The Top 5 First Books to Put on Your Shelf

 My friend is about to christen her new bookshelf. Being a good friend of mine, she of course takes this very seriously. What are the first five books worthy of putting on your shelf? Here are mine:


5. The Arabian Nights, Richard Burton Translation.


Nothing passes the time like Burton’s unabridged translation of The Arabian Nights (as you will learn if you read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami). These tales, some fantastical, some moral, some just fun, form the Arabs’ most popular epic. But my favorite aspect of Burton’s translation is actually his commentary, meant for a Victorian audience, but based on decades among Arab nations. My edition is a facsimile (exact copy) of the first edition, printed in 1902.


4. A Russian Affair, Short Stories by Anton Chekhov, cover design by David Pearson.


This group of stories culminates in “The Lady with the Little Dog,” one of my favorite short stories ever written. The story is about an adulterous affair in Yalta and memorably involves a watermelon. But this entire publication is simply delicious, starting with the cover design by the inimitable David Pearson.


3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.


One of my most beloved books—so much so that I plan to name my first son, if I ever have one, after one of the characters—in a gorgeous translation. This book, essentially a murder mystery, has been a great guide as to what sort of life I should lead. It deserves pride of place on my shelf.




2. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.


This is a book for rainy days, for sunny days, for reading in bed, for reading in the sand, for reading on the grass. Gibbon’s prose takes some getting used to (it borrows a lot of Latin stylistics), but once you give him a chance, he has you entrapped for life. My edition is the Folio Society one, though I hope to get myself a 19th century set soon.




1. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, trade edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent.


This is my favorite book of all time, so of course it would have to be number one. If you can’t understand why this work would be my favorite, just read the first paragraph. If you can’t understand after that, my friend, I can’t reach you. As for this edition, Kent’s illustrations after the manner of wood engravings are inky and soaked and some of the most beautiful in the history of book illustration.


The first paragraph:


 Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.


I’ve told you mine. Now you tell me yours.


24 Comments Add yours

  1. W. Smith says:

    The first five to enter my mind

    The Princess Bride – William Goldman (delightful)
    The Collected Poetical Works of John Keats (beautiful)
    The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (introspective)
    The Merchant of Venice – W. Shakespeare (delightful, beautiful and introspective)
    The Holy Bible (oldest copy you can get your hands on) – God (is there really a more influential book in western society?)

    I could probably go to bed with only those on the shelf – but it would be hard.

    I would probably sneak back and add The Duchess of Malfi and The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia….and The Importance of Being Earnest…probably Great Expectations as well, along with Crime and Punishment and The Last of the Mohicans…I better stop there…before this becomes an exercise in futility.

    1. Nice choices! The Princess Bride is one of those few books where the movie and the book are equally good, for different reasons. And I thought about Keats myself, but then I thought of Anne Carson, and I started panicking at the black hole of poets I was sinking into. Also, I like that you specified “W.” Shakespeare. 🙂

    2. Kevin Bordeleau says:

      “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” Moby Dick. November 14th, first published today in 1851, in the USA. Is that the same whale that swallowed up Jonah? Sorry, wrong book. Still, both very fishy stories though….

      Kevin in CT

  2. ajl1206 says:

    In no particular order:

    Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
    Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
    Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkein (which I actually am lacking my own copy of; must rectify)
    The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller

    In all honesty, having a hard time coming up with a fifth book. Lots of books I’ve really enjoyed, but Top 5 requires a certain something. Perhaps a nonfiction book – Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder or The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. Perhaps design related: Universal Principles of Design (William Lidwell, et al), The Laws of Simplicity (John Maeda), or MTIV (Hillman Curtis). Can’t decide, and thus am copping out with a list of my Top 4+.

    1. I’m lacking my own copy of Tolkien right now, too. It’s a sad state, but with him I want to be very picky about the copies I choose. Until I find that perfect copy, I’ll borrow my mom’s copies.

  3. Don says:

    I’m not a huge fan of fiction but these are my favorites in no particular order:

    1. A Wrinkle In Time
    2. The Picture of Dorian Gray
    3. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe
    4. Of Mice and Men
    5. Interview with a Vampire

    I’m more into reading autobiographies/biographies about musicians but I’m looking to read Ben Franklin’s autobiography. Are you a fan of autobiographies/biographies?

    1. I see by your choices that you have a dark side!

      I am a fan of autobiographies and biographies. Boswell’s Life of Johnson is quite possibly the best biography ever written, so it’s worth checking out (if you’re a nerd like me–reading this requires some series nerd bona fides!). As far as autobiographies, I’m partial to Rousseau’s Confessions, but as with biographies, I’ll read one of any figure I’m interested in.

      1. Don says:

        Rebecca, I’m totally going to look into Reousseau’s Confessions. That sounds like a good one. The Ben Franklin one is on my hit list next. Yeah, I do have a dark side. I’m a hard rock/metal journalist so go figure, haha.

