[In this new series (idea copped from High Fidelity), our contributors put together a “top 5” list of books on a theme of their choosing.]

I was going to do a straight forward, all-time favorite top five books. Then I realized that list would have counted down to One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that seems to come up in all of our special features. So instead of extolling Gabriel García Márquez on this site yet again, I decided to go another route. I noticed that three of the five books on my all-time list were unexpected encounters—books that I knew nothing about, books that I encountered on a shelf or was assigned for a class and absolutely loved. So I figured I’d write about five books that took me by surprise.

Top 5 Unexpected Encounters

5. Mankind: Have a Nice Day, by Mick Foley

I know you’re not taking me seriously. I don’t blame you.  When a friend told me that Mankind was one of the best books he’d ever read and forced his copy on me, I was fairly certain he was either on drugs or fucking with me. So it was unexpected that I enjoyed the book as much as I did. Foley is actually a decent writer. He’s witty and intelligent, and overall, he’s a good storyteller. This book won’t ever be considered high literature, but if you’ve ever hulked up or watched a Royal Rumble, or even if you enjoyed the movie The Wrestler, Mankind is worth picking up.

4. Men and Cartoons, by Jonathan Letham

You know those carts in the library, the ones you are supposed to use instead of re-shelving a book? I found Men and Cartoons on one of those. The cover and the name made me think it was a graphic novel. I would have put it down after realizing my mistake, but the first sentence of the first story hooked me, and I checked it out. A few of the stories in the collection are duds, but the best (“The Vision,” “Super Goat Man”) I’ve revisited a few times.

3. Blood and Grits, by Harry Crews

At the 2006 AWP Conference in Atlanta, I attended a talk during which one of the panelists kept referring to Harry Crews’s “memoir.”  But she kept pronouncing it with a French accent that she seemingly pulled from thin air: “mem-WAH.” A few of us laughed at her pretentiousness well into the morning. When I saw Blood and Grits on a used bookstore shelf a year later, I bought it for the laugh. But Crews knocked me off of my feet. He writes about booze, and drugs, and waking up with strange tattoos. And no matter how idiotic or hopeless those he writes about actually are, Crews manages to find their humanity, and portrays them gently and lovingly.

2. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I was assigned the prologue of this book for a Philosophy class on morality. I’m not sure how it fit into the curriculum. I do know that I went to the store and bought the book immediately after reading the assigned, photocopied prologue. I love this book for the musical quality of the prose. I also love this book because I continue to circle back to it: in countless conversations about religion, about politics, about class divisions, I’ll find myself saying, “have you read Invisible Man?

1. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I found this book on a shelf in a prison library. This was in 2004, before the Philip Seymour Hoffman movie brought the book back to the bestseller list. The book I encountered looked old and forgotten, had yellowing pages, and I mistook it for a pulp crime novel.  By the time I finished reading In Cold Blood, I realized how beautiful a nonfiction book could be, and had decided to write a book about my experience in the prison (I was teaching, not serving). I guess I have Capote to thank (blame?) for my MFA, my stack of rejections, and the last five years of my life.