New Feature: Ask Mrs. Odie

Welcome to my newest blog feature, “Ask Mrs. Odie.” Sometimes in the comments, readers ask me questions that inspire me. Without any further ado, here is this week’s question:

“Just curious, since you are an English teacher. What do you think the top must read books are?” –Mrs.Dubose of

“Must read books” fall into two categories for me. One is books I enjoyed so completely, I feel like they are part of me. The other is books I love telling people I read because it makes me feel superior to them. If we were to use the Double Bubble Map discussed in the comments section of a recent post, we would discover some overlap.

If your question is, “Mrs. Odie, which books should I read in order to not only think like you, but really understand how your literary mind was formed?”

I’m flattered you asked. When I was in college studying Comparative Literature, I had a moment of enlightenment. I got it. I understood the literary references I’d been hearing all my life. Tilting at windmills. Beware the ides of March. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

I felt like I was IN THE CLUB. The best club you could ever be in. Here are the books that make you feel like you finally get what everyone is alluding to:
The New Testament
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Don Quixote, Cervantes
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Odyssey, Homer
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Symposium, Plato
Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, James Joyce (preferably read in Dublin pubs while drinking Guinness, like I did) I read Ulysses, and while I used to feel quite haughty about it, I’d never recommend it to another person unless you are studying it with a professor doing his doctoral dissertation on it, like I was.
Metamorphosis, Kafka
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The Fall of the House of Usher, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven”, Edgar Allan Poe
Poems by Emily Dickinson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Stranger, The Plague, Albert Camus
Maus I and II, Art Spiegelman
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

I just realized that this list could go on for a very long time. I’m sitting here in a euphoric remembrance, as though I’d just taken a nibble of a Madeleine and had my whole intellectual life wash over me in a wave of pleasure. Typing the titles of these books causes me to remember not only their content but who I was when I read them. The smell of books. My favorite coffee-house in Davis, California, before Starbucks was a household word.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that I loved or even liked every one of these books. I do believe, though, that a person who wants to be culturally literate ought to be familiar with them.

Notice any glaring omissions? I have purposely not included The Great Gatsby. I think it’s over-rated. I don’t enjoy teaching it, and I never understood why so many name it as their favorite book they read in high school. It is The Fair Gatsby, at best. The Ghastly Gatsby, at worst.

Now, for my favorite books ever. The books I loved. I read voraciously. It’s a cliché to say so, but how does a cliché become a cliché? When I was nursing Pringles, I got my first Nook Color (I now have the much ligher Nook HD), and I have read over seventy books since I began. Pringles is 20 months old. I’m ashamed to admit that those books include all 11 “Sookie Stackhouse” novels (pure drek, but entertaining) and all 7 of the “Outlander Series,” which is like time-travelling lady-porn.

The book I read most recently, or rather inhaled in two days, is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Here are some others, in no particular order.
The Shining, Misery, Insomnia, Carrie and pretty much everything by Stephen King
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (I don’t know how Ethan Frome is the only Edith Wharton approved book on our school list)
Gone with the Wind
The Color Purple
The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven
A Song of Fire and Ice
(the Game of Thrones series)
A Drink Before the War, and all of Dennis LeHane
I Feel Bad About my Neck, Nora Ephron
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Elements of Style, Strunk and White
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Widow for One Year, John Irving. Everything he writes is fantastic. Shockingly so. Enviously so.
I recommend Still Life with Rice by Lee when people ask me for memoirs.

Finally, it is with pride and in a tone that’s snide I declare to you that I have read neither Fifty Shades of Gray (Grey?) nor the Twilight series.

Thank you for asking, Mrs. Dubose. It was fun to think about.


About Mrs Odie

Friendly Pedant; Humble Genius
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28 Responses to New Feature: Ask Mrs. Odie

  1. lisasff says:

    Gah! Proust. No Russians? No Evanovich?

  2. Ilsa says:

    See, I read Twilight (only the first, it was enough), and the Grey series (all three, also tripe, but…well…) BECAUSE I felt like I needed to understand all the cultural references. I mean, if you’re going to watch Jersey Shore, you might as well read the equivalent.

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      I get it. There comes a time when you have to read something in order to be a part of the cultural context. Like reading The New Testament and Greek mythology in order to understand and recognize allusions and symbols in Western lit.

  3. Michael says:

    I’m afraid I might becoming a regular here. Ok, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man sits on my desk about half read ( from about two years ago). It was so difficult to read that half of the time I had no fucken’ idea what the hell was going on. And my wife would agree with you about the Great Gatsby. She didn’t think much of it. By the way, I grew up in the real West (or East, I can never remember which) Egg.

  4. KeAnne says:

    Love your list! I would love to be in a book club with you.

  5. shhhimreading says:

    I too have stayed away from Twilight and 50 Shades, but I’m in love with the Outlander books.

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      I actually hated the first book and struggled through it. Then I had to read the second and I didn’t hate it. The third hooked me and then I was in love with that world and the characters. Although I blush and roll my eyes and skim the sex stuff.

  6. Lin says:

    The Age of Innocence was one of my favorite books ever! I think I might read it again. I JUST started The Paris Wife, so far it’s ok.. I did read the Twilight series due to my sister hounding me for 2 years about it, so I caved. I was breast feeding and super hormonal, so the fluff was right at the time. Nobody does vampires like Anne Rice though. She’s trying to get me to read the 50 Shades series and I just can’t. She described what it’s about and I just can’t. I can get into vampires but why would I want to read about soft core porn when I can turn the TV on Cinemax? I’ll check out the John Irving book.

