Americans love to pick winners. And then to argue about who should have won instead.
How else to explain the unaccountable popularity of "American Idol," not to mention the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the Emmys and the venerable Academy Awards.
The literary world has its National Book Awards, its Nobel and Pulitzer prizes and the National Book Critics Circle Awards, all providing more fodder for disputation.
It's difficult enough for a group of judges to agree on the best books of any given year, considering the tens of thousands published annually. More challenging still is making a list of the most memorable books ever. But NBCC board member, Raleigh News & Observer books editor and columnist J. Peder Zane has given it a go by asking 125 American and British writers to rank, in order, their choices for "the 10 greatest works of fiction of all time - novels, story collections, plays or poems."
That's what you get in "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (Norton, $14.95)," but, as they say on infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
Zane takes those lists and slices and dices them into spinoffs: The top 10 works by century, from the 15th or earlier through the 20th; the top 10 American novels, and mysteries and thrillers, and comic novels, and fantasy and science fiction. He also provides lists by nationality of author (but not by gender) and by number of works selected or points earned according to the book's ranking system.
All in all, the 125 respondents named 544 meritorious works from 365 writers. From them, Zane compiles the all-time Top Top Ten List, and no, you won't find "The Da Vinci Code" there.
But you will find two novels by Leo Tolstoy - "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace" - and Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," William Shakespeare's play, "Hamlet," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time," Anton Chekhov's stories and George Eliot's "Middlemarch."
The book also contains 18 appreciations of selected authors by various contributors, such as Tom Wolfe on James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan Trilogy." And there are essays on the difficulty of making such lists, by Sven Birkerts, Mary Gaitskill and David Orr.
The book includes a very useful section that describes each of the 544 books cited as favorites in one-paragraph summaries that will pique the interest of readers who might not have encountered certain books or want to see if the descriptions match their opinions. These begin with the book most-often cited - "Anna Karenina," which got 171 points.
As a source for parlor games, as an instigator or settler of arguments, as a handy guide for book groups or individuals looking for good suggestions, "The Top Ten" ought to satisfy any reader with a lust for lists.