Writers Pick Their Favorite Books

I find it tough to put books in ordered lists and come up with even one top book. They can all be so different. If I was going to be really serious about it how would I go about it? I’d probably spread all my favorites out on the dining room table first. Then I would write out favorite titles that I didn’t own on index cards. Maybe to be fair I should write them all on index cards so as not to prejudice the visual cortex. Then I’d have to have some sort of round robin tournament amongst them with a scale of judging that takes into account emotional resonance, challenge to the reader, reading pleasure, time in my life…or I could just let someone else do it. But if someone else were to do it who would I want to do it?

What if 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.

That’s Lev Grossman of Time Magazine talking about The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. It sounds like quite the book. It could help answer one of the most important questions any reader faces: what should I read next?

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 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.

Does anyone have their own Top Ten list? How about a Top One list?

8 responses to “Writers Pick Their Favorite Books”

  1. It’s “insanely rigorous” to ask a bunch of white men, with few below the age of 35 I bet, who are all *ahem* “big-name authors” (whatever the fuck that means), no doubt all residing in the US and Europe, their top ten lists to come up with a “greatest books of all time”?”International canon”? That’s because a list had Borges, right?Why does “Time Magazine” still exist. Sigh._______Right, favourite books list. Too hard. I don’t think my list would be static either. I have a list of albums, poems and books on my blog’s “About” page but I tinker with them ever so often.

  2. Not so seriously: Are you suggesting that Euro-American authors, over 35, or better yet, dead, are not the most awesomest writers ever?More seriously: I guess it might be better if they said western canon. I’m always so insensitive about these things. I have enough trouble constructing my own sentences never mind deconstructing someone else’s.

  3. Lists like that are hopelessly subjective. It’s just an exercise in pretentious lit-crit wankery.

  4. Not that the books on the TIME list aren’t greats. (I don’t think “The Canon” is valueless, just that it’s too limited.) But what you’re also getting is the lowest-common-denominator based on commonalities in the schooling, upbringing, cultural backgrounds, etc, of the authors interviewed.

  5. Don’t get too down on subjectivity it’s not entirely hopeless.As for pretensions, look at the list of authors: Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe. It looks pretty pop if you ask me. I’ll agree with you on the lowest common denominator concern but I think one would read Top Ten for mostly entertainment first. No one would really consider that list definitive. Would they?Don’t worry Top Ten, you future 90% discount, I got your back.

  6. LOL.I *can* imagine it in the discount bin, yeah.Ok, so maybe it’s pretty pop after all. I just wanted to use the phrase “pretentious lit-crit wankery” in sentence.

  7. Well, it’s just that the Times writer seemed to think something really great was happening. If they just covered the book in a pretty pink dust jacket and presented it as what it is I wouldn’t be so annoyed.That Tom Wolfe picture looks like it belongs on match.com or something.

  8. Yeah, that picture kind of surprised me too.

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