A few weeks ago, a friend and academic colleague of mine challenged a bunch of us to come up with a list of our top fifteen books of all time — in fifteen minutes! He had already done his own test, coming up with a list of fifteen books that were theoretical, scholarly, and somewhere between neo-Marxist and socialist in nature (there is a difference between the two ideologies). Given my own progressive tendencies, I don’t have any problems with his list. It did get me to think a bit, though, and not just about my fifteen all-time books. I thought about how much my top list of fifteen books would’ve changed over time, about what these fifteen books could say about me through the years. I also wanted to make sure that the books I picked were ones that I had read cover to cover, or at least, wanted to read in totality. For all of my top fifteens, I used the additional criteria of having read them over and over again to rank them, to see if I really saw them as the best books I’ve ever read.

So, here’s my all-time list, done in fifteen minutes while eating some awful Italian food at a restaurant in Louisville on Monday:

1. Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992)
2. Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test (1999)
3. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (orig. 1903)
4. Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (1991)
5. Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
6. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1952)
7. Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation (2002)
8. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family (2002)
9. James Baldwin, Notes from a Native Son (1955)
10. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)
11. Studs Terkel, Race (1992)
12. Andrew Hacker, Two Nations (1992)
13. Toni Morrison, Sula (1974)
14. Charles Schultz, Peanuts (anything in the series)
15. Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (1960)

I ranked these a bit, but generally speaking, I’ve read and re-read these books over the years. As as scholar, student, father, husband, loner, worker, educator and writer. These books have helped me laugh, smile, frown and cry, motivated and depressed and disillusioned me. My choice reveal as much about me as anything does. They reveal that I prefer great writing with possible (though not always likely) academic or scholarly applications than great scholarship. That I have read much about race and diversity, inequality and unfairness in our world. And that I prefer nonfiction, however implausible those stories are, to fiction, because real life is always more interesting to me.

So then I thought, what would my list have looked like ten, twenty, even thirty years ago? What about the hundreds of scholarly volumes I was forced to read in grad school, or the books I’ve read in order to publish a scholarly journal article? What about the wonderful novels I read in high school? This next fifteen would’ve been my all-time list if I had put one together nine or ten years ago:

1. David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Volumes 1 & 2 (1993 and 2000).
2. Michael Eric Dyson, Race Rules (1993).
3. Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels (1994).
4. Carter G. Woodson, Mis-education of the Negro (orig. 1933).
5. Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You (2000).
6. Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling (1988).
7. T.J. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance (1995).
8. Cornel West, Race Matters (1992).
9. Tricia Rose, Black Noise (1993).
10. Jacqueline Jones, The Dispossessed (1992).
11. M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box (1998).
12. Robin D.G. Kelley, Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional (1997).
13. David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness (1991).
14. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935).
15. Mary Patillo-McCoy, Black Picket Fences (1999).

The list above isn’t a ranked list, at least not completely. It merely confirms what I’ve been saying about myself for nearly nine years. I saw myself as an academic historian first, and a writer or educator second. These books reflected my academic training, the issues I cared about, and the kinds of reading I expected to do back then. With the exception of Black Reconstruction or David Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes, I’m not sure if any would make my top thirty, forty or fifty if I had one.

But there are other readings, books, volume sets, and articles, that just change the way you see yourself and your world. Like when I read about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in my social studies textbook in fifth grade. I was mortified looking at the pictures of the mushroom cloud, realizing that a city the physical size of Mount Vernon was leveled in seconds. Or when I read Howard Rabinowitz’s article on segregation as a compromise between integration and exclusion at the beginning of the Jim Crow era — as understood by Black leaders during Reconstruction. That was my second year of grad school. Those readings are just as important — if not more important — than the lists of fifteen I have above. These include books that have influenced me, even though I may have never finished some of them. Such readings include:

1. The Bible
2. The Torah
3. The Qur’an
4. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1969).
5. Lerone Bennett, Black America, Volumes 1-3 (1971).
6. World Book Encyclopedia, Volumes 1-28 (1978).
7. Nella Larson, Passing (1929).
8. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (1843).
9. George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945).
10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886).
11. William Shakespeare, Hamlet and Othello.
12. Thomas Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962).
13. George Lipsitz, Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998).
14. Nicholas Lemann, Promised Land (1991).
15. George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

It’s hardly surprising that I could go on and on and on about books. I’ve written a couple, been required to read hundreds, and have read hundreds more on my own. In fact, I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life. Most of them, unfortunately, aren’t memorable, because of their dearth of ideas, dry writing style, lack of coherence, or inability to communicate on an intellectual or emotional level. I hope that folks don’t see me in any of those ways. I’ve worked hard over the past nine years to distance myself as much as possible from this kind of writing, to find balance between the academic and the personal, the intellectual and the emotional. Let’s hope that the lessons I’ve learned from these readings continue to stick.