Wednesday, October 31, 2012

50 Books

John made a list of his 50 favorite books published since 1976 (the year of his birth). Here are the rules as he laid them out:
No anthologies, no reissues of classics, no multi-author books, no translations, and I could not, under any circumstances, have known the author before I cracked their book. And no fibbing.  Since 1976, in order of publication: 
1) Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (1976)
2) A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul (1979)
3) Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino (1979)
4) About Looking, by John Berger (1980)
5) Housekeeping, by Marilyn Robinson (1980)
6) Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess (1980)
7) Notes from Echo Lake by Michael Palmer (1981)
8) Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes (1981)
9) Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard (1982)
10) Glass, Irony, and God, by Anne Carson (1983)
11) The Well-Tempered Sentence, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon (1983)
12) The Assault by Harry Mulisch (1985)
13) You’ve Had Your Time, by Anthony Burgess (1985)
14) Cassell’s History of English Literature, by Peter Conrad (1985)
15) Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (1986)
16) Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran (1986)
17) Bill Knott: Poems 1963-1988 (1988)
18) Tomas Transtromer’s Selected Poems 1954-1988 (1988)
19) The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien (1990)
20) The Widening Spell of the Leaves, by Larry Levis (1991)
21) The United States, by Gore Vidal (1992)
22) The Designated Mourner, by Wallace Shawn (1995)
23) The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell (1995)
24) American Visions, by Robert Hughes (1995)
25) A Green History of the World, by Clive Ponting (1995)
26) Emerson: Mind on Fire, by Robert Richardson (1995)
27) Let it Bleed by Gary Indiana (1996)
28) The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare (1997)
29) Byzantium: The Early Centuries, by John Julius Norwich (1989)
30) King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild (1998)
31) Diminutive Revolutions, by Daniel Bouchard (1999)
32) Africa: a Biography, by John Reader (1999)
33) Collected Poems of James Merrill (2001)
34) The Eternal Frontier, by Tim Flannery (2001)
35) A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga, by Julia Whitty (2002)
36) Europe Central, William Vollmann (2002)
37) My Life, by Lyn Hejinian (2002)
38) The Hermit’s Story, by Rick Bass (2002)
39) Rising Up and Rising Down, by William Vollmann (2003)
40) We Need to Talk Abut Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (2003)
41) The Name of War, by Jill Lapore (2003)
42) Enlightening the World by Philip Blom (2004)
43) Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh (2005)
44) Light, by M. John Harrison (2007)
45) Quinnehtukqut by Joshua Harmon (2007)
46) Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon (2009)
47) NixonLand by Rick Pearlstein (2009)
48) Calendar of Regrets, by Lance Olsen (2010)
49) Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert Caro (2012)
50) Collected Poems of W.S Merwin (2013)
I think the "no fibbing" rule is there so he wouldn't feel compelled to make the list perfectly representative of all genders, races, and cultures and therefore beyond reproach. But I find it to be impressively diverse in any case; John reads widely in many genres and the above list includes novels, short story collections, biographies, history and art history, poetry, sci fi, lit theory ... if I were to create a list of my 50 favorite books published since 1979, it would be mostly novels with a few nonfiction and poetry books thrown in. (I don't have many favorite books of poetry, but I do have favorite poems.) 

So what would be on my list? I'll be thinking about it. And speaking of birth years, I've got two days left of being 32.


  1. There appears to be an implicit rule here allowing only one book per author? Without this rule my list would look v. different structurally: multiple books by favorite authors (Sebald, Muldoon, Kay Ryan...). Too much work to count to 50, but I think a top 10-ish would include (in no particular order): Sabbath's Theater, Rings of Saturn, Horse Latitudes, the Geoffrey Hill Selected, the Kay Ryan Selected, the collected Lydia Davis, Birds of America, Confederacy of Dunces, London Fields, Worstward Ho (cheating but by only a year)... I do not read much nonfiction but two phil. books that would make a top 50 are After Virtue and Reasons and Persons -- the former is cheating but the 1984 edition is better than the 1981 edition b'se of its postscript. I remember liking Francis Crick's memoir What Mad Pursuit. And I wonder if the Lowell-Bishop letters count...

    1. PS I see that I broke the rule against translations but surely so does the original list? (Transtromer, Hrabal, et al? Or does he just read them in the original European?)

    2. Oh I suppose I should take something out and replace it with Line of Beauty.

    3. It does seem that way.

      This kind of list is harder for me to put together than it is for John because I don't buy and keep as many books as he does, so I can't just look to my shelves for reference. Still, a random sampling from my top 50 since '79 (I'm unwilling to commit to a top 10 at this point): Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009), Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison (2001), The Quick & The Dead by Joy Williams (2000), White Noise by Don Delillo (1985) ... huh why can't I think of any books I love from the '90s? I loved The Windup Bird Chronicle, but it's a translation ...

    4. I think he did break the translation rule, I'm not sure why he imposed it in the first place. And I love The Line of Beauty too!

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  3. I didn't know you were going to post this! But it's fine, I can live with it. When I said "no translations" I meant no new translations of books published prior to 1976 (for example, the new Lydia Davis Madame Bovary, which I'm reading right now, wouldn't count). The last rule was that they couldn't be books I loved in the past but didn't love anymore (Naked Lunch, Dharma Bums, etc.). They had to be books that I'd read again. And yeah, people should go from the year of their own birth, not mine!

    & seriously Elisa, you've got to be able to come up with something from the '90s!

    1. I thought people would find it interesting! Thanks for explaining the translation rule.

      I noticed the Mary Robison did NOT make an appearance on your list. Has it been kicked off the favorites?

