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the Complete Review
the complete review - anthology / literature

The Top Ten

edited by
J. Peder Zane

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Top Ten

Title: The Top Ten
Editor: J. Peder Zane
Genre: Anthology
Written: 2007
Length: 333 pages
Availability: The Top Ten - US
The Top Ten - UK
The Top Ten - Canada
  • Writers Pick their Favorite Books
  • With brief essays by Sven Birkerts, Mary Gaitskill, and David Orr

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Our Assessment:

-- : enjoyable, a useful starting point (for both reading and debating)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman . 5/3/2007 Alexander Larman
The Observer . 4/3/2007 Robert McCrum
The Spectator . 17/3/2007 Sam Leith

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although the "top ten" format is inevitably constrictive, some writers contribute brief but compelling essays explaining their choices, adding context to what might otherwise seem a faintly arbitrary exercise. (...) Undeniably a fun book to dip in and out of" - Alexander Larman, New Statesman

  • "So what's the point ? You could say that we live in a golden age of reading. Never before have so many books been so readily available. But more than ever, we are tortured by choice. What to pick up ? Where to start ? Zane says this is 'the ying and the yang of the modern reader: opportunity and befuddlement'. His mission is to clear the collective head. Book lists and book groups certainly provide a compass in difficult terrain. The irony is that dedicated readers have no appetite for force-feeding." - Robert McCrum, The Observer

