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James Salter's Top Ten List
1.The Bible. (See appreciation below).
2. Aesop’s Fables (c. sixth century b.c.e.). Though their origins are vague —Aesop may have been born a slave in Asia Minor in 620 b.c.e.—these tales use talking animals to personify human virtues and vices. Fables such as “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox Who Lost His Tail” show that “slow and steady wins the race,” “appearances can be deceiving,” and “misery loves company.”
3. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450). Scheherazade receives the grim honor of marrying her King, who executes his wives on the day after the wedding night. Sche herazade delays her death by at least one thousand nights by telling tales that grow out of each other like the designs in a Turkish rug. Those childhood familiars, Sindbad, Ali Babba, and Aladdin, are all here.
4. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These tales of medieval chivalry, romance, and high adventure composed primarily from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries feature a host of iconic characters: Sir Galahad, Lancelot, Mordred, Guinevere, Merlin, and the Lady of the Lake. These are stories that gave us Camelot, the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. Versions abound but the best place to start is with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
5. Henry IV, Parts I and II by William Shakespeare (1596–98). These plays follow the rise of Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, from wastrel cavalier to powerful King Henry V, who would lead the English army to victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, as dramatized in Henry V. Hal’s maturation from rioting prince to deadly serious king is not without complications, however, as he renounces a festive underworld of great verbal richness, unparalleled wit, and creative energy for a ruthless, sinister, and murderous world of Machiavellian politics where might equals right. The most famous casualty of this transformation is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, Hal’s boon companion in Part I, whom the prince summarily rejects in Part II.
6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol’s self-proclaimed narrative “poem” follows the comical ambitions of Chichikov, who travels around the country buying the “dead souls” of serfs not yet stricken from the tax rolls. A stinging satire of Russian bureaucracy, social rank, and serfdom, Dead Souls also soars as Gogol’s portrait of “all Russia,” racing on “like a brisk, unbeatable troika” before which “other nations and states step aside to make way.”
8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
9. Stories of Isaac Babel (1894–1940). “Let me finish my work” was Babel’s final plea before he was executed for treason on the orders of Josef Stalin. Though incomplete, his work is enduring. In addition to plays and screenplays, some in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein, Babel made his mark with The Odessa Stories, which focused on gangsters from his native city, and even more important, the collection entitled Red Cavalry. Chaos, bloodshed, and mordant fatalism dominate those interconnected stories, set amid the Red Army’s Polish campaign during the Russian Civil War. Babel, himself a combat veteran, embodied the war’s extremes in the (doubtless autobiographically based) war correspondent–propagandist Kiril Lyutov and the brutally violent Cossack soldiers whom he both fears and admires. Several masterpieces herein (including “A Letter,” “My First Goose,” and “Berestechko”) anticipate Hemingway’s later achievement, and confirm Babel’s place among the great modernist writers.
10. Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812–14). Where Hans Christian Anderson was sweetly folklorish and gentle, the German folk tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are gritty and fearless. Their legendary stories —among them Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty —are as violent as they are enchanting. Though versions of the Frog Prince abound, the Grimms reject sentimental romance to tell a moral tale about keeping a promise. Their princess is a brat who throws the frog against the wall rather than kissing him to turn him into a prince. Grimm’s Fairy Tales deliver enchantment and moxie.
Appreciation of the Bible by Andrew Hudgins
The Bible is both a holy book and a work of supreme fiction; those of us who read it both ways are doubly blessed. One does not need to believe in God to hear the majesty of the story that begins, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” A great story itself, the Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T. S. Eliot.
One does not have to believe Jesus is the Son of God to understand that his parables are penetrating works of fiction that embody complex truths about human nature. One need not believe Adam and Eve existed to see Genesis is, whatever else it is, a philosophically sophisticated and psychologically acute story about people’s innate response to authority, even loving authority. And it is perfectly possible to believe Moses and King David are fictional, and yet find true to life the Bible’s stories of these flawed men who succeed greatly, if only partially, while failing God time and again.
And what of Jesus —a god entering history as a man and living as a mortal? True or not true, “the greatest story ever told,” in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.