Sunday, February 18, 2007

My Top Ten

This was hard. Bud posted his top ten and I immediately got nervous in a shameful way. So many books that might and should be on my top ten aren’t there because I haven’t read them (or haven’t finished them). Poor Madame Bovary, for example. I was twenty-four and in love. I was in Paris. I bought the novel in French. My French is good, but I was undone by all those ribbons and petticoats. Then, my beloved’s indifference to me became excruciating. I left him and the book.

Watching Eric Rohmer’s Summer last night--a movie I hadn’t seen in a decade and one that lives up to its unofficial status as my favorite film--I was again shamed to be reminded of Dostoevsky. The heroine (French, lonely, self-defeating) has read him; I have not.

And this is a dangerous game, isn’t it? If you’ve read David Lodge, you’ll remember the English professors playing a suicidal game of admitting which classics they haven’t read. Drunk, the young antihero plays his trump card: Hamlet. He wins the game.

He doesn’t get tenure.

So these are the thoughts that have been racing through my mind.

Still, top ten lists are amusing, so I offer mine. I took this to be about fiction, so Yeats, Shakespeare, and Virgil are not here. They probably would be otherwise. As would Keats’ odes.

I drew this up quickly: the top five or so are without doubt the most important novels in my life. After that, I’ll admit to some tinkering. I let the unquestioned masterpieces pass without comment. They are, to me, sacred texts. As Henry James (who came in thirteenth or so) said, one does not defend one’s god; one’s god is, in himself, a defense. (I doubt he foresaw that being applied to Leslie Stephen’s bluestocking daughter Virginia….)
  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Mrs. Dalloway
  3. Another Country by James Baldwin. I came to this on my own somehow in high school and it changed my life. It’s not close to being in the top twenty-five best books, but it does something incredible: it really tries to imagine a world of inter-racial love and friendship, of alliances between gay and straight people, even (least successfully) of finding smart women interesting and sexy. This was the world that my Seattle friends and I thought we were building in the early eighties in high school and to find Baldwin having tried it already made me believe in our fantasy all the more.
  4. Invisible Man
  5. Great ExpectationsLittle makes me happier and more connected to my girlhood and my father than Dickens. It’s hard not to choose Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but this novel of a thwarted fairy tale did some important illusion-breaking for me. I have re-read it several times since with increasing pleasure and admiration.
  6. Anna Karenina
  7. Anne of Green GablesD. H. Lawrence wrote a gorgeous essay on the hymns of his youth as the lifeblood of his poetry. Nothing, he wrote, could touch him more deeply than “Oh Galilee, sweet Galilee / Where Jesus loved so much to be.” L. M. Montgomery was that to me. I still remember breathlessly running down to the kitchen, “Mama, what’s a kindred spirit?” “Oh. Well, Anne is my kindred spirit.” My parents were kind and did not giggle in front of me. I knew I was swept away, but what a pleasure it was.
  8. Women in LoveI came to Lawrence late. What a thunderclap. And, when I turned briefly away from Woolf to work on Lawrence--just for a little testosterone break--I met my husband.
  9. Ulysses
  10. Wizard of the Crow I love what Bud said--that if he’s lucky, the book he’s reading now is his favorite. I’m still living in the spell of this one: a great, great epic of African literature with a marvelous romance, lots of humor, and biting satire.
Not a lot of overlap with other lists, I see, but that’s the fun of the game, isn’t it?


Imani said...

I don't even feel as if I could write one because I haven't read enough yet. I do feel as though, in ten years time, an Austen, and Lawrence (Sons and Lovers probably but I need to re-read Women in Love first) would still be on it.

Anonymous said...

of mice and men
a cry of angels
slaughter house 5
the abortion
tell me how long the trains been gone
the stand
the crow road
the amber spy glass
to kill a mocking bird