The List of Books

We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list. 

At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen (1965). Two Americans try to expand white culture in the jungles of Peru: a Christian missionary hopes to “civilize” the local tribes, and a mercenary plans to remove the locals through terror. In alternating chapters, Mathiessen chronicles their exploits, motives, and changing sense of self (the mercenary eventually goes native, with deadly results) in this complex story of good and evil and missionary zeal, of the quest for personal identity, and of the danger of imposing one culture on another.

Total Points: 3 (EC 3)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929). Credited as the first German novel to adopt the technique of James Joyce, this novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, who, on being released from prison, is confronted with the poverty, unemployment, crime and burgeoning Nazism of 1920s Germany. As Franz struggles to survive in this world, fate teases him with a little pleasure before cruelly turning on him.

Total Points: 3 (SY 3)

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929). Credited as the first German novel to adopt the technique of James Joyce, this novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, who, on being released from prison, is confronted with the poverty, unemployment, crime and burgeoning Nazism of 1920s Germany. As Franz struggles to survive in this world, fate teases him with a little pleasure before cruelly turning on him.

Total Points: 3 (SY 3)

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997). Frazier won the National Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, set in North Carolina during the Civil War. In rich language that evokes his nineteenth-century landscape, Frazier tells two interconnected stories exploring the themes of love and war and the natural world. The first concerns the Con­ federate soldier Inman who, like Odysseus, endures a series of deadly obstacles as he crosses the state to return to his home and the woman he loves. The second story centers on that woman, Ada, a pampered Southern belle who, with the help of the mountain woman Ruby, learns to fend for herself in a war ravaged landscape.

Total Points: 3 (ES 3)

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912). With a skillful use of classical allusion, Mann’s vaguely homoerotic novella describes an aging writer’s platonic infatuation with a beautiful young boy in Venice. Gustav von Aschenbach is a tragic idealist who has dedicated his life to the study and pursuit of high art and beauty. In young Tadzio he recognizes both the embodiment and inevitable transience of perfection in this story of heartrending poignancy.

Total Points: 3 (PM 3)

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928). This hilarious send-up of the English code of honor begins with Paul Pennyfeather’s “sending down” (expulsion) from Oxford. Reduced to teaching at a fourth-rate school, he encounters wonderfully named characters, including Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent, who prove ripe for satire. Pennyfeather also finds love with the impossibly rich and lovely Margot Beste-Chetwynde. But l’amour leads to a spell in the clink. Fortunately, Waugh says, “any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home” in jail.

Total Points: 3 (DC 3)

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1950). As this darkest of noirs opens, nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier, already a pimp, thug, and petty thief, has just become a murderer. What follows are searing portraits of the cruel and alienated young man who sees violence as a form of self-definition and the corrupt grim world that made him.

Total Points: 3 (JB 3)

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.

Total Points: 3 (AGold 3)

Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972). Herman Broder, who survived World War II by hiding in a hayloft for three years, marries the woman who hid him, and he now lives a life of duplicity in 1949 Brooklyn—having an affair, pretending to be a traveling book salesman while really ghostwriting for a rabbi. To top it off, his first wife—a concentration camp survivor who Broder thought was dead—shows up. Enemies is a classic Holocaust survivor tale, filled with guilt, paranoia, a little humor, and raw desperation.

Total Points: 3 (SS 3)

Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (1964). If Kafka had watched a lot of children’s cartoons, this is the book he might have written. Young Stanley Lambchop wakes up one morning flat as a pancake, another victim of a falling bulletin board. He enjoys his flatness at first—sliding into envelopes, slipping through metal grates, foiling a gang of art thieves—but then others begin to mock him. The book’s imagination and deadpan humor is enhanced by Tomi Ungerer’s charming and very 1960s-looking illustrations.

Total Points: 3 (AMH 3)

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.

