Five Books: Robert McCrum’s list of the best novels in English

Over at Five Books, writer and journalist John Robert McCrum (also an associate editor of The Observer) has compiled a list of his Five Best Novels in English, and also makes some thoughtful remarks about other novels and the genre in general. (The interviewer is my friend Sophie Roell, whose questions to McCrum are in bold.) It’s interesting that three of the five are by women—and were written in an era when women novelists were very scarce.  I’ll show pictures of the books and give a few quotes that I like (indented) as well as my own remarks (flush left). I’ve read four of the five.

I’m not sure how old this piece is, but McCrum published a longer version of his list in book form, The 100 Best Novels in English, in 2015—surely a book I’ll read, as it’ll guide me to good novels I’ve missed.

Voilà: the books and comments:

You’ve got to have Jane Austen. She’s the first serious novelist. She is treating the novel in a way that we understand and creating an art form. I chose Emma. It would have been easier to choose Pride and Prejudicebecause it’s everyone’s favourite—it tops polls regularly. But if you want something a little bit more considered… It’s the most mature of the seven. I also happen to think the character of Emma is delightful and fascinating. She has all of the classic Austen heroine characteristics but, at the same time, she’s a bit more than that. She seems almost modern. You can imagine having a conversation with her on a train or a bus. You couldn’t necessarily imagine doing that with someone like Anne Elliot in Persuasion. It’s also a book that I first read when I was at school, so it’s a personal favourite.

This one I haven’t read, but I will:

So this is thirty years after the death of Jane Austen, it’s a generation on. It’s light years away. You couldn’t imagine anyone further from the world of Mr Woodhouse than Healthcliff. It’s about as far as it’s possible to get. But it’s very influential and Romantic. It fits into the Romantic movement in a way that Austen doesn’t.

By ‘Romantic’ what do you mean exactly?

It means a sensibility that celebrates being set free from convention. They’re very subtle, but every single character in Austen is—in one way or another—conventional. They pay tribute to the conventions of ordinary life. Whereas Cathy—and all of Emily Brontë’s characters—are more or less feral. That’s why we love them. It’s a different world, it’s a mad world. In some ways, Emily Brontë is more of a poet. But she has inspired many subsequent writers of fiction.

Yes, a superb novel!

Tell me about Middlemarch, A Study in Provincial Life which is from 1874. What makes this a great novel?

It’s partly the sheer ambition of it. Eliot was absolutely determined to paint a serious, detailed picture of provincial life. The other radical thing was to do it from the point of view of a disappointed woman. Dorothea is a very enthralling portrait.

What else is Eliot trying to do? Is it a social critique? Was she trying to warn people not to marry the wrong person?

It’s not that explicit. It’s more about the choices that you might make as a woman—or indeed as a man.

Is it about what it is to be a good person?

Yes. That’s another element of the book, that it has a very strong moral core. This is why someone like F. R. Leavis chose it in The Great Tradition. That’s a new development. Until Eliot’s time, the primary consideration was to be entertaining. Virginia Woolf famously said Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” I think that’s quite a good description actually. It’s also an amazing portrait of a moment, like a cathedral. It’s vast and seems to extend in every direction when you’re in it.

This is one of my favorite novels, thanks to my friend Gail (an English professor) who, long ago, sent me a copy of this book with the inscription, “If you don’t like this book, you can’t be my friend.” Fortunately, we remain friends.

Let’s go on to book number 4 on your list: Huckleberry Finn. Now, this is your only choice from the United States.

Yes, I think we have to have it. Hemingway said that all American fiction comes from Huckleberry Finn. That’s true, in the sense that Twain invented a way of looking at the American experience and putting it into fiction. I think almost every American writer has to acknowledge that. He is for Americans as important as Chaucer might be for us. He’s a pioneer and shapes the terms of trade of American fiction writing for a long time. He was able to turn the American vernacular into literature.

McCrum is right on the money here, and it’s a very great book. If you haven’t read it, you must.

Your final book, number five, is Ulysses—published in 1922.

Interestingly, that’s the same year as The Waste Land. You get these two modernist masterpieces in the same year—one at the beginning of the year, one at the end. One barely fifteen pages—one closer to a thousand pages. It’s like the North and the South Pole.

What is a modernist novel?

It’s a novel published after about 1910. It’s a novel that takes the traditional elements of place and time and mashes them up and reorders them. It attempts to capture the flow of human thought and human experience on the page in words and has no apparent interest in the conventions of the Victorian novel. It’s trying to represent the ordinary world in prose. Ulysses is a very brilliant, highly original attempt to put one man’s experience on one day to the pages of a book.

In your book, you point out that it has been said that ‘English-language fiction since 1922 has been a series of footnotes to James Joyce’s masterpiece.’

That’s certainly true about a lot of novels. I was reading this year’s Booker Prize shortlist and every one of those feels like a footnote. They’re just so trivial—each doing one thing that Joyce is probably doing a hundred times more brilliantly and in more different ways on any given page of Ulysses.

It’s quite hard to understand, though. When I tried to read it age 20, my then boyfriend’s mother said the only way to read it was with a guide which would explain what was going on. At which point I gave up. I liked your suggestion, though that Ulysses is not that hard to read if you listen to a good audiobook version…

Listening to it is a good way because you hear it differently. Also because Joyce’s ear for the music of language is so extraordinary. I recommend it very highly.

very great novel, but I had to start it three or four times before I finally finished it. It’s not an easy read, but it repays the labor. And now I want to listen to it on audiobook, as per McCrum’s suggestion.

I won’t list my own favorite novels, as I believe I’ve done that several times, but if you’d like, put yours below.

