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David Foster Wallace's Top Ten List
1. The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942). An amusing reversal of The Divine Comedy, this novel consists of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to his young nephew Wormword, teaching him how to tempt his first human “patient” to perdition. Lewis nicely balances theology and psychology, depicting hell as a bureaucracy with murderous office politics, and the loss of one’s soul as an imperceptible poisoning through chains of seemingly inconsequential sins.
2. The Stand by Stephen King (1978). This vivid apocalyptic tale with dozens of finely drawn characters begins with the military’s mistaken release of a deadly superflu that wipes out almost everyone on earth. The few survivors, spread out across the barren United States, are visited in their dreams by a kindly old woman in Nebraska and a sinister man in the West. They begin making their way toward these separate camps for what will prove to be a last stand between the forces of good and evil.
3. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981). Imitation is the most annoying form of flattery for archfiend Dr. Hannibal Lecter in this terrifying predecessor to The Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon describes the original capture of cannibalistic serial killer Lecter and his subsequent indignation on hearing that another monster is imitating his sadistic methods. Harris skillfully leaves open who is manipulating whom when Lecter agrees to help the FBI track down the copycat, who matches Lecter eye for eye —literally.
4. The Thin Red Line by James Jones (1962). Green recruits become hardened soldiers, their eyes reflecting the “thousand yard stare” of those who have seen too much, in this novel set during World War II’s battle for Guadalcanal. Narrated from the perspective of various soldiers assigned to Charlie Company, the novel reflects the complexity of war —the horror and heroism of its licensed murder —while navigating the “thin red line between the sane and the mad.”
5. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973). This iconic feminist novel of fantasy, liberation, and “the zipless fuck” kicked up plenty of dust in the early 1970s. The unpublished writer and unhappily married Isadora Wing yearns to fly free and receives her epiphany through an affair and the discovery of her own sexuality and power. Many critics dismissed Jong as a pornographer in literary clothing; her protagonist, they claimed, was as self-absorbed as the baby boomers themselves. But the book sold millions and became a touchstone for a much greater social movement.
6. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988). Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter is a deranged serial killer and a brilliant psychiatrist —who better to help the FBI profile psychos like Buffalo Bill, who loves peeling the skin off his lovely young victims? So the Bureau dispatches Clarice Starling, a smart, charming, slightly vulnerable agent, to Lecter’s prison cell. While playing mind games with Clarice, Lecter provides her with strange but telling clues, which she pursues against her superiors’ wishes and the clock ticking out the seconds for Buffalo Bill’s next victim.
7. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961). A counterculture favorite during the 1960s, this novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, who was born during the first flight to Mars. Reared by Martians, the orphan returns to Earth as a young man, where he questions the customs and values taken for granted there. Michael also learns he inherited a large fortune and the deed to Mars. As the world government tries to seize his assets, Michael forms a church preaching free love. His followers think he is the Messiah —and that spells trouble.
8. Fuzz by Ed McBain (1968). Fueled by clever plots, sharp dialogue, and vivid characters, McBain’s series of novels set in New York City’s 87th Precinct is a gold standard of the police procedural. This novel features one of the genre’s great villains, the murderous Deaf Man, who taunts and ridicules his blue-clad adversaries.
9. Alligator by Shelley Katz (1977). He’s the Moby-Dick of the Everglades —a twenty-foot-long alligator with eighty razor sharp teeth who stalks men for pleasure. Like all legendary beasts, this killer is a symbol of mankind’s weakness and a challenge to those who dream of proving their mettle. When two death-hardened adventurers vow to pursue this leviathan, the hunters become the prey in this atmospheric thriller.
10. The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy (1991). The Cold War meets the age of terror in this pulsing techno thriller. Hoping both to derail Israeli–Palestinian peace and darken U.S.–Soviet relations, terrorists smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. Only one man can save the day, Clancy’s series hero, Jack Ryan, a CIA agent racked by personal and professional problems. Clancy brandishes his encyclopedic knowledge of the military —including plans for building a hydrogen bomb —while capturing a hero filled with doubt.