Total Points: 3 (DFW 3)

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965). Baldwin is best known for his political and autobiographical essays, but these eight short stories showcase his ability to capture the disparate manifestations of race in America. He vividly depicts an impotent white southerner who can only get aroused by thinking of racial violence and an African American man married to a Swedish woman. Baldwin also revisits his tried and true stomping ground of family violence in Depression-era Harlem.

Total Points: 3 (DMcF 3)

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1940). Orwell’s memoir of going to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War combines early Hemingway’s disabused attitude toward war with Leon Trotsky’s talent for political analysis. Through vivid accounts of battle and political machinations, he defines the true meaning of the term Orwellian: “If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: ‘To fight against Fascism,’ and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.’”

Total Points: 3 (AF 3)

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000). An experimental novel that plays with form and format – including colored words, vertical footnotes and appendices - House of Leaves novel focuses on a young family that moves into a small home on Ash Tree Lane where they discover something is terribly wrong: their house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Of course, neither Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Will Navidson nor his companion Karen Green was prepared to face the consequences of that impossibility, until the day their two little children wandered off and their voices eerily began to return another story -- of creature darkness, of an ever-growing abyss behind a closet door, and of that unholy growl which soon enough would tear through their walls and consume all their dreams.

Total Points: 3 (TLeClair 3)

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922). Woolf’s first novel to depart from a linear, traditional style follows Jacob Flanders as he goes through Cambridge, carries on love affairs in London, and travels in Greece. Sitting with a girlfriend, he thinks, “It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us, it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” Ultimately, it is catastrophe that kills Jacob, as Woolf suggests war’s devastations through this novel’s final description of Jacob’s empty room.

Total Points: 3 (TM 3)

Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992). In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

Total Points: 3 (CN 3)

Lies of Silence by Brian Moore (1990). A failed Irish poet who loathes his country decides to run away with his mistress to London. But then IRA terrorists snatch his shrewish wife, threatening to kill her unless he parks an explosive-laden car outside a hotel where a Protestant minister will be speaking. That is only the first moral vise that squeezes him in this fast-paced, philosophical thriller.

Total Points: 3 (AS 3)

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883). This isn’t a book, but a two-part time machine. The first part is a work of literature, as Twain reimagines his salad days as a cub pilot learning to navigate the “fickle Mississippi.” His vivid you-are-there prose transports readers to the untamed land filled with rough-hewn people. The book’s second section, a travelogue begun seven years later, in 1882, is memoiristic and meditative. Having lived so long in the West and East, Twain sought to reconnect with the land of his youth and wellspring of his art, taking readers on a journey of discovery and rediscovery down a still fickle river.

Total Points: 3 (PCap 3)

Light Years by James Salter (1975). This compact novel offers achingly perceptive scenes from a marriage during a twenty-year period. As Viri and Nedra Berland host dinner parties, shop in New York City, summer on Long Island, and take on lovers, they experience happiness, bereavement, isolation, and divorce. Through this portrait, Salter suggests that each person’s life is “mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it . . . can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one.”

Total Points: 3 (PCam 3)

Maigret series of detective novels by Georges Simenon (1903–89).

Appreciation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret Detective Novels by Iain Pears

The Maigret series of detective stories, written by the Belgian Georges Simenon, are part of that rare breed of books—the mass-market entertainment that also works as great literature. Simenon is the master of atmosphere; with the lightest of touches he is able to conjure up Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, a seedy, largely poor city of shabby concierges and downtrodden traveling salesmen, of cheap hotels and squalid nightclubs, of hissing steam radiators and grubby shirt collars.

Much of the narrative is liquor soaked—Maigret begins drinking after breakfast, interviews witnesses over brandy, and suspects over beer. Only rarely is a case concluded by unraveling clues; these are not whodunits. Rather, they are studies in character, of place, and of people. Simenon would have been a brilliant analyst. As often as not, the books end when Maigret (and through him, the reader) so understands the criminal that the suspect confesses all. Indeed, the reader is usually left sympathizing with the criminal, whose crime is reacting to limited choices and desperate circumstances.