  4. Ron says:

    1. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant
    – I am curious as to your opinion of this book.

    2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

    3. Catch 22

    4. Lord of the Rings trilogy
    – For the geek and kid in me

    5. A Tale of Two Cities

    Over the past decade or so I have tended away from fiction to strictly non-fiction so I feel compelled to mention a few recent ones like Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life”, Jack Weatherford’s “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World” and Rick Atkinson’s “An Army at Dawn”.

    1. I haven’t read Grant’s Memoirs, though I’ve read extensively about it because we sell it at work. My understanding is that it is America’s best contribution to the genre of autobiography, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin’s. I have been meaning to read the book, and I find it intriguing that you’ve labeled it number one, so perhaps I’ll have to bump it up on my list.

      We also have, for reference, a number of Chernow’s titles at work. Have you read his Hamilton bio? That’s on my to-read list as well.

      1. Ron says:

        Hamilton was excellent. A definite read!

  5. rodsword says:

    1. King James Bible
    2. Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine
    3. Tale of Two Cities
    4. Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus
    5. The Education of Henry Adams
    6. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

    OK that’s 6 instead of 5, but today’s electronic bookshelves hold much smaller versions of these and other great books, so I couldn’t help myself! 🙂

    1. Well, Common Sense is skinny. And I like your inclusion of the Education of Henry Adams–a great work that gets so often overlooked these days.

  6. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Here are my top five (at lest for now) in 5 – 1 order

    5. A Sorrow in Our Heart – The Life of Tecumseh -by Allan W Eckert

    Review From Publishers Weekly

    Though there are many biographies of the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh (1768-1813), this effort by historical novelist Eckert ( The Frontiersman ) may spark new interest–and controversy–with its “hidden dialogue” technique. After more than 25 years of research, the author felt free to recreate Tecumseh’s conversations and thoughts in what proves to be an entertaining blend of fact and fiction. The orator and organizer’s life was shaped by his tribe’s tragic confrontation with westward-moving whites, who encroached on Native American lands along the Ohio River valley. His long struggle against this dispossession led Tecumseh to create a historic confederacy of tribes, but this crowning achievement was destroyed by his own brother at Tippecanoe in 1811. Eckert’s dialogue is clunky, yet his colorful evocation of this seminal American figure will be more broadly accessible than are drier, more factual accounts.
    Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.

    4. Audubon, Writings and Drawings –

    Publication Date: October 1, 1999 | Series: Library of America (Book 113)
    A landmark volume collects the writings and drawings of America’s greatest artist-naturalist

    The breathtaking art of John James Audubon’s Birds of America has been celebrated throughout the world since it first appeared over 150 years ago. Less well known is Audubon’s literary legacy — the magnificent volumes of natural history he published during his lifetime, as well as the remarkable journals, memoirs, and letters left behind at his death. Now, with The Library of America’s unprecedented John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings, Audubon the great nature writer takes his rightful place alongside Audubon the artist.

    3. Whitman (Poetry and Prose) –

    Publication Date: May 6, 1982 | Series: Library of America
    Contains the first and “deathbed” editions of “Leaves of Grass,” and virtually all of Whitman’s prose, with reminiscences of nineteenth-century New York City, notes on the Civil War, especially his service in Washington hospitals and glimpses of President Lincoln, and attacks on the misuses of national wealth after the war.

    2. The Discoverers -Daniel J. Boorstein

    ” A remarkable narrative of the grand intellectual venture of humankind, rich in fascinating, often dramatic details”– (The Wall Street Journal)

    ” A sumptuous, totally engaging panorama. No one who reads it will look at the chronicle of human ingenuity in the same way again.” –David McCullough

    1. The New King James Bible- American Patriot Edition – THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.

    Rerum cognoscere causas fortis est veritas

    and remembering the passing of Gore Vidal: see,0,6325883.story

  7. erikhaun says:

    My apologies! First for the late entry on this post, (I only just ran across your blog), and second, for the slight bit of cheating I’m about to do in responding with my choices. 🙂

    5. The collected books of James Herriot: All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All. I really think everyone should read these gems. Collectively they are some of the most heartwarming, touching, tearful, hilarious, and genuine stories of life and love I have ever read. True story (and the reason why they make my top 5 list: One day I found myself in the quiet room of a local public library reading one of his stories; one other gentleman sitting quietly in the opposite corner of the room absorbed in his own book, when the absolute worst possible thing you could possibly imagine happened. I started to laugh. Not just a chuckle. Not a guffaw. A full blown, laugh my ass off, can’t stop, please help it’s getting worse I can’t control it laugh. I had to get up out of my chair, leave the room and find the restroom till I could control myself. Now THAT’S a good book! 🙂

    4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I really don’t know what I can say about this work that’s not already been said. A seminal piece of American literature. Innovative and creative for so many different reasons I’m not sure where to start, or frankly where to end. So I don’t think I’ll try. 🙂

