J. Peder Zane is the Ideas Columnist for The News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh, N.C. Peder’s writing has won several national awards, including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Peder came to the News & Observer in 1996 and served until May, 2007 as its book review editor and books columnist. From 2004-2007 he served on the Board of Directors of the National Books Critics Circle.
He has edited two books published by W.W. Norton, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (2007), and Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading (2004).
Peder is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The News & Observer, Peder worked for various publications including The Patent Trader and The New York Times. He was born and reared in New York City.
The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (2007)
Remarkable Reads: 34 Writers and Their Adventures in Reading (2004)
This book began with a dream.
I’m on a deserted island—lots of sand, single palm tree, you know the drill. Food and fresh water seem pretty scarce but what I really need is a good book. Suddenly, one drops from the sky. Thud! As I bend to lift it, I hear another thud. Then another. And another until I can’t see the tree for all the books, which have turned my little isle into a Tower of Biblio-Babel.
Buried in books I’m awash in confusion: Where to begin?
Boom, I’m awake and I decipher my dream lickety-split. That sense of overwhelming possibility was all too familiar—it’s the same feeling I get whenever I step into a megastore bursting with thousands of titles or click into an online retailer offering access to millions of works. This is the yin and yang of the modern reader: opportunity and befuddlement.
We live in a Golden Age—never before have so many books been within such easy reach. But when anything is possible, choice becomes torture. What to pick? Where to start? This one? That one? How about this—and that? What will I like? What’s worth my time?
In response, various voices have emerged—from Oprah Winfrey to the book club craze she sparked—to provide readers direction as they navigate this book-rich world.But these sources take us only so far. They offer signposts but not detailed road maps to the land of literary possibilities. The Top Ten fills this gap. Part Rand-McNally, part Zagat’s, part cultural Prozac, it takes the anxiety out of bibliophilia by offering a comprehensive and authoritative guide to the world’s best books.
Its premise is simple: Who knows more about great books than great writers? Where previous surveys have queried small groups of authors, The Top Ten draws from the responses of 125 leading British and American authors who were asked “to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what you consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time—novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”
There were no limits. The participants could pick any work, by any writer, from any time period. Though The Top Ten focuses on fiction, a few writers insisted on including works of nonfiction and, well, it’s their list.
After awarding ten points to each first-place pick, nine to second-place picks, and so on, the results were tabulated to create the Top Top Ten list—the very best of the very best.
It was a horse race straight out of Lewis Carroll: Anna Karenina’s
out front, Madame Bovary’s on her shoulder, Lolita is starting to
make a move, and here comes Moby-Dick charging hard from the
However, The Top Ten is not trying to anoint a canon. Its message
is not: Here are the only ten books you need to read. Instead it points you toward the many fine books awaiting your discovery, highlighting a multitude of books, each and every one of which is worth your time.
The lists name 544 separate titles, ranging from the plays of Kenneth Koch to the mysteries of Georges Simenon to the poetry of Joy Harjo to the novels of Stephen King and Jane Austen. If you start today and read a book a week, it will take eleven and a half years to read them all.
That sounds daunting, but think of it like this: The Top Ten offers eleven and a half klunker-free years of reading pleasure; 544 books, each of which is considered to be among the ten greatest books everwritten.
Best of all, it passes the telephone book test: Close your eyes, open the book, place your finger on the page. Read that book you’re pointing to: It’s a winner!
Introduction to The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.
Copyright © 2007 by J. Peder Zane