No one asked. But a blogging buddy who posts by the name of “Cafe Book Bean” recently posted five of the Classics she has on her bucket list. It gave rise to some reflection on my part: what novels would I list as my top ten? I exclude great books in philosophy, psychology, or the sciences — such as Darwin’s Origin of the Species. This list includes novels that I have the highest possible regard for, though I would add that in the case of most of the authors you can’t go wrong in reading anything they wrote! Huxley is the exception since Brave New World is his only literary work, to my knowledge. But in the case of such authors as Austen, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Wharton, and, of course George Eliot you really cannot go wrong. So (wait for it) here’s the list:
- Eliot: Middlemarch
- Dostoevsky: Brothers Karamazov
- Conrad: Heart of Darkness
- Austen: Pride and Prejudice
- Tolstoy: War and Peace
- Wharton: The Age of Innocence
- Melville: Moby Dick
- Narayan: The Guide
- Balzak: Lost Illusions
- Huxley: Brave New World
I have omitted novels by such excellent writers as Wallace Stegner (whose Angle of Repose is superb) and Barbara Kingsolver who is also outstanding –one of the very best who is still writing. And I might also note that the Book Bean also recommended to me novels by Amy Tan and I have read The Hundred Secret Senses. She is a remarkable writer and I look forward to reading more of her novels. But for now, that’s the lot.
Please note that I have omitted other great books by such authors as Dante, Plato, Camus, and Kant because their works are so decidedly philosophical and I have tried to stick with literature, per se. But they also warrant reading for those who have the time and the inclination. Strange to say, the list is hard to come up with because I didn’t want to leave off such great works as Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and House of Mirth by Wharton, Victory by Joseph Conrad, and Sense and Sensibility by Austen. I would also add that I do not regard Huxley’s novel as great literature, but it is one of the most thought-provoking and engrossing novels I have ever read and it demands a place on this list.
One final comment about the list: I highly recommend the translations of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy by Pevear and Volokhonsky. They have translated all of Dostoevsky’s major novels as well as War and Peace. Their translations (I am told by those who read Russian) read about as close to the original as a translation can hope to do.
As I have noted in previous posts, we live at a time when many both within and without the Academy regard any such list as bogus, because, they say, there is no such thing as greatness. I regard this claim as spurious and suspect at times that those who make the criticism have not read most, if any, of the books they reject. A great book, like any great work of art, is so because it still has something to tell us, it is extremely well done, and it invites repeated visits. Each visit brings with it new insights and a flood of new ideas. Great books provide hours of pleasure and expand the mind. The books on the above list fit those criteria. Thanks for reading!
Great list. I need to read Middlemarch. I feel left out. Right now I am reading the Hamilton biography, which is excellent. My daughter who loves the new musical, on which it is based, got it for me for Christmas.
Very nice list, Hugh! And your list is of “novels,” so you really aren’t omitting Dante, Plato, Darwin, etc. since they didn’t write novels — their works could be a separate list! You have a wonderful range of topics and eras on this list. … Keith, the Hamilton biography is one of the very best biographies I have ever read. It reveals what an important, and too often forgotten, figure he was in the founding of America.
Yeah. I’ll need to come up with another list!! Thanks, Dana.
Excellent list. I could never come up with a top ten. I wouldn’t want to hurt the other books’ feelings. I’m ashamed that I haven’t yet read War and Peace. I have it sitting on the shelf, chastising me. Yes, I personify books…
So do I. I can’t imagine reading them on an iPad, or whatever. The look, feel and smell of a book are part of the pleasure — as is the ability to underline and go back later and wonder why I underlined that particular statement!!
I have a Kindle Paperwhite so that I can read late at night without waking my husband, but it will never replace my physical collection. I can also access free classics on Amazon and through Project Gutenberg. I keep telling myself I need to pare down my books, but it’s too hard. The only way I can let them go is if they go to a good home. If I think someone will like a particular book, I SOMETIMES gift it to them. 🙂