What Is the Best Book You Ever Read?

If you have read this blog for very long, you know that I often argue that college teachers have become obsessed with teaching stuff and less interested in developing the student as a whole person. Should we care if a student becomes a brilliant scholar but then leads a miserable life because he or she simply doesn’t know how to live? Well, I think so.

I could give several examples of what I do in my classes beyond teaching stuff but here is one of my favorites. My primary course is Intermediate Accounting II which covers some of the most complex material at any university. For nearly 20 years, about half way through the semester, I give my students a required assignment. I ask them to consider all the books they have ever read in their entire lives and pick the “best book you’ve ever read.” Then, they have to write a paragraph or two to describe why they picked that book. Over the years, I have had some of the most fascinating essays submitted.

Obviously, I want the students to think about how reading has impacted their lives. I think that thought process is good for them. I think an accounting teacher can ask students to think beyond accounting.

I then accumulate all the books the current class listed as well as all the books that all of the previous classes have listed and pass out that information (see the latest version below). At that time, I challenge the students to pick out a book from that list and read it. I challenge them to consider what books their fellow students have picked as their all-time best and find one they want to read.

Over the decades, I would bet that I have had more former students get back in touch with me to talk about their best books than I have former students talk with me about accounting complexities. And, the reason seems obvious: They realize that I am interested in more than just accounting computations. They don’t look at me solely as an accounting nerd who thinks doing deferred income taxes is the height of fun.

Does this exercise take much time? Of course not, the student probably spends no more than 20-30 minutes but it sets a tone for the class that I want: Accounting is important but there are other things that an educated person should consider. One of those “things” is an appreciation for good literature.

I honestly believe that all of college education would be radically improved if every single teacher did one such exercise each semester totally and completely outside of his or her discipline. What could you do? If you teach political science or psychology or zoology or literature or finance or accounting, what could you do that would get away from teaching nothing but stuff and be more directed toward the development of the whole person?

I know what you teach is important but how could you go beyond that to touch on helping your students develop as educated human begins?

Here’s the latest list that I sent out to my students from the spring of 2012:

To: Accounting 302 Students

BEST BOOKS – I certainly enjoyed reading about your “best books” (although many of you referred to these as your “favorite books” which is a bit different – I think). Actually, I found what you had to say about the books to be every bit as fascinating as the list of books itself. I always think it is interesting to ponder how the reading of one particular book can touch a person’s life so deeply. Read more books and you’ll be touched more. Books simply open life up to you. At your age, having life open up to you is a great goal. Choose books wisely – frequently, I search through lists on the Internet titled something like “The Best Books of 2012” to find books that will make me better. If you want to accomplish much in this life of yours, you have to continue to grow. I worry that too many of my students are just dying to stop growing. That is not the key to success at anything. Or, they just want to think about things too narrowly (“I’m not interested in anything besides getting a job and going to parties.”) There’s a lot of life out there – don’t narrow it down until you are 99 years old.

I jotted down a few things that I happened to notice as I was reading through all of your comments. With so many essays, I didn’t have time and space to write quotes from each one. Everyone had things that I found thoughtful; these were just a few things that happened to catch my eye. Who could read such wonderful comments and not get excited about reading?

