Let’s not mince words: literary lists are basically an obscenity. Literature is the realm of the ineffable and the unquantifiable; lists are the realm of menus and laundry and rotisserie baseball. There’s something unseemly and promiscuous about all those letters and numbers jumbled together. Take it from me, a critic who has committed this particular sin many times over.
But what if—just for argument’s sake—you got insanely rigorous about it. You went to all the big-name authors in the world—Franzen, Mailer, Wallace, Wolfe, Chabon, Lethem, King, 125 of them— and got each one to cough up a top-10 list of the greatest books of all time. We’re talking ultimate-fighting-style here: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, modern, ancient, everything’s fair game except eye-gouging and fish-hooking. Then you printed and collated all the lists, crunched the numbers together, and used them to create a definitive all-time Top Top 10 list.
Yes, it would probably still be an obscenity. But it would be a pretty interesting obscenity. And that’s what we have in J. Peder Zane’s The Top 10; (Norton; 352 pages).
Each individual top 10 list is like its own steeplechase through the international canon. Look at Michael Chabon’s. He heads it up with Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths. (Nice: an undersung masterpiece by a writer’s writer.) He follows that up with by Pale Fire by Nabokov at #2. (Hm. Does he really think it’s better than Lolita? Really?) Then with number 3 he goes straight off the reservation: Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini. (What? By who?) The whole exercise is an orgy of intellectual second-guessing, which as we all know is infinitely more fun than the first round of guessing.
There’s plenty of canon fodder on the lists. Zane, who’s the books editor at the Raleigh News & Observer, has done a statistical breakdown of the results, so we know, for example, that Shakespeare is the most-represented author (followed by Faulkner, who ties with Henry James; they’re followed by a five-way tie, which you can read about for yourself). But I’m more interested in the dark horses, the statistical outliers, which lay bare the secret fetishes and perversions of the literati. Douglas Coupland puts Capote’s unfinished Answered Prayers at number one, blowing right by Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, too. Jonathan Franzen begins straight up the middle, with The Brothers Karamazov, but turns a sharp corner at #9 withThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, and another at #10 with Independent People by Halldor Laxness. The quintessentially American Tom Wolfe starts by reeling off four French classics in a row. Norman Mailer revives John Dos Passos’s out-of-fashion U.S.A. trilogy for his #6 (and shows uncharacteristic forebearance by leaving his own works off the list). And so on. (At times one reads in the knowledge that one is being messed with. There’s an outside, screwball chance that David Foster Wallace really reveres C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters above all other books, but I feel comfortable asserting—having read Infinite Jesttwice—that Wallace does not feel that way about Stephen King’s The Stand (at #2) or The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clancy (#10).
There are several lifetimes’ worth of promising literary leads here—544 books in all. An 85-page appendix providing enlightened summaries of all the works mentioned is worth the price of admission all on its own. But to get you started, here, in all its glory, is the all-time, ultimate Top Top 10 list, derived from the top 10 lists of 125 of the world’s most celebrated writers combined. Read it and— well, just read it.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
- In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
- The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
10 Top Books You Were Forced To Read In School:
1. Too Kill A Mockingbird
2. Of Mice And Men
3. A Separate Peace
4. The Catcher In The Rye.
5. Animal Farm
6. Lord Of The Flies
7. The Great Gatsby
8. Farewell To Arms
9. The Scarlet Letter
(Reported by: Lev Grossman)