Ex-Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread

Michiko Kakutani

Clarkson Potter Publishers

At its best, literature can surprise and move us, challenge our certainties, and goad us into reexamining our default settings. Books can jolt us out of old habits of mind and replace reflexive us-versus-them thinking with an appreciation of nuances and context. Literature challenges political orthodoxies, religious dogma, and conventional thinking (which, of course, is why authoritarian regimes ban and burn books), and it does what education and travel do: it exposes us to a multiplicity of viewpoints and voices.

                      from Ex-Libris



Like talking about mutual friends we cherish

I’m a sucker for books like this: books about other book lovers’ favorite books, like the way I’m irresistibly drawn to the bookshelves when visiting someone’s home—What do they like to read? What favorites do we share in common? Any tantalizing titles here I’ve not read?—for books reflect the souls of the people who own them.

This is certainly true of Michiko Kakutani, longtime book critic for the New York Times. She shares “100+” of her favorite books and why they are important to her. (Apparently, she couldn’t narrow it down to just the 100 her publisher requested. I totally get it.)

I was pleased that this was not hailed as another “Best Books” list, which always strikes me as rather silly, given the different tastes and ephemeral nature of literary fashions. Moby Dick was a commercial failure when published in 1851; it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it was “discovered” to be the classic that we all now know and love—for the three of us who have actually read Melville's behemoth.

Rather, as Kakutani explains, these are 100+ of her favorite books at this moment in time, where she is “writing less as a critic than as an enthusiast.” She includes the expected epics (The Odyssey) as well as stories capturing “the relentless ticktock of daily life” (Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping,) and some classics I have yet to read, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (“hard to think of an American work more influential.”) But her selections are not limited to only the high-brow. Along with Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Faulkner (As I Lay Dying,) she includes Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.

Given this moment in time, she also lists Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, warning of the dangers to democracy with the rising appeal of demagogues and their “simplistic narratives that explain a confusing world.”

Some of her recommendations challenged me to read more broadly, to listen to voices very different from my own (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah) pushing me, coaxing me outside my literary comfort zone. Here are books that inform and stretch us, open us, entertain and sometimes disturb us, shaking up our world, along with those books that bring humor and warmth and hope to it.

Reading Ex-Libris was like talking about mutual friends you both cherish, remembering how important they were to you, or hearing of a potential new friend who you really must meet.

P.S. I confess I was relieved she didn’t include Middlemarch. I might actually have had to attempt another slog through it.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15, 2022.) Reprinted with permission.