October 19, 2005

And when we say "All-time 100 novels" ....

We mean the 100 best English-language novels since 1923. But trust us. We know something about what we're talking about, even though we bungle the intro. Time Magazines top 100 novels. Sort of nice feature: links to the original reviews, but you have to subscribe to get past the first paragraph.

Is this a silly list? I see it has "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret."

Why "since 1923"? There must be some book from then -- "A Passage to India" (1924)? -- that they were hot to include and then drew the cut-off at that point so they wouldn't have to be bothered with anything else.

Most of these books you'd have to pay me a lot of money to read. I have read some of them. Some I've read parts of and always meant to finish. Some I've read parts of and then flung aside, most memorably "The Golden Notebook," which contained a preface by the author saying life is too short to read books that fail to engage you. If you find yourself reading such a book, you ought to fling it aside! Great advice, from Doris Lessing!

Ah, isn't it obvious? I just don't like novels very much. I've wasted too much time trying to be the sort of person who loves novels.

UPDATE: A former student of mine writes:
I saw your post on novels today, and I feel compelled to give you one of Austen's great defenses of novel reading, this from her early novel "Northanger Abbey."

"Oh, it is only a novel!" ... or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language."

"Pride & Prejudice" also contains a great but more subtle defense of novels--the fantastically preposterous Mr. Collins declares to his shocked cousins how he, unlike the ladies, never bothers with novels and only reads books with a more serious stamp.
I'm very aware of the reasons given for the importance of reading novels, and I've been influenced by this sort of thing for most of my life. I've never snobbily turned up my nose at novels, like Mr. Collins. I've always had the impression that the best people read novels. That has motivated me to try to be the sort of person who reads a lot of novels. Great mental powers, knowledge of human nature, and wit and humour are also displayed in well-chosen language in works of nonfiction and even in blogs or in live conversation. And novels also contain plenty of foolish notions, tedious observations, phony depictions of human nature, and awful writing. I'm most interested in learning about things that are true and hearing great ideas, and I have never found novels to be a particularly rich source. Of course there are the emotion-stirring stories, but for that, there are so many movies to see, nearly all of which are fiction. But I find I don't have much interest in stories -- all those personal problems with relationships! Even for a film, I'd rather see a documentary.

50 comments:

bill said...

1. FWIW (not much), I've read 17 of these and enjoyed about half.

2. Should be on the list: Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey.

3. Snow Crash is exciting, but Neal Stephenson's best is Cryptonomicon.

Chris said...

They did 'since 1923' because it's the year Time started. They state this in the Oct. 24th issue of the magazine along with listing the first 10.

Xenuphobe said...

Ulysses was published in 1922 - I bet that's the book they want to keep off the list, for whatever reason.

Xenuphobe said...

Oops - Chris just explained the reason why for the 1923 thing!! My guess was wrong!

Goesh said...

I may be the only Jack London fan here

Xenuphobe said...

Jack London's one of my favorite authors. :) You are not alone.

Ann Althouse said...

Aw, Chris is puncturing a hole in my cynicism! And Xenuphobe's!

Jeff said...

I'm impressed. This is a rare example of a non boomer-centric list. Hooray!

Any list of novels that includes both "The Death of the Heart" AND "Red Harvest" is ok in my book.

Even if does include "White Noise".

Steven said...

See, my cynicism was that they wanted to keep public-domain novels off the list, since anything copyrighted after 1922 that had its copyright properly renewed is still under copyright in the U.S. until 2018, while everything from 1922 or earlier is public domain.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ziemer said...

they have faulkner's light in august, but not absalom, absalom.

these people don't know how to read; they have no business making a list like this.

Michelle said...

Where is 'The Rum Diary'??

reader_iam said...

I like London, too.

These days, I mostly, though not exclusively, am reading non-fiction. But I was surprised to see that I have actually read well over half of the books on the list.

That includes "Are you there, God? It's Me Margaret" (cut me a break here--I read it right when it came out and I was within the exact target demographic at the time). What the Sam Hill is THAT doing there? I wish I had the time spent reading that back!

Its presence does seem to confirm your take on the list, Ann, even though there are also lots of good books there. (That's assuming one likes or loves novels to begin with, of course, which one should not feel compelled to do!) Especially when that novel appears but not such books as the Kesey novel that Bill mentioned. Does the article actually explain the criteria?

Maybe ALL of these top 100 list type of things are inherently silly.

Sally said...

Wow, White Teeth is on there! Is it really that great? Haven't read it. Is it better than "Everything is Illuminated" for contemporary fiction?

I noticed there are two Virginia Woolf novels on their, but not my favorite "The Waves", which makes me remember that I've been wanting to read James Joyce for years since Ms. Woolf was so jealous of him!

One of my other favorites, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neal Hurston, is not on the list. Too trendy perhaps?

Yes, I love fiction! But I'm a slow reader, I think I read only about 5 novels a year. I'm certainly not the kind of person to ever sport a t-shirt saying "so many books, so little time."

Ann Althouse said...

Allicent: "There Eyes Were Watching God" is on the list.

reader_iam said...

