I often say that the one thing I’m most likely to do on any given day is answer five questions for a newspaper in Australia, by which I mean I spend a lot of my time filling out forms. None of them are hard, many of them are from other countries, and for the most part they’re all pretty much the same. A very clever writer friend keeps a computer file of answers and just pastes them into different questionnaires. I keep meaning to be that organized.
This is one I did the other day. I won’t disclose the source since it won’t run until my book comes out in November, meaning, I think, that I’m scooping myself. What was interesting about it was that it asked for my 25 favorite books. I’m often asked for my top three favorites, or top five, but never anything close to 25. After the list there were questions about favorite mysteries and favorite classics, which gave me room to add even more books to the list. The Great Gatsby is certainly one of my top 25, but why use the space when I could work it in later? I was so surprised by the big number that I found myself really giving this project some thought. At first 25 seemed like too many. Ten minutes later it wasn’t enough. I remember in 2000 someone came out with a list of the 100 greatest books of the century. I printed it out and made a point of reading the ones I’d neglected. I in no way think this list represents the greatest books of all time. I’m not even sure it represents my favorites. Do I really like The All of It better than Moby Dick? Probably not, but I know I’d be more inclined to reach for it.
I was also surprised by my inability to add on books I love but had only recently read. I just finished William Trevor’s Fools of Fortune — a fantastic book. It felt like a top 25, but wasn’t it too soon to commit? I also thought of the books that my friends have written that I love, but how could I include one or two without representing them all? So there are no friends on the list. There could be my favorite 25 books written by people I know, or my favorite 25 books written in the last 25 years. That would be a good one. I spent an hour trying to figure out which Toni Morrison was my favorite and got so exasperated with myself that I left her off. I cheated by including all three of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels as one volume, and then listed the two Nancy Mitford novels most often published together as one. I included very little nonfiction. In Cold Blood was on there for awhile and then fell off, as was Mikal Gilmore’s Shot in the Heart.
In short, this list is neither definitive nor true. Many days I like Sense and Sensibility better than Persuasion, and maybe I like The Portrait of a Lady as much as I do The Ambassadors. I started over-thinking everything. I told myself to stop. At the end of everything I thought, hey, this could be a good book report entry. It’s cheating, sure, but I did read all these books and I loved them.
One more thing – a book that deserves to be on any top 25 list (but I read it too recently) is Edwidge Danticat’s Claire of the Sea Light. I am a huge fan of all of Danticat’s work but this book is especially luminous and transcendent. We are so honored that she is coming to Nashville on August 28 at the downtown public library. Please, please come. It’s going to be a very special event.
Now, onto the lists:
Name your 25 favorite books
(Alphabetical by author, not ranked.)
Persuasion – Jane Austen
Humboldt’s Gift – Saul Bellow
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
The Good Solider – Ford Maddox Ford
Old Filth – Jane Gardam
The All of It – Jeanette Haien
Act One – Moss Hart
The Ambassadors – Henry James
The Leopard – Giuseppe Di Lampedusa
Independent People – Halldor Laxness
The Perfect Spy – John LeCarre
The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
100 Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
Selected Stories – Alice Munro
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
The Collected Stories – Grace Paley
The Radetzky March – Joseph Roth
The Human Stain – Philip Roth
Her First American – Lore Segal
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
The Rabbit Angstrom Novels – John Updike
A Day at the Beach – Geoffrey Wolff
What are you reading right now? Fools of Fortune, by William Trevor. I think this is going to be my favorite Trevor novel.
What was your favorite children’s book? Why? The Lonely Doll, by Dare Wright – picture book. It’s so sad and haunted and beautiful and full of anxiety. I loved the black and white photographs.
What book do you most often reread? Why? The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ll think of a sentence or a scene I want to read again and I’ll sit down and read the whole thing. It’s a perfect novel, and it’s very short.
What book would you want with you on a desert island? Why? A Man Without Qualities, by Robert Musil. It’s enormously long and complicated and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. I think I would need the quiet of a desert island in order to concentrate, and maybe by the time I finished I would be rescued.
What book would you recommend to a friend? Why? It would depend on the friend. If the friend had strong nerves I would recommend The Patrick Melrose Novels (all five of them) by Edward St. Aubyn. I’m obsessed with these books but they aren’t for the faint of heart.
What is your favorite biography? Why? The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’ve read all of her books and this one is probably my favorite but really, it could have been any of them.
What is your favorite holiday book? Why? A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote. Sometimes we all need a good, cathartic sob.
What is your favorite summer read? Why? We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. ‘Summer Read’ tends to be a nice way of saying ‘light weight’, which this book is not, but I read it this summer and I thought it was brilliant.
What is your favorite mystery? Why? The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler. I’ve read very few mysteries but I love Chandler. This one was my favorite, possibly because it was the longest.
What book did you think made a better movie than it did a book? Why? The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri. The book was good but the movie was great. It deeper, richer somehow. The acting was fantastic.
What book most influenced your life? Why? Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White. It made me a vegetarian, and I convinced my parents to get me a pig for my ninth birthday.
What is your favorite classic? Any Dickens, any Austen, any James.
What is your favorite coffee table book? Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, by Albertus Seba. It’s huge, endlessly entertaining, and the one book that is actually on my coffee table.
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