What follows is a list of 101 novels that are highly worth reading in their own rights but assembled here to examine the nature of the novel, its strengths and the variety of ways it can communicate. I plan occasionally to comment on these books, and when I do, I will add a link to the entry below. I had one time considered this a list of novels that all literate people should read, but then I realized that literacy in that sense is rapidly losing its appeal as a virtue, and, after all, whom am I to tell the few literate people left how to spend their time?
After the list I explain how it was constructed (and why), pre-emptively defend myself from charges of pretentiousness and of course I berate unsuspecting academics for being even more pretentious than myself.
For those who make it past those excessively long remarks, you will find lists by others, who, for reasons that I explain, put in far less thought than I did.
(1) Things Fall Apart (1958)
(2) Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon [Gabriela, cravo e canela] (1962)
Miguel Ángel Asturias
(3) The President [El señor Presidente] (1946)
(4) Men of Maize [Hombres de maíz] (1949)
(5) Mansfield Park (1814)
Honoré de Balzac
(6) Father Goriot [Le Père Goriot] (1835)
(7) Petersburg [Петербургъ] (1913; rev. 1922)
(8) Billiards at Half-Past Nine [Billard um halb zehn] (1959)
(9) The Sleepwalkers [Die Schlafwandler] (1931-32)
(10) The Death of Virgil [Der Tod des Vergil] (1945)
(11) The Way of All Flesh (1903)
(12) The Stranger [L’Étranger] (1942)
(13) The Plague [La Peste] (1947)
(14) Auto-da-Fé [Die Blendung] (1935)
(15) The Kingdom of this World [El reino de este mundo] (1949)
Camilo José Cela
(16) The Hive [La colmena] (1951)
(17) Journey to the End of Night [Voyage au bout de la nuit] (1932)
(18) The Steppe [Степь] (1888)
J. M. Coetzee
(19) Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
(20) Nostromo (1904)
(21) Hopscotch [Rayuela] (1963)
(22) Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893; rev. 1896)
(23) Moll Flanders (1722)
(24) Bleak House (1852-53)
(25) Our Mutual Friend (1864-65)
(26) Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)
John Dos Passos
(27) U.S.A. (1930-36)
(28) Crime and Punishment [Преступлéние и наказáние](1866)
(29) The Idiot [Идио́т] (1889)
(30) Demons (The Possessed) [Бесы] (1872)
(31) The Brothers Karamazov [Бра́тья Карама́зовы] (1880)
(32) An American Tragedy (1925)
José Maria de Eça de Queirós
(33) The Sin of Father Amaro [O Crime do Padre Amaro] (1875)
(34) The Maias [Os Maias] (1888)
(35) Middlemarch (1871-72)
(36) Daniel Deronda (1876)
(37) Invisible Man (1953)
(38) As I Lay Dying (1930)
(39) The History of Tom Jones (1749)
(40) Madam Bovary (1857)
(41) Sentimental Education [L’Éducation sentimentale] (1869)
Ford Madox Ford
(42) The Good Soldier (1915)
(43) The Death of Artemio Cruz [La muerte de Artemio Cruz] (1962)
Gabriel García Márquez
(44) One Hundred Years of Solitude [Cien años de soledad] (1967)
(45) Love in the Time of Cholera [El amor en los tiempos del cólera] (1985)
Johann Wolfgang Goethe
(46) The Sorrows of Young Werther [Die Leiden des jungen Werthers] (1774)
(47) Dead Souls [Мёртвые ду́ши] (1842)
(48) Oblomov [Обломов] 1859)
(49) The Tin Drum [Die Blechtrommel] (1959)
(50) Life and Fate [Жизнь и судьба] (1959)
(51) Growth of the Soil [Markens Grød] (1917)
(52) Jude the Obscure (1895)
(53) The Good Soldier Švejk [Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války] (1921-23)
William Dean Howells
(54) The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885)
(55) Against Nature [À rebours] (1884)
(56) Portrait of a Lady (1881)
(57) The Wings of the Dove (1902)
(58) Ulysses (1922)
(59) Finnegans Wake (1939)
(60) The Trial [Der Process] (1925)
(61) Fatelessness [Sorstalanság] (1975)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
(62) The Leopard [Il Gattopardo] (1958)
(63) Sons and Lovers (1913)
(64) Under the Volcano (1947)
Machado de Assis
(65) Dom Casmurro (1899)
(66) The Magic Mountain [Der Zauberberg] (1924)
(67) Joseph and his Brothers [Joseph und seine Brüder] (1933-43)
(68) Doctor Faustus (1947)
(69) Adam Buenosayre (1948)
(70) A Cairo Trilogy (1956-57)
(71) Moby Dick (1851)
Comment on technique and J.M.W. Turner in The Lee Shore.
