It’s a little-known fact among my close friends that I am a chronic “lister.”
Want to know what are the greatest bands ever? I’m happy to put tell you those, and defend my choices–even if I’ve never heard one of them.
I find some amusement in this habit, especially since I don’t take the lists very seriously at all. An argument over whether the Beatles or U2 are better (ahem, the latter, clearly) isn’t worth dying for. But its an entertaining exercise all the same, and occasionally can be quite enlightening.
I thought this habit was idiosyncratic to me, but some new friends from South Africa recently disabused me of that notion: apparently, High Fidelity (which I have not seen) uses the device, and quite effectively at that. One more reason to dislike John Cusack.
With that in mind, on the occasional Friday we’re going to list and debate the top five items in whatever category strikes our fancy. Your contribution is welcome–if you have a particular top five list you have been dying to defend, email me and we’ll make it happen.
This week I present the authoritative, indispensable list of the top five fiction books by the “Inklings.” But to make it more fun, we’ll use the expansive definition of the group to include those authors who they were friends with and who influenced them–G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and Dorothy Sayers.
1) Till We Have Faces. With all due respect, Lewis’ fiction is more profound for what it says than for what it does. Not so this book, which goes about as deep as any book I’ve read, and certainly as deep as anything the Inklings put out. Plus, it’s only fitting that the Inklings most famous member would take the top spot.
2) Descent into Hell. Williams is the weirdest Inkling, but a far superior writer to Tolkien. And Descent is a challenging, serious examination of reality and its power. Like Till We Have Faces, you have to be prepared to read this one a few times through to really begin to appreciate just how rich it is, which is (to me) a sign of great fiction.
3) Lord of the Rings. It probably won’t help my case for putting it here if I tell you that I almost put it as number four. I get that it’s a massive achievement and practically created a genre of literature. I understand that the plot-line is incredibly well-crafted. I’m a fan, okay? But let’s just be clear: Tolkien’s descriptions are uneven, and when I hit the Return of the King, the heroic language is so over-the-top that the effect of the story recedes to the background because I can’t quit thinking about the fact that it sounds a 19th century translation of an Arthurian legend.
4) The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s not my favorite Chesterton fiction (that belongs to Manalive), but it’s doubtlessly his best. It’s initial preachiness recedes into the background as the story takes over, leaving the reader breathless and lost in wonder (and a bit of confusion). “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” is an enormously provocative use of the Scripture. If part of what great literature does is evoke questions and interest, Thursday succeeds in spades.
5) Phantastes. George MacDonald was a universalist, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write good. Phantastes is a beautiful, dream-like tale that enchants as much as it instructs.
Notice whose not here? Dorothy Sayers. That is not an accident. Her fiction is fun and occasionally edifying, but not much more than that.
Now it’s your turn: how would you make out the list, and why? Bonus points for leaving off Sayers.
(And if you have a category for top five, don’t forget to email me.)