Sunday, August 14, 2011

What do you think are the best novels in English?

I'm supposed to be finishing writing an article on women and the Hekhalot literature, but instead I just read an entertaining article (and comment thread) on Slate about overrated fiction. Much of the comment thread was actually about books that people really liked. I then took a look at the Modern Library list of 100 Best Novels and thought I'd say something about them. (This is the list put together by their literary board, not the Reader's list).

Well, first of all, how many of them have I actually read?

1. Ulysses - I might have tried to read a little of this when I was first year college student, to try to understand some of Joyce's linguistic experimentation, but I didn't get very far through it.

2. The Great Gatsby - I probably read this in high school, but I don't remember it at all.

3. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - I read this in Expository Writing during my first semester at college, and loved it. I didn't love having to write a lit crit paper about it, however. I also loved Dubliners.

5. Brave New World - I read it in high school, liked it then because I liked reading dystopias.

7. Catch-22: Also read it in high school, but wonder if I would still like it.

9. Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence: I went through a D.H. Lawrence phase when I was in my late teens, but then decided I really didn't like how he depicted women.

13. 1984 - also read this in high school, and most of Orwell's other fiction, as well as all of his non-fiction, which I still sometimes reread. He's one of my favorite political writers, although he had some unpleasant lapses. I haven't been able to find anything he wrote about the Holocaust (which of course wasn't called that at the time, but he writes very little about the persecution of the Jews in any of his WWII writings).

17. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. I read this and all of her other books when I was a late teenager also - such a beautiful writer.

18. Slaughterhouse-Five - read this along with lots of Vonnegut's other books in my teens and early 20s. I think I preferred Mother Night.

19. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - I think I tried to read this in high school. It was one of those books that I thought I *should* read.

23. USA trilogy by John Dos Passos - I read this on my own in high school and really liked it for its depiction of how American life felt (at the time he wrote it).

29. Studs Lonigan trilogy by Farrell - also read it on my own in high school and also liked it.

39. Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin. His writing is heartbreakingly lovely.

52. Portnoy's Complaint. I tried to read it in high school, but just found it disgusting. I'd probably get more out of it now.

64. Catcher in the Rye - also read it when I was a teenager. A lot of the Slate writers and commenters hated it, but I don't remember feeling very strongly about it.

65. A Clockwork Orange - I enjoyed trying to figure out the Russian in the jargon Burgess invented, but there were too many revolting events in the book really to enjoy it.

71. A High Wind in Jamaica - I loved this book.

78. Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. I read this book because I read Laurie King's Sherlock Holmes Pastiche of it, The Game. Kim is really great - better than Laurie King, I have to say. When I was in high school I read a lot of Kipling's shorter fiction and poems.

The Reader's List starts off with some very dubious novels - Ayn Rand's and L. Ron Hubbard's book at the top of the list?! The Scientologists must have spammed the voting. It also includes some books I really like, but I don't know if I'd include them in a list of "best novels" - Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird (loved it as a child, although it makes me wince a bit now). There's a lot of science fiction on the list - two by Heinlein, Dune by Frank Herbert. Oops, I didn't go down far enough on the list, because there's more than 2 Heinleins, including The Door into Summer, which I always loved because of the cat character - who was always looking for the door into summer. The Reader's List also includes The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie). I bought it when it was first published - I was living in Israel at the time and it wasn't very easy to get hold of. I found a copy by going to the Jerusalem International Book Fair, where you could order it from an anonymous bookseller (no kidding - Rushdie's life and those of his translators and publishers had been threatened by Iran). My copy came in the mail a couple of weeks later and I tried valiantly to read it, but didn't get more than 100 pages in.


  1. I confess to being a bigger non-fiction than fiction reader. However, a number of the listed books are really goods books - whether or not they are the top 10, top 100, assuming that concept has any meaning.

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is, well, magnificent. It is readable and, to note, the description of Hell - and what is going through the head of Stephen Dedalus when he listens to the description - is like none other.

    So is A Clockwork Orange, although it is a minor work, as I see it, compared with Portrait of the Artist.

    I liked Slaughterhouse-Five but I am not sure it is Vonnegut's best work. What about Cat's Cradle? Breakfast of Champions, anyone?

    I am not an Ayn Rand fan - not being a libertarian - but The Fountainhead is not a bad piece of fiction.

    By the way, where are Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter? Most literary types rank those books very high, although I did not much enjoy either of them.

    I would also add Saul Bellow's great work, Humbolt's Gift. It is hard to put down. Then again, any Dan Brown book is hard to put down, so I suppose that is not enough. Actually, I like Dan Brown a lot - a guilty pleasure.

    N. Friedman

  2. I just listed the ones that I had read. Actually, I did try to read Moby Dick in high school - couldn't get through it. I had to read the Scarlet Letter, unfortunately.

    It's strange how many of these books were ones that I had to read - not that I chose to read.

    As for Dan Brown - he is a terrible writer, but his books are written so that there is a cliffhanger in every chapter. You have to keep on reading in order to discover what happens next.