I’m passing along this interesting report from The Daily Beast:
Again the folks at the PEN World Voices Festival in NYC have prepared a book bag with a good selection of books generally considered amonst the best literature. This year the books were selected by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jennifer Egan. Here are the books she chose with a note explaining her selection:
Emma by Jane Austen
Politics masquerading as matrimony. Austen was a mathematician of social interaction, and her novels are impossibly, preposterously good. Emma happens to be my favorite.
The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin
In 1961, before the Vietnam War was close to being televised, Boorstin identified the basic laws and contours of image culture—among them, a longing for authenticity that naturally results from increased mediation of human experience. His observations hold eerily true even in the era of Facebook and YouTube.
Don Juan by Lord Byron
Who can resist an epic poem in which the protagonist gets shipwrecked, hides in a harem (and then is chosen by the sultan for an evening of pleasure), has a fling with Catherine the Great, and endless other romps—all narrated in Byron’s slouchy, sinuous poetry?
Underworld by Don DeLillo
My favorite American novel of the past 25 years. A gigantic vision of the Cold War and its aftermath, in which DeLillo manages to be sweeping, intimate, political, hilarious, and sad.
Middlemarch by George Elliot
A quintessentially swaggering 19th-century English novel, thrillingly attentive to a sweep of diverse characters, and impossible to put down.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
A surreal tale that exposes the ravages of racial persecution, yet ultimately subsumes them in a meditation on identity and transformation, whose proportions are nothing short of mythic.
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
Utterly unique; a flexible, sharply written, wide-ranging story that encompasses the life of a young Australian woman who comes to England.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
An epic, experimental yet utterly human work that manages to fuse a political vision (disillusionment with communism) with a social one (women, men, and the collisions between them).
Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
Tough, bleak, and deeply atmospheric; Rhys wrests a gripping—even phantasmagoric—narrative from the solitary perambulations of an alcoholic woman in Paris.
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
One of the first novels in English … and a buoyant, postmodern romp. A hearty reminder of the power, malleability, and deep playfulness of the novel form.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Tragic in the classical sense, yet also hilarious, nuanced, and socially astute; the novel’s cool assessment of the calculus of beauty and wealth rings true even in our radically different era.
Germinal by Émile Zola
My favorite reportorial 19th-century novel. A vivid story full of spectacular set pieces—like a horse being lowered into a coal mine—and also a brutal indictment of the mining industry’s exploitation of its workers.
I might not have zeroed in on the same title, but I could see my version of this list containing Emma, Don Juan, Middlemarch, Invisible Man, Tristram Shandy, and Germinal but I would be hesitant on the other six (and the DeLillo is definitely not on my list). I believe I would select Ulysses, Notre Dame des Fleurs, Under the Volcano, Madame Bovary, At Swim-Two-Birds, and The Makioka Sisters. Yes, I like that list: not every selection is “the best” but I believe it is a better representation than the batch of books in the bag.
Last year Salman Rushdie did the selection. I would like to see his choices. I concede that everyone has a different opinion of what ten or twelve books are a good representation of general literature. Do you have your own ideas that you might want to share?