Very brief note in connection with comment on Pierre: Melville’s Metaphysics of Love
(72) The Confidence Man (1857)
(73) Beloved (1987)
(74) The Man without Qualities [Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften] (1930-43)
(75) Pale Fire (1962)
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
(76) A Grain of Wheat (1967)
(77) The Family Mashber [די מישפאכע מאשבער: Di mishpokhe Mashber] (1939, 1948)
(78) Doctor Zhivago [До́ктор Жива́го] (1957)
Benito Pérez Galdós
(79) Doña Perfecta (1876)
(80) Fortunata and Jacinta [Fortunata y Jacinta](1887)
(81) In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) [À la recherche du temps perdu] (1913-1927)
(82) The Doll [Lalka] (1887-89)
(83) V (1963)
(84) Clarissa (1748)
(85) The Voyeur [Le Voyeur] (1955)
(86) The Time of the Doves (In Diamond Square) [La plaça del diamant] (1962)
(87) Nausea [La Nausée] (1938)
(88) Bottom’s Dream [Zettels Traum] (1970)
(89) God’s Bits of Wood [Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu] (1960)
(90) Tristram Shandy (1759-67)
(91) Prae (1934)
William Makepeace Thackeray
(92) Vanity Fair (1847-48)
(93) War and Peace [Война и мир] (1869)
(94) Anna Karenina [Анна Каренина] (1877)
(95) Resurrection [Воскресение] (1899)
(96) Fathers and Sons [Отцы и дети] (1862)
A comparison with Grossman’s Life and Fate in Grossman’s Life and Fate (Part III)
(97) The Mysterious Stranger (1916)
(98) Mrs Dalloway (1925)
(99) To the Lighthouse (1927)
(100) L’Assommoir (1877)
(101) Germinal (1885)
Novels that also deserve mention. There are many novels that gave me great trouble in excluding them. So instead of just forgetting them, I’ll add an addendum. The following might as well have been listed, but then which ones should be cut to make room? And of course the rules of list-making prevent a list of 120 novels.
(addendum-1) Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
(addendum-2) Max Frisch, I’m not Stiller (1954);
(addendum-3) Lion Feuchtwanger, Jew Suss [Jud Süß] (1928);
(addendum-4) Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nuestra (1975);
(addendum-5) Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting [Kniha smíchu a zapomnění] (1979);
(addendum-6) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850);
(addendum-7) Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926);
(addendum-8) Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero in Our Time [Герой нашего времени] (1839, 1842, 1843);
(addendum-9) Norman Mailer, Executoner’s Song (1980);
(addendum-10) Thomas Mofolo, Chaka [Shaka] (1910?)
(addendum-11) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955);
(addendum-12) Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet of the Western Front [Im Westen nichts Neues] (1928)
(addendum-13) Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge [Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge] (1910);
(addendum-14) Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (1981)
(addendum-15) Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don [Тихий Дон] (1928–1932, 1940);
(addendum-16) Elizabeth Smart, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945);
(addendum-17) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich [Оди́н день Ива́на Дени́совича Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha] (1962)
(addendum-18) Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (1875);
(addendum-19) Patrick White, Voss (1957).
The Prevalence of Lists
(and a possible excuse for another)
Why (aside from the fact that it represents the internet’s most prevalent innovative literary form) a list? Surely there are enough lists.
Well, yes indeed there are, and you can see many of them at the end of this page. So,
Why another list?
