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by Miles Mathis

Oh! nature's noblest gift—my grey goose-quill!
Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will. —

First published March 2009.

Updated January 2017 to include more recent research on these authors.

In September of 2008, Esquire magazine published a list of the 75 greatest books ever written. Since I don’t subscribe to any magazines, I only just stumbled across it on the internet. I found the list so preternaturally provincial, callow, and time-locked that I felt I had to comment on it and provide an alternate list for those young men not striving to become the next male Oprah Winfrey.

Here is the list. Please read it carefully, including the “clever” blurbs I have taken straight from the article.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver. “That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.” And that's not even the best line.

Collected Stories of John Cheever

Deliverance, by James Dickey

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. Because its all about the titty.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones

The Good War, by Studs Terkel

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, by Flannery O'Connor

The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. No one else has written so beautifully about human remains hanging from tree branches.

A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis

A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee

Hell's Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson. Because it's his first book, and because he got his ass kicked for it, and because in the book and the beating were the seeds of all that came after, including the bullet in the head.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Rabbit, Run, by John Updike

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone. Begins in Saigon, ends in Death Valley. Somewhere in between you realize that profit is second only to survival

Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell. The best book by a modern-day Twain, high on meth, drousy with whiskey

Legends of the Fall, by Jim Harrison. Because of revenge. Because Harrison is as masculine and raw and unrelenting as they come.

Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer

The Professional, by W.C. Heinz

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. A lesson in manhood: even when you’re damned, you press on.

Dispatches, by Michael Herr

Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Because the Battle of Gettysburg took place in that blue-gray area between black and white.

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey

Sophie's Choice, by William Styron. It's not about Sophie or her choice. It's about Stingo.

A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley

Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. Because: "A girl is different. They want things. They need things on a regular schedule. Why, a girl's got purposes you and me can't even imagine. They got ideas in their heads you and me can't even suppose."

Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brian

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. The fart joke as literature.

This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff

Affliction, by Russell Banks

Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

Women, by Charles Bukowski

Going Native, by Stephen Wright

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Because Fitzgerald knew Lindsay, Britney and the Olsens better than we do. (And because it was first published in Esquire.)

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, by John LeCarré

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

The Shining, by Stephen King

Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson

Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges

The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe

The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley

American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

What It Takes, by Richard Ben Cramer

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene. A kind of flesh-bound Bible.

The Continental Op, by Dashiell Hammett

So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans

Native Son, by Richard Wright

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac

The Great Bridge, by David McCullough

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

Underworld, by Don DeLillo

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

What is the most amazing statistic about that list? Do you need Gloria Steinem to tell you? I don't. One out of seventy-five, 1/75. According to Esquire, men don't need to read books by women. They can get all the information they need from Kent Haruf, who is so wise to women that he knows that, "They got ideas in their heads you and me can't even suppose." No need to discover what those ideas really are, by reading Jane Austen or George Eliot or A. S. Byatt. No, just knowing that women are alien is enough.

But let’s look at all those blurbs, in order. The Raymond Carver quote is embarrassing for both the quoter and the quoted. It is hard to tell what is the best line in the book, but this isn’t the worst line in the book. It is representative of the book, however, and that is the problem. The homely sentence posing as modern, the careless posing as spare, and the insensible posing as humorous. Beyond that, I am not convinced anyone at Esquire actually read the book, since this quote is taken straight from Amazon.com.3 You would think that someone who had read the book could choose their own favorite quote. If that isn’t the best quote, why not lead with the best? Because that would require reading the book and forming a real opinion.

After that we are told that The Grapes of Wrath is “all about the titty.” Yes, just as The Odyssey is all about the poontang. Go Calypso! Who says these guys aren’t qualified to judge great literature?

The Tim O’Brien blurb is pretty accurate, although they might have said the same of Cormac McCarthy. In neither case does the prose match the subject.

Re the Hunter S. blurb: Should we really consider reading books for those reasons? But the editors at Esquire clearly do. Take note: this is the level of things that impress them.

In the Robert Stone blurb, we find that “profit is second only to survival.” To Donald Trump, maybe.

In the Daniel Woodrell blurb, we have the modern-day Twain both high and drousy. One question, would Twain, transported into the 21st century, really be writing on meth and whiskey? No boys, it was and still would be cigars.

We should read Jim Harrison because “Harrison is as masculine and raw and unrelenting as they come.” And because he has a big hairy dick, no doubt. Could these editors sound any more wimpy and repressed?