  • "The thing is, even when you take into account Peder Zaneís incredibly naffly written introduction (...); even when you wince at Sven Birkertsís similarly clumsy essay (...); even when you discount the manifest laziness and stupidity of the whole project -- it still canít help but be fascinating. It will sit in my downstairs loo, I suspect, for years. As, consequently, will I." - Sam Leith, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       J.Peder Zane set out to determine what are -- by at least one measure -- "the ten greatest works of fiction of all time". It's not a bad measure: he got 125 writers to give him their top ten lists, and then he added them all up: each number one pick got ten points, down through each number ten pick (one point).
       The Top Ten collects the results. Besides an Introduction by the editor, and short introductory pieces by Sven Birkerts, Mary Gaitskill, and David Orr, it offers all 125 individual top-ten lists (along with the occasional comment), as well as page-long (more or less) appreciations of selected titles by those who selected them. But more than half the book is taken up by short (ca. three to a page) book descriptions, offering a brief summary-introduction to all 544 works that were named -- a useful quick guide.
       So where to start in considering the undertaking ?
       Well, first of all one might consider who the experts are. As the sub-title notes, it's writers picking their favourite books. It's also all English-writing writers -- mainly American and British, with a few other Commonwealth authors tossed in the mix -- and this is presumably where the results gets skewed the most (though half the top top ten were written in languages other than English (three of those in Russian ...).) Still, given the audience for the book, this seems an acceptable constraint. And it appears there are so many authors polled, and that they're experienced (i.e. well-read) enough that obvious all-time greats such as Cao Xueqin's The Story of The Stone or Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji aren't entirely overlooked (though, ominously, each only received one mention).
       But what is soon obvious is that the sample might not be nearly large enough. Consider some of the numbers: even the highest-rated title -- Tolstoy's Anna Karenina -- only figured (anywhere) on 25 lists, one out of every five. More strikingly: almost two-thirds of the named titles -- 353 books out of a total of only 544 -- were named on only one list. And there were 23 such books that no one else named that the person who selected them put in their top spot. It has little effect on the best-of-the-best, but makes for considerable uncertainty lower down the popularity-list.
       (The sample is also slightly skewed by the fact that at least one author (Reynolds Price) lists his selections by date of publication (and mentions that fact), but Zane awards the points as he does for everyone else. Philip Caputo appears to also list the works chronologically, though there's no mention of whether that is just a coincidence or not.)
       What about the writers making the selections ? It's a fairly illustrious bunch that includes Kate Atkinson, Paul Auster, John Banville, Julian Barnes, Peter Carey, Douglas Coupland, Margaret Drabble, Paula Fox, Jonathan Franzen, Carl Hiaasen, John Irving, Stephen King, Norman Mailer, David Mitchell, Ian Rankin, Scott Turow, David Foster Wallace, and Tom Wolfe. Still, there are 125 authors here, and not all may be familiar. (As a point of comparison: fairly widely-read complete review managing editor M.A.Orthofer has only read books by 25 of the 125 -- exactly one fifth.)
       The main reason why one wants to be familiar with the authors involved is because in some ways the most revealing part of the exercise is what it says about those authors. Each top ten list is, after all, a personal declaration, suggesting both what an author is familiar with and what s/he admires -- and might offer readers new insight into their work.
       Often enough that it is both mildly irritating and disappointing, one finds choices that very closely reflect an author's background. Chitra Divakaruni starts her list with the Bhagavadgita, the Mahabharata, and then stories by Tagore (and, needless to say, no one else named any of these titles (though it's hard to argue with the Mahabharata)). Australian Thomas Keneally is the only one to suggest a Patrick White-title (and Voss is, indeed, the one to pick if you can only choose one) -- which is probably a reflection of a lack of exposure to White on the part of the other authors (which is what's so sad about it). There's a 'feminist' slant to some lists, too. But then again, if it takes some sort of personal connexion to get a title on the list, if that leads to, for example, Sandra Cisneros choosing Mercè Rodoreda's The Time of the Doves as her all-time greatest, it's not all bad.
       It's a decent mix, too. Many, many authors go in for the old standards (the heavyweight classics, in particular), but almost all mix it up a bit, throwing in a few surprises. Barry Hannah and Donald Harrington appear to be the only authors brazen enough to include their own own works (with Hannah putting his Airships at number 9, right ahead of (!) War and Peace -- though he does add a defensive parenthetical "Why not ?"). Jennifer Weiner selected the most titles authored by her fellow selecting-authors -- books by Stephen King, John Irving, and Russell Banks. Both she and David Foster Wallace put King's The Stand at number two on their lists -- but then, Wallace even has a Tom Clancy novel on his .....
       There are many surprising choices, the most notable with familiar authors. The only Turgenev that appears to have gotten a mention is ... A Sportsman's Life (David Means' number 3). (No Fathers and Sons, no Rudin, no heart-breaking First Love ?) Paula Fox seems to be the only one to have picked a Mishima Yukio title -- but it's Death in Midsummer (not The Temple of Dawn ? The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea ?)
       There are quite a few majors who get fewer mentions than one might expect. Joyce Carol Oates is the only one to select a D.H.Lawrence title -- though she has two (The Rainbow at number 7, Women in Love at number 8). And only Fred Chappell dares mention Finnegans Wake (which is inexcusably listed in the index as: Finnegan's Wake -- and in his introductory piece Sven Birkerts mistakenly claims it didn't make the cut anywhere).
       The commentaries by the selecting authors are also of interest -- and keep the book from becoming simply a list-list. (There are, however, also one or two confusing bits, as when Chappell explains that on his list: "The Balzac might have been supplanted by Lost Illusions, Père Goriot, César Biroteau, or a dozen others. But he had to be on the list" -- the problem being that there isn't any Balzac selection on his list ..... (Indeed, much of Chappell's explanation of his selections sounds like it was for a different top ten .....).) And the brief summaries of all the books are certainly helpful in giving readers at least a vague sense of what all 544 books are like.

       Aside from debating the actual selections, the book lends itself to debating what's been overlooked. Most of the classic heavyweights are here, but there are some notable omissions. No Goethe, for example (not even Werther), and, despite so many of the big Russians getting notice, no second-tier authors with their big books: Goncharov's Oblomov, Lermontov's A Hero of our Time. And what would Nabokov say that Andrei Biely's St. Petersburg went unnoticed ?
       Recent American works that surprisingly don't get any mention include Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (though V. made it) and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- though editor Zane has Gravity's Rainbow as number 2 on his list.
       Other missing titles: Musil's The Man without Qualities and Broch's The Sleepwalkers.

       Who made the best list ? Almost as hard to judge, but A.L.Kennedy's certainly had a nice mix (her top choice: Melville's The Confidence Man).

       All in all: an enjoyable book to pass the time with (and argue about) -- and not the worst place to look for books worth reading.

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The Top Ten: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       J. Peder Zane is the book review editor of the Raleigh News & Observer.

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© 2007-2010 the complete review

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