In celebration of Image’s thirtieth anniversary, we asked three writers—a poet, novelist, and essayist—each to pick their top ten books of the past thirty years.
ANY LIST I MAKE of important books can only be a list of books that have been important to me. I long ago came to accept, if not quite to relish, the fact that I’m hopelessly out of step with the culture at large, which leaves me unequipped to make more general claims about importance. So this has been an unapologetically personal exercise. One consequence of that: my list is composed entirely of novels. The novel’s decline in importance relative to the memoir and the personal essay may be one of the major literary trends of the past thirty years, but it remains the most important form for me. I am a novelist, and the books that give me the most pleasure, that provoke in me the most thought, that most move me, the books that have been the most important to me, are novels.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996)
I can’t say that this is my favorite novel—I would put a few nineteenth and early twentieth-century classics ahead of it—but no book has been more personally influential. Set in a near-future of “subsidized” time (The Year of the Whopper, The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, etc.), Infinite Jest has dozens of intersecting plotlines that unfold over nearly a thousand pages of text and another hundred of endnotes, but it mostly concerns Hal Incandenza, a preternaturally intelligent student at his late father’s tennis academy just outside of Boston, and various occupants of a drug rehabilitation center down the hill from the school. I read it for the first time when I was in college, a year after its 1996 publication, and I was most struck by how funny and inventive it was. We kept a copy on hand in our dorm room, and we’d pass the time flipping through it and reading one-liners. Wallace’s combination of overeducated braininess and sophomoric humor perfectly suited our sensibilities. The book was my gateway to many of the forbidding monuments of modernist and postmodernist fiction, but it was incredibly inviting. It was clearly intended to be—and it was—so much fun to read.
But there was something else. Wallace was the first writer I encountered who depicted certain features of modern life that even then I felt acutely without being able to name. Chief among these was that all of our culture’s endless entertainment could not cover up the essential loneliness of living in a world that treats you first and foremost as a consumer, that does not invite nor even allow you to orient your life toward anything greater than your own gratification.
Ever since Wallace’s suicide in 2008, it is impossible to miss how much suffering is in the novel, how many of its characters are basically broken people. Wallace was in many ways broken himself. In recent years, we have come to learn about the inexcusable ways he treated Mary Karr and other women in his life, and the cult of “Saint Dave” that sprang up after his death has suffered a deserved backlash. These days it has become unfashionable in some circles to profess love for his work, but I reread Infinite Jest before putting it on this list, and I was struck by how well it holds up. Much has changed in the two decades since its publication—we no longer live in the proudly apathetic, irony-saturated world of the nineties—but many of these changes have made the book seem prophetic rather than obsolete. (Among other curious things, the novel managed, before the rise of the internet, to predict the landscape of streaming TV.) Self-help guru was always the least interesting of Wallace’s personae, and its disappearance will only make it easier to see Wallace the artist. Infinite Jest has survived the period of its own “coolness,” and I believe it will last.
Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai (2000)
I spent a summer during college as an intern at Talk-Miramax Books—Harvey Weinstein and a Diet-Coke-toting assistant appeared in the office twice during my tenure—and Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai was one of their big titles that season. I’d never heard of DeWitt, and the publisher’s other big title was by a gossip columnist and bore the title Fame, Ain’t It a Bitch?, so my expectations weren’t high. I remember the excitement I felt as it gradually dawned on me that this book was not just good but great. By the time I’d finished, I was convinced that DeWitt was a genius, a conviction I still hold almost twenty years later.
On that first read, The Last Samurai excited me as much as any book since Infinite Jest, and I was struck by the superficial similarities between them. Both concern, in part, an uncommonly intelligent son working through the absence of his father. Both are at once extremely smart and extremely funny, which may be the combination I find most appealing in novels. Over the years, I have come to recognize a deeper similarity: they are both very contemporary-feeling novels that wind up making very old-fashioned points about the importance of human connection. Both are extremely intelligent works about the limits of intelligence. Like so many novels since Don Quixote kicked off the form, they are both books about the ultimate need to put down books and take the risk of a true encounter with the world outside the page.
