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I find this list of ten books project to be difficult, pointless, and wrong-headed. Just so you’ll give it a rest, here is a list. One could, of course, quickly go on to put together list after list. Moreover, the lists would change from week to week as one’s tastes change and as one reads more widely. It has not escaped me that nearly every newspaper, book review publication, and magazine are currently gripped by list fever. Lists, unless grocery shopping lists, are truly a reductio ad absurdum.
1. The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?). Where The Iliad tells of war, The Odyssey is the story of survival and reconciliation following the ten-year battle with Troy. Where Achilles was defined by warrior brutality, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, is defined by his intelligence and wit. This epic poem follows Odysseus on his adventures as he struggles —against the threats of sea monsters and the temptation of the sirens’ song —to be reunited with his son Telemachus, his faithful, clever queen Penelope, and their kingdom.
2. Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers (1975). Joe Hackett wanted to be a saint. While training for the priesthood he wore the hair shirt and abandoned the pleasures of “smokes, sweets, snacks, snooker, and handball.” Twenty-five years later, his ideals dampened, his passions are baseball and beer. The arrival of an idealistic curate slowly snaps him back to life, “like wheat that springeth green,” in this comic novel about both the tension between earthly and spiritual goals and their mutual dependence.
3. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876). Twain’s charming fictionalization of his Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood marks the passages, large and small, of youth: Tom plays hooky from school, courts Becky Thatcher, gets lost with her in the Bat Cave, and runs afoul of Injun Joe. Tom even manages to eavesdrop on his own funeral. The way he convinces his friends to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing his fence proves that he is a trickster for the ages.
4. Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962). The celebrated miniaturist’s only long fiction, which was thirty years in the making, is a bitter satire depicting a 1931 ocean voyage from Mexico (Veracruz) to Germany (Bremen). Inspired by Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century allegory of the same title, it is a portrayal of marital, class, and ethnic conflicts among passengers aboard the ship Vera (“Truth”). These include an ailing doctor, a drug-addicted “Contessa,” various uprooted Americans, gypsy dancers, and twin malevolent children. Praised for its artistry, condemned for its vitriolic anti-German sentiment, Porter’s Odyssey remains a fascinating, infuriating novel.
5. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966). Bulgakov reshaped his experience of Stalinist censorship into a surreal fable featuring three characters: an unnamed author (the Master) whose accusatory fiction is denied publication, his self-sacrificing married lover (Margarita), and the incarnation of Satan (Woland), who simultaneously orchestrates and interprets their destinies. The ambiguity of good and evil is hotly debated and amusingly dramatized in this complex satirical novel about the threats to art in an inimical material world and its paradoxical survival (symbolized by the climactic assertion that “manuscripts don’t burn”).
6. King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605). Considered one of Shakespeare’s four “core tragedies”—with Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth —King Lear commences with Lear, having achieved great age but little wisdom, dividing his kingdom among his three daughters in return for their proclamations of love for him. Two of his daughters, evil to the core, falsely profess their love, while Cordelia, his good and true daughter, refuses his request. Enraged, Lear gives his kingdom to his evil daughters and banishes Cordelia. Lear pays a dear price for this rash act. The play systematically strips him of his kingdom, title, retainers, clothes, and sanity in a process so cruel and unrelenting as to be nearly unendurable.
7. 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.
8. Stories of William Trevor (1928– ). Trevor is less an innovator than a perfectionist of the short story form, with each instance featuring two or three well-drawn characters, a stoutly alluring situation, and not a word out of place. The hundreds of stories he has crafted during his long career are nearly all set in the Irish countryside, which Trevor reveals as surprisingly erotic, sinister, and altogether contemporary, its residents often bent like trees by the wind of a single event.
9. The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (1990). An Istanbul lawyer searches for his wife, who seems to have disappeared with her half-brother, Jelal, a famous newspaper columnist. Chapters detailing Galip’s quest through the city’s twisted streets alternate with excerpts from Jelal’s writings, which Galip scours for clues. Both draw on Turkish history, religion, and culture —its conflicted place as a nation both Eastern and Western —to tell a rich, cerebral tale about the nature of storytelling and identity.
10. The haiku of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). A spiritual seeker who practiced Zen Buddhism while wandering throughout seventeenth-century Japan, Basho helped transform the form of light verse that would become haiku into a serious art form. “Traveling sick; / My dreams roam / On a withered moor,” reads the last of his spare, evocative poems that recount his life and travels, while reflecting a range of moods.