It often feels like Christmas morning in Top Ten Land as the electronic mail carrier delivers sugar plum gifts. The latest delectation was a message from Edmund White conveying his list of the greatest books of all-time.
A confession: we didn’t open it right away. We are not children who must ransack every gift. Instead, we admired the package, savoring the delicious anticipation of imagining what lay within.
Before we get to his list, let’s appreciate White’s immense contributions to American letters and culture. Since publishing his first novel, Forgetting Elena, in 1973 he has been one of our great chronicler’s of gay life in works of fiction, memoir and nonfiction during a period when LGBT Americans have moved from the margins to the mainstream.
As in that first novel - whose excruciatingly self-conscious young narrator desperately wants to be accepted in this world where everything is subject to rigid conventions – White has consistently used specific experiences to explore universal themes of identity and belonging.
Like Updike’s Rabbit novels and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books, the centerpiece of White’s art is a tetralogy of novels that brilliantly depict a life in our times: A Boy’s Own Story (1982) The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997) and The Married Man (2000). Unlike Updike and Ford, White’s works draw more heavily on his own experiences.
His other novels include Our Young Man (2016), which follows the life of a Frenchman as he goes from the industrial city of Clermont-Ferrand to the top of the modeling profession in New York City, becoming the darling of Fire Island's gay community, and A Saint from Texas (2020), which chronicles the fates of twin sisters, one destined for Parisian nobility and the other for Catholic sainthood.
His works of nonfiction include The Joy of Gay Sex (1977, with Charlie Silverstein), States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980) and The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (2000). His memoirs include My Lives (2005), City Boy (2009), and The Unpunished Vice: A Life in Reading (2018). Some of his many awards are the 2018 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction and the National Book Foundation’s 2019 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. To learn more, click here.
When we opened White’s email we were delighted to see works by many familiar friends, such as Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce and Eliot. If you haven’t read any of those titles, get to it. They are amazing! He also adds two new titles to our List of Books: the Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen and We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates- which brings us extra special delight as Oates is also a Top Ten contributor. And, true to his resistance to color inside the lines - or perhaps, like many writers, he’s just not great at math - White even gave us an 11th bonus pick! Is there a better feeling than finding one last gift under the tree?
Edmund White’s Top Ten List
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
2. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
3. Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973).
4. Nothing by Henry Green (1926).
5. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956).
6. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958).
7. The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943–48).
8. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922).
9. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1996).
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
Bonus Pick: The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839).