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Original Essays

A Golden Age for Book Lovers

by J. Peder Zane
This is a golden age for book lovers. Thanks to the Internet and computer systems that turn even the smallest bookshops into a mega-stores, almost every book ever published is just a click away. We bibliophiles enjoy entrée to the stately pleasure-dome of literary riches heretofore unavailable to even the greatest minds or wisest sultans.

However — you knew that was coming — excess can be wretched. Possibilities can lead to paralysis; choice can cause confusion. When everything is available, how to choose any one thing? Book lovers wonder: What should I read next?

In response, various guides offer assistance to overwhelmed readers. There's Oprah and Imus, of course. And book reviewers around the country, who serve as a GPS system to literary gold (most of the time).

Greedy me, I wanted more: more advice, better guidance. I asked: Who knows books best? The answer came lickety-split: writers, of course. Though Lee Smith is said to have noted about one well-regarded author, "He's written more books than he's read," it is mighty hard to be a great writer without being a great reader.

Thus I hatched the plan for my book, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. I asked 125 leading British and American writers — including Norman Mailer, Annie Proulx, Alice Hoffman, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Paula Fox, Julian Barnes, Margot Livesey, and Michael Chabon — to provide their lists of the ten greatest works of fiction of all time. To my surprise and delight, 544 separate titles appeared on their lists, each of which is described in The Top Ten.

Think of it: 544 books, each of which is considered by at least one esteemed writer to be among the ten greatest works of fiction ever written.

We tabulated those results — giving 10 points for a first place pick, one point for a tenth place pick — to create a series of super lists, including The Top Ten Works by Living Writers (Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude was number one), The Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers (Chandler's The Long Goodbye led the pack), The Top Ten Works of the 20th century (all hail Nabokov's Lolita), and The Top Ten Works of Fantasy and Science Fiction (give it up for Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland).

The top vote getters regardless of category comprised the Big Kahuna — The Top Ten Works of Fiction of All Time (drum roll please):

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

Needless to say, I love lists. They are like biblio-scythes that allow us to cut through the overbrush — hey, it's a jungle out there — to find the literary roses. But lists can be two-edged. While highlighting works worth our while, they also further troubling trends. In his study of the proliferation of prize, "The Economy of Prestige," James English argues that awards (and, by extension, Top Ten lists), are "one of the glaring symptoms of a consumer society run rampant, a society that can conceive of artistic achievement only in terms of stardom and success." In a note to me, the writer Annie Proulx averred that, "Lists, unless grocery shopping lists, are truly a reduction ad absurdum."

They have a point. A bald list of books is of limited use. Sure, our Big Kahuna list is a confirmation of literary greatness, and proves your high school English teachers knew what they were talking about: Karenina and Gatsby are really good books!

Nevertheless, a reader coming across this list in a glossy magazine will spend approximately 25 seconds looking at it — 10 seconds to read it, five seconds to note books read, five seconds realizing how many greats are still unread. Next!

What a pity. That approach treats lists as an endpoint — here's all you need to know — when they should be launching pads, catapulting readers into new realms.

Let me tell you a little story about this.

As I was putting together the book many of the contributors chafed under the limitations. They rightly noted that ten was an artificial number — that they would need fifty slots to cover their favorite books. With his list, Peter Carey included the note: "Here it is — no Joyce or Eliot or Kafka although they invented the river we swim in. No Bible either, which is impossible. The Great Gatsby is a perfect work of art and I cut it out. No Faulkner, although I owe him everything. No Chekhov, Munro — what sort of list is that?"

From the looks of it...

1. Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
2. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
4. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
5. Middlemarch by George Eliot
6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
7. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
8. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
9. The Portrait Of a Lady by Henry James
10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

... I'd say, none too shabby!

Still, I recognized their concern, which I addressed by noting the paradox of the project. Though forcing each listmaker to exclude many favorites, it was in the service of a widely inclusive project. Though the book is titled The Top Ten it could just as easily be called The Top 544 reflecting all the books selected.

"Our aim is not to anoint a canon," I wrote the contributors. "The message to readers is not, 'here are the only ten books you should read,' but, 'here are hundreds of books that top writers consider among the very best ever written.'"

My hope is that The Top Ten will introduce readers to captivating books and re-introduce them to once loved works (we need a word to describe a book we've read so long ago it's as if we never read it at all — any suggestions?). That is why The Top Ten offers synopses of every book selected — from Absalom, Absalom! to Zoo Story — as well as 18 appreciations by the contributors, including Tom Wolfe on Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, Arthur Phillips on Life: A Users Manual by Georges Perec and Lydia Millet on Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino.

If folks only read the lists, then The Top Ten will have failed. If they read the books on those 125 lists, than it will be a rousing success. I speak from experience. Thanks to John Banville and Iain Pears, I became acquainted with the works of the Belgian writer Georges Simenon; Emma Donoghue's list brought my attention to Adam Thorpe's tour de force, Ulverton; Jonathan Lethem pointed me to New Grub Street by George Gissing — and I'm just getting started.

The number 544 is also important because it reveals this truth: There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to great books; great books are the books that matter to us. If there were an objective standard of excellence, there would have been broad consensus among the contributors. In fact, each list contains an average of four unique titles — four books one contributor selected but no one else. My book's list of "One-Hit Wonders" highlights the 23 titles a contributor put at the top of his/her list as the greatest work of fiction of all time that no one else mentioned.

This suggests perhaps the strongest — and most overlooked — argument for lists: As useful as they are to those who read them, they may be even more rewarding to those who make them. A top ten is not simply a catalog of books, it's a personal statement. It reflects who we are through the books we love. I think the contributors to my book overcame their qualms about the project's limitations for two reasons. First, they wanted to spread the good news about books they adore — this, in turn, was part of my aim, to cast writers as readers, so that we, who adore them, can see that they too are wide-eyed fans.

Second, I think they found it useful to make those hard choices. There is only one reason that someone would put Pride and Prejudice first on a list (as Claire Messud did) or ninth (like Ian Rankin) or not mention it at all: a personal reason. Done right, a top ten list urges us to consider the forces of personal history and taste that make us think of certain books not just as friends, but family.

I hope readers will use The Top Ten first to learn about the favorite books of their favorite writers, and then to explore those literary worlds. I also hope it will encourage them to examine their memories, minds and hearts and create their own top ten lists — more than 200 readers have already posted their own top ten lists at my website.

Like great books, lists are two way streets. They need inspired creators to give them life, and active readers to keep them alive. May The Top Ten be the start of some beautiful relationships. spacer

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