When Parade asked Ann Patchett to make a list of the best 75 books of the past 75 years to celebrate the magazine’s 75th anniversary, she initially responded, No way. Why? Because, she says, “I could picture the mountains of furious letters . . . about all the great works of literature I’d left off.”
“But when I asked the staff at Parnassus Books to take it on as a group project,” Ann writes, “they were game.”
OH HECK YES, WE WERE.
The only problem? As Ann says,”What we discovered in the process is how wildly we disagree about everything.”
Things got a little heated, as happens when you ask booknerds to go to bat for their favorite books. No punches were thrown, but according to Ann, “Mary Laura Philpott, who’s in charge of our online literary magazine, Musing, pretty much said she’d quit if we didn’t include [Graham Greene’s] The End of the Affair and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We all had books that we refused to be flexible on.”
[Ed. note: It was an empty threat. I’d never quit.]
Harry Potter was absolutely “a deal breaker for half our staff,” Ann explains, and not just for the children’s booksellers. “The Harry Potter phenomenon was and still is incredibly uplifting because it turned children into readers . . . The readers and the characters grew up together, and the passion for the books spread to the parents and then to the next generation of children. Any child who grew up reading Harry Potter knows that she is fully capable of later reading something like Great Expectations because she’s had that experience of losing herself in great big books.”
Then of course, there are authors who wrote more than one book that could be considered a “masterpiece.” How do you narrow down the works of, say, JD Salinger? Ann explains: “Nine Stories is a book I’ve gone back to at different moments in my life and I always find something new. I’ve passionately loved different stories at different times — first “Teddy,” later “For Esme with Love and Squalor.” I could list all of them. It’s also the most perfectly balanced collection of stories I know. There are no weak links. Catcher in the Rye is a great book when you’re a kid, and Franny and Zooey is a great book when you’re in your twenties, but Nine Stories can see you through your entire life.
The same applies for Stephen King. “It would be impossible for a bunch of booksellers to decide on their favorite Stephen King novel, but we all agreed On Writing should make the list. You don’t need to be a King fan, a horror fan, or someone who wants to write to love this book (though Stephen King’s horror fans who want to write will be deeply satisfied by it). It’s just a great book about determination, and how the past shapes us, and how the love and support of a single person can make all the difference. It’s also the best explanation of addiction, and overcoming addiction, that I’ve ever read.
So how does our list of the best 75 books of the last 75 years hold up? Judge for yourself. It’s in this weekend’s edition of Parade, and you can find it online today.