    So what is your your stance on Harry Potter?

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      I picked up the first book when my sister was little and had it lying around. I read the first chapter and saw the appeal. I just haven’t felt drawn to it. My husband read all of the books back to back in a few weeks and loved them.

    • Summer says:

      In One Person. I don’t cry at the end of his books anymore. His characters don’t become my family.

  7. esmt1 says:

    Oh bollocks. I lost my comment. Love the House of Mirth. I like most that she sabotages herself when close to the prize, she can’t quite bring herself to suck up to her auntie at the right time, or go to church with the dolt to seal the deal. Just amazing. Also I did love Beloved. What a poet.

  8. Patti says:

    I totally hate-read Twilight and I take every opportunity I get to rail against it to my students. I don’t even mind the bad writing, but I’ve read one too many essays about Bella being some freshman’s hero and once I read them, I became scared for the future of America’s teenage girls.

  9. Patti says:

    Oh, and I love your list, but I have to argue for Gatsby. First, my students love it, so that makes me love it, too. Also, is rather teach Fitzagerald as an example of post War American lit than Hemingway. Fitzagerald’s prose is spare but musical while Hemingway is like being beaten with a meat tenderizer. Except Hill Like White Elephants. That’s brilliant.
    I also shamelessly adore Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I’m convinced that if Austen were here today, she and Tina Fey would be BFF and would rule the world.
    I teach Othello and Hamlet every year and every year I gain a new appreciation for them. Same with The Scarlet Letter (unviversally hated by my kids). I also teach parts of Walden (Thoreau=first hipster asshole) and Into The Wild, which my kids can discuss endlessly. Seriously, I let them just get in a circle and talk about it for 45 minutes and every single year, they run out of time to finish. It’s beautiful to watch.

    • Lin says:

      Austen is a Goddess and I can’t wait to teach her to my son. I made my husband read Pride and Prejudice and watch the mini-series. He actually loved it! I loved The Scarlet Letter by the way, and I don’t understand why so many hate it. I love me some Hester Prynne.

  10. Chelsea says:

    I prefer East of Eden over Of Mice and Men, but Grapes of Wrath is the ultimate Steinbeck. And, sadly, I agree that Gatsby is overrated, even though I’ve had cats named Daisy, Gatsby, and Zelda (F. Scott’s crazy wife). I can appreciate the vacuousness of the 20s, but the plot was just so stupid.
    Personally, I’m a fan of the short story, probably because I’m ADD. O. Henry, Nikolai Gogol, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson and Lorrie Moore are my favorite short story writers.

  11. Mrs. Dubose says:

    Thank you for answering because I really wanted to know. I love this list, especially since you admit you don’t always love the books, but still value their importance . I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE by Wally Lamb was a beautiful book. Did you read it? The Corrections and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, also well written books. I am copying your list and will begin downloading some of those to my NOOK– an invention that I thought I would hate, but I love.

    • Summer says:

      Which Nook is best?

      • Mrs Odie 2 says:

        I was happy with my Nook Color. I got it for either my birthday or Christmas a couple years ago, and it changed my life. It started acting glitchy about six months ago. I couldn’t get the favorites page to load anymore. Odie must’ve gotten tired of hearing me complain, because he bought (we bought, really) the Nook HD as my Christmas present. I didn’t know what I was missing, but now the Nook Color feels so clunky and giant compared to the HD. It’s a wonderful upgrade. My only complaint is that the keyboard covers what you’re typing and I cannot figure out if that’s a fixable problem. I have read the instruction manual cover-to-cover and read the on-line forums. Either I’m the biggest idiot (very likely), or it’s impossible to move the text window up where you can see it while typing in it. My family members and friends love their Kindles. I have never played with a Kindle, so I don’t know if that’s better. I have great experiences with Amazon, so I’m tempted. When we get a tablet for the children, I will have to weigh the pros and cons of Nook, Kindle, and IPad. And get a second (third?) job.

  12. Amy says:

    I agree with Patti, above, about Fitzgerald over Hemingway. I took a grad course that was all Hemingway and, I’m sorry, j just don’t get it. The poetry in Fitzgerald’s prose makes it worthy, in my opinion, and the empty plot (if you want to say that) is a reflection of the so-called Lost Generation. I finished my masters recently and have been catching up on some more contemporary novels since then. I love anything by Gillian Flynn and Elizabeth Kostova. I’m starting The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides this week.

  13. Rosie McEwin says:

    The Enchanted April is on my must-read over and over again. It’s like ‘taking a trip and never having to leave the farm’.
    I knit, so I love audio books. Sometimes you just can’t appreciate the entire scope of the language until a book is read to you!
    GWTW is a great book to listen to if you have the time. Barbara Kingsolver does a beautiful job with her books, BTW. And if you can get your hands on Sissy Spacek narrating To Kill a Mockingbird, listen to that!

  14. Chelsea says:

    I just saw the preview for the new Great Gatsby movie with Leo de Caprio. Ugh. The overratedness of the book is nothing compared to the over-the-topness of the new movie, which was completely unnecessary in the first place.

  15. megan says:

    In this post you made me feel great about myself (we’ve read, and not read, a lot to the same books) while maintaining your superiority. Way to go!

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