I’ll see your 30 and raise you 40

I started out long ago with a Top Ten list and even then barely limited myself to eleven titles. I have always thought my Top Ten (or Twenty or Thirty) list was a mixture of novels and plays I recognized as the best of literature through the years and around the world, and a few works I personally considered finest-kind but which the world hadn’t yet recognized as being in the top tier of literature.

Now I’m not so sure. I think there is a strong reason why those Top 100 lists tend to include the same books—they are the best examples from literature.

Of course there are major biases at work in making up these lists which tend to skew a portion of the selections:  is a publisher showing favoritism to its own published authors; is a newspaper tossing in a few national favorites; are the results based on sales or surveys or even blind voting; are there limits on the list such as publication date or country or gender? In a very scientific guess, I will suggest that 80% of a Top 100 list is actually taken from the pool of likely contenders leaving 20% for splashing around in the biases of the list creators. That seems reasonable, whether considering a major literary establishment’s list or my own silly little list.

My list now sits at the 40 level—A Top Forty List.

Here it is as of 21 October 2012 (check back tomorrow for possible changes):

  1. Ulysses — James Joyce
  2. À La Recherche du temps perdu — Marcel Proust
  3. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy — Laurence Sterne
  4. Don Quixote — Miguel de Cervantes
  5. Madame Bovary — Gustave Flaubert
  6. The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky
  7. Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy
  8. The Faerie Queene — Edmund Spenser
  9. Finnegans Wake — James Joyce
  10. Waiting For Godot — Samuel Beckett
  11. Our Lady of the Flowers — Jean Genet
  12. Under the Volcano — Malcolm Lowry
  13. War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy
  14. The Last Temptation of Christ — Nikos Kazantzakis
  15. The Cairo Trilogy — Naguib Mahfouz [Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street]
  16. La Vie mode d’emploi — Georges Perec
  17. Bouvard et Pécuchet — Gustave Flaubert
  18. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce
  19. The Magic Mountain — Thomas Mann
  20. JR — William Gaddis
  21. Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoevsky
  22. Le Voyeur — Alain Robbe-Grillet
  23. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion — Yukio Mishima
  24. The Makioka Sisters — Junichero Tanizaki
  25. To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf
  26. Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov
  27. Middlemarch — George Eliot
  28. Moby Dick — Herman Melville
  29. The Leopard — Giuseppe di Lampedusa
  30. A Dance to the Music of Time — Anthony Powell
  31. The Sound and the Fury — William Faulkner
  32. Mulligan Stew — Gilbert Sorrentino
  33. Naked Lunch — William S. Burroughs
  34. The Good Soldier — Ford Madox Ford
  35. The Awakening Land — Conrad Richter
  36. The Alexandria Quartet — Lawrence Durrell
  37. Clarissa — Samuel Richardson
  38. East of Eden — John Steinbeck
  39. Europe Central — William Vollmann
  40. The Tin Drum — Günter Grass

I change this list regularly;  a new title added pushes the high numbered titles off the list. Then when I can no longer allow a favorite (and presumably great) title to plunge into the abyss, I bump up the length of the list (from 10 to 20 to 30, etc). I also periodically gaze at the relative standings and tweak the ordering slightly or replace titles (especially by the same author). All in all, the list is real and I will stand by it until the next modification. I think today any controversy in the list is generated by the relative placing of the authors and their works. Let’s face it, selecting forty titles for a Best of list isn’t too hard, but ranking them is more demanding and very much more subjective.

For instance:  few would argue that Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina are both great works of literature, but which one is better? And if you are only selecting one book by any one author, which one do you chose, The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom!?

You can follow my Top 40 List on this weblog. It’s one of the most subjective pages on the site and if anyone is looking for a mandatory reading list, go for it!

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