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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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. 

Louis D. Rubin Jr. on Eudora Welty

Storytelling imbues Southern life. The great Mississippi writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) highlighted this when a Paris Review interviewer asked her in 1972 if she was an eavesdropper: I’m not as much as I used to be, or would like to be, because I don’t hear as well as I used to, or there’s too much other noise everywhere. But I’ve heard some wonderful remarks. Well, in the South, everybody stays busy talking all the time—they’re not sorry for you to overhear their tales. I don’t feel in helping myself I ever did anything underhanded. I was helping out.”

Paula Fox on Heinrich von Kleist

In 1811, the German writer Heinrich von Kleist shot the woman he loved and then himself in a murder-suicide pact.

His beloved Henriette Vogel was dying of uterine cancer and Von Kleist, though just 34, had long questioned the purpose of life. In his final letter, to his sister, he wrote: “The truth is, nothing on earth can help me. And now good-bye: may Heaven send you a death even half equal to mine in joy and unutterable bliss: that is the most heart-felt and profoundest wish that I can think of for you.”

Kathryn Harrison on Kobo Abe

Kobo Abe (1924-1973) was a giant of post-war Japanese literature, whose novels and plays captured the alienation and loss of identity his society wrestled with after their defeat. Abe’s personal history sensitized him to these dynamics. While he was young, his father took the family to Manchuria, in northern China, where he practiced medicine. Japan soon invaded and then brutally occupied the province, developing Abe’s lifelong ambivalence with his nation.

After the war, he explored the profound sense of confusion and loss in Japan’s growing urban centers through deeply imagined absurdist works that are often described as Kafakaesque. His major works include:

William Boyd

Top Ten Land welcomes William Boyd while the Scottish writer is firing on all cylinders. His 16th novel, Trio, is receiving glowing reviews for its tale of three people leading secret lives – a movie producer, a novelist and an actress – who are making a disaster-plagued British film in 1968, a year when Britain was still swingin' as the world was coming apart.

Iain Pears

Iain Pears – whose appreciation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels appears at right - is an English novelist who often draws on his expertise as an art historian to craft literary mysteries. His first novel, The Raphael Affair (1991), introduced Jonathan Argyll, a detective art historian who works with the Italian Art Squad. The six other novels in the series include The Titian Committee (1992), The Bernini Bust (1993) and The Immaculate Deception (2000).