J. Peder Zane, the book editor of the Raleigh News and Observer has edited the most recent in Norton’s The Top Ten series, where 125 leading British and American writers were asked to rank their choices for the top ten works of fiction of all time. There are 544 titles on the list, which Zane calls “part Rand-McNally, part Zagat’s, part cultural Prozac.”
Arguably more interesting to list lovers than each author’s ranking is the appendix, which “makes a preliminary stab at tabulating, ranking, collating, and cross-referencing these literary milestones.” But, not everyone feels this way, or loves lists, especially Guardian Book Editor Robert McCrum (see link below, but also check out Carole Goldberg’s review in the Houston Chronicle) or Sam Leith who strangely says:
“The thing is, even when you take into account Peder Zane’s incredibly naffly written introduction (…); even when you wince at Sven Birkerts’s similarly clumsy essay (…); even when you discount the manifest laziness and stupidity of the whole project — it still can’t help but be fascinating. It will sit in my downstairs loo, I suspect, for years. As, consequently, will I.” – Sam Leith, The Spectator
But looking at what certain authors have chosen is also in and of itself a kind of voyeuristic enjoyment, the kind which I, too, foster in my Honolulu Advertiser column What I’m Reading, a short Q&A with me and Hawaii notables about what they like to read and why (see list of recently featured individuals at right). One of my favorite novels, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle appeared only on Vendela Vida’s list, while a great number of writers chose Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Stern. Even better are the places where writers offer a mini-essay on one of their chosen titles, as Tom Wolfe does with his #8 Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell, since we then actually get to read something the author has written.
Because yes, though there are also summaries of each book, The Top Ten is not the same as going out and actually reading books (Robert McCrum has that to say and more, unfavorably) you can’t deny—or at least I can’t—the simple satisfaction of learning what writers you like have been reading, at least in part. It’s like confirmed and compiled gossip for book-types.