The books are so compressed they could almost be short stories, but Simenon populates them with an extraordinary range of characters—the overweight, perpetually sweating Maigret, his eternally patient wife (more acute, in many ways, than her husband), his juniors, and the gallery of pimps and prostitutes, petty criminals, shopkeepers, bartenders, small tradesmen, and canal barge pilots who make up his world. There is no reveling in the grime of the underworld; most of the characters dream of better things and live a life of disappointment. Out of their lives, Simenon created some of the most enduring and compelling works of the twentieth century.

Total Points: 3 (IP 3)

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (1997). Charles Mason (1728-1786) and Jeremiah Dixon (1733-1779) were the British surveyors best remembered for running the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland that we know today as the Mason-Dixon Line. Here is their story as re-imagined by Thomas Pynchon, featuring Native Americans and frontier folk, ripped bodices, naval warfare, conspiracies erotic and political, and major caffeine abuse. We follow the mismatched pair—one rollicking, the other depressive; one Gothic, the other pre-Romantic—from their first journey together to the Cape of Good Hope, to pre-Revolutionary America and back, through the strange yet redemptive turns of fortune in their later lives, on a grand tour of the Enlightenment's dark hemisphere, as they observe and participate in the many opportunities for insanity presented them by the Age of Reason.

Total Points: 3 (TJ 3)

Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54). Like the runner’s high or Zen meditation, Beckett’s opus yields the transcendence that succeeds tedium and pain. The trilogy chronicles a descent into living death by three narrators: vagabond, cripple, misfit. These characters are by degrees banished from the landscape, stripped of their paltry possessions, thrown back on the scatological world of the body, and ultimately confined to the madhouse of their heads, where language alone sustains and betrays them. Beckett’s trademark black humor and the stubborn, paradoxical endurance of these voices lighten a terminally bleak vision.

Total Points: 3 (PA 2) (LMill 1)

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson (1993). In language that is as direct and spare as the title, twelve-year-old David Hayden tells of the summer when his father, the sheriff of Mercer County, Montana, is forced to choose between justice and family. Watson evokes the Montana landscape and mindset masterfully, but his true accomplishment is the unadorned but subtle portrayal of a flawed man seeking to do the right thing in the face of terrible pressure.

Total Points: 3 (GDG 3)

New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891). One of the earliest examples of English naturalism, this grim chronicle of literary life in late-Victorian London bitterly portrays its author’s own struggles to live from his writing. In contrasting dedicated artist Edwin Reardon’s commercial failure with superficial romancer Jasper Milvain’s popular success, Gissing pointedly skewers the distorted values of the marketplace, while tirelessly enumerating the many forces working against artistic purity and sincerity. The novel is a diatribe, yet lucid characterizations (particularly that of Reardon’s depressed, demanding wife) and raw accusatory intensity give it a claustrophobic, nagging power.

Total Points: 3 (JL 3)

Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane (1973). McGuane has always been fascinated by people who seek a truer life by living on the edge. Here he tells the story of a refugee from America’s consumer society who returns to Key West, where he lives in an old airplane fuselage and tries to realize his dream of becoming a skiff guide in the tropical waters. But that hope makes him seem threatening to a rival guide, who will kill to protect his turf.

Total Points: 3 (CH 3)

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus (1989). Smart, funny, sharp-tongued Lucy Marsden was seventeen when she married a fifty-year-old veteran of the Civil War, Captain William Marsden. Now ninety-nine, she recalls her historic life—especially her husband’s military service and the psychological trauma it inflicted, a slave’s journey from Africa, and Sherman’s march through the South—in vivid, colorful language.

Total Points: 3 (EDon 3)

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904). “All children, except one, grow up,” reads the opening line of this swashbuckling tale of that boy, named Peter Pan, who takes the Darling children to Neverland. There they encounter a host of immortal figures, including Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook, as readers learn that the best hedge against old age is to believe in our imaginations (and fairies). Initially produced as a play, the story was published as a book in 1911 under the title Peter and Wendy.

