Monday, July 7, 2014

100 novels

The Best Hundred Novels. Which Are They? A Suggested List. From a Correspondent with Qualms.
From The Daily News (London), March 14, 1899
Discussed in this post:
"100 novels everyone should read," The Telegraph (UK), June 20, 2104:
"A hundred books to read for pleasure," in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014
"A hundred novels," in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel by Jane Smiley, Knopf, 2006
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, Universe, 2006
"Most of the numerous attempts to draw up a list of the hundred best books, or the hundred best novels, have been distressing failures; and it may be said that nobody has ever succeeded in this sort of thing to such an extent as to justify the belief that it would be possible to draw up a list which would satisfy anyone but the maker."
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent Supplement (UK). April 22, 1899.

I'm in full accord with the anonymous Sheffield reviewer, who was commenting on the "100 Best Novels in the World," a list that had just been published in what was then The Daily Telegraph. I don't think I've ever read a literary list that I didn't disagree with in small or large ways. Matters aren't helped when "everyone" is invoked—"everyone" in the Telegraph's case really meaning only English-language readers (the lists developed by French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Urdu, or Japanese readers would undoubtedly be very different). Nor when superlatives and imperatives like "best," "should," or "must" are insisted on.

Which is why I appreciate Wendy Lesser's emphasis on enjoyment in her list of "books to read for pleasure." Isn't that why we read in the first place? At least since I graduated college, I've rarely picked up a book because someone else told me I had to.

Jane Smiley doesn't tell us why she's writing her list; they're simply "a hundred novels." But presumably she's recommending them as something more than just illustrations of thirteen ways of looking at a novel. Of course, it's that sense of personal endorsement that makes lists of this kind so irresistible for readers. And it's the dissatisfaction with other people's lists that makes creating more of them so irresistible for writers.

The Telegraph's "100 novels everyone should read"* smacks of list-making by committee, and it actually presumes to rank the books from #100 to #1. The list contains a high proportion of usual suspects, but it also contains some surprises, both in what's included (or excluded) and where books are ranked:
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (#11) doesn't make the top 10, but J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (#8) does.
  • P.G. Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters (#15) and Wells's War of the Worlds (#19) are, according to the Telegraph's editors, more urgent to read than Flaubert's Madame Bovary (#23) or Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (#68).
  • Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual (#29), an unusual (but excellent) choice, even more surprisingly comes in ahead of Nabokov's Lolita (#54) and Calvino's If On a Winter's Night A Traveler (#69).
  • Other unusual inclusions: Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur (#45), Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (#58) and J.G. Ballard's Crash (#68).
  • Less justifiable inclusions: Ian McEwan's Atonement (#30), John Updike's four-plus Rabbit books (#43), Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (#53), Martin Amis's London Fields (#59), Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie (#75), and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy (#97). Are any of these really books that everyone should read? And all but Hitchhiker's Guide are, incredibly, ranked above Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (#78) or Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (#88).
  • Surprising omissions: To name a few authors picked virtually at random, where are Voltaire, Thackeray, D.H. Lawrence, or Faulkner?
Oh—at #1? George Eliot's Middlemarch. No argument from me there.

My tally:  I've read 55% of the Telegraph's 100—not very impressive, but the news will get worse with Lesser's and Smiley's lists.

Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from the Telegraph's 100:
  • Honoré de Balzac's Old Goriot, described as "a disillusioning dose of Bourbon Restoration realism. The anti-hero 'Rastingnac' became a byword for ruthless social climbing."
  • Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, an "epistolary adventure whose heroine’s bodice is savagely unlaced by the brothel-keeping Robert Lovelace." I confess, though, to being daunted by the 1500-page length of the Penguin edition (which has small print!).
  • Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, in which "Northern villagers turn their bonnets against the social changes accompanying the industrial revolution."
Lesser's "A hundred books to read for pleasure" and Smiley's "A hundred novels" attempt to defuse criticism at the start. Lesser orders the books alphabetically by author, while Smiley orders them chronologically. Neither author makes the Telegraph's sort of insupportable claims about the relative rank of the books they've chosen, or about the superior quality and significance of their choices.

Lesser's and Smiley's lists aren't quite comparable. Lesser's list includes short story, novella and poetry collections, as well as a few nonfiction titles: Edmund de Waal's story of the fortunes of his family and their netsuke collection, The Hare with Amber Eyes; Geoff Dyer's book on D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage; Alexander Herzen's memoir My Past and Thoughts; Norman Mailer's "history as a novel" Armies of the Night, about his participation in the 1967 March on Washington; Janet Malcom's savage portrait of renegade psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, In the Freud Archives; and George Orwell's exploration of the condition of the working class in Northern England, Road To Wigan Pier. Smiley's list is exclusively of novels (broadly defined for pre-18th century works).

