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Jonathan Miles’s Top Ten List
What follows is an intensely personal, possibly even solipsistic inventory—ten books that affected and/or altered me in ways meaningful enough for me to deem great. So let me dash any expectations for critical objectivity, & acquit myself of the absence of Hamlet, Huck Finn, and their rightly canonized et al. I believe War and Peace is a demonstrably greater novel than Anna Karenina, but for various reasons—when and where I read them, perhaps, or something murkier having to do with the way we fall or don’t fall in love with books as we fall or don’t fall in love with people—Anna scored higher on my personal Richter scale. As a reader, writer, and human being, I exited each of these books significantly—even greatly—different than when I entered them; if our lives came equipped with existential GPS units, each of these books would’ve caused the unit to announce, “Recalculating.”
1. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962).
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
3. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (1942).
4. Letters to Yesenin by Jim Harrison (1973).
5. Big Bad Love by Larry Brown (1990).
6. The Complete Poems of Anna Ahkmatova by Anna Ahkmatova (1889-1966).
7. Self-Portrait with Woman by Andrzej Szczypiorski (1995).
8. Seize the Day by Saul Bellow (1956).
9. Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism by John Updike (1983).
10. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (1965).
Plus: Stone Fox, John Reynolds Gardiner. This children’s novel came to me as a gift from my grandmother, when it was published in 1980. It tells the story of an Alaskan boy named Willy who, with his dog Searchlight, enters a dog-sled race to save his mortally depressed grandfather, and it contains a brutally sad ending. So brutally sad, in fact, that reading it as a nine-year-old I broke into sobs—not tears, but hard, relentless, inconsolable sobs. Once I stopped sobbing, however, I realized that some kind of eerie miracle had just happened: words on paper had done that to me. Words on paper about made-up people and a dog. I’d shed very real tears for unreal people, which, when you think about it, is spectacularly strange. This was, I think, my first glimpse of the great and unruly power of fiction.