09 September 2009


My agent, Janet Reid, recently had a blog post titled, “I love top 10/20/40 lists of novels and books.” As I am soon going to send her a new book, I figured I’d make my own top ten list, hoping to curry favor.

I recently saw the same list that Janet saw, by Lee Child of his top 40 favorite books. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m lazier than Lee, or thinking less in terms of, say, THE TOP 40 (as in pop music), but it got me to thinking, and so, here’s my top ten. Other than MOBY DICK, which is my very favorite book of all time, they are in no particular order.

MOBY DICK, Herman Melville. Near as I can tell, this is the first modern novel, and it is still the greatest. It’s got everything: drama, suspense, intricate plot, relationships, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, economics, politics, humor and more. I reread it once every ten years and every time I do another facet of it rears up and amazes me. The last time I read it was in 2007 and I was taken with just how funny parts of it are.

MEMORY OF FIRE (Trilogy), Eduardo Galleano. History, myth, politics, economics, crime, biography all intermingled in three books that are like a fantastic cinematic / literary recreation of 500 years in the life of The Americas.

ASK THE DUST, John Fante. Still the best book ever written about Los Angeles and one of the best ever written about the stirrings of a writer’s early life. A book with a rhythm so strong that it is almost impossible to not tap your feet to it.

LONELY CRUSADE and IF HE HOLLERS LET HIM GO, Chester Himes. Okay, so it’s sort of cheating, but the two books are inextricably linked in my mind. Has there ever been any deeper, more affecting, honest, brutal and powerful writing about race in America? I don’t think so. And they are beautiful examples of the seamless interweaving of social, political and economic issues with a gripping narrative.

THE HONORARY CONSUL, Graham Greene. Probably not his best book. That honor might have to go to THE HEART OF THE MATTER or THE QUIET AMERICAN or another. But the story grabs me, and the characters and the complicated moral playing field of the whole thing is truly fantastic. There’s some good lessons in here as well.

WISE BLOOD, Flannery O’ Connor. Again, maybe not her finest moment, but my favorite. It thoroughly appeals to the part of me that wants to poke sticks at anything and everything religious or dogmatic.

ROUGHING IT, Mark Twain. A truly fantastic mashup of fiction and fact that gives the reader what seems like an incredibly accurate and detailed picture of life in the wild west. It’s funny, poignant in places, always smart and insightful. It barely edges out LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI and FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR as my favorite Twain.

THE BRIDGE IN THE JUNGLE, B. Traven. Rough, elemental, forceful, rich, telling of what seems like a simple tale, but is really a complex maze of nuance and insight into the human condition – politically, socially, economically.

THE LONG DAY WANES, Anthony Burgess. By far the best, most complex, most fully realized evocation of colonialism and its impact on both the colonizers and the colonized. Fantastic characters, amazing sense of time and place.

RISING UP and RISING DOWN, William T. Vollmann. I can’t in good conscience recommend this to anyone. At six volumes and more than 3,500 pages of astoundingly dense, fact and speculation-filled writing; it took me nearly a year to read it. Then again, it took him about 20 years to write it. It is nothing more or less than an attempt to come to some sort of conclusion as to why humans are violent and if and when it is ever justified. It’s filled with history, politics, anthropology, philosophy – pretty much any –ology or –osophy you can think of. It made me laugh. It made me cry. It put me to sleep and kept me awake. It made me THINK more than any other book I have ever read – excepting, maybe, MOBY DICK.

So there you have it. My list of 10. Like any list, I’ve already thought of other books that I’d want on it – THE IDIOT by Doestoevsky, R.L.’s DREAM by Walter Mosley, THE FLANEUR by Edmund White, CLASS by Paul Fussel, EMPIRE OF THE SUN by J.G. Ballard, M by John Sack, DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON by George Orwell, BEIJING COMA by Ma Jian, and more, plenty more. Truth be told, my top 10 would probably stretch out to a top 25 or 30 or even more, and if there was any order to them, that would change from day to day and mood to mood. Except, of course, for MOBY DICK. (Which is also the only book I ever reread. Life’s too short to reread books. I read too slow. There are too many books I haven’t read that I’m hoping to get to.)

But for the time being, there it is.


Steve Weddle said...

QUIET AMERICAN, for sure. And anything WTV is worth reading. You've picked some good ones.

A.H. Ream said...

ASK THE DUST is a little slip of a book that still took me weeks to read. Some days, I just couldn't bare the emotional toll. It was great. Amazing even. But oh, so hard.

Dianne Emley said...

The book club ladies have added THE LONG DAY WANES to the queue for next year. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Janet Reid said...

I think it's going to take me a year to read Vollmann's latest. IMPERIAL runs a thousand pages or so.

Interesting list!