Smiley's list is smuttier than Lesser's: she includes Boccaccio's Decameron, Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, de Sade's Justine, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Nicholson Baker's Vox, none of which makes Lesser's list. Smiley also includes more pre-19th-century literature, while Lesser focusses mainly on 20th-century works. Smiley includes multiple titles for a few author entries, which leads to some odd imbalances: Nancy Mitford gets three titles, and P.G. Wodehouse four (!), while Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf are each limited to one.

There were definitely some surprises on both lists:
  • Lesser has a weakness for crime novels: she includes Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios, Ross MacDonald's The Blue Hammer, Henning Mankell's Sidetracked, Richard Price's Clockers, and Highsmith's Ripley novels (but no Hammett or Chandler).
  • Smiley is evidently something of a horror fan, including on her list Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
  • Unusual inclusions: Lesser includes literary takes on crime fiction in Javier Marías's A Heart So White and on science fiction in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Smiley includes highly self-conscious retellings of older narratives in T.H. White's Once and Future King, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and John Gardner's Grendel.
  • Most obscure entries: Lesser includes Der Nister's Family Mashber, while Smiley includes Jetta Carleton's Moonflower Vine, neither of which I had ever heard of before.
My tally: I've read 37% of Smiley's 112 titles, and 29% of Lesser's 100 entries.

Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from Lesser's 100:
  • J.G. Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, a novel set during the 1857 Indian Uprising, and winner of the 1973 Booker Prize.
  • George Gissing's New Grub Street, featuring the "alarmingly modern young men" of the late-Victorian literary world.
  • Eça de Queirós's The Maias, a sprawling family saga that is a Portuguese literary classic.
Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from Smiley's 112:
  • Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, an answer book to Boccaccio's Decameron.
  • Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote, whose heroine expects her life to mirror the plot of a romance novel.
  • Tobias Smollett's Expedition of Humphry Clinker, an epistolary novel in which different characters have radically different perspectives on the same events.
How they compare
So how do the three lists of "100 novels" agree? As it turns out, not very well:

Books on all three lists: (there are only 2—are these really the consensus choices for the most recommendable novels?)
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Authors on all three lists represented by different books: (15)
Jane Austen, Persuasion (L, S); Pride and Prejudice (T)
Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette (L, S); Old Goriot (T)
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (L, T); Foe (S)
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (L, S); The Moonstone (S, T)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (S, T); Under Western Eyes (L)
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (L, T); A Tale of Two Cities (S)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (L, T); The Idiot (S)
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (S, T); Sentimental Education (L)
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (S, T); The Golden Bowl (L); The Awkward Age (S)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (S, T); The Innocent (L)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (S, T); Great Short Works (L)
Stendahl, The Red and the Black (S, T); The Charterhouse of Parma (L)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (S, T); War and Peace (L)
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (L); Last Chronicle of Barset (S); The Eustace Diamonds (S); The Warden (T) [as long as we're allowing series, I would have chosen The Chronicles of Barsetshire; if only one novel, The Way We Live Now]
Emile Zola, The Ladies' Paradise (L); Thérèse Raquin (S); Germinal (T)
Books on two of the three lists: (26)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (S, T)
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (S, T)
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (L, T)
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (S, T)
Arthur Conan Doyle, Hound of the Baskervilles (S, T)
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (S, T)
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard (L, T)
George Eliot, Middlemarch (S, T)
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (S, T)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (S, T)
James Joyce, Ulysses (S, T)
Franz Kafka, The Trial (S, T)
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (S, T)
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (S, T)
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (L, S)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (S, T)
Lady Murasaki, A Tale of Genji (S, T)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (S, T)
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (S, T)
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (S, T)
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (S, T)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (S, T)
Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience (L, S)
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (L, T)
Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (S, T)
Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (L, S)
Authors on two of the three lists, represented by different books: (18)
Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star (L); Savage Detectives (T)
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day (L); The Death of the Heart (S)
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (L); As I Lay Dying (S)
Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End (L); The Good Soldier (S)
Nicolai Gogol, Collected Tales (L); Taras Bulba (S)
Graham Greene, The Quiet American (L); Brighton Rock (T)
D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (L); Lady Chatterley's Lover (S)
Naguib Mahfouz, The Harafish (S); The Cairo Trilogy (T)
Alice Munro, Friend of My Youth (L); Lives of Girls and Women (S)
Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea (S); Under the Net (T)
George Orwell, Road To Wigan Pier (L); 1984 (T)
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (S); Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (T)
Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh (L); Midnight's Children (T)
W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (L); Austerlitz (T)
Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent (S); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (T)
Ivan Turgenev, Virgin Soil (L); Fathers and Sons (S)
John Updike, Complete Henry Bech (S); The Rabbit books (T)
P.G. Wodehouse, The Return of Jeeves (S); Bertie Wooster Sees It Through (S); Spring Fever (S); The Butler Did It (S); Code of the Woosters (T)
Virginia Woolf, Orlando (S); Mrs. Dalloway (T)
(If it's not obvious, in the lists above, L = Lesser, S = Smiley, T = Telegraph; the books are listed alphabetically by author.)

