David Foster Wallace’s Surprising List of His 10 Favorite Books, from C.S. Lewis to Tom Clancy

wallace syllabus

Image by Steve Rhodes, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Like many David Fos­ter Wal­lace fans, I bought a copy of J. Ped­er Zane’s The Top Ten (pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here), a com­pi­la­tion of var­i­ous famous writ­ers’ top-ten-books lists, express­ly for DFW’s con­tri­bu­tion. Like most of those David Fos­ter Wal­lace fans, I felt more than a lit­tle sur­prised when I turned to his page and found out which ten books he’d cho­sen. Here, as quot­ed in the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, we have the Infi­nite Jest author and wide­ly rec­og­nized (if reluc­tant) “high-brow” lit­er­ary fig­ure’s top ten list:

1. The Screw­tape Let­ters, by C.S. Lewis

2. The Stand, by Stephen King

3. Red Drag­on, by Thomas Har­ris

4. The Thin Red Line, by James Jones

5. Fear of Fly­ing, by Eri­ca Jong

6. The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Har­ris

7. Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Hein­lein

8. Fuzz, by Ed McBain

9. Alli­ga­tor, by Shel­ley Katz

10. The Sum of All Fears, by Tom Clan­cy

Thrillers, killers, and a dose of Chris­tian­i­ty to top it off; I did­n’t blame Zane when he asked, “Is he seri­ous? Beats me. To be hon­est, I don’t know what Wal­lace was think­ing. But I do think there’s a cer­tain integri­ty to his list.” Wal­lace him­self seemed to read assid­u­ous­ly all over the map — or, more to the point, all up and down the scale of crit­i­cal respectabil­i­ty. Rat­tling off  “the stuff that’s sort of rung my cher­ries” to Salon’s Lau­ra Miller in 1996, for a con­trast, he named, among oth­er wor­thy reads, Socrates’ funer­al ora­tion, John Donne, “Keats’ short­er stuff,” Schopen­hauer, William James’ Vari­eties of Reli­gious Expe­ri­ence, Wittgenstein’s Trac­ta­tus, Joyce’s Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hem­ing­way’s In Our Time, Don DeLil­lo, A.S. Byatt, Cyn­thia Ozick, Don­ald Barthelme, Moby-Dick, and The Great Gats­by. (You can find many of these texts in our Free eBooks col­lec­tion.)

That, some Wal­lace read­ers may think, sounds more like it. But those who’ve paid close atten­tion to Wal­lace’s lan­guage — that often breath­less­ly but hope­less­ly imi­tat­ed mix­ture of high-cal­iber vocab­u­lary, casu­al­ly spo­ken rhythm, decep­tive­ly sharp-edged per­cep­tion, shrug­ging pre­sen­ta­tion, and delib­er­ate sole­cism — know how ful­ly he simul­ta­ne­ous­ly embod­ied both “high” and “low” Eng­lish writ­ing. Just look at the Lit­er­ary Analy­sis syl­labus from his days teach­ing at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty, which demands stu­dents read not just The Silence of the Lambs but anoth­er Thomas Har­ris nov­el, Black Sun­day, as well as more C.S. Lewis (in this case The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and Stephen King (Car­rie). Lest you doubt his com­mit­ment to the seri­ous read­ing of pop­u­lar fic­tion, note the pres­ence of Jack­ie Collins’ Rock Star. In the class­room and in life, Wal­lace must tru­ly have believed that there exists no low fic­tion; just low ways of read­ing fic­tion.

Look­ing for free, pro­fes­sion­al­ly-read audio books from Audible.com? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free tri­al with Audible.com, you can down­load two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s Love of Lan­guage Revealed by the Books in His Per­son­al Library

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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Comments (4)
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  • Jim says:

    This is unsur­pris­ing to those in the know. It was all spelled out in the May 21, 2006 cov­er fea­ture for “Week­ender”.


    “I Nev­er Learned to Read” by Geor­gia Teasil

    “David Fos­ter Wal­lace: He took the lit­er­ary world by storm, but now the fire­brand author is tired of the lies, the audio books, and the ask­ing of strangers to read signs for him”

  • deBritto says:

    Read­ing his essays in “Con­sid­er the Lob­ster” and “A Sup­pos­ed­ly Fun Thing I’ll Nev­er Do Again,” or by sim­ply read­ing the foot­notes of “Infi­nite Jest” (if you can’t make it through the whole thing) you can get a sense that DFW’s read­ing list would be up and down the lad­der of high and low writ­ing, as this writer says. And why not? I may be a film con­nois­seur (or say I am), but I’m just as intrigued by The Mitchell Broth­ers’ “Behind the Green Door” or Vadim’s “Bar­barel­la” as I am with a work like Bergman’s “Cries and Whis­pers.” His inter­est in a diverse range of authors and gen­res is, I think, what makes his own writ­ing so com­pelling.

  • Matthew says:

    This list is a crock of bull. David nev­er said any of these were his favorite books.

  • Johnny says:

    I nev­er met Mr. Wal­lace, but I do know one thing. Any­body that talks about Infi­nite Jest in any man­ner has t read the whole book. Nobody has read the whole book.

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