Monday, February 09, 2015


Dave Lull sent me a gem on Sunday: 

“All the very best stories are in poetry: Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Milton, Dante, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and thus off limits.” 

The words are Fred Chappell’s, whose book-length poem Midquest (1981) proves his observation. Chappell submitted a list of his favorites to J. Peder Zane, who edited The Top Ten: Writers Pick their Favorite Books (2007) and keeps his project alive with a web site. One of our finest poets and fiction writers, Chappell leaves out poetry, he says, because it “would have made the job even more impossible, the list even more arbitrary.” The point of assembling such a list is not to lay down the law or boast of one’s readerly prowess. When it comes to list-making, beware of vanity and plain old showing-off. When another writer on Zane’s site names William Gaddis’ J.R. as her favorite novel, break out the hip boots and gas mask. The shit flood is rising -- confirmed by the inclusion of The Lorax on the same list. More than “favorites,” these are the novels (or longer fictions, given the nature of some inductees) that I have most enjoyed and most look forward to reading again – at least as of today: 

Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne (1759-67)
Daniel Deronda , by George Eliot (1876)
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson (1759)
The Golden Bowl, by Henry James (1904)
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (1922)
Ulysses, by James Joyce (1922)
Zeno’s Conscience, by Italo Svevo (1923)
Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith (1936) 

By limiting the list to novels, I’ve arbitrarily excluded favorite writers who excelled in shorter fiction – Chekhov, Borges, Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I’ve also left out linked sequences of novels – Proust’s, Ford Madox Ford's, Anthony Powell’s, Evelyn Waugh’s and Beckett’s. And then there are writers left out only by the arbitrary limit of ten – Henry James, Tolstoy, Willa Cather, Saul Bellow, Christina Stead, Janet Lewis, Penelope Fitzgerald. As Chappell says, “Ten—jeez!” Ideally, the reader of such a list, especially a young person, sees a title or author and thinks, “Who is that? What’s that about? Let me see if the library has a copy.”

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