Total Points: 3 (MGait 3)

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (1953). This episodic novel details the often comic, unexceptional life of Timofey Pnin, a Russian teaching at an American college who has never mastered English or learned how to drive a car (like Nabokov himself). It is the telling of the tale that matters here, as Nabokov shifts time, mood, and perspective, eventually introducing a character, Mr. N., who makes us wonder about all we’ve seen and heard.

Total Points: 3 (HaJ 3)

Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino (1995).

Appreciation of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend by Lydia Millet

Gilbert Sorrentino’s most accessible, straightforward, and flawless novel, Red the Fiend (1989), explores the practical and psychic tribulations of young Red. He’s a dirty urchin full of frustrated want and suppressed rage who lives in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood (circa 1940) with his weak-willed mother and grandfather and, most important, his bitterly cruel, tyrannical grandmother. She makes his misery her first priority, calculating every move to maximize his exquisitely perfect emotional torment; for his part Red gradually learns to parry each of her sly thrusts with an equally sly one of his own. Eventually, he derives the lion’s share of his meager joy in life from the daily toil of returning her loathing and attempting to give as bad as he gets. In brutal simplicity, with recourse to uniquely effective listing devices, the precise and beautiful prose lays bare the excruciating particularities of Red’s pain and shame and makes palpably real his journey from, if not innocence, at least relative neutrality toward craftiness and deft manipulation. With the grace and rigor of thought and language that earned Sorrentino’s reputation as a master of stylistic play and cold humor, Red the Fiend describes in direct terms this increasingly dangerous battle of wills as it rises to its unbearable boiling point. No other novel in recent memory evokes the desolation of lovelessness with such blunt passion.

Total Points: 3 (LMill 3)

River of Earth by James Still (1940). Hailed upon its publication, then forgotten until it was reissued in 1978, this classic of Appalachian literature is narrated by a young boy whose Kentucky family is at a crossroads: Do they continue to lead their poor but independent life on the farm or go to work at the mining company? In portraying a changing world, Still evokes the constants of life: love, dignity, land.

Total Points: 3 (LS 3)

Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1982). Tom Bissell said this “the work that showed me how nonfiction can be as artful and beautiful as fiction.”

Total Points: 3 (TBiss 3)

Stories and Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett (1955). The Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s fiction shares the elliptical, elusive qualities of his celebrated dramas Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The Stories are bitterly comic acknowledgments of sexual failure and mortality (such as the masterly “Assumption”) that clearly foreshadow the later Texts for Nothing. These thirteen nonnarrative prose pieces are fatalistic outcries uttered by moribund outcasts awaiting oblivion: the resigned, the dying, and the dead—all saved from meaninglessness by the grave, eloquent music of a measured style that redeems, even as it snatches away, their humanity.

Total Points: 3 (BM 3)

Street of Lost Footsteps by Lyonel Trouillot (1998). Although set during a single night of horrific violence in Port-au-Prince, this fierce, surreal novel resonates with Haiti’s long history of blood and broken dreams. With irony and black humor, three narrators—a madam, a taxi driver, and a postal employee—witness chaotic clashes between forces of the Prophet and the vicious dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal, while reflecting on a society where “you can count yourself lucky . . . whenever you find you’re still alive.”

Total Points: 3 (MSB 3)

The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947). Set in the 1830s and 1840s this epic tale of adventure captures the American West when it truly was wild, primitive, and free. Its central character is Boone Caudill, a Kentucky mountain man whose desire for virgin earth and clear skies pushes him across rough and glorious landscapes, where he encounters other intrepid searchers, while winning the love of an Indian chief’s daughter.

Total Points: 3 (JLB 3)

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano (1989). “Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together?” the Uruguayan author asks in this work of “literary collage.” Through scores of brief pieces both whimsical and earnest, Galeano recalls his personal life—including years of political exile and his heart attack—and topics large and small, ranging from his wife’s dreams to the art of graffiti to repression in Latin America. Together with his imaginative drawings, they render a vivid portrait of this compassionate and visionary author’s life and mind.

