When we initially surveyed 125 writers for their picks of the Top Ten books of all-time, we were pretty certain we wouldn’t get the same list of all-timers from everyone. Still, we were surprised at the diversity: the original crew filled their 1,250 slots with 544 separate titles; 353 books were selected by one author and no one else.
The top pick, Anna Karenina, was only mentioned on 25 lists. Twenty three writers selected as their top pick – that is, as the greatest book of all time – a work listed by no one else. We called these books one-hit wonders.
The happy message: there are plenty of great books and no single correct answer.
The essential question, then, is why does this particular book mean so much to you? To find out, we asked some contributors to write brief appreciations of beloved works. These include Francine Prose on Stendahl’s “The Charterhouse of Parma,” Jim Crace on Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” and Lydia Millet on Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Red the Fiend.”
Our newest Top Ten contributor, Daniel Wallace, has graciously shared his response to the top pick on his list, “The Baron in the Trees,” by Italo Calvino – another one-hit wonder mentioned by no one else.
To Daniel we say thank you. To you we say enjoy.
Appreciation of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees by Daniel Wallace
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino, is the novel I think of as a singular and instrumental influence on me and my life as a writer. That being said, I read it decades ago I remember very little of it now: characters, plot points, major themes or motifs. Not really sure about those things. I do remember a dog, a woman, Voltaire . . . In a nutshell: in 1767 a strong-willed 12-year-old son of an Italian baron refuses to eat snails one night, is sent from the table, climbs an oak and swears never to come down – and doesn’t, not for the entirety of the novel. The rest of his life is lived in the trees. Which is impossible, but I believed every word of it. In fact, other than this one detail (that our main character traverses Europe, has friends and lovers and a dog without ever touching toe to ground) the story is told in the most realistic and historical detail. That is the great lesson I took from this book and from Calvino’s other books as well: that as long as the reader feels secure in the hands of an honest, forthright storyteller the writer can get on with the business of adornment and exaggeration, the making up of things that never happened, never could have happened, and never will, and the reader will believe that too. It’s called magical realism, but it might just as well be called realistic magic.
Daniel Wallace’s Top Ten List
1. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (1957).
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
3. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932).
4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961).
5. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881).
6. Stories of John Cheever (1912–82).
7. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64).
8. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735).
9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969).
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980).