Top 10 Books
Top 10 Movies
I put Proust at the top of the list, because it seems like I spent most of my life reading Proust (It took about 10 years for me to finish the whole set, and I was so sad when I finally finished that I cried), and rereading Proust (Swann's Way at least 4 times, and each of the subsequent volumes at least twice), because of the beauty of the language and my weakness for epiphanic, swooning, out-of-control nostalgia that I share with him.
Then, there was the timing in my life that coincided with the timing of each volume that made me especially susceptible to an emotional resonance with this work. I started reading Proust as a freshman in high school because my hero, Robert Hunt, who I thought was a genius, told me that he liked to ride the buses reading Proust so that some beautiful girl would come up to him and say "Oh! I see you're reading Proust!"
I thought that was pretty amusing, but at the same time such a hauntingly romantic image that I couldn't help trying it myself. Once I started in, I was hooked immediately, and the first volume, Swann's Way, is still my favorite part of all the books.
I didn't get much beyond the first two volumes before I was so poor that I didn't have the time or money to continue to read, so I reread Swann's Way a few times and waited to be able to afford to buy the rest of the set. As a library kid from an early age I knew there was no chance that I'd be able to merely check a volume of Proust out of the library and read it within a few weeks. Not the way I luxuriated over those overblown, expansive sentences and endless asides!
I returned to reading Proust after I got back on my feet financially in the early 80s, and was reading Albertine Disparue when I was breaking up with a girl who I thought I was terribly in love with, and like a devil on my shoulder, Proust whispered his terribly convincing poetry of jealousy in my ear and I suffered as I never had before or since under the twin whips of my real disappointment in love and the fictional twisted sick jealous love I was reading at the same time. I know it was all some homosexual head trip, not the more conventional heterosexual relationship described by Proust; I've read his biography and know what he was really alluding to. But at the time, it was me and the girl I loved who seemed so perfectly mirrored by Proust in his incredible prose, and that's a great writer for you, if for nothing else. That was an amazing combination of coincidence between my real-world emotions and fiction.
I've found, to my amusement, that there are people out there who are faintly impressed that anyone could have the stamina to make it all the way through such a huge work of fiction. And I've also found many people who have found it convenient to dismiss Proust out of hand for his many defects, more generally his personal shortcomings and their reflection in his work, than his literary shortcomings. I can't blame even the most omnivorous reader for being intimidated by Proust. I only started on the Proustian merry-go-round as a lark, a dumb little romantic in-joke that only I knew about (Robert Hunt has quite forgotten ever having made that off-hand remark to me; I've asked him).
But there's a universe in those books. There's enough great writing in Remembrance of Things Past for a dozen great books. The "architecture" itself, of the work as a whole, is enough to make it an amazing achievement. Only one famous thought, of how a simple Madeline dipped in tea could open a flood of memories and bring them to glorious life again, is also enough. And then when you combine it with the masterful pages in the last volume where he explains the connection between that feeling and the essence of any truly artistic endeavor, you end up with the greatest justification as to why anyone creates I have ever read or heard of; something far more complex, human, and noble than the offhand gropings for immortality most people usually assume creativity to be.