This one is the real deal. All the other lists were just warm-up practice.
1. The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
This one should come as no surprise. I’ve been evangelical about Wolfe’s dark, picaresque science fantasy tetralogy ever since it sank its teeth in me. It’s a surreal adventure story with the reflective, modernist stylings of Proust and the narrative gamesmanship of Nabokov. Sources as diverse as Jack Vance, Kipling and Borges are plundered and reworked into a deeply Catholic vision of the nature of suffering – and of the stories we tell.
2. The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling
I’m cheating a bit here, taking justification in the fact that almost all modern editions publish the two books together. As far as I’m concerned, Kipling’s Jungle books are the quintessential children’s books, with all the danger and adventure they should have. Your childhood was an impoverished one if it only had the Disney stuff.
3. The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton
Today, Chesterton has the misfortune of being a bit overrated within Catholic circles and rather underrated outside of them. Regardless, Thursday is a great, eccentric spy novel drenched in mysticism, and I almost always finish it within a day or two of picking it up.
4. Emma, by Jane Austen
There desperately needs to be a modern version where Emma is a fangirl obsessed with shipping.
5. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As one of my heroes, Sherlock Holmes provides half of the explanation for my Gravitar.
6. The Demon Princes, by Jack Vance
Vance is one of the few sci-fi writers you can read for his prose style. He had a knack for elevating pulpy action stories into an art form. The Demon Princes is as good (and exciting) an example as any.
7. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
If we were to situate Kipling and Tolkien on a spectrum, a case could be made for placing Adams in the middle. The truth is that rabbits are secretly badass.
8. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
This is one of those books that you’re supposed to hate because they made you read it in high school. I’m a rebel; I don’t. Not that I even read it in high school anyway. Also serves as a nice elaboration on Mark 8:36.
9. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
One of the more beautiful books from the second half of the twentieth century.
10. The Book of Wonder, by Lord Dunsany
In addition to having a really cool name, Lord Dunsany was also a great fantasy writer who has been unfairly ignored in recent years. This short collection of very short stories is, indeed, a book of wonder.
11. Peace, by Gene Wolfe
The closest Wolfe got to writing conventional, “serious” fiction. It’s a pretty great ghost story too.
12. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
I’m contractually obligated to love LOTR, but the hype really is all that.
13. Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Austen takes on gothic romance – the results are delicious.
14. The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
See above, except that in this case it was a direct inspiration for The Book of the New Sun.
15. Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
Repetitive and crudely written, but nonetheless a whole world to explore.
16. Dune, by Frank Herbert
I’m still surprised that Hollywood hasn’t made a second attempt at adapting this thing, yet.
17. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
I agree with Chesterton’s sentiment that Pickwick is the Platonic form of Dickens, containing within it all the aspects of his aesthetic that he would later develop. It’s also really funny.
18. The Complete Father Brown, by G.K. Chesterton
I’m cheating a bit again, inasmuch as Chesterton never actually edited a complete edition of his Father Brown stories. But actually picking one collection out of the bunch feels pretty futile. These where the stories that got me into detective fiction.
19. The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
It’s a novel about time travel, English romantic poets and an evil sorcerer’s plan to overthrow the British government. What’s not to like?
20. A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay
A very bizarre theological allegory masquerading as sci-fi. So of course I’m fascinated by it.