Top Ten Fiction Books
Trying to discern the top ten of anything can seem like an exercise in futility. In J Peder Zane's book The Top Ten, many authors crafted their top ten favorite books. I have my qualms with these lists, but it's primarily because it focuses mainly on the cannon. I assume that many books were chosen because they were part of the individual writer's education.
Reading through the prefaces to the lists, my most visceral response was to Annie Proulx's assertion that creating a list of top ten works is "difficult, pointless, and wrong-headed." Perhaps I misunderstand her curmudgeonly thoughts here. Unless, of course, she intends to say that her top ten list is her top ten list and not meant as a paradigm for other writers to adopt dogmatically. But this, I think, is a question of why one engages in such an exercise. It might be futile if the intent is to provide a list for strangers seeking to emulate what a famous writer has done. Another author's preferences for books, writing process, or preferred pen
But, if it is a list for oneself, I think there is incredible validity in this endeavor.
At the outset, I didn't realize how informative this process would be. Sure, these are my favorite books, but why? I made it a point to not only sit the books but also to try to understand why they are my favorites. Looking at the books on this list and thinking about the reasons behind their selection led me to several realizations. While I had long been aware that I have a predilection toward philosophical novels, I've also begun to realize the scope of this predilection.
Among other things, I realized that the novels that made my top ten are also novels that represent risks. The stories are unconventional. They break from what is or was the status quo. And, in that risk, I believe that the authors have tapped into something raw and pure.
My approach, in a nutshell, was not to think too long about the books that would make the list. The books had to be books that came readily to mind. The litmus test comprised two qualities: 1) it had to be a book I would read again; 2) it had to be a book that had something I continue to learn from. This was the right way for me to go about this. One could think for ages about the books that might be on the list. For example, Catch 22, Slaughter House Five, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all books I thought about after I compiled my ten. But, none of them were strong enough to unseat those on the list below.
So, in no particular order:
ONE: The Body Artist by Don Delillo
I first encountered this book in my early twenties. I had been turned onto Delillo by a friend and former roommate who suggested White Noise, which I liked a good deal. I read through a handful of other books by Delillo, Underworld, Mao II, Libra, Point Omega, and Cosmopolis. But The Body Artist has something unique. The story is the story of one person. It's a close third person, focusing on daily life's minutiae and mundanity. Then, we are catapulted into how the protagonist grieves for her lost husband. One of the things that I have long admired about this book is the first twenty or so pages (of a 130-page book). The first section focuses primarily on the daily rituals and conversations of a relatively newly married couple. The dialogue, actions, and introspection are an absolute pleasure to read. I would say that those first twenty pages are a master class in dialogue and writing relationships. I believe I've read this particular book at least a dozen times (not counting the times I've read fragments). I assume that the book's lack of popularity is that it's a quiet, haunting, and writerly book. This book has remained firmly on my list of top ten since I first read it.
TWO: The Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse
For a long time, Siddhartha by Hesse was one of my favorites. I think I first encountered it as an undergrad while getting into German authors (like Goethe). But, Siddhartha has been supplanted by The Steppenwolf. This, as noted above, is one of the many psychological and philosophical books on my list. It reads almost like a David Lynch movie. We are forever trying to figure out whether or not the protagonist is experiencing things or if he imagines them. And on top of that, it has a story-within-a-story element that helps establish the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy the novel. Harry Haller is a fascinating character to me. His relationships, potential dive into madness, and questioning f reality are all things that a lesser writer would never have been able to get away with. This is one of the books that seems to most closely jive with the types of things I am interested in and how I want to write. I suppose today, it might almost be classed as magical realism, but I don't feel the moniker fits here. There is a big difference between Hesse and Borges or Saramago.
THREE: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
There is a trend in many books here that I avoided some of them for a long time. This is a story that I avoided because it sounded pretentious. I remember working at Barnes and Nobel and seeing it on the shelf and thinking it was a ridiculous title (#judingbooksbytitles). But, when I finally decided to read it, I was maybe in my early thirties. I took it on a camping trip to Canada, and I think I powered through it. All I wanted to do was read this book. And, I would say that it's not necessarily a novel. It's a philosophical investigation couched in a narrative. While the narrator takes his ten-year-old son on a cross-country motorcycle ride, we get many of what he calls Chautauquas. These little speeches and mediations on a wide range of things. It's also interesting that it is one of two books that Pirsig wrote (as far as I know). It is semi-autobiographical (more towards the biographical), from what I understand. But like some of the other books on this list, it was a risk and one that meant that Pirsig was bearing his soul to the audience. But this book is one that I couldn't have read earlier in my life, if only because I didn't have the patience to do so. It's a book that requires attention.
FOUR: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The same friend and former roommate that got me into Delillo also introduced me to McCarthy. While my friend Nathaniel had some lackluster recommendations, he hit more than he missed with suggestions. This was the first McCarthy that I read, and it was so far beyond anything that I had read before that it felt epiphanic. And, I will say, I like everything that I've read by McCarthy. I like the story that he was so poor in his early writing career that he was constantly getting evicted and had to steal toothpaste samples from the mail. This, to me, makes me think about what it is that an author is willing to sacrifice or endure to create. The Judge will forever be one of my favorite characters in fiction. It's not that I want to root for him or admire him. The opposite is true. But his character is so far outside my understanding that he seems (as I think he is intended) potentially supernatural. There's a scene in which he buys a bag of puppies on one side of a bridge and tosses it off the bridge as he rides across. That, coupled with the other strange actions, makes him creepy and compelling. But the other characters, Toad and the Kid, are also dynamic. The characters don't feel cliche. It doesn't seem like we're reading a Western here.
