The Untouchable by John Banville (1997). Loosely based on the life of Cambridge spy Anthony F. Blunt, the novel opens in 1979, when seventy-two-year-old Vic Maskell’s crimes have been publicly exposed. As the world recognizes that this art curator was not who he seemed, Vic probes his past—vividly bringing to life his co-conspirators and the city of Cambridge—to determine his accuser’s identity. This suspenseful, philosophical journey reveals the fractured state of Vic’s identity: Irishman and Englishman, lover of women and men, betrayer and betrayed.
The List of Books
We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list.
The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962).
Appreciation of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes by Kathryn Harrison
One day in August a man disappeared. The man was an entomologist and had set out into the desert with a canteen of water and a pack filled with the tools he used to collect specimens. It was his hope to discover an as yet unknown species of insect that lived in the sand dunes. Were he to find one, then he would be promised a kind of immortality: his name would be recorded and forever linked to the taxonomic identification of the bug—his bug.
Shifting sands, isolation, a quixotic attempt to defy mortal limits: even before the hero of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes has missed the last bus out of the desert, the reader knows he is lost to an existential quest. Abe, trained as a medical doctor, writes as a clinician, dispassionately and with exactitude. In the dunes his hero, Niki Jumpei, falls captive to the enigmatic woman from whom he seeks shelter for a night. Having descended into the sand pit where the woman lives, Jumpei discovers that there’s no way out; he’s trapped in a sinister village where each citizen becomes Sisyphus. Every day Jumpei must join the inhabitants in their necessary work: shoveling away the sand that threatens to bury them and their homes.
"The Woman in the Dunes" transcends the form of allegory—often lifeless and didactic—to engage its readers to the point of discomfort. It’s a claustrophobic novel, subjecting us to Jumpei’s mounting panic as he begins to suspect that he will never leave the sand pit, that meaningless striving is his, and our, inescapable fate.
Total Points: 10 (KHarr 10)
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). Two years before Nigeria won its independence from Britain, Achebe published this clear-eyed novel set in the years leading up to colonial rule. Through the rise and fall of the admirable yet flawed tribal leader, Okonkwo, Achebe reveals the strengths and weaknesses of his nation’s traditional culture: its violence and superstitions, and its compassion, honor, and pride.
Total Points: 10 (JC 10)
1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984). In a fleabag Scottish motel, divorced and depressed, Jock McLeish once again seeks consolation and strength through massive doses of alcohol and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies (some starring a woman named Janine). Through frank, complex language Gray takes us inside the addled mind of a powerless man seeking to impose some control over his life.
Total Points: 9 (MSB 9)
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879). The original desperate housewife, pampered Nora Helmer commits forgery for the money she needs to take her sick husband on a lifesaving trip. When her husband discovers her deceit, he is appalled. He realizes that he doesn’t really know his wife, whom he looks on as little more than a “doll.” His confusion only grows when Nora boldly moves to forge an independent identity—apart from men, motherhood, and social convention.
Total Points: 9 (SMK 9)
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947). Set in the once working-class French Quarter of New Orleans, Williams tells the story of Blanche DuBois, an alcoholic relic of the waning genteel South, and her brother-in-law, the sensuous working-class brute Stanley Kowalski. Their mutual attraction and repulsion drive the conflict in this sexually frank, lyrical melodrama about the boundaries between illusion and reality and the changing South.
Total Points: 9 (PCle 9)
Aesop’s Fables (c. sixth century b.c.e.). Though their origins are vague—Aesop may have been born a slave in Asia Minor in 620 b.c.e.—these tales use talking animals to personify human virtues and vices. Fables such as “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox Who Lost His Tail” show that “slow and steady wins the race,” “appearances can be deceiving,” and “misery loves company.”
Total Points: 9 (JSalt 9)
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900). Subtitled “The Decline of a Family,” Mann’s first novel chronicles the shifting fortunes of four generations of German merchants. A brilliant literary colorist, adept with rich jewel tones, earthy pigments, and deep chiaroscuro alike, Mann recalls the Dutch Masters in his painterly command of bourgeois interiors and intimate domestic scenes. In equally lucid detail, often with tongue in cheek, he probes the psychological depths of his characters as they follow the arc from Enlightenment vigor to Romantic decadence in this sprawling family saga bristling with comedy and pathos.
