J. Peder Zane’s new book The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, is an interesting little item. Of course, we’ve all had our fill of top ten lists to the point that it’s socially inept to express too much enthusiasm for them any more. (Sven Birkerts, for example, in his introductory essay: "ranked lists of writers or books are my Achilles heel.") All too often they just tell us what we already know, and even though Birkerts tries valiantly to take away something, truth be told, I don’t think the aggregated Top Top Ten List presented here sheds too much light.
But, I also don’t think the Top Top Ten is the point of this book. For me, the fun is in seeing everything that squeezed its way in. For instance, Zane gave his 125 writers 10 picks, but somehow David Mitchell was allowed to add a "wild card": Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which he says is a book "that I badly want to be read more." I’m intrigued. A novel that the author of Cloud Atlas agrees isn’t all that weighty but that he still wants to be read. Why? It’s worth tracking a copy down.
Or how about Alan Furst bending the rules to include Rebecca West’s mammoth study of Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon? (He files it under "works of nonfiction that should be read as fiction.") Something about his insistence that this book be included makes it carry more weight with me than the novels he ranks higher.
I’m also curious about Emma Donoghue’s #10, Ulverton by Adam Thorpe: (How can’t you love a title like Ulverton?) "The fictional town of Ulverton–and the English language itself–are central characters of his debut novel in which a dozen different voices detail 300 years in the life of an English village."
The more I look through this book, the more I’m drawn to all the oddballs that just made their way in. Yes, of course I know such-and-such writer thinks Anna Karenina is the greatest thing ever, but what’s that, Madison Smartt Bell has a previously unacknowledged liking for something called The Conference of the Birds? Interesting.
On another level, I’ll admit to finding not a little pleasure in picking various writers’ brains via their favorite books. For instance, who would have guessed the uber-macho Norman Mailer would put Pride and Prejudice at #5? Of course, his 1-4 picks are four Russian novels that you can probably guess, but credit to Mailer for giving John Dos Passos’s under-read U.S.A. trilogy the #6 spot. The guy’s not all bad.
Alas, J-Franz doesn’t give us any Maileresque surprises but instead confirms his milquetoast reputation with a completely predictable list. Paul Auster’s list is similarly pedestrian, but coming from Auster the books somehow feel weightier. I think it has something to do with the love of literature he speaks through his books. After reading his novels I feel like I can understand why Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and The Scarlet Letter show up. (But where’s "Fanshawe"?) Likewise, Julian Barnes giving us Madame Bovary as his favorite is nothing if not predictable, but after reading Flaubert’s Parrot, I know exactly why he so exalts it. (But what’s with Don Juan as his #2?)
Arthur Philips scores some points for putting Life A User’s Manual at #2, and giving a fine appreciation. One quote:
The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction–the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building–blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts.
I’ve got to say, though, I’m a little disappointed in DFW for turning in what appears to be a joke list. If he didn’t want to participate he could have just said so (or is Fear of Flying really his fifth favorite book of all time?).
Likewise, I’m disappointed that Gravity’s Rainbow managed to appear on nobody’s list whatsoever. V. just made it with one 9-spot (thank you T.C. Boyle). Likewise, one 9-ball for Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (maybe after another 10 years). (Credit to Zane for putting both GR and Wind-Up Bird on his list.) But big props to Lydia Millet for giving J.R. her number one pick. Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend also makes her list, and of that book she writes:
In brutal simplicity, with recourse to uniquely effective listing devices, the precise and beautiful prose lays bare the excruciating particularities of Red’s pain and shame and makes palpably real his journey from, if not innocence, at least relative neutrality toward craftiness and deft manipulation.
This, more than anything else I’ve read, makes me want to read Millet.
Although I’m naturally skeptical of all "top ten"–type enterprises, I’ve got to say that this book has won me over. It’s proven to be pretty interesting, and I think it will prove to be a pretty good source of recommendations–especially if I keep my eye on the bottom of the lists.