Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Best Ever (So Far)

In Time magazine, Lev Grossman gives notice to a new volume that solicits, collates, and tabulates the top-ten all-time favorite books as chosen by 125 well-known writers. The results, along with all 125 lists and a variety of supplementary materials, are gathered in J. Peder Zane’s The Top Ten.

I agree with Grossman: such lists are “basically an obscenity”—ridiculous parlor exercises that are often as not used to promote friends’ novels and flaunt one’s own superior and eclectic tastes.

Except my list, of course.

Here, alphabetical by author, are twenty choices for my all-time personal favorite novels (so far). To avoid the vexing question of Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dante, not to mention all the Greeks, I’ve excluded plays and poetry. (I'm bending Zane's rules here, there is no way I could begin to pare this list down to ten—and the only way I could rank them would be to run them all through my iPod shuffle.)

-- Emma, Jane Austen
-- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
-- Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
-- A Home at the End of the World, Michael Cunningham
-- Bleak House, Charles Dickens
-- Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
-- Light in August, William Faulkner
-- Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
-- The Sunlight Dialogues, John Gardner
-- The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
-- The Known World, Edward P. Jones
-- The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence
-- The Moon and Sixpence, W. Somerset Maugham
-- Pierre, Herman Melville*
-- Beloved, Toni Morrison
-- The Bell, Iris Murdoch
-- At Swim, Two Boys, Jamie O'Neill
-- Blindness, Jose Saramago
-- Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
-- Germinal, Emile Zola

And I have to give honorable mention to Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which was my favorite book as a young reader and which is single-handedly responsible for my spending more money on books than on groceries each week. (If you have his address, please forward it to me so I can send him an invoice.)

I also wish I could find room for something by Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, Willa Cather, John Fowles, or Doris Lessing. Although I've read and I like nearly everything they've written, no single work catapults itself onto this list.

This very personal list, like anyone’s, could not be considered an “all-time greatest” list. For starters, my reading hasn’t been comprehensive enough (I haven’t yet read War and Peace or Middlemarch or anything by Dostoevsky or Dumas, and I haven’t finished In Search of Lost Time), nor is it global enough (there are only three works in translation included here), nor can I remember many of the books I read 25 years ago (such as works by Conrad and Fielding and Stevenson, all of which I remember enjoying--but were they really as good as my memory insists?).

Even so, nearly all of these authors are included in Zane’s complete listing of books chosen by the 125 writers (the exceptions are John Gardner, Jamie O’Neill, and—surprisingly—Jose Saramago).

* So, do I really think Pierre is better than Moby-Dick? Yes.