During my school years, I wasn’t much of a novel reader. With non-fiction, however, it was a different story. As soon as my annual shipment of school materials would arrive, I’d pull out the history and science textbooks and begin voraciously perusing, I think my aversion to literary works of fiction was a dual-faceted issue. First, I think I had a bit of a “chip-on-shoulder” about mandatory reading assignments. (“You must read this book.” “You must read a book in this genre.” Oh, really? Why?) Second, I felt, if these stories are so important, why can’t I just watch a film adaptation and get the same effect for a fraction of the time and effort? When I reached adulthood, however, I put away that mentality and, several years ago, began attempting to read as many of the great literary works of fiction as I could. As I began this journey, I quickly discovered two things: 1. I greatly prefer pre-twentieth century writing. 2. Charles Dickens and I get along swimmingly. Though something as subjective as a favorites list is liable to change over time, below are the five novels I’ve enjoyed the most so far on my reading odyssey: 5. Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897) Over 120 years after its initial release, Bram Stoker’s vampire tale is still inspiring fantasy and horror stories across media. For me, the most striking aspect of the book is the seriousness and realism of the narrative. The story is presented entirely through faux documentation—journal entries, letters, newspaper articles—which firmly grounds the fantastic tale in reality. A century before the “found footage” subgenre would become a cinematic craze, Stoker did it first and better. 4. Moby Dick, Herman Melville (1851) America’s only contribution fo the classical field of epic length novels. As someone who generally prefers a “lean, mean, and clean” narrative, I should have loathed Melville’s overly detailed descriptions and exercises in superfluity. Instead, I found myself engaged and enthralled with every page, and my favorite chapter is a gloriously written, diverting treatise on the color white. His style is just that good. From minor character names like “Peleg” and “Bildad” to a full blown sermon on Jonah and the Whale, the Biblical symbolism entrenched throughout is also particularly brilliant, though I must confess, I haven’t quite cracked it all. But I don’t feel too bad about it; Ishmael didn’t crack it all either. 3. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004) I have a hard time reading most books written after the close of the 19th century, even modern works with excellent plots, characters, etc. To me, modern writing in general lacks the beauty and intelligence of the prose of times bygone. As a general rule, current works are filled with short, droll sentences, rudimentary structure, and base vocabulary, all done in the name of “making it easier to read.” Well, what of us readers who feel insulted by the assumption we’re incapable of, or vexed by, reading sentences containing semicolons? Fortunately, author Susanna Clarke and publisher Bloomsbury knew there was a market for folks like me and produced a historical fantasy epic which reads like a collaboration between Dickens and Austen—an elegant style for a more civilized age. I could wax long on the virtues of Strange and Norrell, but for the purpose of this list, it’s sufficient to say that as person who prefers fiction speculative, prose classical, and stories unencumbered by hyper-descriptive minutia, I have yet to enjoy a modern book as much as I did this one. 2. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (1850) Dickens is often lambasted for creating “caricatures” instead of characters and “implausibly” interconnecting these fictional people, but—and perhaps it’s my upbringing in the rural Southern United States—I, for one, find his character portrayals to be extremely credible and his plot interconnectivity to be highly plausible. In Jayess, Mississippi, everybody knows everybody else, and, therefore, it would be more improbable for our paths not to cross! And as for characters such as the eternally optimistic ne’er-do-well Wilkins Micawber, or the clammy, conniving Uriah Heap—well, I know these guys! Or at least, I know individuals eerily similar. For me, Dickens was a master at both creating rich characters and weaving seemingly disparate plot threads into a coherent, satisfying conclusion, and perhaps no other of his books displays these strengths as well as David Cpperfield. 1. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859) “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” A Tale of Two Cities was one of the first novels I picked up in a bid to expand my literary horizons, and that iconic opening paragraph struck me to the core. The book is not only one of the most thoughtful, beautiful writings in the English language, but it’s also an exceptional historical, political thriller that puts modern cinematic blockbusters of similar ilk to shame. The twist ending is shocking, even by today’s standards, and the unexpected climactic smackdown between the villainous Madame Defarge and the tenacious Miss Pross is a sequence for the ages. I’m still searching for a book that captures my admiration like this one did, but if my first reading of A Tale of Two Cities turns out to forever be my literary “best of times,” I won’t mind one bit.