140 Comments

  1. Merilee
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  2. Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    I know this is heresy, but I thought that Tom Sawyer was a better book than Huck Finn.

    The problem with the latter is that, after the first third, the events all happen around Huck, but it becomes no longer really about Huck, who is just there as a hook for a series of set pieces that happen around him. The character of Huck doesn’t develop much beyond what’s already in Tom Sawyer.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Definitely heresy.

      • GBJames
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

        and sub

    • Craw
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I can understand liking TS more, as HF rambles, but you are quite wrong about your reason. The central theme of HF is Huck accepting that he’s a worthless no-good (by the standards of his upbringing and society) because he decides to help Jim.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      It’s a commonplace among critics that the last third of Huck is a bit of a hash. But I listened to a lecture not long ago by a Twain scholar who maintains that that was Twain’s intention — that the novel, being an allegory for the slave experience, was meant to capture in its last third the chaos and disappointments of Reconstruction (which had ended less than a decade before Twain wrote the novel).

      • revelator60
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        If it’s an allegory it’s a pretty unsatisfying one, and doesn’t seem in character for Twain, whose work is notorious for rambling. The problem with the last third of the novel is that it forgets about Huck and Jim and reverts to being a Tom Sawyer hi-jink, except in this case Tom’s having fun at Jim’s expense. I can’t think of another great novel that ends so badly. In any case, The Great Gatsby would get my vote as the great American novel.

  3. Posted December 12, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s like listing your favorite movies. Or songs. Almost impossible to be fair, but, in no particular here are 5 of my favs;

    The Satanic Verses
    Slaughterhouse Five
    My Name is Red
    Love in the Time of Cholera
    Austerlitz

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      Two thumbs up for Austerlitz; and for Sebald’s other works, come to that.

      • Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

        The Emigrants was beautiful.

  4. Patrick Clark
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Ulysses….I am impressed that it only took you 3 or 4 attempts….it took me more than that. I was in Dublin recently and took a tour that followed the books progress. My take away was that it is easier to follow the route that he wrote about than it is to read about what he wrote about the route. The book was, ultimately, worth the effort.

    • Craw
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Having read it I can let those who haven’t in on a secret. People who read it and found it not remotely worth the trouble have a strong incentive to say what a great book it is. So, let me say it’s a great book…. Never mind that it established its reputation in a version full of errors, all of which were, at the time, lauded as brilliancies. (Readers of religious apologetics or intelligent design will have encountered similar things.)

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Oh, Ulysses is easy … compared to Finnegans Wake, anyway. 🙂

      • Craw
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        There’s a new edition: Finnegan’s Woke. Finnegan it seems is an intersectional leprechaun fighting Green privilege.

        • Merilee
          Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          Finnegan’s Woke – +1

        • Posted December 13, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

          THAT is a good one! 🙂

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      I have read it many times (actually re-reading it at the moment), and I learn something new each time. It’s not really about the route: the route is just a device to structure the story (as are the Homeric underpinnings).

      There are so many literary, historical, political, religious and cultural references in the book that one cannot hope to catch them all, even after several readings. The bare bones of the story are simple enough, and it’s perhaps worth boning up on these beforehand. But reading Ulysses with a crib at your elbow slows things up too much. Plunge in, and skip any bits you don’t understand at first!

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

      A book similarly difficult to both put down and understand is Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

      • bric
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        “What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” – T S Eliot, who published the novel

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      If you took the Ulysses tour I did you must have been sloshed by the end of it.

  5. Craw
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    In English?
    Middlemarch
    Tom Jones
    The Good Soldier
    Catch-22
    The Grapes Of Wrath

    • MKray
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

      yes, Tom Jones!

    • chewy
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Catch-22 has gotta be on the list, or I dismiss the compiler for a fool.

      This list is a bit sad for its datedness. Has English lit really been that dead for so long?

      • Craw
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        Really? 600 years of English lit, I pick 3 books written in the past 100 of them, and it’s ancient? Maybe you need to read more from eras not your own?

      • Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Just because one author’s opinion is that the five best novels are all quite old does not mean that English literature is dead.

        Shakespeare wrote all his plays 400 years ago and many people would say he has never been bettered, but that does not mean English theatre is dead.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

        The problem is usually the other way around with these lists particularly if they are an open vote rather than a particular specialists choice. Recently produced books (or films or great people or whatever else s being ranked) tend to be over-represented.
        I suppose that the thing (well, one thing) that is remarkable about Shakespeare, Austen, Elliot et al is that even after all this time they are still widely admired. We shall have to wait a bit to see which of the current crop of writers really stand the test of time and still come across as inventive, profound, wise, etc in decades or centuries to come.

  6. Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  7. bric
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree that listening to Ulysses helps sort it out, and highly recommend the Jim Norton reading.
    Yesterday a friend asked me to recommend a few good campus novels, so restricting myself to that genre, in no particular order:

    Michael Chabon: Wonder Boys
    Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim
    Donna Tart: The Secret History
    Malcolm Bradbury: The History Man
    Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin
    Philip Roth: The Human Stain

    and, too recent to be in a ‘best of’ list
    Laurent Binet: The Seventh Function of Language

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      I took part in a recording of Ulysses in Liverpool a year or so back.

      Each of us read a page each and it was recorded as part of an art project on accents. Glad to say I didn’t have to read the last part when Joyce abandoned full stops so I didn’t faint due to lack of oxygen.

      Jim Norton’s reading is superb. For those who don’t recognise the name he’s Bishop Brennan in Father Ted (‘He did! He did kick me up the arse!’)

      He also narrates the abridged version of Finnegans Wake

      • TJR
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        Ulysses read by Bishop Brennan! Fantastic!

