Last week, I linked to Donald Barthelme’s 81-book syllabus. Now I offer a top-ten list from David Foster Wallace, for those of you who, like Martin and me, are trying to come to grips with his suicide—or trying to learn more about who he was. The list comes courtesy of J. Peder Zane in The New York Observer:
David Foster Wallace’s Top Ten List:
1. The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
2. The Stand, by Stephen King
3. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris
4. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones
5. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong
6. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris
7. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
8. Fuzz, by Ed McBain
9. Alligator, by Shelley Katz10. The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clancy
This list, of course, is considerably more problematic than Barthelme’s. (The Screwtape Letters?!) Or rather, I don’t think it’s problematic at all, but it can be hard, apparently, to know what to make of it, because of Wallace’s heavyweight status, erudition, and lack of meanness. Zane, anyhow, agonizes over whether or not Wallace was serious when he offered this list; he even invites a fan of Wallace’s to comment on it, who also cannot make himself believe that Wallace was just being flip, even though the fan refers to a very different sort of reading list—“stars you steer by”—that Wallace reeled off in a 1996 interview in Salon, with Laura Miller:
Historically the stuff that’s sort of rung my cherries: Socrates’ funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’ “Meditations on First Philosophy” and “Discourse on Method,” Kant’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic,” although the translations are all terrible, William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus,” Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Hemingway—particularly the ital stuff in “In Our Time,” where you just go oomph!, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A.S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick—the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff —the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby.”
There’s a breathtaking gap between those two lists. Personally, I don’t think there’s any question that he was kidding when he submitted his top 10 list to Zane, but it’s always been my impression that part of what Wallace was trying to do in his work was to bridge that gap—to reconcile two incredibly disparate parts of our culture. If you want Socrates’ funeral oration to matter, it can be difficult to accept that The Stand is someone else’s North Star.
I recommend reading Miller’s whole interview with Wallace, in which, among other things, he also talks up his contemporaries. And though I was grateful to Martin for tipping me off to an appreciation of Wallace from New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, I found Miller’s memorial the best and most touching of all those I’ve read.
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