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!