  8. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Nil for 5. And the only one which I might just possibly consider reading would be Ulysses.
    I tried doing a paid-for course in the humanities a decade or so ago, since I know I’m under-educated in this respect – I dumped English as soon as possible from my curriculum at school. The course had required reading of some piece of guff which was a modern continuation of one of the Austin/ Elliott/ Bronte 1800-odd morasse’s most famous books. I got 30 or 40 pages into it, and still can’t remember a thing about it. Something about a madwoman in an attic, or a woman who found a madwoman in an attic, or something. I never did figure it out and never saw any reason to do so. Fortunately, that was something I realised before the formal start of the course, so I bombed out and did something useful – Java programming IIRC? with the fee instead.

    • Martin Levin
      Posted January 7, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Sounds as if you were assigned Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea,” about the first Mrs Rochester.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 7, 2018 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

        Name rings a bell. Never finished the book – don’t think I even reached a quarter way point. Totally incomprehensible. I mean, who is this Mrs Rochester woman meant to be anyway? I know the name from pub-quizzery as being something in the Jane Austin or similar canon, but never having read anything from that era except a couple of Dickens books (and they were dire enough to put me off the rest), the reference was utterly lost on me.

  9. John Frum
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I also started reading Ulysses a number of times with the final time getting me to halfway before I realised that I was reading gibberish (the too long disconnected thoughts passages).
    The non gibberish parts are great as his other works are also great and I agree with PCC(E) that ‘The dead’ is a very fine piece of writing.
    I was in an Irish pub in Sydney on Bloomsday many years ago and I said to someone there if they were celebrating Bloomsday and she said “well no, the book is rubbish isn’t it”.
    I would like to do the pub crawl in Dublin though.
    Lastly, there is a great pub in Melbourne called Molly Blooms where I saw Ben Elton one evening and I yelled out “Ben!” and he gave me a wave.
    No one else there knew who he was.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    “You’ve got to have Jane Austen. She’s the first serious novelist.”

    Austen, not Fielding or Cervantes (who, ok, wrote in Spanish not English, but McCrum did not so limit his assertion)? Sure, they wrote picaresques, and were funny. But there’s nothing so serious as humor.

    • bric
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      Is there a more serious book than Tristram Shandy?

      • Charles Minus
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

        I ignored this list when I saw that it did not contain Trisram Shandy.

    • Craw
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      +1
      Though Cervantes didn’t write in English of course. But I listed Fielding in my 5.

  11. mfdempsey1946
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Good choices all.

    But “Moby Dick” is indispensable to me.

    So are “Bleak House by Charles Dickens and “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir. And “Fathers and Children (Ivan Turgenev), “Nostromo” (Joseph Conrad)…

    The list could continue for so much longer, fortunately — because I, at least, could not imagine life being worth living (a subject now under discussion at Sam Harris’s site) without reading.

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      “I, at least, could not imagine life being worth living … without reading.”

      This is a serious question well worth thinking about. Given my disposition I literally cannot imagine life without reading. However, if I were suddenly struck by alexia, I have no idea how it would go.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read Emma and read Bronte’s Shirley but not Wuthering Heights. Most of the novels I’ve read only because I had to read them as part of my English degree but I’m glad I did read them. I also like George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss.

    I like a lot of Margaret Atwood’s novels as well and as a Canadian, you can’t avoid Atwood anyway. The rest of my tastes are either science fiction or Classics. Some science fiction, readers here recommended & I was not disappointed. I especially liked the Hyperion series.

    • Craw
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      A great Canadianish novel is Voyageurs by Elphinstone. Set in Upper Canada and Michigan, just around 1800. Wonderful book that everyone I have given it to has really liked it.

      • Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. In terms of great writers from Canuckistan, another one we shouldn’t forget is Alice Munro.

        • Merilee
          Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

          +1 for Alice Munro, and Michael Ondaatje!! Not such a big fan of La Atwood’s novels. Like her essays.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Heck, if we’re goin’ Canadianish, give me Jack London’s tales from the Yukon!

        • Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Robertson Davies, too

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

            Margaret Laurence too. Stone Angels made 17 year old ne understand what it was like to be a woman at the end of her life and see her as someone who had once been a young girl like me.

        • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          +1 for London.

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Hyperion makes me cry whenever I get to the ‘Later, alligator’ bit.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes that whole thing with the daughter is so tragic.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      I suggest C.J. Cherryh for sci fi. Especially the Chanur series.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

      Hi Diana:

      I suffered (term used literally) through Wuthering Heights (as well as Crime and Punishment in high school. Recently I had occasion to read (actually, it was an audiobook) Wuthering Heights (after all, I’m not in high school any more), and found it quite good. The first half was very powerful; the second half I found a little less impressive and a bit draggy. Definitely worth a read, though. It’s actually the only one of the five books in the OP that I’ve read, although Huckleberry Finn and Ulysses re both on my “to read” list, with Middlemarch a maybe. Jane Austen is really not my cup of tea.

      As for Hyperion, it’s slated to be the be the series with which I start off my 2018 reading. Looking forward to it!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

        Funny you should mention Crime & Punishment — it was literally my punishment in high school for telling my teaching for grade 13 English that English was “a bird course”. I had to read that as well as Camus and Beowulf all as independent study. I actually liked Camus and Beowulf but Dostoyevsky was too hard back then. I would probably like his work more now.

        I hope you enjoy Hyperion. It is a bit slow in spots and I’m still on the last book because I never feel like reading anymore for some reason & I get distracted by other books. I hope you like it enough to read beyond the first one because interesting things happen after the first book.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted December 12, 2017 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

          Small world. You know me; I’ll read all four. I’m like that.