And given what they DID choose, I'm a little surprised not see any Iris Murdoch or even, perhaps, Robertson Davies.

MD said...

Oh, I'm a novel person. I am so a novel person. Well, a book person really. I'll read anything. I am so much a novel person that I'm glad I went to med school - if I had to study novels, a la a PhD in literature or something like that, I'd feel guilted into thinking or trying to think about books in a certain way. This way it's just pure cream and chocolate, if you get my drift!

I've always told stories to myself. Isn't that wierd? As a teeny-tiny toddler I used to tell myself these long convoluted stories, blah, blah, blah, according to my parents and they even have some on tape. Time for me to learn podcasting!

I wouldn't feel bad about the novel thing. I feel that way about classical music. I am not a musical person, and I never will be. So, why pretend?

(If I were really cheeky, I'd write a little 20 word microfiction story at the end of each comment I leave here as evidence of my deep love and devotion to the story. But, I'll spare you all the bad writing.....).

If not novels, how about diaries or memoirs?

Chrees said...

I'm glad to see "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy on the list. I read it in August 2001 and it did more to explain what happened the next month than any political/historical analysis piece I've read. The depiction of evil in the book was chilling.

MD said...

Oh, and Lucky Jim absolutely rules.

Are you there God, it's me Margaret is on the list? Are these people insane?

(I've always loved the story behind The Diaries of Jane Somers. Is it really true that Doris Lessing, after being a successful author, wrote these under a pseudonym to see if she could get published as a nobody? Well, it's what the new prefaces say. I think that's hilarious).

somross said...

Even if they chose 1923 because that was when Time started, that year is certainly more famous as the one after Joyce's Ulysses and Eliot's Wasteland. For English as well as physics majors that is the Annus Mirabilis. It's a little like giving prizes for Best 100 Voyages to the New World after 1493.

Henry said...

I much prefer history to novels, despite Jane Austen's opinion (as given by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey):

I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all, it is very tiresome; and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.

I went to the link and looked at the A's and the L's. That's enough for me.

Robert R. said...

Biggest surprise for me was not seeing Fahrenheit 451 on the list.

They definitely didn't want to be seen as elitist and went out of their way for some non-traditional choices. The movie list that inspired this list was similar.

The biggest debate that I've seen on the net so far is the inclusion of Watchmen on the list with some arguing that as a "graphic novel" (i.e. big comic book) it belongs in its own category. I tend to think that they were just being inclusive, but it is an interesting debate. I give them points for choosing Watchmen, which is a superhero deconstruction book, over the much safer Maus.

Henry said...

Couldn't help myself. I went and looked.

I'd take Winnie-The-Pooh (1926) over the obvious losers. And where's The Phantom Toolbooth?

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, MD. Don't worry, though. I don't feel bad about not getting into novels (or classical musice) the way the seemingly best people do. I achieved a sort of personal enlightenment about 15 years ago, in which I realized vividly how much I combined the perception of what other people valued/loved/enjoyed and what I did. Since then I've had a strong sense of aesthetic autonomy. It's quite amazing. I don't (feel that I) enjoy anywhere near as many things anymore, but I save a tremendous amount of time, which is now available to do the things I genuinely want to do.

tcd said...

My favorites on that list are Possession by AS Byatt and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I don't know why other than that they are the most vivid in my memory.
Where is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood? I read that book in a day; it was so riveting. Do they (Time)not consider that a novel because it's based on a true story?

Dave said...

"aesthetic autonomy"

Great phrase.

An alliterative form of "independent-minded."

Wade_Garrett said...

My problem with this list is that there seems to be a little too much genre fiction on the list. The token comic book, the token sci-fi novel, the token hard-boiled detective novel . . .

I would have put the John le Carre Smiley/Karla trilogy on the list, its just incredible. I agree with the other readers that Absalom, Absalom! is one of the best novels of the 20th century and, if the books were ranked, would be in my top five, so how it didn't make the top 100 blows my mind!

Dash said...

The list has a very glaring omission. Mark Helprin is arguably the greatest living novelist writing in English. His books routinely top the New York Times best seller list. However he committed the unpardonable sin of coming out against Clinton during the Lewinski imbroglio. He has not been reviewed or nominated for a single award since that event.

And yet his novel "a Soldier of the Great War" is easily better than 90 plus of the titles on the list.

His books sell because they are great. He will never make a list like this because he is conservative.

And where is Charles Williams?

twwren said...

It is ironic that "In Cold Blood" is not on the list but "To Kill a Mockingbird" is.

mamalujo1 said...

Two words, to echo two previous comments: "Absalom, Absalom!"

Bruce Hayden said...

I was pleasantly surprised that I had read 26 of them, or just over 1/4. I generally don't like this type of fiction at all. Maybe it is my anti-elitism coming out. I never wanted to be one of the "better" people. Probably due to all those English Lit majors snearing at my SciFi/Fantasy reading. I do plan to ask my father though how many he and my mother read - I expect that they read over half of them. Comes from belonging to book groups.