Total Points: 3 (SC 3)

The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (1963). A poet with finely honed social and political concerns, Wright wrote beautiful lines about outcasts and human suffering. This collection marks the poet’s turn from more conventional forms toward lyrical free verse. Wright’s Collected Poems was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1971.

Total Points: 3 (SA 3)

The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926). K. has been summoned to work as a land surveyor at a giant castle, which he is never allowed to enter. As his confusion grows, he breaks a series of laws he cannot understand. Such is the stuff of dreams—and of Kafka’s final novel, which uses K.’s strange plight to portray the absurd, nightmare logic of the bureaucratic state.

Total Points: 3 (PA 3)

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967). Based on an 1831 uprising, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is narrated by Nat, a slave who feels commanded by God to lead a rebellion. Yet even as he plots the murders of white slave-owners, Nat recognizes that all men are slaves to their own passions and greed. Poetically narrated, the book probes the essence of subjugation and freedom, the peculiar bonds that complicated the relationships of slaves and masters, and the meaning of history itself.

Total Points: 3 (BU 3)

The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991). Azaro, the hero of Nigerian-born Okri’s spellbinding and hallucinatory novel, is a spirit child, or abiku, born to mortals. Though other spirits insist that he return to their comfy land, he chooses to stand by his suffering mother and bombastic, foolhardy father amid the poverty, violence, and instability of modern Africa. “It is more difficult to love than to die,” Azaro’s father says in this Booker Prize–winning novel that is equal parts dark mythology and political satire.

Total Points: 3 (DAD 3)

The Lost Father by Mona Simpson (1992). Featuring the heroine from Anywhere but Here, the novel tracks Mayan Atassi’s search across two continents and to the point of madness for the man who has become her God—the father who abandoned her.

Total Points: 3 (ALK 3)

The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1916-65). From the early 1940s through the mid-1960s, Jackson wittily remade the genre of psychological horror for an alienated, postwar America. The title story, one of the most anthologized stories in American fiction, explores the idea of conformity through a small village that sacrifices one of its citizens each year (the lottery “winner!”) to ensure a good harvest. The collection also includes the disturbing and mysterious "The Daemon Lover,"; "Charles," the hilarious sketch that launched Jackson's secondary career as a domestic humorist. Here too are Jackson's masterly short novels: "The Haunting of Hill House" (1959), the tale of an achingly empathetic young woman chosen by a haunted house to be its new tenant, and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" (1962), the unrepentant confessions of Miss Merricat Blackwood, a cunning adolescent who has gone to quite unusual lengths to preserve her ideal of family happiness.

Total Points: 3 (AFilip 3) 

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett (1992). St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she has left behind . . . and who she has become in the leaving.

Total Points: 3 (JPico 3)

The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1956). "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" in this terrifying and prescient portrait of innocence at large. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas. As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But Fowler's motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and himself, for Pyle has stolen Fowler's beautiful Vietnamese mistress.

Total Points: 3 (CBollen 3)

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (1932). At the Battle of Solferino, a young peasant soldier saves the Austrian emperor’s life, and from that moment forward the fortunes of the von Trotta family are linked with the “Old Man,” Franz Joseph. Roth tracks the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the era of honor and order it represents, through the dissolution of the von Trottas, especially the timid, exhausted Carl Joseph, who almost ruins his family through carelessness and risks his life in battle trying to imitate his grandfather’s lost heroism.

Total Points: 3 (AB 1) (AF 2)

The Studs Lonigan trilogy—­Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935)—by James T. Farrell.

Appreciation of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy by Tom Wolfe

To writers born after 1950, James T. Farrell (1904–79) is known, if at all, as a “plodding realist” who wrote a lot of dull, factual novels now as dead and buried as he is. To writers born from, say, 1925 to 1935, however, the very name James T. Farrell strums the heartstrings of youth. To be young and to read Farrell’s first novel, Studs Lonigan! It made one tingle with exhiliration and wonder. How could anybody else understand your own inexpressible feelings so well?

