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Thursday, April 14, 2016
What Are The Top 10 Fiction Books?
is in the best position to determine which works of fiction are the greatest of
you ask English majors or their professors?
Would you ask publishers or authors?
Would you ask readers, editors, book reviewers, librarians or MFA faculty? How about historians, award-giving groups
like The Pulitzer or Nobel Prize, or literary agents? Perhaps we’d want all of them involved.
a decade ago, book-review editor J. Peder Zane, with the Raleigh News & Observer, queried 125 authors and inquired upon
their Top 10 favorite works of fiction of all time. Zane created a point system – 10 for first
place, 9 for second, 8 for third, etc.
He took into account all of their submissions and published a book in 2007 about
it, entitled The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.
may not be the best qualified to say what the greatest books are. They are more focused on creating books, not
reading or judging the works of others.
On the other hand, they are generally well-read students of the written
word and should know more than most when it comes to which books are good and which are
what did they come up with as the best ten?
1.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2.Madame Bovary by Gustave
3.War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4.Lolita by Vladimir
5.The Adventures of
by Mark Twain
6.Hamlet by William
7.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott
8.In Search of Lost
by Marcel Proust
9.The Stories of
10.Middlemarch by George Eliot
notice one author made the list twice – Tolstoy. But absent from the list were
some of my all-time favorites:
·The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
·1984 by George Orwell
·Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
by Fyodor Dostoevsky Lord of the Flies by William Golding
·Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
·The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
fact, this group of British and American authors didn’t agree on much. 544 titles were named on these lists. 353 titles appeared only once. Think about that. The most these collective lists could’ve
named was 1250 books. So about ¼ of that
total never repeated itself. But 191
titles circulated enough times to fill ¾ of those slots.
authors participated in this survey?
Very accomplished ones like Tom Wolfe, Scott Turow, Stephen King, Robert
Parker, John Irving, Jennifer Weiner, Gail Godwin, Adriana Trigiani, Carl
Hiaasen, Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Connelly, Wally Lamb, Norman Mailer, and
Ann Patchett. Did they skew towards a
certain demographic, genre, or preference?
Did any of them name the works of each other?
might have influenced their lists?
their selections would be made public.
·Their ability to recall books they enjoyed reading and/or found to be influential in their lives. How
many other books they’ve read or haven’t.
they read them – how long ago and at what point in their lives.
age, sex, ethnicity, politics, religion, I.Q., location, and ethics.
exposure to seeing other lists, awards and honors for books.
“The Top Ten is not trying to anoint a
canon,” says the book’s editor. “Its
message is not: Here are the only ten
books you need to read. Instead it points
you toward the many fine books awaiting your discovery, highlighting a multitude
of books, each and every one of which is worth your time.”
notes there are so many books available to us today and that we’re in a Golden
Era, but laments that the choices are overwhelming. “Never before have so many books been within
such easy reach," he writes. “But when anything is possible, choice becomes
torture. What to pick? Where to start? This one?
That one? How about this – and
that? What will I like? What’s worth my time? Help!”
this was published in 2007, just before the e-book revolution exploded and the
number of new titles launched in a year would exceed up to 1,000,000 books,
there may have been available back then only half the number of titles
available today. I believe Amazon currently lists
over 7.5 million titles for sale.
authors that participated in the survey seemed to be partial to more recent
times. Of the number of books to appear
on multiple lists more, came from the 1920’s than any other decade. The 30’s – 40’s were next, and then the
lists provided by authors seemed to be virtually void of entire genres. For instance, sci-fi didn’t rank high. Neither did poetry or comedy, urban
literature, or LGBTQ. I wonder if the system of voting were different, we’d
have a different list.
instance, what if the writers were allowed to talk to one another prior to
voting, to determine through dialogue and debate which ones warranted inclusion? Or what if writers named their Top 20 instead
of 10, to see where more common ground could be found? Or what if the point system were different
and calculations were made to reward No. 1 picks a lot more than a No. 2 or No.
it doesn’t matter. It’s a subjective
snapshot in time. Take it for what it’s
of my favorite findings concerns the once-hot wonders.” says the editor. “A
total of 353 books appeared on only one list.
Twenty-three of those solo acts earned the top slot. Put another way, there were 23 books that one
writer considered his or her absolute favorite and that no other writer cast so
much as 10th place none too shabby in this competition.”
counted 93 different No.1 selections – out of 125. This shows there’s nothing approaching a
consensus here. These selections
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Don Quixote by Miguel de
The Divine Comedy by Dante
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Sound and the Fury by William
The Iliad by Homer
Antony and Cleopatra by William
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
Ulysses by James Joyce
Candide by Voltaire
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
authors had multiple no.1 titles, including Tolstoy, Homer, Dostoevsky,
Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Austen, & Joyce.
author in the book, Sven Berkerts, sums it up best with this:
are all irrevocably, terminally subjective in our responses to art – it’s how
we’re wired. We like what we like for
hundreds of reasons, and there is no arguing for stable hierarchies. What could a list like the one in my hand
offer besides a tabulation of errant subjectivities?
yet, the more I considered the more I had to allow that with a large that with
a large enough sample – and certainly a pool of one hundred and twenty-five writers
counts for something – certain convergences also had to be meaningful. That a significant number of these
practitioners time and again put the same works on their lists of ten could not
be an empty fact. If it didn’t tell us
about greatness, it certainly said something about how writers read, how pigs
(I mean nothing pejorative here) grade for themselves the varieties of bacon.