Then we get another “lesson in manhood” with Hemingway. These guys even admit they need a lesson in manhood, and go to books to get it. I wonder if they have tried gay porn.

Then we find out that “Gettysburg took place in that blue-gray area between black and white.” The guys couldn’t come up with anything here, so they just cribbed from the jacket flap, stealing copy from Joe the Office Squibber.

Also good to know that Sophie’s Choice is about Stingo (since he’s the narrator). They had to read all the way through page one to discover that brilliant insight.

Then we get a rotten quote from Kent Haruf, which could have just as easily have been penned by Rocky Balboa.

After that, we learn that A Confederacy of Dunces is the “fart joke as literature”. An intelligent reader would not necessarily take that as a recommendation, but Esquire knows it audience.

The Fitzgerald blurb is perhaps the worst of the bunch. F. Scott would not want to know Britney or the Olsons any better (or at all) but clearly these editors do, and they go to literature for clandestine tips.

Lastly, we are told that Greene has written “a kind of flesh-bound Bible.” Really? Supposing that has some meaning beyond one that Hannibal Lecter would understand, I find it unlikely that Greene has exceeded the Bible in any category, especially in fleshiness, rawness, or the ability to bind.

Now, I have to admit I haven’t read all the books in this list. But I also have to admit that these blurbs don’t lead me to rush out and devour those few I am missing. Just the opposite. A recommendation in this company falls like acid into my ear. Beyond that, the list is heavy with new novels, and I avoid new novels like the plague. These editors don’t seem to understand that literature does not have to be novels, or even fiction. What this list needs is a scrubbing of modern novels written for businessmen, ex-jocks, and panty boys who think they wish they had a war to go to, and their replacement with writings that could actually broaden a reader beyond the late-American war/sports/hometown boy level.

That takes us down to this list:

Y The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.

Y The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

X Dubliners, by James Joyce

X Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

X Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin

Y War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Y Moby Dick, Herman Melville

X Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

X Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

[The Xs and Ys were added 2017. X indicates a probable agent; Y indicates a possible agent. Or, X indicates someone I have since researched and found to be compromised; Y indicates someone I have not researched, but who has sent up red flags in the research of others.]

That leaves us 66 places to fill. But I can’t even leave this list of 9 alone. The first half of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece, but the rest is bombast. Same with Lolita. I like both these authors, though, and want to leave them on the list, so I am just going to replace the books recommended.

X The Mysterious Stranger, by Mark Twain

X Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov

To be clear, I still recommend reading about Lolita and Huck. I just think their faults keep them off this list. In this way, I am tipping my hand: my list will not be the 75 greatest books ever written, but 75 recommended authors, with sample books. The first list would be heavy with repeats, and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky would hog all the top spots. Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Helprin wouldn’t hope to make such list, and even so I am keeping them mainly as a nod to the present. It is unlikely that anything from the 20th century would make a final list, compiled by the gods, but I also have an eye to my audience. Neither they nor I want a list without anything readable on it. They can get a list of textbooks from St. John’s College, but I am trying to make up a list here that is at the same time broad, readable, enlightening, and iconoclastic. No sense me giving you a list that is the same as everyone else’s list.

Here is the rest of the list:

Y Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle

X Lectures, Max Muller

Y Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper

Gypsy Ballads, Federico Garcia Lorca

X Revolt of the Masses, José Ortega y Gasset

X Relativity, Albert Einstein

X The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt

Y The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

The Crown of Wild Olive, John Ruskin

Y The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry

Y The American Language, H. L. Mencken

The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, James McNeil Whistler

Notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci

X Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell

Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, Ivan Turgenev

Don Quixote, Manuel Cervantes

I, Claudius, Robert Graves

Y David Copperfield, Charles Dickens

Y Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust

The Wild Duck, Henrik Ibsen

The Golden Bough, James Frazer

Y Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Y Middlemarch, George Eliot

X Manfred, Byron

Y Death in Venice, Thomas Mann

Oedipus Rex, Sophocles

Y Darwinism, Alfred Russell Wallace

Y Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas

Poems of Ossian, James Macpherson

Y Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov

Poems, John Keats

Y The Fall, Albert Camus

Gigi, Colette

Y Little Big Man, Thomas Berger

Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams

Nibelungenlied, Anon.