List-making is both a pretentious undertaking and a lazy fad. But I hope to use this not to display my erudition or insult yours, but rather do something perhaps even more pretentious (but not lazy): to come to some conclusions about The Novel, or at least the narrative form that began in Europe around the beginning of the eighteenth century and spread everywhere that the European nations colonized (brutalized, undermined or whatever other term you prefer to describe Europe’s four centuries of imperial adventures). The 101 Novels above are exclusively “Western” in that sense and for that reason. It is a list based on old-fashioned intellectual history of cultural transmission
The Novel has survived, evolved and ar times thrived during that period when other art forms have gone by the wayside. (Narrative poems, for example, will probably never see a renaissance.) Pop sensibilities have not eliminated the literary novel (although the authors of the latter generally must make their living from other sources, so it is under economic siege). The graphic novel is just the latest form designed to make reading The Novel less arduous. It will find its audience but will not threaten to displace a genre of literary work that seems destined to last as long as printing continues. (If there is a threat, it may be digitalization, which, to me at least, makes sustained serious reading almost impossible. In fact, The Novel may be what keeps printing a viable technology.)
What does a novel do that makes it continually relevant despite changes in society, economics, technology, governing styles and fundamental life styles? The first attraction, I think, is that it allows the reader, in solitude, to contact, experience or commune with another consciousness for an extended period entirely through unadorned words. That other consciousness is the narrator.
I call the narrator a consciousness because while it is constructed, it is a sentience, for it has a point of view, and it is self-aware. Its self-awareness is shown in how it directs our own consciousness through an ordered sequence of thoughts, scenes and actions, the experience of which is how we interact with the narrator. In the process we must evaluate the narrator for its knowledge, honesty, bias, reliability and in doing so it becomes a person (a he or sher rather than an it). At the same time we evaluate the narrator, the narrator’s voice subtly is mixed with and becomes at least in part, our own consciousness. The point is much like Wilde’s explanation of his novel, Dorian Grey (a novel about reflections): “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” To change this a bit: The narrator is not reflecting on the events, but rather he/she is causing us to reflect on ourselves by following the narration.
The novels in the list allow for ample discussion about the nature of the narrator. But even if we concede that there is some stimulation in the solipsistic communion with an artificial consciousness, what is this communion about? In other words, is there anything that this activity supplies that we couldn’t derive from surfing the internet, for example? To put it plainly, do we learn anything?
President Obama said that reading novels led him to become a better citizen by teaching him empathy and by showing him that the world is more nuanced than many think. Of course, philosophy, history, science all can teach both other points of view and the nature of complexity and complexity of nature. What those disciplines teach can also be taught more efficiently because the principles are announced in a straight-forward manner and examples are supplied as supporting evidence. In novels, whatever is taught (and it’s not clear what the intent is at the beginning of each novel; there is no discipline being advanced) has to emerge from the sequence of incidents that make a story, which follows a chain of cause and effect that seemingly exists independently from what we are supposed to derive from the work. The novel can “teach” one big thing, such as the metaphysics of meaning that reveals itself in Moby Dick. Or the novelist can show us many little things, like Balzac does with his observations on rules, customs and usages of society, which arise out of, constrain and motivate his characters in their seeming disparate objectives. But whatever is “taught” is intertwined with and delivered by stories.
So what are stories, and why do we seek them? This is where most explanations of novels begin, but it is here we will end, because after much novel reading, I still have no answer. Perhaps seeking out stories is part of our evolutionary make up, because they make it easier for us to learn or retain certain “truths.” But how could such a trait ever be adaptively selective? One who learns stories is not more likely to survive (and reproduce) than those who don’t. It must have something to do with a supra-personal organization, “society” or whatever rules on a level above individual psychology. It is perhaps how we learn the “rules” of social relations. Maybe that is why myths and religious texts are told as stories. It is undoubtedly why societies write histories. Novels, however, probably do as much to undermine ordinary social rules as enforce them. So in the course of looking at these novels we can keep in mind the main question: why are we attracted to these long stories, delivered silently with words to one person experiencing it alone? There is probably more than one answer.
Finally, there is the relation between the narrator and the story that goes beyond the ordering, to something often called “style,” or “voice.” Frequently novels are judged on the basis of the precision and beauty of the language. Different ages have different standards for what constitutes beautiful writing. The Victorian prose of George Eliot contrasts sharply with the lyricism of Flaubert. Moreover the precisely crafted but often heavy-laden sentences of Henry James are at one end of a spectrum that those of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway occupy the other, but the latter two novelists couldhardly be said to have similar “styles.” The style of some novels approaches poetic language (for example, Elizabeth Smart’s novel is often called a prose poem), but even pedestrian or “bad” writing does not necessarily destroy a great novel, as An American Tragedy shows. So along the way, we will have to see what “style” has to do with The Novel.
