Electric Review

Culture & Criticism Since 2003

Fifteen Books, A Million Choices

This morning, I got one of those Facebook things from one of the Lying Socialist Weasels, asking me to list my favorite fifteen books. There were a couple of rules attached: “Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends choose.”

It probably took me more than 15 minutes. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t think of 15 books. The problem was winnowing it down into some sort of representative order. The results, which I found somewhat unsatisfactory, are as follows:

  •  A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy O’Toole
  • Still Life with Woodpecker – Tom Robbins
  • Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
  • Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  • …On The Damned Human Race – Mark Twain
  • Glory Road – Robert Heinlein
  • Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  • Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson
  • Antarctica – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Earth in the Balance – Al Gore
  • American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  • Why I Am Not A Christian – Bertrand Russell
  • To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Stand – Stephen King
  • The Forge of God – Greg Baer

Truth in advertising: on the original list, Robbins’ name was missing because, nursing my second cup of coffee, I couldn’t think of it at the time. The sad thing is I had been discussing that very book with someone online just a couple of days earlier.

The problem with that list isn’t that there’s anything that doesn’t belong there. They’re all books I would recommend to anyone on an instants’ notice. It’s what isn’t on the list that is the problem.

I decided not to have the same author twice. There’s a few there where I could make a “top 15″ list from the works of that author ALONE. Stephen King, Clarke, Twain and Heinlein would all qualify.

In some cases, the book I selected isn’t even necessarily the author’s best work, or best known. However, I picked “The Stand” because it is the best-known of Kings’ work, and is in my opinion the best example of both his strengths and weaknesses as a writer. He can create wholly three dimensional characters with just a few key strokes, and write on a vast scale worthy of Tolkien. But he has logorrhea (excessive verbal diarrhea) and has trouble knowing where to end the story. He’s gotten better in subsequent decades. The past ten years have seen his best work. Mark Twain: everyone thinks of his three great works of fiction, but that doesn’t really represent him. Non-fictional social commentary was more his metre, and “Human Race” is probably his best collection of same.

Everyone picks “Stranger in a Strange Land” for Heinlein, and while it’s indisputably a great book, it doesn’t really represent Heinlein. Heinlein was utterly horrified at the thought of becoming a hippie cult guru–he utterly loathed his former friend L. Ron Hubbard who consciously decided to so the same thing and invented Scientology. Heinlein believed that the lowest circle of hell was reserved for people who invented new religions, and I suspect he went to his grave wishing he had never written “Stranger” even though it made him a lot of money. If you wanted to get to know Heinlein with the philosophy he was at home with, “Glory Road” is the best place to start.

What was frustrating was the authors I could make at least a “top 15″ list of who didn’t even make the list. Isaac Asimov. David Brin. Jonathon Carroll. Kurt Vonnegut.

How do you have a top 15 that doesn’t mention Vonnegut? Maybe Baer or Gore could go…

Except it wasn’t a “body of work” list. It was favorite books, and so those belong there, too. Argh.

There were great books that didn’t make the list. “The Iron Dream” by Norman Spinrad, and probably about five other books by him. “This Is The Way the World Ends” by James Morrow. “The Bones of the Moon” by Jonathon Carroll. Without Carroll, would Gaiman have had the same voice? Or the greatest fantasists of them all? Lewis Carroll. JRR Tolkien? Cervantes?

Some of the titles, mercifully, were no-brainers. “Catch-22″ is indisputably Heller’s best work, and “Mockingbird” was Harper Lee’s ONLY work. And their importance on the American cultural landscape is self-evident.

“Self-evident.” Crap. Shouldn’t THOMAS JEFFERSON be on that list somewhere? Jonathon Swift? Charles Dickens? Daniel DeFoe?

Gawds. I’m Scottish. Where is Robert Louis Stevenson? Didn’t I read “Kidnapped’ a dozen times as a kid?

And what about books that influenced me, but didn’t stand the test of time? When I was eight years old, I devoured dozens of the old “Tom Swift” series. I found one a couple of years ago and tried to read it. It was unreadable, and not just because the science fiction was dated. Good science fiction can withstand the march of technology. No. The writing was just incredibly bad.

Back in the eighties, I considered “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle to be one of the best SF books written, if not THE best. But somehow, it didn’t age well. It has a vague sense of topicality to it, an indefinable stamp of being of the late 70s, despite being a novel about a far-future intergalactic culture. Asimov’s Foundation Series has a similar scenario, but doesn’t irresistibly remind you of the 1950s. But Niven and Pournelle had a topicality that doomed the longevity of their books, and made them as hopelessly dated as a Bob Hope monologue.

I used to think James Michener was a great author. But I can barely read him now. So much of it is facile, and shallow. But he, too, influenced me. Does that make him list-worthy?

I run into the same problem with music. If I get asked what type of music I like, my one valid answer is, “Depends on my mood.”

There are books that I read every ten years or so. Part of it is revisiting old friends. Part of it is seeing how much I’ve grown. And on a first read, the sad fact is I miss a lot. On the second read, knowing how it ends, I pick up more hints, understand the characters more fully, and usually, the sequence of events. I want to find time to reread “Cryptonomicon”; Stephenson’s novel is huge, incredibly dense, very complex, and with a lot of intellectually challenging material. But it took me nearly three months to read it the first time, because it’s the sort of book where you read a few pages, and then you have to stop and think about what you’ve read. I suspect I missed about 80% of the things I was supposed to pick up on the first time.

In a way, that one book encapsulates what made “list your favorite 15 books” such a difficult question. It isn’t that you can’t do it. It’s that you have an overwhelming amount of material from which you have to glean a small strand of order.

But, when it comes to personal conundrums…well, I’ve seen worse.

by Zepp Jamieson

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson. All rights reserved.

Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.


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This entry was posted on April 26, 2013 by in 2013, April 2013, Rat's Notebook and tagged , , .
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