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This was harder than I thought it would be. Because I found myself pondering the notion of Greatness: What good is it? Why even have such a concept? In the end I answered myself: We need a concept of greatness so we can know in what direction we should morally aspire. A book answers this question most eloquently, it seems to me, in its voice; that is, in its attitude toward the mayhem it observes. A book can be like the voice of God, telling us what to think of ourselves. These are, for me, the books that do this most valuably:
1. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol’s self-proclaimed narrative “poem” follows the comical ambitions of Chichikov, who travels around the country buying the “dead souls” of serfs not yet stricken from the tax rolls. A stinging satire of Russian bureaucracy, social rank, and serfdom, Dead Souls also soars as Gogol’s portrait of “all Russia,” racing on “like a brisk, unbeatable troika” before which “other nations and states step aside to make way.”
2. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.
3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). Mark Twain supposedly said of this masterpiece, “Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race.” Everything else is included in this epic novel that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society, but it is his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre —who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live —that makes this book beloved.
4. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67). Sterne promises the “life and opinions” of his protagonist. Yet halfway through the fourth volume of nine, we are still in the first day of the hero’s life thanks to marvelous digressions and what the narrator calls “unforeseen stoppages”—detailing the quirky habits of his eccentric family members and their friends. This broken narrative is unified by Sterne’s comic touch, which shimmers in this thoroughly entertaining novel that harks back to Don Quixote and foreshadows Ulysses.
5. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600). The most famous play ever written, Hamlet tells the story of a melancholic prince charged with avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, who then married his mother and, becoming King of Denmark, robbed Hamlet of the throne. Told the circumstances of this murder and usurpation by his father’s ghost, Hamlet is plunged deep into brilliant and profound reflection on the problems of existence, which meditations delay his revenge at the cost of innocent lives. When he finally acts decisively, Hamlet takes with him every remaining major character in a crescendo of violence unmatched in Shakespearean theater.
6. Stories of Isaac Babel (1894–1940). “Let me finish my work” was Babel’s final plea before he was executed for treason on the orders of Josef Stalin. Though incomplete, his work is enduring. In addition to plays and screenplays, some in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein, Babel made his mark with The Odessa Stories, which focused on gangsters from his native city, and even more important, the collection entitled Red Cavalry. Chaos, bloodshed, and mordant fatalism dominate those interconnected stories, set amid the Red Army’s Polish campaign during the Russian Civil War. Babel, himself a combat veteran, embodied the war’s extremes in the (doubtless autobiographically based) war correspondent–propagandist Kiril Lyutov and the brutally violent Cossack soldiers whom he both fears and admires. Several masterpieces herein (including “A Letter,” “My First Goose,” and “Berestechko”) anticipate Hemingway’s later achievement, and confirm Babel’s place among the great modernist writers.
7. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”
8. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.
9. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953). Two vagabonds, Vladimir and Estragon, “blathering about nothing in particular,” provoke, challenge, and defend each other while they wait for the appearance of the mysterious Godot. Twice the tramps ponder hanging themselves from the branches of a nearby willow tree; twice they try to make sense of a stranger named Pozzo and his leashed servant Lucky. All the characters abide in a world peculiar for its absences: of meaning, rationality, consolation, and of course the slyly named Godot.
10. On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957). The ur-novel of the Beat generation, Kerouac mythologizes an America that is always just over the next hill or waiting in the next bar, the next town, the next bottle, or a lover’s bed, and “the mad ones” who chase such visions. Fueled by postwar recklessness and a desire for kicks, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty hitchhike and ride trains, but mostly they drive nonstop from coast to coast, seeking music, a tank of gas, new lovers, whatever they can find. Composing on a scroll of butcher paper run through a typewriter, Kerouac sought a language that would match the velocity of his characters and their exploits.