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Arthur Golden's Top Ten List
1. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934). Here is everything you could want in a novel about ancient Rome: warfare and spectacle, scandal and intrigue (and still more intrigue). The Claudius of Graves’s imagination —a disarmingly charming pedant and reluctant tyrant —confides his beginnings as a crippled, unwanted child and the internecine dynastic struggles that left him the last man standing. It is soap opera on an epic scale, dramatizing the fall of Roman republican ideals.
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream-driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb-spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”
4. The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (c. 1760). This bawdy, funny, surreal, and encyclopedic Chinese classic stretches across 120 chapters. Reality and illusion shift constantly in the world of Jia Baoyu, scion of the wealthy but declining Jia family. He is a master at the arts of poetry, philosophy, and love but meets his match in his frail, beautiful cousin Lin Daiyu, one of the twelve beauties of Jinling.
5. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). After being dismissed from another prep school, Holden Caulfield —whose slangy, intimate narration defines this novel —has a series of misadventures in Manhattan before going home for Christmas. Haunted by the death of brother Allie, he wants what he cannot have —to snare the elusive Jane Gallagher, to run away with his sister Phoebe, to “catch” innocent youths before they fall into the “phony” world of adults. A timeless voice of adolescent rage and assurance, Holden may rank highest in the pantheon of antiestablishment heroes.
6. Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse (1934). Including perhaps the funniest scene in the Wodehouse canon —Gussie Fink-Nottle’s drunken speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School —this madcap farce once again finds Bertie Wooster and his brilliant manservant Jeeves working to point Cupid’s arrows toward other hearts. Truth be told, newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle and droopy Madeline Basset belong together just as surely as Angela was made from Tuppy Glossop’s rib. After a series of gentle misunderstandings, Bertie and Jeeves may lift the scales from everyone’s eyes. Right ho!
7. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985). Memorable characters (including prostitutes, outlaws, heroes, and Indians) grace this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that examines the myths and reality of the American West through the story of two men driving cattle from Texas to Montana. As Augustus McCrae and W. F. Call undertake their adventure-filled journey, McMurtry debunks innumerable legends while suffusing his complex protagonists with the rugged dignity and loyalty of cowboy lore.
8. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (1962). Yates’s debut collection set the tone for what his career would bring: quiet, well-crafted stories and novels about people whose dearest hopes were thwarted, often by their own inability to realize them. Unrelentingly realistic in setting and subject matter, Yates repudiates any easy redemption in these stories. Like Walter Henderson, protagonist of the aptly titled “Glutton for Punishment,” these are men and women who slowly, bitterly, come to understand that their one true talent is for defeat.
9. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855–91). Whitman spent half his life writing, revising, and republishing this collection, which is, at heart, a love song to the idea of America. Uneven and exuberant, Whitman acknowledges that “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” yet he celebrates all of America in his long-lined free verse. Naming himself “one of the roughs,” Whitman places the natural over the artificial, native wisdom over scholarship, and praises the working man and foot soldier as fulsomely as he does President Lincoln.
10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.