A Man with a Flashlight

The Top Ten Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. Not a book review
March 27, 2007, 8:33 pm
Filed under: Undiscovered writers

top-ten-writers.jpgThere’s a new book out edited by Peter Zane where famous writers list their ten favorite books. I haven’t read it, so this is not a book review. But I gleaned a little knowledge about it from a review or two on the web, and a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, don’t you know… and it got me thinking.

First, the summary list, which combines every author’s choices into one final ranking, is amazingly predictable (what other outcome was possible?). Number one is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, two is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, three is Tolstoy again with War and Peace, four is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, five is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Next is Hamlet.

Hardly surprising, but it makes me wonder. I’m not really sure who is supposed to use this book. Its lists are written by a hundred and twenty-five of what the BBC calls “leading writers.” Apparently one of them is Stephen King, but dollars to donuts the others are not household names, times being what they are for the publishing industry. If you haven’t heard of Huckleberry Finn and War and Peace, then you damn sure haven’t heard of most of these writers, and their reading suggestions may not carry much weight for you. Then again, if you love reading and are up-to-date enough to have heard of these people, you’re not going to pick this up and say, “War and Peace? hm, haven’t heard of that, but since it’s recommended by Thomas Keneally, maybe I’ll give it a look.”

This is a marketing move that would make a lot of sense in the movie world. If a household name movie director like Spike Lee, James Cameron, or Stephen Spielberg made a list of their favorite movies, it could turn people on to the work of past directors like Orson Welles, John Ford, Frank Capra, or Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, viewers in the States were first turned on to contemporary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai when Quentin Tarantino arranged for Chungking Express to be released in the States by his Rolling Thunder Productions – or I was, at least.

I just don’t understand the need to do this with literature. There isn’t much danger that Tolstoy, Nabokov, and Shakespeare are going to be lost to history. There is a danger, on the other hand, that more and more people are not finding much of relevance in the books currently being published. The literary world – itself a small niche within the publishing industry, which is mostly mobilized producing the next sequel to Chicken Soup for the Soul– has several things in common with a cult. It deifies a few figures and demands that every cult member worship them. (Thus The Top Ten, in addition to being a good coffee-table prop when setting up your living room for a girl or boy you want to impress, also makes a perfect devotional object for placement on the altar of the Gods of Literature.) And its authority seems to drive rebellion among its subjects. David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers, like Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce before them, seem to have achieved artistic independence by choosing territories so far out on the white spaces of the map that no authority would apply to them. Their works are stimulating and original, but one wonders why we hear so little about writers working in more mundane spheres. Keri Hulme, Doris Lessing, and J.P. Donleavy, to name a few examples, may not have been relegated to complete obscurity, but they don’t command the same rock-star cachet.

In conclusion, I am giving this book the finger. The editor should have told all his writers to give the top ten books they felt were obscure or under-appreciated. And to strike back in my own inconsequential way, I am inaugurating the Undiscovered Writer of the Week.

2 Comments so far
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Thank You

Comment by Alex

Not a problem.

Comment by a man with a flashlight

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