The Five Finals

February 4th, 2009

If you learned somehow that you could only read five more books in your life, what would they be?

Let me start by acknowledging that I’ve copped this from Jen Forbus’s great book site.  If a doctor (maybe a doctor of literature?) were to tell you that you had exactly five books left in your life which ones would you choose?  And, to push it a little further, how would you structure your list so that the last book on it would be the one you were reading as you died?

(You can do ten books, if you like — I think that was the original idea, but I’m lazy, so I only did five.)

And to get things started, these are the books I listed on Jen’s site:

1. The Recognitions, William Gaddis: this is the book that I used to get my real education while I was wasting my time in college. I used it as a launching pad for years to read about art, religion, art in religion, forgery, Greenwich Village . . . on and on. One of the great American novels of the 20th century.

2. Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution: The best book I ever read about academic life, on which I’m an expert, having spent decades in college.  It tell the story of what happens to a bunch of smug liberal-arts professors in an exclusive women’s college when a real artist (a very spiky female novelist modeled on Mary McCarthy) suddenly lands in their midst. Funny, sad, and uplifting all at the same time — makes it impossible for me to believe that the man who wrote it committed suicide.

3. Straight Man, Richard Russo: The second-best novel about academic life I ever read, and certainly the funniest. At several points I had to put the book down and get up and walk around because I was laughing so hard I was afraid I’d die.  Russo is one of the best novelists working in America.

4. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler: Because it’s the bible of private-eye writing and even now every word rings true.  And because he never wrote an ungraceful sentence.

5. The Woman Warrior and/or China Men, Maxine Hong Kingston: Memoir and cultural history woven into lace, and in some of the most beautiful language I’ve ever read.

Looking at this now, I realize I’ve left out Trollope, Dickens, Balzac, Kingsley Amis (how could I forget Kingsley Amis?, not to mention Peter Mattheissen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord and all of Jane Austen, and Anthony Powell’s life-changing twelve-book sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, plus about eight hundred others.  So if you’re in the mood for frustration and instant regrets, make a list of your own.

Then we can all pick each other apart.

13 Responses to “The Five Finals”

  1. Thomas Says:

    The first question I would ask myself is: Do I only want to re-read books that have had a major impact on me or would I want to spend those last five titles on books I haven’t yet read but always wanted to? The answer is: Maybe a combination of both? But then again, if you only get five, why risk wasting a title on Jackie Collins writing under a pseudonym? So here it goes. These are my five, after which I bid adieu.

    1. I am not too proud to admit that one of my favorite characters in all of literature is Pippi Longstocking. As someone who grew up in Sweden, I have read and re-read Pippi and her adventures since I was old enough to read at all. Except for a few other titles by Astrid Lindgren that no non-Swede would recognize, Pippi Longstocking would be the place for me to start my own countdown to extinction, as it were. I can hardly imagine a more life-loving story than that.

    2. The Old Man and the Sea. Old Ernest may have had some issues with mood swings, self-image, and intake of alcoholic beverages around the time this little gem was composed, but it doesn’t deflect the fact that it is, in my humble opinion, prose-perfection. A book to read over and over and every time wonder, how the hell did he do that? It looks so simple.

    3. Kafka’s The Trial. Yes, this is the book that once made me want to write – believe it or not. That cumbersome diatribe against bureaucracy, the invisible man’s cry for help, the insanity of the system, the cowering under authority, is an allegory of any society claiming to be civil and just. K. is my anti-hero and his anonymous death deserves my respect and my reading. This is the book that could have changed Dick Cheney’s life.

    4. Anything by Bill Bryson, for the simple reason that it’s light, easy to read, and written in that stylish and enjoyable English, while, at the same time, being thought-provoking beyond the initial impression, revealing of human flaws in all its mundane glory, and downright slap-me-in-the-face funny.

    5. The last book I would want to read before I die, assuming I still have enough energy at that point for a book big enough to stop a bullet, I would choose Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Yes, it’s pretentious but I can’t get over how curious I am about the book that, according to Billy Pilgrim, contains everything there is to know about life. When was Kurt Vonnegut ever wrong? Seems to me like a good way to go.

    Well, there you have it.


  2. Sylvia Says:

    I would absolutely reread books – If I had only five books, I couldn’t stand to risk that one might not be perfect. So mine would be my favourites from the past.

