Posted by: Lizzie Ross | October 4, 2010

Are books getting enough press?

I really don’t know the answer to that question, but I’ve just learned that this is Great Books Week, sponsored by NAIWE, and I’ll do my best to join and get the word out about great books.

And I mean really GREAT. As in anyone who hasn’t read these books is leading an incomplete life.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But the point is, there are important books out there, and I don’t mind talking about the ones that are high on my list of unmissable life experiences.

The challenge for Monday was to blog about a book that had the greatest impact on my life. That’s a big challenge. There’s no one book that meets that criterion, because at different ages in my life, different books have been critical to me.

More than a year ago, a Facebook friend asked me to list my 15 all-time greatest books, and here’s the list:

1.WGSebald’s Rings of Saturn
2.Eric Kraft’s Where Do You Stop
3.Austen’s Pride & Prejudice
4.Cather’s Shadows on the Rocks
5.GBissex’s Partial Truths
6.RRymer’s Genie
7.SPinker’s The Language Instinct
8.SJGould’s The Mismeasure of Man
9.HMelville’s Moby Dick (really!)
10.JMStoeke’s Minerva Louise (the first book Louisa could read on her own)
11.ARansome’s Swallows & Amazons (and the entire series)
12.LMMontgomery Anne of Green Gables
13.LIWilder’s The Long Winter
14.RHuntford’s The Last Place on Earth
15.GGreene’s Our Man In Havana

with the added note that this list could change practically daily. You can see the range: books for children, classics, non-fiction, 20th century fiction.

But #1 is still at the top of the list. The Rings of Saturn (1995), by WG Sebald. It was the review in The New York Times (Roberta Silman, 07-26-1998) that convinced me I had to read this book, and after finishing it I turned back to page 1 and started it again.

When Sebald died in an automobile accident in 2001, I was crestfallen. No more of his incredibly challenging prose, no more of his stories of the Jewish diaspora, no more of those obscure photos and drawings that almost but not quite illustrate his tales.

Here’s a photo of part of the Table of Contents. It gives you a fair idea of where Sebald goes geographically (England, the Congo, China), historically (WWII and the Holocaust, Waterloo, the Irish Rebellion), and biographically (Roger Casement, Joseph Conrad, Chinese emperors). Is this a novel? a travelogue? a memoir?

Silman writes, “This is a hybrid of a book — fiction, travel, biography, myth, and memoir — that obliterates time and defies comparison.” It’s writing that makes you think, and when you’re finished, you can’t believe all the places Sebald took you to.

But my advice: don’t make this the first of Sebald’s books that you read. Start with The Emigrants and Austerlitz. Once you’re accustomed to his prose, you’ll be ready to tackle this one. It’s well worth the effort.


  1. Hey E.–See if you can find the button that allows us to repost on FB. This is great stuff. –Z

  2. It’s either under Links or Notes. I tried posting this as a feed to my other Fb page, but it wouldn’t work.

  3. OK, I see what you’re talking about. The Share button is up. But still no luck linking this to my Fb page. Grrrr!

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