J. Peder Zane’s new book The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, is an interesting little item. On a first look it might seem like just another list book, and of course, our world is so flooded with top ten lists that nowadays it’s socially inept to express too much enthusiasm for them any more. (Sven Birkerts, for example, in the book’s introductory essay: “ranked lists of writers or books are my Achilles heel.”) All too often lists just tell us what we already know, and even though Birkerts tries valiantly to take away something from Zane’s aggregated “top top ten” list, truth be told, I don’t think it sheds too much light.
But, I also don’t think the top top ten is the point of Zane’s book. The book works much better as a vicarious look into authors’ minds, a source of strange favorites that just might be your next book recommendation.
As I glanced through The Top Ten, I was immediately pulled toward all the unlikely books that squeezed their 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 number 10 pick, 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.”
This way of reading The Top Ten is made infinitely more pleasurable by the synopses presented for each and every title that made it in. Most are only a paragraph, but they manage to give a good sense of a book’s plot and whether or not it will appeal to you as a reader. Lengthier “appreciations” are given for certain books, and these tend to be well-written and informative. Among the finer appreciations is Arthur Philips on Life A User’s Manual. 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.
Beyond reading The Top Ten for oddball recommendations, the book is also worthwhile as a method for vicariously picking writers’ brains. For instance, who would have guessed the uber-macho Norman Mailer would put Pride and Prejudice at number 5? (Let the speculation begon.) 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 number 6 spot. The guy’s not all bad.
Alas, Jonathan Franzen doesn’t give us any Maileresque surprises but instead lends a completely predictable list that might contribute to recent accusations of his anti-experimental bias. 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 novels. After reading the New York trilogy, I feel like I can understand why Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and The Scarlet Letter show up. (But where’s Hawthorne’s short story “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 number 2?)
Disappointments in this book will likely depend on the reader, but I think most will agree that it’s more than a little unfortunate that David Foster Wallace turned 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, only one 9-ball for Haruki Murakami’s towering Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (maybe after another 10 years), but big props to Lydia Millet for giving William Gaddis’s JR her number one pick (marking the only appearance of JR in the entire book). 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.
I don’t think I’m alone in harboring a little natural skepticism of all “top ten”type enterprises, but The Top Ten has won me over. It’s put a new spin on an old idea and has created a space where notable writers can give voyeuristic readers a peek into their minds. As such, it’s proven to be an interesting, engaging book, and I think it will prove to be a good source of recommendations—especially if I keep my eye on the bottom of the lists.
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