    2. By the way, I spent most of the 90s reading the kind of novels that were winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prizes. Looking back, few of them knocked my socks off. I DID love Mating (Norman Rush, '91), Sabbath's Theater ('95) and In America (Susan Sontag) which almost gets in under the wire at 2000.

  4. The Mary Robison was a good one, but I'm not sure it broke through the top 50. I can't think of what I'd cut to include it ... but if I had 51, then for sure.

  5. This would be a tough list for me to make, given the limitations on it, and I won't attempt 50 books here off the top of my head. But (as Sarang did above), a top 10-ish list of mine (in my case with a starting year of 1954) might include, again in no particular order:

    From A to X by John Berger
    Selected Essays by John Berger
    The Movie at the End of the World by Thomas McGrath
    The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
    What Is Found There by Adrienne Rich
    Just Kids by Patti Smith
    Collected Poems of Kenneth Rexroth
    The Mays of Ventadorn by W. S. Merwin
    A Map of the Next World by Joy Harjo
    The Republic of Poetry by Martin Espada
    A Little Course in Dreams by Robert Bosnak
    The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
    Something More Than Force by Zoe Anglesey
    Basho's Ghost by Sam Hamill
    American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity
    Voice/Over by Olga Cabral

    I guess that's 16. Somewhere on my list I'd put something by Graham Greene, but I'd have to go back and check which ones were published 1954 or after.

    I later got to know personally two of the poets on the above list (Tom McGrath and Zoe Anglesey -- Zoe and I became friends), and I've since met Sam Hamill once or twice, and we've communicated online briefly a few times. However I didn't know any of the authors when I read the books of theirs I've listed here.

    (The rule of not knowing the authors at the time we read the books limited me considerably -- there are at least a few poets and other writers I would include on the list, but I knew them at least a little by the time I started reading them.)

    1. If you do the exercise on your own blog you can always lift that rule :)

  6. Good to see the translation rule clarified. On first reading this rule, I thought this was quite jingoistic. And yay for Notes on Echo Lake.

  7. By "could not, under any circumstances, have known the author before I cracked their book" does he mean that you cannot pick someone you know personally? or like, a first-time reading of that particular author?

    1. He means no friends/acquaintances, unless they became friends after he read the book, which I know is the case with Josh Harmon's novel.

  8. Once you include the Choose Your Own Adventure series, there's, like, not a lot of room for other books, but here goes:
    1 The Cave of Time Edward Packard 1979
    2 Journey Under the Sea R. A. Montgomery 1979
    3 By Balloon to the Sahara (reissued as Danger in the Desert) Douglas Terman 1979
    4 Space and Beyond R. A. Montgomery 1980
    5 The Mystery of Chimney Rock
    (reissued as The Curse of the Haunted Mansion) Edward Packard 1980
    6 Your Code Name Is Jonah (reissued as Spy Trap) Edward Packard 1980
    7 The Third Planet from Altair
    (reissued as Message from Space; also released as Exploration Infinity) Edward Packard 1980
    8 Deadwood City Edward Packard 1980
    9 Who Killed Harlowe Thrombey? Edward Packard 1981
    10 The Lost Jewels of Nabooti (reissued as The Lost Jewels) R. A. Montgomery 1981
    11 Mystery of the Maya R. A. Montgomery 1981
    12 Inside UFO 54-40 Edward Packard 1982
    13 The Abominable Snowman R. A. Montgomery 1982
    14 The Forbidden Castle Edward Packard 1982
    15 House of Danger R. A. Montgomery 1982
    16 Survival at Sea Edward Packard 1982
    17 The Race Forever R. A. Montgomery 1983
    18 Underground Kingdom Edward Packard 1983
    19 Secret of the Pyramids Richard Brightfield 1983
    20 Escape R. A. Montgomery 1983
    21 Hyperspace Edward Packard 1983
    22 Space Patrol Julius Goodman 1983
    23 The Lost Tribe Louise Munro Foley 1983
    24 Lost on the Amazon R. A. Montgomery 1983
    25 Prisoner of the Ant People R. A. Montgomery 1983
    26 The Phantom Submarine Richard Brightfield 1983
    27 The Horror of High Ridge Julius Goodman 1983
    28 Mountain Survival Edward Packard 1984
    29 Trouble on Planet Earth R. A. Montgomery 1984
    30 The Curse of Batterslea Hall Richard Brightfield 1984
    31 Vampire Express Tony Koltz 1984
    32 Treasure Diver Julius Goodman 1984
    33 The Dragons' Den Richard Brightfield 1984
    34 The Mystery of the Highland Crest Louise Munro Foley 1984
    35 Journey to Stonehenge Fred Graver 1984
    36 The Secret Treasure of Tibet Richard Brightfield 1984
    37 War with the Evil Power Master R. A. Montgomery 1984
    38 Sabotage Jay Leibold 1984
    39 Supercomputer Edward Packard 1984
    40 The Throne of Zeus Deborah Lerme Goodman 1985
    41 Search for the Mountain Gorillas Jim Wallace 1985
    42 The Mystery of Echo Lodge Louise Munro Foley 1985
    43 Grand Canyon Odyssey Jay Leibold 1985
    44 The Mystery of Ura Senke (reissued as Cup of Death) Shannon Gilligan 1985
    45 You Are a Shark Edward Packard 1985
    46 The Deadly Shadow Richard Brightfield 1985
    47 Outlaws of Sherwood Forest Ellen Kushner 1985
    48 Spy for George Washington Jay Leibold 1985
    49 Danger at Anchor Mine
    50. Moby Dick, Heman Melville, 1851

  9. Housekeeping would be on both my book list and movie list.

    Has no one mentioned Jesus' Son? I adore it. No Raymond Carver, no Black Tickets? Not that I'm really heavy behind dirty realism.

    I think I prefer early Levis, like The Afterlife.