(I felt proud that I had read several of these recommended novels. There are actually a couple that I doubt I'll even try because they are scary/horror, which I don't do. I did find one surprise while going over this list. I never knew "True Grit" was originally a novel! I'll have to read the book now, because many times books and movies vary greatly. You learn something new everyday. - Melanie Ernst)
I began to list a dozen novels that everyone should read before age 50, but quickly realized that if all you want is a dozen, you should ask an economist, not a novelist. 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. Here are the novels picked, starting with the 21st place selection ...
21. 'Charlotte's Web' by E.B. White - Those who think of this book about a gallant spider's fight to save the life of a runt pig as a children's story are letting children have all the fun.
20. 'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald - Often described as the chronicle of the Jazz Age, this is really a story about the haves and how they think of the have-nots because they are helpless to think of them any other way. You might call it a 1920s tale of the 1 percent.
19. 'Crossing to Safety' by Wallace Stegner - The story of two couples growing "up" together is as true a story about loyalty and its limits as any I've ever read.
18. 'The Killer Angels' by Michael Shaara - Another Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Civil War? Yes! This is the story of the longest days of our nation's life, three hot sunsets in Gettysburg, and why even the beautiful and brave can be wrong , and the glum, stubborn and foolish as right as dawn.
17. 'Red Dragon' by Thomas Harris - Having read this book before the amazing characterization of Hannibal Lector by Anthony Hopkins, I was the only person on earth who thought that this predecessor to The Silence of the Lambs was even more gruesome and terrifying.
16. 'Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy - My mother said that this novel of pre-revolution Russia and the foolish and beautiful Anna was a story that "took all the fun out of adultery". So true.
15. 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson - Often cited as sporting the best first paragraph in all prose, this story is still as paralyzingly scary as it was the day it was written.
14. 'Different Seasons' by Stephen King - Speaking of great short-story stylists, this is my living favorite. While I don't run to buy every new Stephen King novel, I would fight anyone who thinks that Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body don't compare favorably to just about anything.
13. 'in our time' by Ernest Hemingway - The lowercase name is the correct, if affected, author's choice of title for the first big published book of Ernest Hemingway's heartbreaking stories. When you read this, you see just why his style was so imitated, and why it never could be copied. Ever.
12. 'The Magus" by John Fowles - Even people who have read and loved The French Lieutenant's Woman may not know about this crazy part-romance, part-horror, part-Gothic book, in which no one and nothing is what it seems.
11. 'Gone With the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell - It's the story of one woman's doomed love and one civilization's doomed quest, and it's just a helluva story, period.
10. 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte - Nathaniel Hawthorne hated the Misses Bronte because they could do what he could not - write books that sing with authenticit
y and genuine suspense. They still do so nearly 200 years later.
9. 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho - Sixty-five million readers worldwide adore the story of the Andalusian shepherd boy, Santiago, who goes searching for a treasure. I'm not going to disagree with them.
8. 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe' by Douglas Adams - This wonderful sequel to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy asks a poignant question: Facing the end of life as we know it, is it too much to ask to find a good cup of tea and some biscuits?
7. 'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier - "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again." You will love this story of psychological obsession and immortality by one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century.
6. 'Lonesome Dove' by Larry McMurtry - Two strangely literate Texas Rangers who decide to become cattles ranchers out-Sundance Butch and the Kid in the book that made me decide to write a novel.
5. 'The Maltese Falcon' by Dashiell Hammett - This supposed debut of the hard-boiled detective novel makes the list because of the way Hammett colored his characters with dialogue. "I distrust a closemouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice."
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.
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.
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."
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.