          From all the polls and lists I’ve ever seen, it’s the most important science fiction series that I haven’t yet read.

        • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

          I remember reading Hyperion in my 20s and I remember that I enjoyed it; but I remember nothing more about it.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 13, 2017 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

            Time for a reread!

      • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        Interesting that you like WH but not Austen.

        Have you read, for instance Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Portrait of a Lady?

        Do you like Dickens?

        Genuinely curious. Some Victorian stuff I love (does Austen count as Victorian?) and some I don’t like.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          I think Austen is generally considered part of the Romantic Movement. The Victorians were the next generation (who came of age during the reign of Queen Victoria), like Dickens and Thackeray and Trollope and Hardy.

          • Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

            Cheers!

          • Martin Levin
            Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:40 am | Permalink

            Austen is decidedly not Victorian. She’s usually considered a Regency novelist, like Scott or Maria edgeworth. Though the Regency encompasses the Romantic movement, Austen is certainly no Romantic, or romantic. By the way, anyone who things that any past of ‘Ulysses’ is ‘gibberish’ simply hasn’t read it properly. I suggest that anyone coming t it fresh read it for the magnificence of the language and the powerful interplay of character and place.

            • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

              By the way, anyone who things that any past of ‘Ulysses’ is ‘gibberish’ simply hasn’t read it properly. I suggest that anyone coming t it fresh read it for the magnificence of the language and the powerful interplay of character and place.

              Pretty categorical there.

              When people who can read and write at a very high level in English (e.g. PCC(E), others on this site) have to give a book 3 or more tries before even being able to get through the book says something pretty strong about how comprehensible and/or enjoyable the book is.

              There seems to be a failure to communicate there. (For me, communication is the essence of art – all art. Hence, for me, if a painting, for instance, has to be explained, then it is a failure.)

              As I’ve noted in other comments on this site: I think many (certainly not all) readers fall into two major categories: Those for whom the style of writing is the main (whole?) thing and those for whom the story is the main (whole?) thing.

              I am in the latter category. Style doesn’t impress me very much, especially if it strongly obtrudes in my consciousness when reading.

              I am happy to wear the cretin tag for not appreciating Ullyses and many other artworks. Fine with me. Life’s too short to hurl myself at artwork I don’t like.

              FWIW, I haven’t tried Ullyses (yet, I may); but I loved reading The Dead. And have made one stab at Dubliners; I will return to it. Other than Ullyses and The Dead, which Joyce book/story would you most highly recommend? Portrait maybe? Thanks! (Keeping in mind that I am very unlikely to enjoyorcompleteanythinginstreamofconsciousness.)

              Of course, all art appreciation is: à chacun son goût.

              • Merilee
                Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

                Faulkner’s streamofconsciousness is generally wonderful, imho, especially if you read it aloud ( in an attempt at a Southern accent…)

            • Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

              And thanks for the era analysis there: I don’t pay much attention to such labels. I suppose I should …

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 13, 2017 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          Victorians generally annoy me. I like Romantics like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I probably never would have read the Victorian stuff I’ve read had I not been introduced through school.

          • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

            Why the dislike of the Victorians?

            “Too many notes, Mozart, too many notes.”?

            That’s my problem with much of Victorian literature. But some of it I like a lot. Go figure!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 15, 2017 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

              I thought they complained about everything too much. I know they were going through a lot with the Industrial Revolution & such but then Romantics handled uncertainty and sorrow much better I thought. Also the image of queen Victoria instantly constipates me. I have no idea why I feel this way other than it just seemed horribly oppressive for people like me: woman, lower class, and really everything Victorian just seems so oppressive in attitude. Living in Canada, their history is everywhere, constipating me and making me feel bad for how wretched they were to other humans, especially First Nations. I know the Romantics would not have been politically much better but the Romantics are the Gen X of historical groups – a small, brief cohort.

              I did reconsider briefly when driving to work the other day and thinking where we are now with populism and climate change and perhaps I was too harsh on the poor Victorians. Nah – give me a Frankenstein over a Take of Two Cities any day.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

          Hello jblilie (senior, I presume, not the photo hotshot junior? Kid’s got talent)

          I pick and choose, and to be honest, I don’t read much literary fiction any more (almost all science fiction).

          I love Dickens, and may someday finish my “project” of reading his novels through in the order in which they were written. I’ve gotten up through Bleak House, which is about as good a novel as I’ve ever read. Haven’t read any Hardy, and the only James I’ve read was Roderick Hudson.

          Slightly later, I’ve read a lot of Somerset Maugham, including all of the short stories and five or six novels. Why? Because we share a birthday! Or going back to Victorian times, if not places, I’ve read Quatre-Vingt Treize by Hugo and a substantial number of other 19th century French novels.

          My job is constantly getting in the way of my reading!

          • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

            Thanks!

            I have only read Of Human Bondage by Maugham and loved it. Why haven’t I read more? Too many books, too little time!

            I loved every Dickens book I have read (through). I tried to read Oliver Twist but it just didn’t work for me. No idea why. My favorite is Great Expectations.

            I too, have read little literary fiction. I’ve been working may way through some of the famous stuff recently (feeling like an ill-read cretin and trying to amend my ways late in the game).

            I mostly read non-fiction. About 90% most of the time.

          • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

            And yes, the Jamie whose photos appear here from time to time, is my son. 🙂

  13. Liz
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    A Prayer for Owen Meany
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog
    Pride and Prejudice

    These are the last three fiction books I read/tried to read in the last three or four years. I read the first two all the way through and didn’t like them. I couldn’t even get half way through Pride and Prejudice. I am reading a fiction book now called Just Before Midnight and I really like it. It’s long but good. I read the first three Harry Potter books and liked them when they came out. Books I read in high school/college as assignments vary but I loved Siddhartha. For some reason, fiction is just difficult for me to get into. I do read some fiction books on occasion if I’m curious. Recommendations from friends help and that’s why I read A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I read one of the previous posts about favorite authors for fiction. I really had to think hard about it and if I am being completely honest, my favorite fiction author is Roald Dahl. I’m just remembering I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I didn’t like it.

    • Craw
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      If you like Dahl, you might like short stories by Stanley Ellin. He wrote novels too, but the stories are better and have more of Dahl’s kind of mordant humor.

      • Liz
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 8:04 am | Permalink

        Thanks, Craw.

  14. Steve Pollard
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Making lists of “the five best” is a mug’s game, because you have to really know what you’re talking about to justify your choice. I would still stick my neck out and include Ulysses and Middlemarch on such a list, though.

    “Five favourites” is easier, especially since one is allowed to change one’s mind. I would always include Ulysses. At the moment, my other four would be:

    Trollope: The way we live now.
    Powell: A dance to the music of time (yes, all 12 books).
    Updike: Rabbit Redux
    Alistair Gray: Lanark

    But I might change my mind next week.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      And as much as I was looking forward to it/them, I did not like Dance to the Music of Time. Love Updike’s poems, stories, essays, criticism but not so much his novels. Love Richard Ford, Richard Flanagan, Philip Roth, Peter Carey, Nabokov just off the top of my head. Haven’t read Ulysses since Spring Break junior year of college ( I wasn’t really a total nerd), and liked it at the time, but am sure a reread is in order. Oh, and Catch-22!!! I do like female writers, too, but they aren’t springing to mind. ( Eliot and Austen, of course, but haven’t read them recently). Oh, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Firs.

      • Martin Levin
        Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:45 am | Permalink

        Try Penelope Fitzgerald (9 novels, all gems), Beryl Bainbridge, and Jane Gardam (especially ‘Old Filth’). These are all brilliant British women writers of the second half of the 20th century, with octogenarian Gardam writing until recently.

        • Merilee
          Posted December 15, 2017 at 8:02 am | Permalink

          Love Jane Gardam, Martin ( especially Old Filth!). I’ve liked some Penelope Fitzgerald, and others not so much ( eg Blue Flower). Beryl Bainbridge is great fun. I like Iris Murdoch as an essayist, but do not like her novels. A friend recently put it succintly when she said that Iris seems to shoehorn her philosophical musings into her characters’ mouths…

          • Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

            Wolf Hall is wonderful. One the best novels I’ve read in many years.

            • Merilee
              Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

              Did you read the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies? There’s apparently a third one in the works. There was an excellent TV film of the first two combined, called just Wolf Hall, with the wonderful Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 15, 2017 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

                I have to re-read Wolf Hall because I didn’t realize she was chasing perspectives all through the damn thing and everyone was named Tom. I spent most of the novel disoriented.

              • Merilee
                Posted December 15, 2017 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, msybe 4 or 5 Thomases…plus you have to remember it’s Thomas, not Oliver, Cromwell.

          • Martin Levin
            Posted January 7, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

            Merilee, Old Filth was a revelation to me; so sharp, witty, terse. I find Murdoch’s novels as you do; her metaphysics are showing. Have you read Angela Carter? She’s kind of terrifying, but always fascinating and acute.

            • Merilee
              Posted January 7, 2018 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

              Martin, might I have seen Angela Carter stories in The New Yorker? She sounds familiar. I have some unread Jane Gardems on my shelves which I must get to. Currently reading, and loving, Clive James’ magnificent 800+ pager, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,which is a collection of short and erudite and witty scribblings about most of the best minds of the 20th century.
              Love your comment about Murdoch’s metaphysics showing😁

    • Charles Minus
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      I’ve never heard of Alistair Grave, but since I totally agree with your first three, I will have to look him up.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Alistair Grave is a very serious writer.

  15. bric
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Here are the relevant episodes of In Our Time

    Emma – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06pd3b9

    Wuthering Heights –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095ptt5

    Middlemarch (from The 100 Greatest British Novels) –
    http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151204-why-middlemarch-is-the-greatest-british-novel

    Ulysses –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01jrldv

    sorry no Huckleberry Finn but here’s Moby Dick –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09gzjm5

  16. Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Some time back I listed here my favorite works of fiction of the last 200 years as:

    Emma (Jane Austen)
    The Hunting of the Snark (Lewis Carroll)
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
    Pale Fire (Vladimir Nabokov)
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)

    It was nice to see both of those that definitely qualify as novels made McCrum’s list.

    Here are a handful of books (other than the five on this list, none of which I disagree with) that might be considered:

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (Laurence Sterne)
    Great Expectations (Dickens)
    Billy Budd (Herman Melville)
    Through the Looking Glass (Lewis Carroll)
    Zuleika Dobson (Max Beerbohm)
    Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons)
    USA Trilogy (Dos Passos)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

    Something by Virginia Woolf ought to be on the list, but it’s been too long since I read it and I can’t recall the title (nor quickly identify it by searching online).

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

      Mrs. Dolloway or To the Lighthouse, perchance?

      • bric
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        Mrs Dolloway sounds like fun, but I believe it was Mrs Dalloway who bought the flowers herself 🙂 and it’s the best book about the First World War that doesn’t go there.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Loved Pale Fire many moons ago

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

        Metafiction masquerading as a narrative poem with critical commentary in footnotes — what’s not to love? 🙂

        • Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

          Pale Fire is referenced extensively in the Blade Runner sequel. It is part of the test for emotional stability.