DeWitt’s novel tells the story of a child prodigy named Ludo and his overwhelmed single mother, Sibylla. Ludo is the product of a regrettable one-night stand, and Sibylla refuses to reveal the identity of his father. In order to get her own work done—and to get him to stop asking the question—she distracts him with books and movies, which he devours. Like John Stuart Mill, who was raised by his philosopher father as a kind of pedagogic experiment, Ludo spends almost no time around children his own age and thus is not limited by the modest expectations most people have for children. Like Mill, he’s reading ancient Greek before he’s school aged. And like Mill—whose Utilitarian upbringing famously led to an emotional breakdown—he finds that all this knowledge can’t provide answers to the question that really matters to him, in this case: Who is my father? Inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, Ludo eventually decides to use the film as a template to solve his paternal puzzle.
Among many other things, the novel grapples with the possibilities and difficulties that come with being able to choose our own heritage. Sibylla doesn’t think it should matter to Ludo who his biological father is, given all the wonderful ancestors he has to choose from, but inevitably it does. The book is also a satire of the secular view of life as a problem to be solved through the application of instrumental knowledge and rational technique, a satire DeWitt takes a step further in her second novel, Lightning Rods, which proposes to solve sexual harassment by outfitting offices with prostitutes.
Philip Roth, Operation Shylock (1993)
Philip Roth once summarized the range of his father’s dinner table conversation as “family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew.” He slyly added, “Somewhat like mine.” But there was always a fourth obsession for Roth: America, America, America. He considered himself before anything else an American writer. Indeed, the fact that the grandson of Galician immigrants, raised in Newark’s Jewish enclave of Weequahic, was every bit as American as Thomas Wolfe or Sherwood Anderson was one of his great themes. Roth never doubted his status as a genuine American, but he thrived on contradiction, so he was fascinated and provoked by those who believed that a Jew would always be first and foremost a Jew, never entirely anything else. Such people included not just anti-Semites, but fellow Jews who rejected the possibility or the desirability of assimilation.
Roth had profound things to say about a theme that has become central to our culture: identity. He didn’t want to be defined by his Jewishness, but he found at every turn Jews and Gentiles alike insisting that he had no choice. Roth’s half-century-long battle with the anti-assimilationists began after the furious response to his earliest short stories, which were seen as an airing of dirty laundry, and it provided material for some of his best books, including Operation Shylock.
As the novel begins, Roth discovers that a man who bears a striking resemblance to him has been living under his name in Israel. What’s more, he’s been using Roth’s fame to advocate for what he calls “Diasporism,” a return of the Ashkenazi Jews in Israel to the European countries they fled after the Holocaust. Roth travels to Israel to seek him out. While there, he attends the trial of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-American immigrant who was living as a retired autoworker in Cleveland when the Israelis put him on trial as the notorious concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, and he conducts a long interview with the Israeli novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. The book contains real reporting from the Demjanjuk trial, as well as real conversations between Roth and Appelfeld. This kind of mixing of documentary material into the novel has become commonplace in recent years, but it is rarely tied to such a madcap fictional plot. Roth loved playing with his own autobiography in his novels almost as much as he loved mocking as philistines anyone who read his novels autobiographically. This book—which calls itself a “confession” rather than a novel—goes farther down that hall of mirrors than anything else he wrote.
Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997)
DeLillo is not generally thought of as an autobiographical novelist in Roth’s mode. He is famous instead for his coolly elliptical style, his engagement with various paranoid theories of history, and his social criticism. But his magnum opus, Underworld, is a deeply personal book. Like Roth, DeLillo grew up in an ethnic enclave—in his case, an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, where he attended Cardinal Hayes High School and Fordham University. DeLillo doesn’t get shoehorned into the category “Catholic novelist” in the way that Roth gets treated as a “Jewish novelist,” but his Catholic upbringing has been at least as important to him as Judaism is to Roth, and unlike Roth he engages not just sociologically but theologically with the tradition from which he emerged. (One of his late novels, Point Omega, draws heavily on the work of the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) In fact, Underworld gets my vote for the great Catholic American novel.
The book spans almost fifty years, from Bobby Thompson’s pennant-winning home run of 1951 (“the shot heard round the world”) to the beginnings of the internet era, much of it concerned with the trail of Thompson’s home-run ball as it moves between various collectors. There is something sacramental about the power of this object, which eventually falls into the hands of a character named Nick Sax, a child of Italian immigrants and a product of Catholic schooling in the Bronx. After a period of juvenile delinquency, Sax winds up under the watch of a Jesuit priest, whose influence persists throughout Sax’s life. He eventually winds up working for a waste management company in the deserts of Arizona, which serve for DeLillo as a metaphor for American deracination, a place where one can live without ever putting down roots. By the book’s end, however, Sax is forced to return to the Bronx and come to some reckoning with his past.