Kalevala, Elias Lonnrot

Letters, Vincent van Gogh

Kristin Lavransdatter, Sigrid Undset

Y Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

Y Poems, Heinrich Heine

Haiku, Matsuo Basho

Y The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake

Y Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe

Y The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger

Y Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton

Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau

The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

Y Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson

Y Possession, A. S. Byatt

On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche

Y Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

Y Dialogues, Plato

Iliad, Homer

Daodejing, Laozi

X Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky

Les Contemplations, Victor Hugo

Y Meditations, Rene Descartes

At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

[As you see, I have learned a lot in the past 7 years. It is possible that many others of these authors are compromised, or all of them, but I will have to discover that for myself. I would strike several of these listings completely, but I leave them up for historical reasons—so that we can both remember how this paper was originally written. The ones I would strike right now are Chomsky, Nabokov, Arendt, Joyce, Twain, Muller, Orwell, and Byron.]

I had to nix Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia as not highly readable, although they are greater books than some on this list. I also bumped other classics like The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and The Aeneid, to make room for books you are more likely to read. I am replacing the Esquire’s top 75, after all, not Mortimer Adler’s top 100. Admittedly, Karl Popper and Einstein are not much easier to read, but they are a bit closer to home.

The main difference, it seems to me, in my list and theirs is that I am not trying to “prove my manhood” or show how hairy my arms are. I don’t care if you know I am a man, much less an American man, but the guys at Esquire have to throw that in your face on every page, as if they are competing with the editors at Playboy or Maxim. They don’t want to be mistaken for Oprah Book Club pansies, so they don’t include Annie Proulx or Barbara Kingsolver, but in making up this list they have done Oprah one worse. At least Oprah is un-self-consciously shallow and insular and pathetic. These guys couldn’t be more transparent in their need to read about murder and war and sports and the mob and cowboys and all the other middle-America pseudo-manly pseudo-mythology of fake self-support. Oprah and her 50 million girls have no eye for beauty or depth, but at least they don’t choose their soft-core reading to be “girly.” These guys, as is usual with the modern man, have one eye on the mirror and one eye on their co-workers, even as they claim to read a book. This means they must be reading with their noses.

And even that may be giving them too much credit. In compiling my own list1, I realized how easy it would have been for Esquire to have compiled this list from other lists, without ever cracking a cover. I have already shown you how they borrowed their Carver quote, and the rest of the blurbs are equally suspect. It looks to me like Esquire collated two lists. First, they got a list of recent book award winners, going back to, say, 1980. Then they sprinkled that list lightly with choices from a great books list, probably the Modern Library list. Their list has so few older books simply because they didn’t recognize much on the great books list. It was safer to stick with recent critically acclaimed novels than to risk that an older choice had become uncool, for reasons unknown to them.

And even that may be giving them too much credit. It is also possible, even likely, that this list is only a partial fake, rather than a total fake. Meaning, the selection committee didn’t just cobble together other lists, they actually tried to read these books, tried to like them, and convinced themselves that they kind of did. This is worse because it is infinitely more pathetic than just flat out lying. I could respect someone who at least knew modern literature wasn’t worth fooling with, and just copied off the next guy’s paper to save himself the trouble. But it is hard to respect someone who not only listens to critics, but also takes them at their word.

Yes, this is the modern way to look smart: you read the New York Times and then parrot its opinions. If the publishers tell you Don DeLillo is a great writer, via the hired hacks at the newspapers and magazines, then Don DeLillo is a great writer. You would look like a fool to deny it.

In this way, literary criticism is an analogue of art criticism. Why should we expect readers to have independent opinions when art buyers and museum goers do not? The current milieu has made it clear that, in art, people will take whatever you give them, and say they like it. With books, we should expect the same. As in art, the prize committees are populated by people with direct connections to the market, and they are in the business of promotion. The reader’s job is to swallow this promotion down whole, and the modern reader does this job quite well. Critics and publishers bemoan the fact that “serious literature” sells so poorly, but given its quality, I am amazed it sells so well. I can’t believe the market finds a single reader for most of this “poetry” and novelizing and commentary.

While I am here recommending things, I will recommend one of the only sensible critiques of modern novels I have ever seen, B. R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.2 Parts of it were published in 2001 in Atlantic, and it has since been published as a book. While in my opinion Myers still doesn’t go far enough, as a whole, in his critique of new novels, he goes into much finer detail than I have been able to go here.

1For the record, I made up my list straight from my own shelves. I have all these books in my house right now (unless they are loaned out to friends).


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