        • Merilee
          Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          😍

    • bric
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Zuleika Dobson should have been on my campus novels list, but sadly very few have heard of it these days. Max Beerbohm wrote a great Henry James parody (unlike anything James did it’s quite short):
      http://www.parodies.org.uk/james-beerbohm.htm

  17. NoJoy
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Most of my favorite books are from series (J.R.R. Tolkien: Lord of the Rings, Neal Stephenson: The Baroque Cycle, G.R.R. Martin: A Song of Ice and Fire, Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game, Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog/Blackout/All Clear), which feels like cheating in this context. As such, I’ll just mention a few others I have particularly enjoyed:

    Thomas Pynchon: Mason & Dixon
    Haruki Murakami: A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
    Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel
    Richard Adams: Watership Down
    Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible

  18. Posted December 12, 2017 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m a big fan of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian. Too recent to be classics? The author is dead at least. Another is “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr. Classic science fiction.

    • Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      I love Canticle. Ironic, seeing as it is such a religious novel.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

        True, but subversive of religion as the “Ricks” (Perry and Santorum) would have it. I’m as anti-religious as anybody, and I loved the Canticle.

        In fact, one could quite reasonably make the claim that it’s not a religious book at all–it’s an anti-nuclear war screed and a meditation on “those who forget history are condemned to repeat it”, just set in a religious context (happenstance; it could just as easily have been set in a different context, say, colonization of an alien planet, or a straighforward literary novel).

        It’s also brilliantly written.

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I too loved Canticle but I haven’t read it in 30 years. Must read again …

      • Posted December 13, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        I was thinking the same thing when I named it. As far as it being religious, I never thought about it that way. If anything, it pokes fun at religion. On the other hand, monks do have a leading role so, in that sense, it is religious.

  19. Posted December 12, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Let’s make a prediction: fifteen years from now… on my list of five best novels written in English… we’ll find one by Ian McEwan and one by Jennifer Egan. Quite probably novels I’ve already read in 2017.

    In 2032 I still haven’t got around to reading Middlemarch. Ulysses by Joyce, The Quiet American by Greene and Mason & Dixon by Pynchon may remain on the list.

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      This year I’ll still stick to Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift), but I’m fairly certain that the best of McEwan and Egan is still to come.

  20. rom
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Best novels? Perhaps.

    The two novels that to some degree shaped my life:
    Nineteen Eighty-four
    Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.[count as one book for me].

    Best – Bah!
    Life shaping – Yeah!

    Funnily enough both written in the last century.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

      As intimated by Steve Pollard in #14 above, “five best” is a term that really has to be defined. The four definitions that immediately spring to mind are “my personal favorites” (remember Dave Barry’s definition of a good song as “a song that I, personally, like”?), “most influential,” “most popular,” and “most critically acclaimed.” Note that the cynic in me might hazard that the last two categories are mutually exclusive!

      Anyhow, even the “personal favorites” can easily be divided into “most fun reads” and “most meaningful” (though there might be quite a bit of overlap between those two lists for any one person.

      For me, the most influential, as well as my favorite read, with nothing else even a close second, is Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, which basically outlined what I consider to be a worthy life map–the search for rhyme and reason.

  21. Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I’d disagree that women writers were scarce in the 19th Century. It’s because there were so many women writers that novels were considered a trivial art form.

    • Charles Minus
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I’ve recently discovered the work of Olivia Manning (no relation to football) and have been promoting to all who will listen. Brilliant writing and reporting on WWII experiences: The Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy.

  22. Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Pete's Adventures and News Blog.

  23. Posted December 12, 2017 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    (On George Eliot, Middlemarch)
    —“If you don’t like this book, you can’t be my friend.”—
    What a nice recommendation! Because if you are not dead-sure of the future reader’s opinion, you run the risk of ending a friendship.

    Among the books that were worth a second reading, enjoying at the same time the linguistic usage, even in their translations, I find these:

    5. Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny
    4. Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key
    3. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
    2. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
    1. Pearl Buck, Imperial Woman
    .-

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      I’ve read your 5, 3, ad 2 and loved them. Especially #5.

      I’ll have to try the others …

  24. Blue
    Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Stillwater
    … … by Nicole Helget

    Blue

    • Blue
      Posted December 12, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      I have known horses with … … bad spirits.

      … … pp 136 and 137 for the narrative
      in re Big Waters:

      ” For many seasons, the men had given away more of the people’s hunting grounds, their fishing places, their settlement lands, while singing and drinking with the white ones, while making fools of themselves, dancing with broomsticks and with tin buckets on their heads. At each session, Big Waters and the other women were expected to stand off along the wall, to wait to carry the goods, and to be quiet. They had been silent so often that many children had died from hunger. The next season, Big Waters simply stepped forward among the men at the long table at the fort and said, ‘I would like to read that paper before these fools put their marks on it.’

      That was the end of her time among her people.

      Though she’d saved her people from giving away another parcel of place, from agreeing to remain confined in a bare space with no animals or water, she’d insulted the men, her husband in particular, and he had declared her banished.

      The next day, he had a new wife. In the same way her mother had disappeared all those years before, Big Waters then walked into the tall grasses.

      Her children were directed to turn their backs to her as she left. Her own children did this.