    Choosing is more difficult. Off the top of my head, after a glass or two of red wine:

    1) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
    2) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
    3) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    (OK, this is weirding me out now that they are all by women and they are all about relationships.
    4) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
    5) Breakfast of the Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

    If I get to go for 10 I’ll include:

    6) Dracula by Bram Stoker
    7) Watership Down by Richard Adams
    8) Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

    (I’m noticing here that I read all of these books before I was 21 – so I guess they were all formative in some sense. Or it’s just been so long since I’ve read them that I want the refresher. JRR Tolkein is not on my list because I re-read his books recently, same with The Little Prince)

    9) The Stories of Ray Bradbury (a collection of short stories)
    10) The World According to Garp by John Irving

    (these last two mainly out of curiosity, I have no idea if I will still love them)

  3. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    These are beyond interesting. I’m so happy I lifted this topic from Jen.

    Thomas, I always forget that English isn’t your first language. Makes me ashamed of American education (or at least my education). If I’d been given ten years, making one guess per minute seven days a week, to guess the first book that anyone would mention, I still wouldn’t have come up with Pippi Longstocking. But she’s a great character, and I now am possessed of a compulsion to read her again. Hemingway, I could probably skip, but that’s the wonderful thing about this kind of thing: it doesn’t matter a cow chip what I think of your choices. There are enough great books for all of us.

    Sylvia, my list tilts very heavily male, and I wouldn’t read “The Bell Jar” again if someone put a gun to my head, but so what? It’s a great list, and I want to reread all your first three, especially the Atwood. I’d forgotten how much I loved that book. And Ray Bradbury is just brilliant. I’d also like to reread his “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

    More, more.

  4. Larissa Says:

    Good question and a tough one…I would have to say if I had only five books left to read before I died and during the great shuffle I would pick:

    1. Emergence by David Palmer because it is one of my favorite stories. I don’t know why. It’s just great. Partially because it’s just really cool and partially because it has, at least in my mind, a deep emotional current. It’s out of print but I have a beat up copy and I love it.

    2. A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood- I have to agree with you Sylvia. Great, great book. (c:

    3. Tao De Chang By Lao Tzu. I could probably use the spiritual boost by this point anyway.

    4. Birds without Wings because it’s beautiful

    5. Wicked by Gregory Maguire.

    In that order too I think.

  5. usman Says:

    Without hurting my brain thinking this over, I’d say:

    1 A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving. Rarely has a novel moved me so and been funny at the same time. A work of genius.

    2 Crime and Punishment, Doestevsky. I read it and fell in love with it. I really do need to re-read and understand the words.

    3 The Winter of our Discontent, Stienbeck. I’ve read it 6 times, and each time I fall in love with it. For me this is the best of Stienbeck, surpassing all others, for it’s simplicity, humor, and reflection on life, of a man who is a failure in his eyes.

    4 Catch22, Joseph Heller; well life is silly and so is death. This book comes close.

    5 Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. The book starts with a death. But through it Orhan speaks of so many other things. Plus I need one book close to the culture from which I come.

  6. Lisa Kenney Says:

    For my first 5, I’m mostly going to stick with books I haven’t read, but that I have and I want to read. They’re all BIG, which is why I’ve been saving them.

    1. REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST, by Marcel Proust. I’ve read the first two books and have five to go and I love Proust. Love him. This is almost a cheat because it’s seven books, but it is just one novel.

    2. THE RECOGNITIONS, by William Gaddis for two reasons. First, I’ve had it for a while and have wanted to read it and second, any book that Tim thinks that highly of has to make this list.

    3. INFINITE JEST, by David Foster Wallace. Another tome, but I’m anxious to read it. I’ve read lots of his essays and liked them and I now suspect that I’m going to have similar sensations reading DFW that I do reading Proust — only I’ll know all the cultural references!

    4. GRAVITY’S RAINBOW, by Thomas Pynchon. This one’s a gamble, but Harold Bloom, who I think the world of has it as one of his four best books of the 20th century and I’ve been intrigued by this one for a while.

    5. SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, by Ken Kesey. Another risk because I read this when I was a teenager and I thought it was fantastic. I’ve always wanted to read it again, but haven’t gotten around to it. I’d like to know what I think of it now.