Another strand of the novel concerns Sister Edgar, a nun who once taught Sax in parochial school and who has stayed in the Bronx as her neighborhood has changed from Irish and Italian to black and Hispanic. The pages describing Sister Edgar’s death, near the end of the book, rise to a strikingly mystical pitch.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
Marilynne Robinson is one of the few major contemporary novelists who write primarily about the experience of religious believers, and one of even fewer who profess belief themselves. At the same time, her novels serve as a reminder that belief in another reality does not protect us from the challenges of living in this one. While belief may answer certain fundamental questions, it raises others, particularly the question of how to reconcile the demands of faith with the demands of the mundane world. This is the question that gives Robinson’s novels their power. Her characters are all fundamentally good people who struggle with how to live in a fallen world.
Gilead is the first of three novels set in Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950s, all three of which circle around the same handful of characters, telling their story not consecutively but from different viewpoints. In Gilead’s case the perspective is that of a Congregationalist minister, John Ames. After losing a young wife and child, Ames lives out his years with this sorrow until making a happy marriage in old age and having a son. The novel takes the form of a letter to this son, whom Ames knows he will not live to see grow up. The letter ranges over the length of Ames’s life and those of his father and grandfather, both likewise ministers, one a stringent pacifist, the other a militant abolitionist, who fell out over the properly faithful response to the sin of slavery. Robinson juxtaposes this old argument with the responses of Ames and a minister friend to the nascent civil rights movement. In the process, we see more than a hundred years of religious responses to evils in American society.
In her nonfiction, Robinson often points out that our picture of the role that religion has played in American history is grossly distorted. We tend, for example, to throw around the epithet “puritan” without actually knowing much about the beliefs or practices of the English nonconformists who were among the first Europeans to settle in the New World. Likewise, we often ignore the role that religious dissenters played in the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Gilead advances this argument in its own way, but there is nothing polemical about it. Like all of the writers on this list, Robinson can’t so easily be reduced to her themes. She is a beautiful stylist, one of the best we have, though even here there is something polemical. I think of her style as self-consciously Protestant—unshowy but alive to the power of beauty, never reaching for effect, but not at all minimalist, and above all purposeful.
Edward P. Jones, The Known World (2003)
The Known World is another novel that takes up the great American sin of slavery. It begins with a man named Henry Townsend lying on his deathbed. Henry is a freed black man in antebellum Virginia who had come to own dozens of slaves himself. After his death, his wife, Caldonia, also black, born free and highly educated, struggles to keep his plantation together, and the world they have created together spirals into chaos just as the Civil War is about to begin. From this core, The Known World tells many stories about blacks and whites, slaves and slave-owners, but it focus particularly on people like Henry and Caldonia, whose stories do not fit neatly into historical narratives about the period. In the process, it offers a picture of evil as a kind of moral contagion.
Not that the book itself would put it in such terms. The great wonder of The Known World is its all-knowing narrative perspective, which has a touch of the omniscient third-person narrator of the great nineteenth-century novels but is more like a voice of God, at times crossing several decades in a few sentences to give us the entire journey of a character’s life before returning us to the scene from which we’ve come, occasionally jumping into the present day to offer academic research (wholly invented by Jones) on a relevant subject, seeing all things at once and treating them sub species aeternetatis.
At the same time, there is an odd kind of joy to the performance, the joy that comes from watching an artist who is at once completely committed to his material and in complete control of his craft. The Known World is, to date, the only novel Jones has written, published when he was in his fifties, more than a decade after his first story collection and just a few years before his second. His stories, set in present-day Washington, DC, are wonders, but The Known World is something else entirely. It belongs on a shelf not with the best contemporary novels but with Melville, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and the great novelist-moralists of our literary tradition.
Annie Dillard, The Maytrees (2007)
Dillard will not need any introduction to Image’s readers, but they may know her mostly by way of her theologically tinged nonfiction, especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood. She has written only two novels, but they are among the very best things she has written, and they sound many of the same themes—the mystery of our human condition, the wonders of the conscious life, and what we as conscious creatures ought to make of a natural world filled with equal parts beauty and suffering.