A trio of novels published between 1932 and 1935, the Studs Lonigan trilogy is an account—“story” implies more plot than it actually has—of growing up in a lower-middle-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Chicago as Farrell did. He had the wit to make Studs a boy not like himself at all but like the sort of self-willed tough kid who probably made Farrell’s own school days miserable by calling him “Goof” and pulling the goof’s cap down over his eyes, eyeglasses and all. The book’s opening lines stamp Studs’s studied pose indelibly:

Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug. His hands were jammed in his trouser pockets, and he sneered. He puffed, drew the fag out of his mouth, inhaled and said to himself:

“Well, I’m kissing the old dump goodbye tonight”—the old dump being a parochial junior high school.

I am convinced Farrell wrote those lines as a low-rent reprise to the far more famous lines James Joyce had opened Ulysses with eighteen years earlier: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—Introibo ad altare Dei.”

Introibo ad altare Dei. For that bit of showboating by an Irish-Catholic intellectual in Dublin, Farrell had a good low-rent American raspberry: “Well, I’m kissing the old dump”—a Catholic school—”goodbye tonight.”

Farrell, plodding realism and all, was quite conscious of Joyce and all other experimental writing of the early twentieth century. In Studs Lonigan he continually uses Joyce’s most famous device, stream of consciousness, and in a more sophisticated way than the maestro. He just doesn’t feel the need to keep prodding the reader with his elbow as if to say, “Be alert. This is experimental writing.”

It is precisely through Joycean stream of conciousness that Farrell brings us beneath Studs’s hide, which the fourteen-year-old boy keeps as thick as he can, and shows us the tenderness, the love, and the sense of beauty Studs will do anything to prevent the world, meaning the other boys his age on the block, from detecting.

To me, section IV of Chapter Four of the first novel, Young Lonigan, is one of the few sublime reflections of the feeling of being in love in all of literature. One scorching hot Chicago afternoon in early July when “life, along Indiana Avenue, was crawlingly lazy,” Studs goes for a walk in Washington Park with the prettiest girl on the block, Lucy Scanlan. As the two fourteen-year-olds head for the park’s wooded island, “Studs felt, knew, that it was going to be a great afternoon, different from every other afternoon in his whole life.”

They cross the log bridge over onto the island and decide to climb up beneath the leafy dome of a huge oak tree and sit on a branch. Up in the tree it is as if they are removed from . . . the world . . . where Studs feels obliged to be so tough:

The breeze playing upon them through the tree leaves was fine. Studs just sat there and let it play upon him, let it sift through his hair. . . . The wind seemed to Studs like the fingers of a girl, of Lucy, and when it moved through the leaves it was like a girl, like Lucy, running her hand over very expensive silk, like the silk movie actresses wore in the pictures. . . . They sat. Studs swinging his legs, and Lucy swinging hers, she chattering, himself not listening to it, only knowing that it was nice, and that she laughed and talked and was like an angel, and she was an angel playing in the sun. Suddenly, he thought of feeling her up, and he told himself he was a bastard for having such thoughts. He wasn’t worthy of her, even of her fingernail, and he side-glanced at her, and he loved her, he loved her with his hands, and his lips, and his eyes, and his heart, and he loved everything about her, her dress, and voice, and the way she smiled, and her eyes, and her hair, and Lucy, all of her.

With that, Studs has enclosed himself in the cocoon of perfect love, sublime love. A century of psychologists and neuroscientists perfect in their rationalism—not to mention Studs’s gottabe tough, therefore gottabe carnal, therefore gottabe perfectly cynical adolescent cohorts, such as the wonderfully named fourteen-year-old Weary Reilly—have taught us that such “sublime” moments are merely subliminal wafts on the way to the one goal, which is no loftier than that of dogs in the park, namely, the old in and out.

