We launched Top Ten Books because we had to know: Which books do our favorite authors deem the best ever written? When they gave us the answer we wanted more: Why do these particular titles mean so much to them? So we asked some of ‘em to write a short appreciation of one of their picks. A.L. Kennedy, Stephen King, Margot Livesey, Lydia Millet and Tom Wolfe are among the writers who expressed their admiration for works that range from uber-classics such as the Bible to obscure gems including Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino. The result is a wealth of titles with personalized recommendations from leading writers.
Over the next few months we will be highlighting these appreciations so that we readers can better understand why these works matter to those whose books matter so much to us. Check back to our “Featured List” tab every Monday for a new appreciation from one of our extraordinary contributors. And if you miss a week don’t despair – we’ll add the entries to this page after they’ve run.
Appreciation of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes by Kathryn Harrison
One day in August a man disappeared. The man was an entomologist and had set out into the desert with a canteen of water and a pack filled with the tools he used to collect specimens. It was his hope to discover an as yet unknown species of insect that lived in the sand dunes. Were he to find one, then he would be promised a kind of immortality: his name would be recorded and forever linked to the taxonomic identification of the bug—his bug.
Shifting sands, isolation, a quixotic attempt to defy mortal limits: even before the hero of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes has missed the last bus out of the desert, the reader knows he is lost to an existential quest. Abe, trained as a medical doctor, writes as a clinician, dispassionately and with exactitude. In the dunes his hero, Niki Jumpei, falls captive to the enigmatic woman from whom he seeks shelter for a night. Having descended into the sand pit where the woman lives, Jumpei discovers that there’s no way out; he’s trapped in a sinister village where each citizen becomes Sisyphus. Every day Jumpei must join the inhabitants in their necessary work: shoveling away the sand that threatens to bury them and their homes.
The Woman in the Dunes transcends the form of allegory —often lifeless and didactic —to engage its readers to the point of discomfort. It’s a claustrophobic novel, subjecting us to Jumpei’s mounting panic as he begins to suspect that he will never leave the sand pit, that meaningless striving is his, and our, inescapable fate.
Appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual by Arthur Phillips
The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction—the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building—blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.
Life’s hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .
Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.
Published in 1978, Life is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks. If Perec can imagine four paintings (and their histories) reproduced inside yet another painting, and the wallpaper against which that work hangs, and the life of the man who selected the wallpaper, then suddenly the world outside the book more proudly displays its own wondrous plumage, imagined by some creator even more ingenious than Perec. That all of his work (or Valène’s, or Perec’s) is so painfully transient only adds to its splendor, just as the lives led in the apartments at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier are both madly full and too quickly finished, forgotten.
Appreciation of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by A. L. Kennedy
The Third Policeman is that rare and lovely thing —a truly hallucinatory novel, shot through with fierce logic and intellectual rigor. It is a lyrical, amoral, funny nightmare: the most disciplined and disturbing product of an always interesting writer. Our protagonist is “the poor misfortunate bastard”—a drinker, philosopher, and obsessive bibliophile. His sins grow with him, making a logical progression from book theft to burglary and murder —all this against a heightened version of poor, rural Ireland: a setting layered with absurd but weirdly recognizable detail. He then stumbles into a potentially fatal alternative reality: a haunting, teasing Irish countryside of parlors and winding roads from which it seems impossible to return.
Beneath the music of O’Brien’s prose there is always a savage understanding of our failings, the pressures of poverty, greed, and fear. And there is always the dark humor that both excuses and condemns us. Our hero (who develops an entirely separate soul, called Joe) drifts into a weird landscape of jovially menacing policemen (who may or not may not be bicycles) and of inexplicable objects and mechanisms that operate beneath nature’s skin. His imprisonment and threatened execution seem even more troubling because they are nonsensical, perhaps even kind. Slowly it becomes clear that, among other things, this novel is about hell —a much-deserved, amusing, irrational, and entirely inescapable hell. Because, for O’Brien, hell is not only other people —it is ourselves.
Beyond this, The Third Policeman is genuinely indescribable: a book that holds you like a lovely and accusing dream. Read it and you’ll never forget it. Meet anyone else who has read it and you’ll find yourselves repeating sections of its melodious insanity within moments. Meet anyone who hasn’t read it and you’ll tell them they must. Which will be the truth.
Appreciation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret Detective Novels by Iain Pears
The Maigret series of detective stories, written by the Belgian Georges Simenon, are part of that rare breed of books —the mass-market entertainment that also works as great literature. Simenon is the master of atmosphere; with the lightest of touches he is able to conjure up Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, a seedy, largely poor city of shabby concierges and downtrodden traveling salesmen, of cheap hotels and squalid nightclubs, of hissing steam radiators and grubby shirt collars.
Much of the narrative is liquor-soaked —Maigret begins drinking after breakfast, interviews witnesses over brandy, and suspects over beer. Only rarely is a case concluded by unraveling clues; these are not whodunits. Rather, they are studies in character, of place, and of people. Simenon would have been a brilliant analyst. As often as not, the books end when Maigret (and through him, the reader) so understands the criminal that the suspect confesses all. Indeed, the reader is usually left sympathizing with the criminal, whose crime is reacting to limited choices and desperate circumstances.
The books are so compressed they could almost be short stories, but Simenon populates them with an extraordinary range of characters —the overweight, perpetually sweating Maigret, his eternally patient wife (more acute, in many ways, than her husband), his juniors, and the gallery of pimps and prostitutes, petty criminals, shopkeepers, bartenders, small tradesmen, and canal barge pilots who make up his world. There is no reveling in the grime of the underworld; most of the characters dream of better things and live a life of disappointment. Out of their lives, Simenon created some of the most enduring and compelling works of the twentieth century.