The Maytrees tells the story of Lou and Toby Maytree, a couple who live out their lives on Cape Cod, fall in love, marry, have a child, split up, and come together again. Toby is a poet; Lou is a free spirit, almost feral. Dillard is a writer known for her bravura style and her braininess, for her wide range of literary and scientific reference, and there is a lot of that here—it helps that Toby shares many of Dillard’s themes, and that Lou is an avid reader of whatever comes her way—but ultimately what makes the novel so moving is its intensely human feel. When Toby returns to Lou near the end of the book, and she cares for him in his last days, Dillard produces some of the most beautiful and moving writing of any novel written in my lifetime.
Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire (2003)
The “Great Fire” of Shirley Hazzard’s title is the atomic conflagration of Japan that ended World War II. The novel is set in the years immediately after the war. A British war hero named Aldred Leith is travelling through Asia when he meets a twenty-year-old Australian girl named Helen Driscoll and falls in love. The novel follows the couple back to England and through the course of their relationship. Hazzard was born in Australia, a rough contemporary of Helen’s, and the book, set fifty years before its publication date, does not read at all like an historical novel. There is an urgency to the book’s detail which feels lived rather than researched. Hazzard’s prose, too, feels like it belongs to another era. She is an incredibly careful prose stylist—she went decades between novels throughout her career—but her writing is capable of bringing you up short with its strangeness as much as its beauty.
The Great Fire is not my favorite of Shirley Hazzard’s novels—that is Transit of Venus, published in 1980—but even second-best Hazzard is better than just about anyone else.
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995)
I might have chosen any one of Sebald’s four novels—The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz—but I think this one just barely wins out. Sebald invented a literary genre with these books, one that has become increasingly prominent since his death. They borrow in part from the novel, in part from the literary essay, in part from the travelogue. Each features a first-person narrator—more or less explicitly Sebald himself—though for many pages at a time they will give themselves over to recounting the life of a famous writer like Stendhal or of a less famous person whose story has come to Sebald in some way, all interspersed with documentary images that often have the odd effect of deepening the irreality of the descriptions. Sebald was born in Germany in 1944, the son of a Nazi soldier who remained a prisoner of war through the first years of his childhood, and all of his books are deeply concerned with memory, in particular how we remember or fail to remember historical tragedy.
The Rings of Saturn recounts a long walking tour that Sebald took in the English countryside in 1992, at the end of which he fell into a “state of almost total immobility,” for which he was hospitalized. It was during this hospitalization, Sebald tells us on the book’s very first page, that the novel we are reading began to take form in his head. As he conducts his walk, thinking about Thomas Browne and Rembrandt and the introduction of the silkworm to England, the reader is left to wonder at the connection between these facts and his later collapse. This tension adds an extra layer to the book, which I think is what makes it his best.
Mathias Enard, Compass (2015)
One of the marks of a great book is the way it withstands the test of time and rewards rereadings as the years pass. A great book will tell you something different when you’re thirty or forty than it told you when you were twenty, and the books you love the most on first reading don’t always wind up being the most important to you. For this reason, this list has been dominated by books from the earlier parts of our thirty-year span, books I first read in college or soon after and have returned to many times. The book I have read recently that seems most likely to join this list is Mathias Enard’s Compass.
Enard is a French writer who lives and teaches in Barcelona. His academic background is in Arabic and Persian, and he has traveled extensively in the Middle East. He writes about the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world, not as one of mutual aggression but of cultural cross-pollination. (His most recent novel to be translated into English, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, imagines a trip made by Michelangelo to Constantinople.) Compass is a long novel that unfolds over the course of a single night, during which the insomniac narrator, Franz Ritter, a musicologist and unapologetic Orientalist, in the sense that he is not just a student but a celebrator and romanticizer of the Near East, lies awake thinking about the woman he loves and their travels throughout the region. Ritter has a theory that the great flowering of classical music in Vienna in the eighteenth century was sparked by the arrival of certain musical influences from the Muslim world. Whether this theory convinces or not, the point remains: there is no pure western culture that existed before the Other arrived, no unadulterated achievement that might justify political domination.
Enard’s book, which runs through countless curious and obscure stories of encounters between European travelers and “The Orient,” bears some similarity to Sebald’s novels, though where Sebald’s narrative voice is highly formal, even fusty, Enard’s is manic, as befits Ritter’s circumstance. He has recently been given an ambiguous diagnosis, he believes he may be dying, and he suffers through his dark night of the soul in the worry that a whole mode of cultural understanding might die with him. Enard’s book seemed eerily timely when I first read it a few years ago, at the height of ISIS’s control of large swathes of the Middle East, but it is the kind of book that I expect would resonate under any circumstance, and I expect to be returning to it over the years.