    3. The collected works of William Shakespeare. And by collected works I do mean everything. Plays, sonnets, the lot! The Bard of Stratford upon Avon has given us some of the greatest stories ever written. ‘If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

    2. The collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his posthumous works The Silmarillion, the History of Middle Earth and The Unfinished Tales. He’s actually written so much more than this, but I’ve barely made a dent in the posthumous works so they will have to wait a while. Just so you know how much of a Tolkien geek I am I actually paid a fee (as a charter member of The Lord of the Rings Fanclub) to have my name appear in the credits of the extended edition DVD’s of The Lord of the Rings! And before you even ask, yes, if they offer it for the upcoming movie on The Hobbit, I’ll do it again! 😀 P.S. If you own the DVD’s remind me to tell you where all the hidden easter eggs are on them if you don’t know where they are. Quite hilarious!

    1. And last, but not least, the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. What can I say? I love a good mystery yarn! 🙂

    Rebecca, I hope you’re not keeping count, because I know I may have abused the terms of this blog by not quite keeping to exactly 5 novels, but in my defense I’m pretty sure that most of these can be (and have been) scrunched into one binding. Maybe you’ll forgive me if I say that through reading your blog and appreciating your passion I’ve already downloaded Moby Dick onto my Kindle and am going to start reading it this week. Who knows? Maybe it will push some of these favorites down a shelf, or at least stand proud and tall beside them. 🙂

  8. Nineteenfifteen says:

    1. Thomas Jefferson, An Intimate History by Fawn M. Brodie
    2. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
    3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
    5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

    Of course, I cannot forget 1984 by George Orwell. I’d sneak that one, kindly.

  9. Justin Goss says:

    1. Love in the Time of Cholera
    2. East of Eden
    3. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
    4. Crime and Punishment
    5. 9 Stories

    That was a breeze for me. 🙂

  10. jb says:

    the top shelf would be everything in print by raymond chandler, which isn’t much and isn’t enough.

  11. dohaeng says:

    Very difficult to narrow it down to five, but here goes…

    1. The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.
    2. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
    3. Walls and Bars by Eugene Debs.
    4. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
    5. Ehrengraf for the Defense by Lawrence Block (signed limited edition).

  12. Erik Pontius says:

    The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
    The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
    Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    A Moveable Feast – Ernst Hemmingway
    The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

  13. Jag says:

    Hi, Rebecca. I just discovered your blog– it’s great.

    5. The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson: This book was so terrifying, not in its portrait of an alcoholic (I think it goes deeper than that) but in its truth of the nature we cannot escape. What’s the old saying, “The last thing a fish would ever notice is water”? The end was devastating; I saw the film first and was not prepared for the novel’s (more honest) ending.

    4.The Journals of John Cheever: What a great book to take to a cafe or coffee house and just thumb through. This book is fun to read in public because Cheever is constantly describing the passerby and casual acquaintance, the soul that is so close you can almost touch them; but alas, there’s a bus to catch or just a reason to walk the other way, and you never know their name. Page 112 of the Vintage paperback– Beautiful in its hope soaked in melancholy. My copy is getting that dirty black border from fanning through it so much.

    3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver: What can be said about Carver that hasn’t already been burped in a barroom? For all the drinking and “down-and-out in middle-America” malaise in his fiction, it is always nice to see his characters find a little insight or hope, even if it is as briefly understood as a moment of clarity before the next binge. The title story of the collection builds wonderfully to the ending; I can’t help but well up with tears at some of that man’s writing.

    2. A Fan’s Notes by Fredrick Exley: What an arrogant, self-absorbed, delusional, poor, beautiful rat Exley’s fictional self is! It’s hard to like him at first, but he comes to some salvation for himself. What I love about this book is the language. It’s just soo beautiful. I think it’s becoming more relevant, in today’s fame-driven society. The man was mad for fame.

    1. Rabbit, Run by John Updike: Well, actually the whole Rabbit series. Updike is difficult; Updike never stops expounding on an idea; Updike is sometimes boring and maybe a little misogynistic; But my God, when he articulates something so perfectly you can’t be sure if you just read it, or if it was one of your actual memories, then Updike has done his job. It took me a couple of years of quitting halfway through that first novel before I fell in love with it.

    Writing this got me thinking: Bookshelves have a tendency to be rearranged; any favorites from the shelves you put up for high school, or left at college? I just can’t dig Kerouac the way I once did. And I won’t even mention Charles Bukowski.

    Keep up the blog, it’s wonderful!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Always fun to hear other people’s lists. Certainly I’ve had rotating favorites over the years. I went through my Plath phase and my Vonnegut phase like every other precocious teenage girl. (Not that I still don’t love those authors–I’m just not as deeply committed anymore!)

  14. Andrew Rose says:

    1. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke.
    2. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
    3. Nocturnes for the King of Naples, Edmund White
    4. Doubt, Jennifer Michael Hecht

    1. Andrew Rose says:

      5. Selected Works of Anne Sexton!

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