All in all, there are 30 titles and 44 authors in common between Smiley and the Telegraph, 8 titles and 25 authors in common between Lesser and the Telegraph, and 8 titles and 27 authors in common between Smiley and Lesser (we suspect that Lesser may have been deliberately trying to avoid duplicating titles on Smiley's list).

What does all this comparison say? Only that consensus remains elusive about the novels we should, or at least might want to, read. As the comment in the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent indicates, there was significant disagreement about this question 115 years ago; and as the number of novels published in the intervening years has vastly increased, choices have only gotten more difficult.

Clearly, there is no list of 100 (or even 1001) books that will offer the same pleasures and joys to all readers. So what's the purpose of lists like these? Simply to alert others about the books in which we've found enjoyment, wisdom, a reflection of our common humanity, or a "shiver of artistic satisfaction" (Nabokov's phrase, from Lectures on Literature). And in the hope that among the books we've admired, others might also find something worthwhile. As Lesser writes in the introduction to her list in Why I Read, "Composing a list like this is one of those tasks that can be stopped but never finished, and now it is up to you to carry on" (p. 209). Even if you do so with qualms.

In that spirit, I offer 11 worthy authors and novels that didn't make any of these lists:
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita
Fanny Burney, Cecilia
Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
Harry Mathews, The Journalist
Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
William Thackeray, Vanity Fair**
For some additional overlooked authors and titles, please see my post on 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Update 31 July 2014: The Guardian and The Observer newspapers have published their own list of "The 100 greatest novels of all time," selected and discussed by Robert McCrum. McCrum's list is notable for including books often classified as children's or young adult literature, such as Wind in the Willows, Charlotte's Web, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and Philip Pullman's Northern Lights, none of which appear on any of the other lists.

Which got me curious about other titles that appear on this list that don't appear on any of the others—and there are a lot of them:
John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progess (#2 (!))
Jane Austen, Emma (#9)
Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (#14)
Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (#15)
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (#20)
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (#28)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (#29)
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (#33)
George Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody (#35)
Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (#37)
Jack London, The Call of the Wild (#38)
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (#39)
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (#40)
D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (#42)
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (#43)
Ernest Hemingway, Men Without Women (#50)
Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (#51)
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (#53)
John Dos Passos, USA (#55)
Albert Camus, The Plague (#58)
Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies (#60)
E.B. White, Charlotte's Web (#63)
William Golding, Lord of the Flies (#66)
Saul Bellow, Herzog (#75)
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (#77)
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (#79)
Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing (#80)
Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song (#81)
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (#84)
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (#85)
Alasdair Gray, Lanark (#86)
Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (#87)
Roald Dahl, The BFG (#88)
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (#89) [short stories]
Martin Amis, Money (#90)
Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World (#91)
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (#93)
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (#94)
James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential (#95)
Angela Carter, Wise Children (#96)
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (#98) [American title: The Golden Compass]
Philip Roth, American Pastoral (#99)
Writers in bold appear on at least one of the other lists with a different title.

* All of these lists include more than 100 books, of course. The Telegraph list is 116 books long because it counts series such as Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Updike's Rabbit books, Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as single titles. Lesser's list of 100 books includes collections such as Melville's Great Short Works (Billy Budd plus 19 short stories), Highsmith's Complete Ripley Novels (four novels) and Ford's Bascombe Novels (three novels). Smiley's list is not only 101 entries long, she includes both series (In Search of Lost Time) and collections (Updike's Complete Henry Bech), and occasionally includes multiple titles in an author's entry. So her list of "a hundred novels" is actually 112 titles long, or 120 if each volume of the Proust and Updike are counted as individual books.

** I was mistaken; Vanity Fair appears on Jane Smiley's list.


  1. That is a super-duper-ooper analysis of 100 book lists! I salute your perseverance and skill. I'm also surprised to see that the Master and Margarita didn't make any list.

    1. Or Vanity Fair! I think if I were making a list of the top 25 novels of the 19th century Vanity Fair would be on it, but somehow none of the listmakers thought that we "should" read it, or even that we might like to read it for pleasure. And Machado de Assis is astonishing; that he was writing in the 19th century in Brazil is scarcely credible, his novels seem so modern. That he remains relatively unknown is unfortunate, and is exactly the sort of readerly neglect that lists of this kind are meant to address.

      Thanks for your comment!