Friday, May 25, 2007
The Top Top Ten
This is just the kind of book my loo needed. 125 established anglophone writers have picked their top ten books and this is the resulting list of lists. (* marks the books I too have read at some stage and could therefore theoretically include in my own list, below.)
1. Anna Karenina *
2. Madame Bovary *
3. War and Peace *
4. Lolita *
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
6. Hamlet *
7. The Great Gatsby *
8. In Search of Lost Time
9. The stories of Anton Chekhov *
10. Middlemarch *
The individual lists are interesting too. Most of the writers seemed to have really struggled with the task of picking just ten books for their pantheon. "You sometimes can't tell if a book really was great or if it just hit the spot that needed hitting at the time," writes Mary Gaitskill.
Sven Birkerts tries to sum up what the top top ten tells us about the aggregated taste of modern writers: "The collective preference reflected in this list of greats is clearly for memorable character-driven dramas of love and death delineated in sensuous, nuanced prose." And later adds that although we may live in a world of distracting digital info-bites "our emotional centres of gravity..are still attuned to expressions of an earlier, far less diffuse world."
These are stories with extrememely vivid central characters. "To read their lives is to be forced to reconsider our own," Birkerts concludes. Hmm. I did enjoy the two Tolstoy books on the master list, but they weren't really life-reconsidering material for me, at least at the time that I read them.
Two of the books on the list above walked straight into my own selection, whilst another ended up on the sub's bench. In the case of a pair of my favourite authors, I struggled to pick one work to properly represent what they have meant for me.
Anyway, here's my list:
1. Crime and Punishment
3. The collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges
5. Don Quixote de la Mancha
6. The stories of Anton Chekhov
7. One Hundred Years of Solitude
8. The Sun also Rises
9. The Catcher in the Rye
10 El Señor Presidente
The Great Gatsby, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Odyssey and Byron's Don Juan were so nearly there. For Conrad and Hemingway, the problem was, as I said, picking the one that mattered most. For Whom the Bells Toll is a better book than The Sun also Rises, but it was the latter work that made a difference to me as a teenager. Many of the 125 list-building writers picked Heart of Darkness, but my favourite Conrad novels have always been Victory, Lord Jim, Nostromo and The Rescue. In the end I decided that Victory hangs together best as a story.
Alongside The Catcher in the Rye I considered a novel with similar themes that is not on any of these lists: Mala Onda by Chile's Alberto Fuguet. It is perhaps the key work of the McOndo movement in contemporary Latin American fiction, a very conscious moving on from Gabo's Macondo, Isabel Allende's flying grandmothers etc.
One Hundred Years of Solitude may not be García Márquez's best book, and it's certainly not my personal favourite, nevertheless it's unquestionably the one that makes the difference.
El Señor Presidente is also something of an idiosyncratic pick, but Guatemalan author Miguel Angel Asturias did win the Nobel prize and although it's a bugger to read, its payload of love, death and terrifying tyrrany ended up hitting a certain spot of mine that needed hitting at the time. Other densely-constructed narratives I considered for the No10 spot were Saramago's Blindness and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
A good number of the writers collaborating in this bog-book picked Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It will be a while before I get to the end of that sprawling text and it might just end up in my top ten one day, though displacing what, I'm not yet sure.
Meanwhile, Chris Anderson of Long-Tail fame has posted his top five business books, ...which reads like a list of business books for people who don't really like to read business books.
I shall have to give some thought now to my top ten list of non-fiction books. Kevin Kelly's Out of Control would certainly be on it. Like The Selfish Gene, it has some remarkable blind spots, but it is also one of the most mind-expanding reads penned in English in the last half-century.