Great Writers Show Their Appreciation

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.

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Charles Palliser on "Anton Reiser"

Nowadays, many writers follow a straight line—an elite education, MFA degree and publication.

The German author Karl Phillip Moritz (1756-93) had plenty of schooling before literary success, but his life was a jagged line. Born poor, he received just a smidgen of formal education before he was apprenticed to a hatmaker at age 12. But he clearly had a sharp mind – and also a troubled one that would haunt his days - and so patrons financed his study of theology.

Michael Griffith on Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is widely considered Brazil’s Shakespeare. The critic Harold Bloom included him on his list of the 100 greatest literary geniuses – alongside Dante, Cervantes and, of course, the Sweet Swan of Avon.

Through innovative novels, poems, short stories and plays, the 19th century writer (1839-1908) spun compelling tales that pierced the veil between the imagination and objective reality. Some critics have described his work as Romantic Realism.

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus is good for the mind and the soul.

His brand new collection, The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus, offers nine smart and thoroughly entertaining tales that overflow with news of the spirit. His characters are far from perfect – but Gurganus loves them, warts and all, depicting them with a radical dignity. As they often make us laugh out loud, his stories show us how we ought to think and feel toward one another when guided by our better angels.

J. Peder Zane on Miguel Cervantes

Don Quixote has been challenging my honor for decades.

“You want the world to think you are well-read, a true Señor of letters,” he admonished each time I looked up at him on the shelf. “You may even believe it yourself. Yet here I sit, my spine miraculously strong and stiff; a joke you would appreciate if you knew me.”

Once I reminded him that I had read the first 75 of his 940 pages – which is actually two books for goodness sake. Big mistake: “Then you, sir, are both a fraud and a quitter.”

As he spat those words, I heard his fellow guilt trippers, Andrew Bolkonski and Dorthea Brooke, snickering.

Jonathan Lethem

What would you do if one day all technology began to fail you? If slowly but surely, cell phones ceased to make calls, airplanes refused to lift off the ground and the Internet was no more? Imagine yourself in this scenario and you’ve transported to the reality of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, The Arrest.

Stephen King on The Golden Argosy

Stephen King is a master of mystery and suspense. So of course his Top Ten list starts with a big surprise: a little noted and long out-of-print short story anthology.

The Golden Argosy: The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language was one of innumerable works published during the 20th century that sought to make it easier for busy, middle class Americans to access literature. Back before the yoga boom, many people considered reading the path to enlightenment.

Daniel Wallace on Italo Calvino

An armchair psychiatrist might suggest the Italian author Italo Calvino’s career was a long and wondrous exercise in rebellion against his parents. Regarded as a master of magical realism, Calvino (1923-1985) was reared by two staunch empiricists. Both his parents were botanists who encouraged free-thinking, fiercely rejected religion and were deeply committed to seeing the world as it was.

While he admired his parents and their work in the scientific field, he was drawn towards the humanities from a young age. However, in an effort to appease his parents’ desires for him, Calvino studied agronomy at the University of Turin and then later at the University of Florence. But, secretly, Calvino dreamed of becoming a playwright, reading and writing in much of his free time.