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947). Mann retells the Faust legend as the story of wunderkind composer Adrian Leverkühn, who trades his human feeling for a brilliant career and demonic inspiration. Leverkühn’s biography, narrated by a faithful childhood friend from the vantage point of 1943 Germany, serves as a symbolic commentary on a nation’s cultural hubris and downfall. Mann probes the complex tensions between aesthetics and morality, culture and politics, in his trademark dense, precise, endlessly qualified prose. Given his theme—the culpability of genius in the sins of his society—the narrator’s almost infuriatingly overscrupulous command of language assumes a redemptive gravitas.
Edwin Mullhouse : The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser (1972). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “An exuberant parody of a literary biography, Edwin Mullhouse is written by a child, Jeffrey, about his smashingly creative childhood friend, Edwin, the author of “Cartoons.” This book is so sly, so inventive, and so much fun to read, it threatens to combust on the page. At its heart is a dark crime, but the book is really full of clever surprises and it gives one of the best and most accurate portrayals of childhood I’ve ever read.”
Total Points: 9 (CL 9)
Essays by Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). Reflections by the creator of the essay form, display the humane, skeptical, humorous, and honest views of Montaigne, revealing his thoughts on sexuality, religion, cannibals, intellectuals, and other unexpected themes. His most celebrated pieces include "On Solitude," "To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die," and "On Experience."
Total Points: 9 (RM 9)
Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599). The final play in the Second Henriad (with Henry IV, Parts I and II), Henry V is, ostensibly, a celebration of Henry’s victory over his archenemy, the French, at Agincourt in 1415. Henry thus construed is a great national hero. But the play actually subverts, or at least compromises, such a reading. We see Henry collude with the church to prosecute a vicious campaign for nationalistic, rather than necessary, reasons. The brave king broods on the burdens of kingship and the righteousness of his cause, but then casually orders the slaughter of French prisoners. The epilogue looks forward to the reign of Henry VI, who lost all that Henry V gained and more, as if to question the worth of all this killing.
Total Points: 9 (GDG 9)
Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956). The title poem is considered the signature poem of the Beat generation. In language that blesses, curses, sorrows, and comforts, Ginsberg laments “the best minds of my generation . . . destroyed by madness.” Begun in isolation and anger, the poem reaches a kind of saintliness and communion. What can be seen as a manifesto against the conformist society of America in the 1950s can also be read as a love poem for the promising idea of America.
Total Points: 9 (SA 9)
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920–22). The Norwegian author’s vast trilogy depicts its eponymous heroine’s life: Kristin’s impetuous union with a dangerously unstable suitor; her arduous marriage and motherhood, endangered by her husband’s political activities; and the willed serenity of her later years, when her youthful folly yields to a commitment to spiritual growth. The energy of the Icelandic sagas blends with an immensely detailed panorama of fourteenth-century life.
Total Points: 9 (LS 9)
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978).
Appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual by Arthur Phillips
The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction—the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building—blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.
Life’s hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .
Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.
Published in 1978, Life is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks. If Perec can imagine four paintings (and their histories) reproduced inside yet another painting, and the wallpaper against which that work hangs, and the life of the man who selected the wallpaper, then suddenly the world outside the book more proudly displays its own wondrous plumage, imagined by some creator even more ingenious than Perec. That all of his work (or Valène’s, or Perec’s) is so painfully transient only adds to its splendor, just as the lives led in the apartments at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier are both madly full and too quickly finished, forgotten.
Total Points: 9 (APhil 9)
Mahabharata (fifth century b.c.e.). Said to be the second-longest epic poem in the world (behind Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), the Mahabarata is also, along with the Ramayana, one of the two defining books of Hindu culture. Its core narrative relates the clashes between two groups of royal Indian cousins—one descended from gods, the other from demons. War, disguises, asceticism, drunken brawls, and the god Dharma as a dog swirl through this magical panorama of ancient India, which also includes the famous sermon Bhagavadgita, the Hindu equivalent to the New Testament.
