‘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 ifjust for argument’s sakeyou got insanely rigorous about it. You went to all the big-name authors in the worldFranzen, 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 .
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. He follows that up with by Pale Fire by Nabokov at #2. Then with number 3 he goes straight off the reservation: Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini. 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 . 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 with The 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 so on.
There are several lifetimes’ worth of promising literary leads here544 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