Every year, at about this time, ten best lists seem to pop up everywhere : the ten best films, the ten best musical albums, the ten best novels and so on, ad nauseam.
I don't mind them ; it's just that I find these lists trivial, chronologically inappropriate, as if, every year, something important happened in the film industry, the musical world or literature.
I prefer list that span decades, centuries, millenia.
As a kid, I used to make lists ; lists of books, of songs, of films, even lists of hockey players. Some I classified in alphabetical order, others by importance according to various factors and, occasionally, I just wrote them down the way they presented themselves. There was another thing I did and it was to look at other people's lists , particularly critics' suggestions, recommendations, or simply favorite books, films, paintings, etc. It was my way of finding great novels, interesting stories, entertaining facts and learn from the masters.
Today, I write lists ; list of books, films, plays, paintings, actors, actresses, recordings, even cities, recipes or anything that might be interesting : beautiful landscapes, photos, mathematical problems, quotations... - How's a notebook entitled «Useless knowledge» ? - That's what I call my «list» notebook.
Thinking about all of this, the other day, I thought it might be fun to share some of them with you, ; that is, over the next few weeks starting with my ten best books (in alphabetical order)
À la recherche du Temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust
Definitely one of the greatest book ever written. It's usually considered as a novel, which it is, but the story telling is secondary : the comments and views expressed by the author are more important. Moreover, its real substance is in its structure, i.e. : Proust slowing one's reading speed as the subject of his book is... Time, not Madame Guermantes, nor Odette Swann, not even the narrator : Time. - Never meet anyone who, having undertaken to read this book once, didn't read it again because, by the time you understand what's it's all about,you know you've missed everything.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
Sorry if I can't quote La Fontaine or French Nursery Rhymes : my first contact with the real imaginary world (forget about Santa Claus) was through Lewis Carroll whom I often quote because they're part of me. It's Humpty Dumpty, the Walrus and the Carpenter and even the Queen, 'cuz «Off with their heads !»| is something one remembers all one's life. And, who hasn't had the urge to be, once in his life, the Mad Hatter ?
Epistulae (Letters) by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (or Pliny the Younger)
Evolution : this is what I think every time I read one of Pliny's letters. - We think we are, in the Twentieth Century, with our computers, our television sets and the Internet, smarter than anybody that came before us. Well, I got news for you. Here's a man who thought the way we think today but two thousand years ago, a man who was asking himself the same questions, the same way and was as puzzled about certain situations as way we are. - Yes, he's from another area and he lived a quite different life but, to this day, I haven't found a difference between him and my contemporaries.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Probably the most bizarre book ever written. Unreadable, except with a lot of patience and something like 20 different dictionaries and a lot of imagination, but absolutely fascinating. One piece of advice : read it aloud. Two pieces : read it form the last sentence which is the beginning of the first : «A way, a lone, a last, a loved a long the...» which, if you read carefully, could also have been written «Away, alone, alast...» See what I mean by reading it aloud ? - Another thing : when you'll pass a construction site, you'll hear all the sounds that construction workers do.
Gargantua et Pantagruel (Gargantua and Pantagruel) by François Rebelais
I always a great admirer of the capacity of Rabelais to invent : stories, characters, situations, even words. I liked and still like his way of making me laugh. Having worked in a, generally speaking, serious milieu, his three-part description of Pantagruel showing up in Paris and being asked to - sort of - act as a middle man in a dispute that had been going on for years (listening to one party, then the other and passing his judgment) will remain, for me, one of the most inspiring thing I ever read. Still funny after all these years. - Yes, a bit vulgar, sometimes to the point where you're wondering if he wasn't Freudian before Freud. - But what the hell : we can't all be Victorians.
La vie, mode d'emploi (Life, A User's Manual) by Georges Perec
I should be quoting Oscar Wilde, here. whose The Importance of Being Earnest has been called the cleverest play ever written (don t worry, I will, eventually) but, by George, of all the books I've read, this remains one of the most intelligently written. One fascinating story after another, sometimes three in the same chapter (there's hundreds of them from the man who had made a study of wax consumption at the Vatican to find how many bulles du pape had been lost to the acrobat who refused to get down from his wire). - Delightful and so easy to read. - Excellent translation, by the way, by David Bellos.
Le journal (Diary) by André Gide
Never did really liked Gide's opinions on anything but I always did like - to the point of fanaticism- his way of he expressing them. Even when I think about Henry James and he was no slouch, I have never read someone who could write, in any language, the way he did. His mastery of the French language remains, to me, unsurpassed. He would have been fabulous in English.
Oeuvres anthumes et posthumes (Anthumous and Posthumous Works) by Alphonse Allais
I spoke earlier of Rabelais inventing continuously. Well here's the king of invention. An imagination like his will remain eternal even though he wrote more than a hundred years ago about situations that existed... more than a hundred years ago. A sense of humor that was way beyond any stand up comics I've ever heard (and I've listened to as many as I could). Monty Python's ? Yes, but read this guy.
The Crown of Wilde Olive by John Ruskin
Couldn't pass Ruskin in my all-time favorite books. - For a summary (and you can read it online) go to this site.
Voyage au bout de la nuit (Journey to the End of the Night) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
A phenomenon. Nobody, in France at least, came on the literary scene with so much panache, surprising everybody with an style which, to this day, nobody has been able to, not only imitate, but copy, even make a pastiche. Some of the best opening sentences ever written in a novel : «Ça a débuté comme ça. Moi, j'avais jamais rien dit. Rien. C'est Arthur Ganate...». There exists, to my knowledge, two translations (in English) : one made in 1934 by John H. P. Marks (John Hugo Edgar Puempin Marks) and a second, in 1988, by Ralph Manheim. - Learn French if you have to, but read it in French.
A few books did not make this list. Books that I really liked when I was younger : The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, Julien Green's Journal, Les mémoires de Saint-Simon... not that they are not as interesting but there's a certain limit dealing with ten bests. - One has to choose carefully. - Poetry and plays will be the subject of other list.