      The one Big Waters had nursed until he could ride a horse. The one she had tended to night and day for many months while he lay crying and recovering from burns suffered in foolish play, in dares of manhood made by one child to another. Had he forgotten how she had held him in the cold river water day and night? Or how she held her hand over his mouth so the other boys would not hear his crying and think him a coward? Even her only girl, the one who was betrothed to a Spanish brute with a withered arm until Big Waters begged on her behalf to her father, saving her from the bad marriage, even she turned her back to Big Waters. She from whom Big Waters later pulled the upside–down baby after three days of pain and delirium, saving both their lives, also turned her back. She who had been stolen by the enemies for a slave and whose return Big Waters had negotiated by trading her own fine beadwork and tunics, she turned her back. Even the two she had taken into her own heart as her own after their mother succumbed to disease. The all turned their backs to her. Never to call her mother again.

      These were the events Big Waters could not speak of to anyone except the small baby in her arms, the one whose little ear was so near her lips. She would be a good mother to Clement, and he would be an obedient son.

      Big Waters introduced Clement to the finicky horse, left her by the girl who had birthed the twins. The beast snorted at the baby’s scent. The baby sneezed at the horse’s. Big Waters let the animal sniff the child again, then laid Clement in the straw while she worked; but she didn’t take her eyes off that horse. He showed her his teeth but didn’t try to bite her this time. The warm, stewy air of the barn entered Clement’s lungs. He breathed deeply in a way that swelled his chest, like a river about to overflow. He slept soundly and snored. When he woke, Big Waters mixed milk with molasses and sugar and let him suck. She tried to make peace with the horse and offered it a bit of sugar too, but it snapped at her finger, and she kicked its leg.

      This horse had a bad spirit. Big Waters called him Hole–in–the–Day, after her husband. But Hole–in–the–Day’s spirit wasn’t as bad as her husband’s. Whereas his breath had smelled of throat fire and bile, the horse’s smelled mealy and grassy, and only occasionally of stomach odor. Even then, its breath worked magic on Clement. While the boy slept beneath the horse’s nose, he grew and strengthened. The vapor healed whatever ailed the baby. ”

      Blue

  25. barael
    Posted December 13, 2017 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Just bought the audiobook of Ulysses narrated by Jim Norton. Hopefully it’s a good version; the sample was pretty good at least.

  26. Posted December 13, 2017 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    Happy to say I have read part of one of those – Huckleberry Finn – at school… I could not relate to it & I am pretty sure I never finished it. I have not read the others at all & I likely never will – they have no interest to me! Maybe they are good, maybe they are well written, they just do not appeal to me. I really do prefer fact…

    I am not much taken with relationship books. I prefer plot-driven narratives.

    Off the top of my head I cannot name ONE novel that I think is superb. Surely you like each novel in a different way for a different reason? How can you really compare Twain with Austen? Twain could be influenced by Austen not Austen by Twain. There are many novels that I liked & enjoyed, but to rank them is very hard.

    McCrum has a 100 top non-fiction list in The Observer that is concluding at the end of the year https://www.theguardian.com/books/series/100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time

    Yes, Darwin IS in there! 🙂

  27. Robert Bate
    Posted December 13, 2017 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    Ulysses
    The Great Gatsby
    Slaughterhouse Five
    To the Lighthouse
    Pale Fire or Lolita

  28. Dave137
    Posted December 13, 2017 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    “The Art of the Deal”

    Unbelievable fiction, believe me.

    • GBJames
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      LOL. Thanks, Dave. I needed a good morning guffaw!

  29. ladyatheist
    Posted December 13, 2017 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Pride & Prejudice
    The Color Purple
    The Great Gatsby
    Ivanhoe
    Gone With the Wind

    They have all stuck in my mind because of what they say about the culture surrounding the characters, AND have memorable characters, great plotting, and a page-turning writing style.

  30. Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Any book that takes me 3 tries to get into will never complete. I know this about myself. I just don;t have time for it. It it doesn’t attract me, then, for me, it’s not very good.

    In many cases, taste comes into this sort of thing.

    I haven’t read Emma or Middlemarch though both are on my Kindle. I will sortie and attack them soon! I’m sure I will like them.

    I loved Wuthering Heights, though what a bummer of a story. I also loved Pride and Prejudice.

    Somewhere in your post, one of the people notes that Austen is almost modern. This is what struck me about Austen’s writing: It seems to me more “modern” than the Victorians who came after her. I love her writing.

    I’ve read Huck Finn at least three times, starting at a very young age and enjoyed it each time. I most recently reread it in my 40s and didn’t like it as well as I had in the past. But it was still excellent and as close to a required read for Americans as I know of.

  31. Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    List of my most-enjoyed novels (I have no pretensions about named “great” novels):

    In no particular order:

    Pride and Prejudice
    Perfume (Patrick Süskind)
    The Count of Monte Cristo
    Fields of Fire (James Webb)
    Any Human Heart (William Boyd)

    But I am mainly a nf reader.

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      And a couple more:

      The Summer of Katya (Trevanian)
      The entire Aubrey/Maturin series.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      Agree on Fields of Fire. It’s one of my favorite Vietnam stories, along with Going After Cacciato, A Rumor of War, Paco’s Story, and <Dispatches.

      • Merilee
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Haven’t read Fields of Fire, but agree on all the other ones you mention, Ken ( especially Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.

        • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          I agree on The Things They Carried.

          Fields was written by (former VA Senator) James Webb – who lived through Vietnam, of course.

        • Martin Levin
          Posted January 7, 2018 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          Nobody writes better about the Vietnam War than Tim O’Brien, unless it’s Michael herr, in his incendiary (ie, set my brain on fire) Dispatches, among the greatest works of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

      • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        I’ll have to try Going After Cacciato and Rumor of War. I read Paco’s Story in the 1908s and loved it.

        I recently tried to read (Michael Herr’s) Dispatches and couldn’t deal with the writing style.

