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If one takes a lesson from the various literary frauds that have been perpetrated over the last couple of centuries—the “masterpieces” that have been typed up word-for-word and sent to publishers under other names and been rejected or the novels published under pseudonyms by celebrated authors that have been ignored—then one must approach all lists of greatness with skepticism. If one further believes, as I do, that every book is animated by its reader, that reading is a collaboration between reader and text, then that same skepticism increases rather than decreases. Moreover, if one knows that the very idea of greatness creates an implicit bias in the reader, which enhances the physiological experience of said great work and activates reward systems in the brain that are not activated without that contextual bias, then caution is in order. And, finally, if all literary works are held in sway to the beliefs of a particular culture (its prejudices about masculinity and femininity, for example) and to the changing whims of time, then one may be left scratching one’s head about what it all means.
Americans in particular are keen on competition, on the dogged reinvigoration of a mythical biggest and best, whether their object is a hotdog or a work of art. That said there seem to be books in a given culture at a given time that many writers share as beloved works. And there are not ten, of course. There are hundreds. In my list, I detect an obvious bias for nineteenth century books written in English. There is nothing rigid about either my order or my choices. Tomorrow they might be different.
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847). First published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847, the novel both shocked and confused its reviewers, many of whom regarded its author as a rough, unrefined man of brutal character. Slowly, the book grew in stature among scholars, but its subtle structure and diffuse, complex meanings are still fought over. For me, it remains a book of almost incomprehensible power, both in thought and in feeling.
2. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667) There would be no Wuthering Heights without Milton. That is certain. I remain in awe of the poet’s dense, rich meanings and his music. The two are inseparable.
3. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Like a number of books on this list, I have read it four times, and with each reading, it generates new thoughts and emotions in me, a tribute to both its intellectual rigor and immense sympathy for human weakness.
4. Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Søren Kierkegaard (1843). This is either the novel as philosophy or philosophy as the novel by the master of irony himself. It is, in all events, a long work of prose fiction, written under a pseudonym with a fictional editor’s introduction. Diabolical in its wit, passionate, and sly, it is a book at once immensely difficult and deeply pleasurable to read.
5. Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817). As I get older, this is the book of Austen’s I return to, not because it is her most perfect book, but because the psychological acumen of its narrative continues to haunt me.
6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864–65). The author’s last finished book is for me his best, a book that explores the fragmented nature of human identity in his inimitable prose.
7. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927). I loved this book when I was nineteen, but I had to grow up and read it again to understand its profundity.
8. Stories of Franz Kafka (1883–1924)—because Kafka’s work is irreducible.
9. The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904). Nobody dissects the muddle of human feeling and desire with greater subtlety than James.
10. Sorry, but I resist. This one could be Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, Proust, Tolstoy, Wharton, Dante, Bachman, or an eccentric choice, chosen because it is a book so spectacularly ignored, that brilliant small novel by Djuna Barnes, Nightwood.