Let’s not mince words: literary lists are basically an obscenity. Literature is the realm of the ineffable and the unquantifiable; lists are the realm of menus and laundry and rotisserie baseball. There’s something unseemly and promiscuous about all those letters and numbers jumbled together. Take it from me, a critic who has committed this particular sin many times over.
But what if—just for argument’s sake—you got insanely rigorous about it. You went to all the big-name authors in the world—Franzen, Mailer, Wallace, Wolfe, Chabon, Lethem, King, 125 of them— and got each one to cough up a top-10 list of the greatest books of all time. We’re talking ultimate-fighting-style here: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, modern, ancient, everything’s fair game except eye-gouging and fish-hooking. Then you printed and collated all the lists, crunched the numbers together, and used them to create a definitive all-time Top Top 10 list.
So says Lev Grossman in Time, writing about The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. He goes on to say
There are several lifetimes’ worth of promising literary leads here—544 books in all. An 85-page appendix providing enlightened summaries of all the works mentioned is worth the price of admission all on its own.
He also gives away the punchline, so to speak, with “the all-time, ultimate Top Top 10 list, derived from the top 10 lists of 125 of the world’s most celebrated writers combined.” Here ya go:
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov by Anton Chekhov
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Oh yes. J Peder Zane, the editor of the book, has a website up here, complete with blog and a page where you can go list your personal top ten. As of this post, the people’s voice says that the top 10 books most mentioned from all the top 10 lists posted are:
The Great Gatsby
Crime and Punishment
To Kill a Mockingbird
War and Peace
All Things, All at Once
The Sound and the Fury
The Brothers Karamazov
Pride and Prejudice
(Yes, yes, 12 books. There was a three-way tie at number ten.)
The list of 544 books is here, by the way, all neatly linked up to Amazon “buy” links. That should pay the hosting bills!
And for the list of writers who contributed their lists, scroll down to the bottom of this page. (Chitra Divakaruni was the only Indian name I could find on the list before the wee type began to blur. No Sir V. No winner of the Booker of Bookers.)