    I’m going for really big books since if I get to read them before I die, maybe longer books give me more time 🙂

  7. Thomas Says:


    Thanks for a great book tip. As a Steinbeck fan, I am sitting here struggling with the fact that I have completely missed The Winter of our Discontent. And you have read it six times!! When someone tells me they have read a book six times I wonder if they have either misplaced their medication or if the book is just that good. Considering who suggested the title and considering who the author is, I am inclined to believe that the book is good enough to be read six times. So, thanks for the tip. I will definitely put this one on my to-be-read list.

    By the way, speaking of Steinbeck, let me throw in a tip of my own. Another great title by him is Journal of a Novel, which is, as the title suggests, a journal Steinbeck kept while writing East of Eden. Steinbeck considered East of Eden his masterpiece and it is fascinating to follow along in his journal as he talks about how the book is coming along and how he wants the story to be long and slow. There are great insights into his family life, his obsession with pencils and notebooks, and his relationship with his editor. If you like Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel is a must. In fact, even if you’re not a fan, read it anyway and marvel at how easy he makes it all look. Humbling indeed.

    But then again, perhaps the book is not that good? I have only read it twice.


  8. Jen Forbus Says:

    Oh this topic is so much fun! Of course the credit has to start with Declan Burke who motivated Corey (The Drowning Machine) who motivated me who motivated Tim. AND this was SUPPOSED to be a meme without tagging! Ha! It took on a life of its own.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jen — I tagged myself, but I wouldn’t have without you (and Declan, via Corey) to inspire me.

    Thomas — I can’t wait to read the Steinbeck journal. Sounds like absolutely required reading. (He also apparently wrote one on “The Grapes of Wrath.)

    Lisa is obviously seeking immortality, reading a bunch of books that combined contain more words than the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’d like to outlive the solar system, Lisa, you could add to your list Anthony Powell’s twelve “Dance to the Music of Time” novels and the six Trollope doorstops that comprise “The Pallisers,” which should have been on my own list. Please keep me in the loop on your progress on “The Recognitions.”

    Larissa,I’ve never even heard of “Emergence,” so there’s one I should read. How interesting that the Atwood should be the first book to be named
    twice, followed by “The Recognitions,” while Atwood, Dostoevsky, Gaddis, and John Irving are (I think) the only writers to be named twice. Oh, and I loved “Wicked,” too.

    Usman, I haven’t read “Winter of Our Discontent” (or any Steinbeck, for that matter) in years. I think the last thing of his I read was a wonderful journal of a year on the Sea of Cortez. And I’ve got the Pamuk on my TBR shelf and plan to take it to Asia in a few days.

    Great responses, and thanks for the additions to my reading list.

  10. usman Says:


    The winter of our discontent was personally for me a great book. Like you I am a diehard Stienbeck fan. The Journal of a Novel is a more than a great way to reciprocate…for it is the next great Stienbeck novel for me. I hope I can find it in Borders Singapore. I sure won’t find it in Pakistan.
    And i might end up reading that six times also. Plus it helps if these are the last five books you have left to read before you atomize.

    Tim, My name is Red: Either you end up loving it or hating it. As a thriller/mystery it ranks with the best. And in it’s own right is a great literary book.

    Thanks everyone for their tips.

  11. Thomas Says:

    Yes, definitely look for it in Singapore (I thought they had everything ever made for sale in Singapore?), you will not be disappointed. Read it and try to figure out if that man ever re-wrote anything. A common entry in his journal went something like this: “I wrote two thousand words today. I hope it was good.” Huh? That’s it?

    Required reading, yes! Yes! The equivalent journal for Grapes of Wrath is called Working Days. Just FYI.


  12. Thomas Says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention that I went out this morning and got a copy of The Winter of our Discontent. It’s laying down there in the parking lot, in my car, on the passenger seat, oozing anticipation. Oozing!


  13. Larissa Says:

    Tim-Emergence is out of print like I said so it’s hard to find. There are lot of books about autism with the same name but I assure you those are not it. don’t let the sites convince you otherwise. (c: It’s a great story I think. I’ve read it the first time in high school and have just kept reading it over the years. You should be able to find it with the author’s name. I’ve had the best luck on

    Lemme know if you find a copy and what you think if you get a chance to read it. 😀

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