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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Are My Favorite Authors, You Ask?

"You" in this case being a fictitious creation of my own design: a fawning and dedicated reader of this blog with an unending desire to know more about me and my thoughts, needs, desires, and opinions (and who looks like Mary-Louise Parker, only younger.)

So young Mary-Louise, in light of the question brought up by my statement in the post below this one that Cormac McCarthy may not be one of my favorite authors, I have decided to see if that is truly the case, by preparing a list of my 10 favorite novelists.

Some ground rules, before we get started. a. In order to be considered, I must have read more than one work by the author. No matter how much you may like a book, if it hasn't caused you to seek out more of that author's work, than how good could it have been really? I suppose a reasonable exception could be made for folks like Harper Lee and John Kennedy Toole, who both have only one novel (not counting the money grab that is The Neon Bible, a work Toole did not feel was worth publishing.) While I enjoyed both To Kill a Mockingbird and A Confederacy of Dunces, these exceptions will not be needed in my list.

b. As a corollary, number of books read will not be used as an inflexible measure of comparison. (This is due to differences of length and style which make reading four books by one author the equivalent of reading fourteen by another.) That is to say, the fact that I've read two or twenty of a certain author's works will only work for or against them when I decide it will. If this seems arbitrary, that's because it is.

That seems like all that is necessary in the way of ground rules, so let's get started.

1. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The picture is there for a reason. I've read all 14 of Vonnegut's novels as well as a collection of his short stories and two of his other collections of writings. He is the only author about whom I've felt compelled to read everything he wrote. When Vonnegut died it affected me more than may seem reasonable. When I heard the news I ran to the campus library and checked out all the books of his that I hadn't yet read, even though finals were approaching. When I finished Galapagos last year, meaning that I would never again read a Vonnegut novel for the first time, it was a bittersweet moment.

What should you read?: I can honestly say that I've enjoyed every single one of his works, but newcomers should obviously not start with the collections of essays and opinions. I started with Slaughterhouse-Five and I think that works as an introduction to Vonnegut. I would not suggest starting with his first novel, an admittedly mediocre sci-fi called Player Piano. Other works you should consider: Cat's Cradle, Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions, Hocus Pocus, and Bluebeard are all great reads. The others are good also, but are more easily appreciated by someone familiar with Vonnegut and his style.

2. Mark Twain.
Vonnegut's personal hero is also one of mine. I have read six of Twain's novels and an incalculable amount of his short stories and other writings. Twain is perhaps as famous for his sayings as he is for his books, and I enjoy his quotes as well, especially his frequent disparaging of Jane Austen (A library without any books at all would be improved by the absence of Jane Austen.) Twain is violently funny, fearlessly skeptical, and tormented by the vanities and foolishness of human beings.

What should you read?: It's heard to pick a good starting point for Twain. Tom Sawyer's chief appeal is to young readers, especially boys, because of the book's focus on adventure and childhood. It's a book which may strike older readers as immature or not worthy of their attention. But I think it is an absolute precondition to reading and appreciating the much greater Huckleberry Finn. Though Huck Finn as a sequel is not so dependent on the plot of its predecessor, the failings of Tom Sawyer are what ultimately drove Twain to make slavery and the real world of evil more present in Huck Finn. Other works I recommend: Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, The Mysterious Stranger, short stories (esp. The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg) and any of his criticism (esp. Fennimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.)

3. Charles Dickens
I've only read four of Dickens' novels, and really only loved three of them, but he belongs on this list and high on it due to the influence he has had on several other favorite authors of mine (more on them later.) Dickens spins stories of incredible complexity, filled with memorable characters and brought together by plots which feature the utmost tragedy and the most uproarious comedy. There is so much life in what Dickens does that it transcends the page and makes you grateful to him for having decided to share the story with you. Dickens is a true genius, and despite the prohibitive length of most of his novels I am going to be making a concerted effort to get to as many of them as I can.

What should you read?: Easy, David Copperfield. This book might be the most impressive I have ever read. It is filled to the brim with that which makes Dickens great. A full year after reading it, there is so much I remember fondly about the experience. From Wilkins Micawber, the man always looking for "something to turn up" to the "'umble" and utterly detestable Uriah Heep, Dickens' characters will stay with you long after the novel ends. I also strongly recommend Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. I was not such a big fan of Great Expectations, but I think this may have been a question of mood and plan to revisit the novel at a later date.

Okay, this is turning into a longer project than I envisioned, young Mary-Louise. If you don't mind, maybe we could continue this discussion later. I promise I'll finish the full Top 10, don't worry.

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