---“I have never read another book that confused me more from the beginning. It was a mystery that unraveled itself as I read.” (The Count of Monte Cristo)
---“I remember being able to vividly visualize each character. It was as if I was in the story as just a bystander watching the entire story unfold before me.” (The Great Gatsby)
---“Things that are off the beaten path draw me in—that is how you find the most interesting events and stumble across the most bizarre of activities. Doing things that others classify as ‘different’ is what makes you interesting.” (The Dogs of Babel)
---“What truly makes these books unforgettable is how they have affected the way in which I live my own life. In my opinion, a good book should impact how one lives and/or perceives the world.” (The Chronicles of Narnia)
---“The book deals with religion, violence, culture clashes, and adapting to an ever-changing society.” (Things Fall Apart)
---“This is the best book that I have ever read because it portrayed ordinary characters in an ordinary setting in an extraordinary way.” (My Antonia)
---“Over the course of the novel, she grows into her own skin and finds the strength to open her mouth and stand up for herself.” (Speak)
---“Never had a book been able to have a great enough impact on me that I was afraid to be alone in my own house or make me feel bad for the characters.” (The Lovely Bones)
---“The novel contains all of the aspects that I like in a book: comedic events, love stories, drama, and life lessons.” (The Help)
---“This book really gets at how quick society is to judge someone and how unforgiving human beings are of people who have made mistakes.” (A Change of Heart)
---“Seeing how he was able to overcome those struggles to follow his passion inspires me to follow through with my dreams, even when it feels like I can not accomplish them.” (Balanchine: A Biography)
---“I remember feeling anxious; I remember feeling angry and I remember feeling sympathy and sadness.” (Night)
---“To read the book is to witness the thoughts and experience the mentality of a very conflicted individual, which is a very intimate subject.” (Steppenwolf)
---“This introduced me to Camus’s ideas of ‘the absurd’ relationship between humanity’s innate desire for meaning in a perceivably meaningless world.” (The Stranger)
---“The novel made me fascinated by power and persuasion.” (Animal Farm)
---“I cannot begin to count the number of times as a child that I imagined myself casting Gandalf’s spells, wielding Aragon’s sword, hefting Gimli’s axe, or firing Legolas’ bow.” (Return of the King)
---“It is my belief that these immoral characters make it much easier to identify with the story.” (Wuthering Heights)
---“It caused me to look at life in a way that would never be the same.” (The Power of Now)
---“Incorporated into these incredible stories are lessons that he learned about human nature, leadership, and management.” (The Mission, the Men, and Me)
---“His mission is to help those in need and he is a walking example of someone who simply goes out in life to make a difference.” (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
---“The book is so well written that I became very attached to the characters and surprisingly nervous when they were in trouble.” (1984)
---“The book was very intense and it dealt with the will to live. It made me, the reader, think on many different levels. It challenged my beliefs.” (The Life of Pi)
---“(The author) touches upon the topics of homosexuality, ordination of women in the church, the human’s responsibility of environment stewardship.” (Sins of Scripture)
---“There’s just something about this book that I somehow get lost in every time I sit down to read it.” (Pride and Prejudice)
---“The perfect balance of intellectual material and romance in this book stuck with me, and I loved researching this book after I had read it.” (The Citadel)
---“It was the first book that made me think, made me calm down, and made me organize my life better so I could fit a few more pages in.” (Ender’s Game)
---“I finally understood the power of having a dream and passion and going for it.” (Downsized)

The actual list of student best books is a bit further down this note. And, some of my own best books are included at the very end of this list.

I ask students about "best books" because I want to encourage you to read on a regular basis and to read exceptionally good books. Reading good books is a habit that can bring incredible joy and richness to your life. It helps you think more deeply and I think we can all use that. Reading good books is something you can learn to do even if it does not come naturally to you. There are scores of marvelous books on this list; you will have missed a true pleasure in life if you fail to read a couple of them. In addition, I believe that you will be a better accountant/business person if you have an adult life that is enriched by such things as going to art museums and to the theatre as well as reading good books. I would urge you to find an excellent book on this list and read it within the next couple of months. Pick a book where several people (other college students very much like you) have said “this book made a real difference in my life.”

Make time to read - you will never regret it. I know you are busy folks but everyone has 15 free minutes each day and 15 minutes per day of good reading could do ever so much good for you. If I could choose between teaching you accounting and teaching you to read great books, I would choose to teach you to read great books without a second thought. In the long run, you would be ever so much better off.

A few people answered my question with the disclaimer: "I don't have much time to read anything besides textbooks." In some ways, that is the whole point of this exercise; you only have a year or so left to read textbooks. How will you make use of the 50-70 years after that? Watching television or wandering around the Internet for three hours each night will hardly make you a better and more interesting person. Reading nothing but FASB pronouncements really limits you as a human. You need to be more human and reading well should help.

You have to fill up your hours so choose wisely as to how you do that.