From what universe were these books selected?
At the beginning of the sprawling two-volume work he edited, The Novel (Princeton University Press: c2006), Franco Moretti makes several sweeping claims: The novel is 2000 years old; its history has a “geography that overlaps with the advent of world literature” (?!); it is “the first truly planetary form.” One of the (many) failings of this overly ambitious and pretentious work is that it fails to deliver on all three claims. One can call the Hellenistic prose fictions from the first century B.C.E. to about the fourth century C.E. “novels” only in the sense that every long prose fiction a “novel.” If the Hellenistic prose adventure stories, Chinese 12th century vernacular fictions, medieval romances are novels, then why are Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, the New Testament Gospels, the Bhagavad Gita and Maus not novels (and none of these are included in the Novel)? I suspect Moretti has to cast a wide net so that he can employ pretentious “cross discipline” and quasi-scientific approaches like “historical morphology,” the economics of book printing and various feints to (ill-defined) anthropology, psychoanalysis and sociology. It also allows him and his co-authors to largely avoid addressing the actual text of any major work despite nearly 2,000 pages. But collecting all these prose works together is like classifying bats, birds, insects and flying fish as a group of closely related animals (the Aviata?) because they all have wings. It is a lazy effort in what systematists would call polyphyly, and it seems to me it was done in order to avoid having to draw inferences of cultural transmission from the texts themselves.
But all art forms have to be understood as part of a tradition. It is how the art consumer orients himself. That tradition is what allows us to understand the intentions of the author and ultimately to judge the quality of the work. This is as true of revolutionaries as it is of traditionalists. After all, why but for the tradition he was rebelling against would anyone consider Duchamp’s Fountain art? How could one understand serialism without first understanding late romanticism? It is not particularly useful to compare Catcher in the Rye (1951) with Aithiopika (ca. 350 C.E.) because they really don’t participate in the same tradition. And to include them both in a group means that we can’t draw aesthetic conclusions except for the uselessly overly broad.
The tradition this list looks at is the tradition that developed mostly in England and France in the eighteenth century which produced prose fiction designed for the literate layman in the form of a self-contained story (with a beginning and end). This means it does not include prose stories that lent themselves to perpetual serialization. Defoe’s works are the ideal starting point because they fix the novel in a point of view that was the central approach at the beginning and for a large part of its history: a story told as though the narrator believed it and was explaining it to the reader for the latter’s edification. Therefore earlier picaresques such as Don Quixte, Gil Blas and Simplicius Simplicissimus, are excluded. (In Moretti’s The Novel, Joan Ramon Resina dismisses as pure “nominalism” the view I promote here and then describes the Siglo de Oro prose of Cervantes and his Castilian contemporaries as equally novels as Defoe’s. But nowhere in The Novel is there any mention of Simplicius Simplicissimus, a German prose picaresque, which also pre-dates the English novel and is equally “literary” (and more modern in outlook). Professor Resina, who teaches Iberian studies, can probably be excused his contribution’s focus. But that no one else thought Grimmelshausen worth noting seriously impugns the comprehensiveness of that project. Even if no one of the numerous contributors specialized in German baroque literature, one would have expected one of them to have read Mann’s Docktor Faustus. But enought of Moretti’s work.) To put it simply, it’s not in this list if it’s a vehicle for unending smaller adventures of the same characters. That is as true whether they are the adventures of the Lone Ranger or Don Quixote. (When we discuss Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger, we will have to consider the overly praised Huckleberry Finn in this regard.)
The list is made up of novels that followed the tradition I propose as each conformed, extended or revolted against it. So part of the commentary on these books will be on the placement of these books within that tradition. And for that purpose we will look at the text of the works and not the extraneous data Moretti finds interesting, such as sales figures.
Finally, the books are listed in alphabetical order by author. So the numbers imply no ranking. So there is no need to point out that Anna Karenina should be ranked “higher” than 94. And you will notice that the latest book in the list was published in 1989. (This will undoubtedly shock Millennials.) I have always thought that the significance of a work of art takes time to digest and consider. Maybe 1989 is still much too recent. But to explain why there are no more recent ones, I refer to the observation the concept of “instant classic” is not only an oxymoron but usually also as satisfying as “instant coffee.”