        • Posted December 15, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          1980s, obviously (or I hope it’s obvious anyway!)

  32. Posted December 13, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I have read _Wuthering Heights_. I found it overrated, like _Life of Pi_. (Though not *as* overrated.)

    • Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I found Life of Pi overrated. Enjoyable enough; but no big deal.

      I was really absorbed in WH though.

  33. Robert Bray
    Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The following may get me all imbrangled here, but having taught literature in English in college for more than four decades, I think that some sort of warning ought to accompany any list of aesthetic ‘bests:’

    ‘FAVORITE is not the same thing as BEST’.

    Indeed, they are category errors. If the former equalled the latter, then ALL novels would be ‘best,’ since SOME novel is likely to be someone’s favorite, even though most readers would repudiate the term for that particular novel (and most others).

    As for ‘best,’ one should not declare until the set is complete: i.e., Whew! There, I’ve read all the novels in English and these five are the ‘best.’ You won’t, of course, find any candidates for this prize. Even were there were a Mr. Causabon to undertake such heroic drudgery, this labor by itself would not suffice. For now he must undertake to explain to the world just how the linguistic/formal mechanics (arts?)come together in any one or all of these five titles so as to distinguish them from the thousands of others he harvested and cast aside as mere chaff.

    And ‘come together’ to achieve/produce precisely what? In order to value the opinions of authorities on any topic, students deserve a template, compounded of wide reading experience and long, comparative and careful analytic examination that in this case applies TO ALL NOVELS. Yet literary criticism in our Euro-American universities is typically dominated by the various ‘isms that have devolved from Marxism and its crazy cousin postmodernism, neither of which treat literature as an object of inquiry in and of itself how on earth can readers hope to at least approach an objective judgment (oxymoron?) of what is, finally and utterly, a subjective experience–the joy of reading. [ontological irony: no novel exists before it is read]

    I don’t see how it can be done, and (intellectually) I hate this conclusion. It became a burdensome professional failure with which I retired. This late in my life, however, I must accept it, as I observe the habit of reading for recreation disappear among young people (beginning in late middle school, I suspect), and that of reading for class in college a duty without the recompense of pleasure. No,now, I must speak only of my FAVORITE novels, poems, paintings, etc., hoping that if there is an empyrean of the BEST, a title or two will overlap.

    If you’re still with me, thanks for your patience.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about the punctuation/syntax garble in the third-from-last line of the penultimate paragraph:

      ‘itself how’ should be ‘itself. So how’

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        Since you’re a Lit prof we’ll forgive you. If, however, you doubled teaching English Comp, no quarter will be given. 🙂

    • Merilee
      Posted December 13, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      With you totally, Robert, and learned a great new word, imbrangled, in the process.

      • Blue
        Posted December 13, 2017 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        T o t a l l y ! a smashing new word,
        Ms Merilee and Professor Bray.

        I just now see it here and, thus, went out on
        the web to study up upon it ! Lovely it is
        and so, so apropos to very many situations
        into which I happen to find m’self embrangled
        or imbrangled ! Or embroiled !

        Bring it on: more .new. to me – ones !

        Blue

        • Merilee
          Posted December 13, 2017 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

          Just don’t throw me in that there briar patch🐰

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 13, 2017 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

          Well as long as you don’t end up embroidered. It looks pretty, but I’m told it’s painful to endure & near impossible to escape from.

    • Martin Levin
      Posted December 15, 2017 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      Alas, only too true. In the late ’70s, after I finished grad school, the doleful influence of structuralism and semiotics replaced close reading of texts, or texts entirely, and the study of literature becmae meta-study. The number of Americans, and Canadians, who never read a book, let alone a novel, let alone what would once have been a canonical novel, is astonishing and dismaying.

  34. Posted December 13, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    At least Lord of the Rings isn’t there. One ring to bore us all.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 14, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

      I suspect that I’m not the only one here who would disagree with that aesthetic judgment.

      I knew (internet-style) a big-name English professor (she’d actually done a couple of classes for the Great Courses series). She read the Lord of the Rings every summer; at last count, she’d read it 37 times.

      But that brings up a great extension to the topic–what are the five *worst* novels? Here’s my quick and dirty list:

      The Bees by Laline Paull
      The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson
      The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings
      Slan by A. E. Van Vogt
      They’d Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

      All but the third one I got suckered into because they were on one list or another (including that last one, which won the Hugo award, despite being little more than a scientology tract).

      I suspect that as identity politics takes over more and more from such elitist, privileged conceptions such as plot, character, imagination and originality that more modern works will eventually come to dominate this list.

      • Posted December 14, 2017 at 3:50 am | Permalink

        Whenever one of these “what’s the greatest novel” threads comes up anywhere, I make it my duty to point out that The Lord of the Rings is really not up there in terms of literary brilliance. Its supporters tend to be blinded by their love of the book. I won’t deny that it is a significant book but its literary qualities are greatly exaggerated.

        As for the worst novels, I think that is a category that is almost impossible to judge. There’s so much to choose from and so many different ways to judge them.

        • Posted December 15, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          Oh, I agree with the judgement that LoTR is not great literature.

          But my reaction to that is, who cares? Do you enjoy reading it? Do you want to read it more than once? Why? These are the questions that interest me.

          I am reading some literature to complete my education (to some degree); but generally I just read what I like (which, largely, is nf).

          • Posted December 15, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

            But my reaction to that is, who cares? Do you enjoy reading it? Do you want to read it more than once? Why? These are the questions that interest me.

            That’s more or less my position too but this thread is about the best novels in the English language, not the ones I enjoy.


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