You should make reading (especially good reading) a habit that will keep your mind expanding even after you have put down your textbooks. When someone tells me that a book is great, my curiosity is almost overwhelming – what lies between the covers of that book that this person found to be so wonderful? If I read that same book, will it have that same impact on me? Knowledge flows out of your head constantly; it is not a bad idea to reverse the flow occasionally and put some stuff back into your head. Put the good stuff in your head – long term, you’ll be glad you did.

YOUR CLASS BEST BOOKS - CLASS OF 2013 (if two books or more were listed by a student, I only included the first one)

A Change of Heart
And Then There Were None
Animal Farm
Balanchine: A Biography
Ender’s Game
Gone With the Wind
Green Mile
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
How To Be a Gentleman
Lord of the Rings (trilogy)
Mountains Beyond Mountains
My Antonia
Pride and Prejudice
Return of the King
Sentimental Education
Sins of Scripture
Stories of Romans
The Big Short
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Citadel
The Count of Monte Cristo
The Dogs of Babel
The Giver
The Glass Castle
The Great Gatsby (5)
The Help
The Hunger Games
The Kite Runner
The Last Amateurs
The Life of Pi
The Lovely Bones
The Mission, the Men, and Me
The Power of Now
The Stranger
Things Fall Apart
To Kill a Mockingbird (2)
To Live
Unpractical Demon Keeping
Valley of the Dolls
Wuthering Heights


COMBINATION OF THE PREVIOUS CLASSES OF 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 (if a book was chosen by more than one student, that is indicated by the extra number – and I’ll say it again, look for books that have been picked by a number of students over the years and go out and read a couple, those tend to be really special):

14,000 Things to be Happy About
1984 (10)
A Child Called “It” (2)
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place
A Clockwork Orange (6)
A Confederacy of Dunces (2)
A Discourse on Inequality
A Farewell to Arms (5)

(From Joe – there are literally scores of books on this list. I want drive you crazy listing them all. However, if you want to see the entire list, send me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu and I’ll be glad to send you the entire list.)

Where the Red Fern Grows (8)
White Noise
Who Moved My Cheese (3)
Wild Swans
Wooden: A Lifetime of Reflections From On and Off the Court
Wuthering Heights (2)
Zoo Doctor


I actually keep a list of all the books that I read and all the movies that I see. Here are the best books that I read over the last 12 months: Freedom, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ©, Memoirs of a Geisha, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Life Itself. (In case you are interested, the best movies that I saw in the last 12 months were: Midnight in Paris, Incendies, Let Me In, Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo [American version – I especially liked the first three minutes], The Artist, Janis, and Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.)

And, yes, I have read all of the Harry Potter books as well as The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons. They are all quite good but not in my all-time best list.

At my age, beyond last year, I cannot remember all of the books that I have loved but here are some that I remember quite well:

Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, Catch 22, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I, Claudius Ragtime, For Whom The Bells Toll, Lonesome Dove, The Mosquito Coast, The Old Man and The Sea, Prince of Tides, Dandelion Wine, Slaughter House Five, Burr, Siddharta, The Cider House Rules, 100 Poems by E. E. Cummings, In Cold Blood, Anna Karinana, Bob Dylan—A Descriptive, Critical Discography and Filmography 1961-1993, The Power and the Glory, Howards End, Into Thin Air, Freedom

My favorite author of "fluff" books is Elmore Leonard.

I also really like the works of Hermann Hesse and Graham Greene. I find that their words really touch me in some deep way.

One book that has really had an impact on me was a very short book that is considered a classic in discussing how businesses should be operated: Up The Organization. It is hard to sum up any book in a few words but this one stresses "expect the best from the people with whom you work and help them to reach that potential." Great book.

One book that affected my teaching was One L - it talks about being a student at Harvard Law School and about how the teachers in the Harvard Law School teach. One teacher in particular really interested me in that he taught by asking weird, off the wall questions, to get his students to think outside of the box.

My wife has added her best book to the list: Tidewater Tales.

A list of the best books of the 20th Century (according to the experts) can be found at:  www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best.html

Another good list of great books can be found at www.time.com/100books

Post a Comment