Total Points: 9 (CD 9)
Medea by Euripides (431 b.c.e.). What would you do if the man who promised you love, children, and a throne, after convincing you to slay your brother and exile yourself from your home, decided to marry a richer woman instead? This play gives a whole new meaning to “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Medea takes rejection to horrifying levels, killing her children as revenge on Jason for his faithlessness and his manipulation of her. That she is not punished for this deed is a stunning conclusion to this riveting play.
Total Points: 9 (PCap 9)
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Years before The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had already won the Booker Prize for this reverential and blasphemous novel. Two babies born at the precise moment modern India came into existence—one Muslim, one Hindu—are then switched at birth and grow up in the other’s faith. Midnight’s Children sets a plot of comic-book proportions—people with superpowers too lazy to band together—against the backdrop of the subcontinent’s conflict-ridden history, the language and idioms of Rushdie’s youth careening against each other with madcap imagination and jolting fury.
Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare (1604). Othello centers on the black general of the Venetian army and his white wife, Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator. A brave and successful warrior essential to the security of Venice, Othello is extremely susceptible to jealousy, a weakness exploited by the villain Iago, whom Othello passes over for a lieutenancy in favor of another. Iago’s swift and lethal revenge is as brilliant to behold as it is terrible to watch, as good and innocent people die at the hands of a demonic genius in a play that refuses to satisfy the expectation that tragedy must reward virtue and punish vice.
Total Points: 9 (EM 9)
Plays of Molière (1622–73). Even those who generally find French literature inscrutable enjoy Molière. Tartuffe, for example, the Christian hypocrite who attempts to seduce a young virgin, inhabits the same plane of immortality as Falstaff or Don Quixote. Molière’s comedy ranges from slapstick (The Doctor in Spite of Himself is as silly, and funny, as a Punch and Judy show) to the social satire of his greatest play, The Misanthrope, in which a man’s vow never to lie collides with society’s need for “white lies.” Molière impartially mocks both sides.
Total Points: 9 (SCraw 9)
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977). Barbara Pym’s characters live in the margins of mid-twentieth-century English life, squirreled away in rooming houses, dead-end office jobs, and ever-shrinking church congregations. Her peculiar genius is to make these unpromising creatures the centerpieces of her work. With the acute, unflinching eye and dry sense of humor that invite comparison to Jane Austen, “Quartet in Autumn” follows four aging office workers in their dance with retirement, a changing society, and ultimate mortality.
Stories of Andre Dubus (1936–99). The meditative leanness and working-class focus of Dubus’s stories often garners comparison to Raymond Carver, although Dubus is much more interested in religion (Catholicism) and place (the redneck towns northwest of Boston). His stories are shot through with brutal violence and alcohol, characters whoalternate between sanctity and transgression, and tough moral choices. In Dubus’s fiction, such as the novella We Don’t Live Here Anymore from his 1979 collection Separate Flights, lives change slowly; marriages crumble or move on, bruised and shaken; and his characters survive, to carry on after paying a price.
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932). In this first and best volume of his famed trilogy, A Scots Quair, Gibbon chronicles the growth to womanhood of Chris Guthrie, an intellectually ambitious Scottish girl at odds with her “backward” village and her dour Calvinist father. Succeeding volumes take Chris to Aberdeen and explore the aftermath of world war and burgeoning labor unrest, but lack the concentrated intensity of Sunset Song’s rich renderings of individual, familial, and communal experience and destiny.
Total Points: 9 (ML 9)
The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (1943). This collection assembles McCullers’s best stories, including her beloved novella “The Ballad of the Sad Café.” A haunting tale of a human triangle that culminates in an astonishing brawl, the novella introduces readers to Miss Amelia, a formidable southern woman whose café serves as the town’s gathering place. Among other fine works, the collection also includes “Wunderkind,” McCullers’s first published story written when she was only seventeen about a musical prodigy who suddenly realizes she will not go on to become a great pianist.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939). Hollywood is not alluring in this savage, apocalyptic novel about fame and its perversions. Painter Tod Hackett comes to Hollywood to design sets and find success. Instead, he finds a population of the physically and psychically maimed crouching at the edges of the film industry, desperately believing that only luck and time separate them from stardom. At the end, their disappointment explodes into violence and Tod sums up his despair with his single great painting: The Burning of Los Angeles.
Total Points: 9 (MCon 9)