But Studs consciously, or stream-of-consciously, rejects such . . . rationalism . . . dismisses the notion of “feeling her up” and reduces the world to two people or perhaps only one. “They sat.” Farrell keeps repeating that sentence until it is like the ticking of a very big old clock. Studs and Lucy sat high up on a tree limb within a bower of leaves so thick, they shut out everything except the glittering surface of the lagoon and the sounds of children. There was no outside world. There was only Lucy, every perfect breath she breathed, every perfect morsel of her existence. Who, including any of the 20,000 attendees at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, can truthfully say that sublime feeling of two creatures dissolving into a single soul is not more thrilling than, in Rabelais’s phrase, playing the two-backed ­beast?

“He wanted the afternoon never to end, so that he and Lucy could sit there forever; her hands stole timidly into his, and he forgot everything in the world but Lucy. . . . And Time passed through their afternoon like a gentle, tender wind, and like death that was silent and cruel. . . . They sat, and about them their beautiful afternoon evaporated, split up and died like sun that was dying a red death in the calm sky.”

This invocation of death—red, silent, and cruel—creates a mood of foreboding, if my own reaction to it is any measure. The next thing Studs knows, there are graffiti scrawled on walls along Indiana Avenue reading studs loves lucy . . . lucy is crazy about studs . . . and others in that vein. Studs feels like a goof—the term boys used seventy years ago to mean dork—and hastily puts back on his bullet-proof vestments of gottabe tough, therefore gottabe carnal, therefore gottabe cynical. They had sat . . . and that afternoon up in the tree, we eventually learn, was to be the last touch of the sublime in Studs Lonigan’s short life.

The Studs Lonigan trilogy eventually totalled 919 pages. The life of every individual, sayeth the sage, runs along the line created by the intersection of two planes: personality and social setting. I can’t think of any American novelist who ever drew that line more brilliantly than James T. Farrell in this trilogy. If this be “plodding realism,” let every American novelist start plodding Studs-­style, lest the American novel fall down in a heap and die, as it now seems wont to do.

Total Points: 3 (TW 3)

Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan (1993). Nordan unleashes the hellhounds of his prodigious imagination on one of the most notorious racial killings of the century, the Emmett Till murder. Soon we're on a magical mystery tour of the Southern psyche of the mid-1950s and the dawning of guilt and recognition in a whole generation of white Southerners.

Total Points: 3 (BW 3)

Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (1920). An angry young man before there were angry young men, Lawrence explores politics, art, economics, and sexuality through sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen and their respective lovers. A sequel to his 1915 novel The Rainbow, this sprawling transcontinental saga challenges the limitations of traditional marriage, while detailing the potency of human sexuality, the quest for bohemia, and the destructiveness of World War I.

Total Points: 3 (JCO 3)

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1979). A fictionalized account of the violence and political tyranny that gripped Zaire after its independence from Belgium, the novel focuses on an African of Indian descent named Salim who opens a small store at a bend in the Congo River. Ambitious, multicultural, and interested in the West, Salim represents the hopes of the “new Africa.” These hopes are dashed by a corrupt and vicious government in this grim saga of the challenges faced by postcolonial nations.

Total Points: 2 (HaJ 2)

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934). Leading lives of empty desperation, Waugh’s characters kill the days of their lives with petty concerns, silly parties, and unfulfilling affairs. A withering satire of England’s declining aristocracy, the novel showcases Waugh’s caustic eye and comic wit.

Total Points: 2 (JR 2)

(2) 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.

Total Points: 2 (DFW 2)


New List

Francine Prose

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877).
2. The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839). (See below.)
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27).
4. The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904).
5. The stories of John Cheever (1912–82).
6. The stories of Mavis Gallant (1922– ).
7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851).
8. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72).
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).


Classic List

Amy Bloom


1. The Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies (1983).
2.Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817).
3. His Dark Materialsby Philip Pullman (1995–2000).
4.The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (1995).
5.The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003).
6. The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1978).
7. The Plot Against Americaby Philip Roth.
8. The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998).
9. Fancies and Goodnights by John Collier (1951).
10. Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (1997).


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