the contrary, it just reflects what I have enjoyed in my reading experience so far.