If you have read thus far, I congratulate and condole with you. And if you came here mainly for lists and not long self-justifications, narcissistic musings and unseemly bashing of “real” scholars, here is a reward. More lists:
A Listing of Lists
First, we can point to a publisher that should have known better, the Modern Library, which in 1998 made a list of 100 best novels, all written by American and British writers in the twentieth century (although some, e.g., Kim, just barely), the latter restriction requiring it to lop off much of the work of Henry James. And although it pushed the envelope for Kipling, it could not find room for John Updike. Perhaps more revealing than the tastes of the editors, however, was the list its “readers” came up with. Two authors took up seven of the top ten places, and they were not James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. They were Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard!
Radcliffe responded to the editors’ list with a “rival” list, one that as you might expect has a higher percentage of female novelists than the Modern Library list, but, unfortunately, to achieve that greater concentration, includes two works of Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (one notch above Finnegans’ Wake) and Atlas Shrugged. I wonder that Radcliffe women of the time had never heard of Elizabeth Bowen. They probbly would have benefitted from taking a trip to Widener Library. To their credit, however, the students of America’s toniest women’s college did not rank any of the works of the creator of Dianetics, perhaps because they are more comfortable with pseudo-intellectual Objectivism than pseudo-religious Scientology.
The Norwegian Bokklubben World Library has a list of the 100 best “books” of all time, which includes in addition to books in the physical sense, things written on clay tablets, scrolls and other media as well as works not intended to be read but rather performed and undefined series of many books, such as Chekhov’s “stories”). Interestingly, it has as many entries (three) for Franz Kafka as for William Shakespeare, which can perhaps be explained by principles of geographic determinism—the extremely long Nordic winter night producing the same effect on residents of Oslo as Dostoevsky experienced living in St. Petersburg (which lies on an identical latitude), and of course Dostoevsky has the most number of entries (four).
The Guardian has the 100 greatest novels of all time, which despite its not supposing to be limited to English language writers is not only Anglo-centric, but defiantly so: It lists Charlotte’s Web and Lord of the Rings, but no Goethe or Zola or Mann. And this may give you pause if you depend on The Guardian’s reportage on America: It lists Chandler’s The Big Sleep but not Ellison’s Invisible Man. Plus the only Hemingway is not a novel, but rather the short story collection, Men Without Women. True, the shorter the Hemingway, the better, but the title says “novels.” Otherwise, why isn’t Edgar Allen Poe or Alice Munro on the list? Or if you wanted to make the list less Anglophonic, Borges or Calvino or Chekhov, for god’s sake?
Time Magazine has the All TIME 100 novels which is limited to English writers (or writers in English) after 1923 (the year that Time began, to put it sententiously) and is selected by the organization that picked Hitler as Man of the Year in 1938, Stalin in both 1939 and 1942, you in 2006 and Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. The list is preceded by a long explanation that is supposed to make the endeavor seem pleasurable, but when you realize that you have to click each selection one at a time, you conclude you will quickly tire of this exercise. The point occurs seven clicks in when you are confronted with Judy Blume and a young adult novel. It gives one the nagging feeling that Time is not being quirky so much as living up to its reputation of making big deals over things of which it has no clue. Like making Harlow Curtice its Man of the Year in 1955.
The Telegraph has 100 novels everyone should read, a quirky list. It contains The Voyeur by Alain Robbe-Grillet, which suggests that the list had at least some contributions by those who read novels. It is interesting that Le Monde’s list of 100 books of the century, which is decidedly Francophile, does not include Robbe-Grillet.
Newsweek, in its usual ham-fisted way, mails in its list of top 100 books, which has 104 works, mostly English novels, but also the Bible, Winnie the Pooh and Mao, but not Plato. Margaret Mitchell is included in the same list as Dante, Homer, Shakespeare, Darwin and John Maynard Keynes, which might suggest the editors compiled the list on the edge of a mushroom quietly smoking a long hookah, except there is no indication they read Alice in Wonderland since it’s not on the list. We are therefore forced to conclude that the guiding force behind the compilation which creates every week the witless periodica; known as Newsweek, the magazine for the semi-literate.
After considering those lists, I’m confident you will not judge mine decidedly worse.