FIVE: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Yet another book that I first encountered in undergrad. I think this was one of the many books that I picked up on my own because I don't remember a recommendation, and it was most definitely never an assigned text. And, as with some of the other authors on this list, I've read most of Kundera's work. But, what sticks with me is that this was probably the first example of metafiction that I read, and I had no idea what to make of the authorial intrusions. Kundera starts with the philosophical and then traces the complexity of "Lightness" throughout the book. He's focused on ambiguity, which some of the other authors on this list have also investigated. But he also does things that lesser authors generally avoid. For example, dream sequences and questioning his work as a writer-narrator. It also has a trajectory that is at once difficult to see and, at the same time, seems so correct. By the time we reach the end of the story, it feels as though things could have only unfolded the way that they have, underscoring the complex changes in Tomas' character.
SIX: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
As far as I know, this is the only book that I was assigned in a class. It was one of my favorite classes in undergrad. The class, a 300 level English class, had no final, no midterm, and no official essays. Instead, there were four to eight randomly assigned in-class essays throughout the quarter. So, if you missed class, you ran the risk of missing an essay. If you hadn't done the reading, you were screwed. I believe that we had some idea of the prompts ahead of time (which operated like open-ended reading questions). So, I was compelled to read things closely. But this story struck me. And the opening sequence is one of my favorites. Hannah is out in the garden of this ruined villa, and there is a wind change. But it isn't forced. It's subtle and poetic. Of course, Ondaatje started as a poet, so it makes sense. But the characters are also interesting and dynamic. The way that Ondaatje traces three different characters and develops them (using a combination of past, present, and future) is masterful. I was, to say the least, massively disappointed by the movie.
SEVEN: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
I'm relatively confident that I avoided this book for years because it sounded pretentious. But, if I remember correctly, I decided to read it after a conversation with one of the nurses looking after Jil following Caden's birth. The book is existential. I'd also tried to move away from something after a brief infatuation with Sartre and Celine in my undergraduate days. But, I think what I liked about the story was how it unfolds causally. It has a sort of New Orleans easiness, which matches the setting. The protagonist, Binx, isn't entirely likable at first. He seems a little like a frat boy. But, he is far more complex than it appears at first blush. He is struggling with his experiences in the Korean War, but that is mentioned only briefly. In a beautiful passage, he talks about being wounded and watching a dung beetle crawl across a leaf. It's somewhat zen and existentialist. But he also has a heart. There's a scene in which he brings his secretary and lover to visit his family, and his interactions with his siblings (in particular his disabled brother) are touching and hint that there is far more to Binx than we first think. Interestingly, there is very little movie watching going on here, but I think that is part of the point.
EIGHT: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Like many young writers, I thought I had an early fascination with Hemingway. I believe I've read all of his major novels and most of his short stories. I've even read some of his poetry, although, as a poet, he was not. One of my favorite anecdotes about this story is how Hemingway responded to questions about the lesson. When asked what the fish symbolized, he reportedly said: "The old man is an old man, the fish is a fish, and the sea is the sea." I take this two ways. One of the things about this anecdote that I like is that he is relinquishing meaning to the reader. That act of empowerment (echoing Barthes's "Death of the Author") is generous. But it's also the simplicity of this story that strikes me. Much like The Body Artist or The Moviegoer, it's a simple plot and easy to track. Santiago is a sympathetic character and has traits that I think we all wish that we could embody (perseverance and tenacity). I've probably read this book more than any other. And I think that it should be read again and again. It's interesting to note that this story was one of Hemingway's later novels and could be seen as a metaphor for the writer's journey if we suppose that the fish is not a fish but a story.
NINE: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
I encountered this book only recently. It is one more of the many books that I avoided. Not because it sounded pretentious, but I couldn't wrap my head around what all the hype was. So, I finally sat down and read it. I don't remember what the impetus was. But, since I've described the book as pornography punctuated by poetry (and that's not to say that the two are mutually exclusive in the literary world). Like The Moviegoer, the main character seems to lack depth at first. He's a flaneur—an ex-patriot living in Paris, smoking, drinking, and hanging out with prostitutes. But there are these beautiful sprinklings of absolutely amazing prose. And I think that this balance is what works here. While the story was probably first made famous because of its filthiness, I think what makes it last is that it is raw and honest. The dereliction that is the through-line hints at something deeper and more complex in the characters here.
TEN: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I did — and potentially still do — hate Doerr for this book. The reason is that it seems so goddamn perfect. I remember first reading it and thinking about two things: 1) could he maintain the veracity of writing about a blind girl? And 2) how was he so precise with his words? He is so successful on both counts that I am jealous of his writing. I saw him speak several years ago (just after the book came out). It wasn't reading but more of a discussion of the process. He talked about the amount of research he did and how some of the research was never used because it didn't fit with anything. He also showed three paragraphs from an early manuscript. He showed how, over a month, he deleted a sentence, changed a sentence, deleted a section, changed a paragraph, and finally decided to delete all of the paragraphs. That, to me, was heartening. This fantastic writer admitted to the trials and tribulations of actually composing. He was also so likable that I imagined he'd be a great person to grab a beer with. In terms of the story, he handles a dual narrative during a familiar period in our history that is masterful. There's also this wonderfully subtle sense of magic and wonder.
ONE: Sapiens by Hurari
TWO: The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris
THREE: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins