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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 Katz

10. 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.


Socrates’s funeral oration is nowhere near as interesting or well-regarded as the one Pericles gives in Thucydides. Besides, no one singles out the Menexenus when talking about the most important written works in human history.

I love my Plato, but anyone who chooses the Menexenus over what Pericles says in Thucydides is either joking or confused.

I’m not sure that DFW’s list is a joke. I remember at a publishing symposium of sorts, Bob Gottlieb being asked what he was currently reading. His response? Nora Robert’s newest bestseller. After all the guffaws died down he explained that all fiction—romance, chick lit, slasher, thriller—should be appreciated when it’s done really well. And Nora Roberts does just that.

Susan - I’m afraid I missed your comment when it was posted. Sorry about that.

I count myself a fan of well-done fiction of all kinds, including genre fiction, so I know where you’re coming from. But I don’t think Gottlieb was saying that appreciating well-written fiction of all kinds is the same thing as elevating Tom Clancy to one’s top-ten-of-all-time list. For someone like Wallace to include non-literary titles in his top ten, along with more literary entries, would suggest seriousness; but for him to list only genre fiction, however well-written, and a few non-genre-but-undistinguished books says to me that he wasn’t being serious.

I’ve been mulling over that list ever since you posted this, Benjamin, and the more I think about it, the more that the binary categories of “serious” and “not serious” seem to fail. I think that DFW was quite “serious” in his way, but the impulse was an adolescent one and proved inadequate for that reason. I just read that account of his life in Rolling Stone and it’s blindingly clear that his life was marked to a more than usual extent by good periods and bad periods. I suspect this might have emanated from one of his bad periods, when the project of bashing top 10 lists and the periodicals that demand them seemed paramount. It was his way of having it both ways; twit the literati (I remember playing that at day camp), show off one’s protean identity as not “merely” a member of same, and boost some books whose merits, while real, are not strictly literary. And confound some fans, even after his own death.

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

ultrasound technicianJuly 19, 2010

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