I much prefer science fiction/fantasy and non-fiction. I think I have somewhere around 1,500 of the former (paperbacks mostly) sorted by author and lining the walls in one bedroom. Some day, I intend to get bookshelves. I have probably read at least another 500 or so, either in hard back, or have lost the books in all my moves since college 30+ years ago. But 1,500 really isn't that many, if you figure one book a week for thirty years - a lot of them on airplanes or in airports.

I don't know why though, but I have moved decidedly towards non-fiction in the last five years. I used to hate history. Way too subjective. But now I read at least one history book a month. When you add in all the others, I am probably nearing one a week now.

SteveR said...

I've read eight of them and tried to read a couple more, all more than 30 years ago in high school. I much prefer history, biography and natural science books. I've never been inspired to read because its a "great book"

Troy said...

Missing: Larry McMurtry.

Dana said...

My first thought on reading this post was, hmmm, now I know how Althouse has time to blog, and do commentaries, in addition to her real job. She doesn't spend a minimum of ten hours a week reading novels.

I love novels. Like MD, I will read anything, but I prefer fiction, and especially crime stories. I think my choice of teaching, criminal procedure, can probably be traced right back to Nancy Drew.

Goesh said...

we shouldn't forget the Hardy Boys either, Dana....

MD said...

I think book people are not the same as novel people. I'm book people, and it looks like a lot of you are that too.

chuck b. said...

The Sot Weed Factor is wonderful and the Crying of Lot 49's one of my all time favorites.

It's nice they put John Cheever on the list, but he wrote better short stories than novels.

I love all the high school English books: Catcher, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mockingbird, and especially Gatsby but not The Lord of Flies. I didn't like that one.

I don't care for Faulkner, Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, Don DeLillo, or Virginia Woolf.

I've never heard of Richard Yates or Maryilynne Robinson.

Saul Bellow--very east coast!

White Teeth sucked, imo.

The Corrections was hilarious, but went by too fast--"the difficult first chapter" withstanding.

The Sheltering Sky--great book (I like all of Paul Bowles), terrrrrible movie.

I've always meant to read Iris Murdoch and Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man's sat unread on my bookshelf for over a decade. Ragtime too.

I'm delighted they included Watchmen.

I didn't like Blood Meridian. My McCarthy vote would go to The Crossing. I loved that book!

Is John le Carre supposed to be serious reading? Really?

chuck b. said...

Just noticed Day of the Locust made it on the list. That was a great movie! Anyone read the book?

jult52 said...

Day of the Locust: just read it for the second time. Really liked it the first time (when I was a teenager); disappointing the second. West relies on shock value for part of his impact and that shock has disappeared in the current era. Definitely not in the Top 100 since 1923.

Iris Murdoch: I've read maybe half a dozen novels of hers -- including her major works -- and she simply doesn't belong anywhere near this list.

This is actually quite a good list. Important thing is that they have both Lolita and Pale Fire on it. Things fall apart is an overrated "affirmative action" choice and "I, Claudius" is simply not an exceptional novel, although it made for a good BBC mini-series.

jult52 said...

chuck: about Cormac McCarthy, I thought "The Crossing" should have been a great novel -- powerful beginning and ending -- but the middle was much, much too long. McCarthy's obviously a great writer but he should have used more self-restraint this time around. "All the Pretty Horses" should have made the list.

Just noticed that they include Martin Amis' "Money." Very funny; very offensive to women. Read it immediately.

Oh, and Le Carre sucks.

Sol said...

Instead of one token SF novel, there are actually two genre SF novels on the list, Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Odd choices -- I'd be surprised if many actual SF fans would list those two as the top two even if you limited it to SF written since 1980.

I'm not sure what my top five list would look like, but certainly The Demolished Man, The Stars My Destination, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Lord of Light, and A Fire Upon the Deep would all rank well above the two they chose.

Certainly neither of their two SF choices is anywhere near the stature of The Lord of the Rings.

And The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?!? I know it's a "classic", but there must be at least a dozen better fantasy novels AND a dozen better children's novels. Quite possibly a dozen better children's fantasy novels.

Makes me wonder about their choices in the genres I don't know so well...

PS I'm disappointed they left out Patrick O'Brian, though I guess it would be hard to single out a specific book...

Undercover Christian said...

I wonder what the exact criteria is. If having a lasting effect on the reader is part of the criteria, Atlas Shrugged should definitely be there.

Also in the SF category, I think Ender's Game should be there.

There a a number of books on that list that you couldn't pay me to read.

Walter said...

There are at least three Science Fiction novels on that list as UBIK is a Science Fiction novel by PKD. He wrote the novels/short stories that were used to make Blade Runner, Total Recall, Impostor, Minority Report and Paycheck.

More over, there are other books on that list that could be easily put in the Science Finction group, such as A Clockwork Orange and 1984.

knoxgirl said...

ditto, Troy. "Lonesome Dove" has to be one of the best novels ever written. Cormac McCarthy gets all the attention, but Larry McMurtry's is the *definitive* western.

Henry said...

Looks like dystopia science fiction made the list at the expense of space opera science fiction.

It's surprising that Heinlein didn't get a nod, but of that I'm glad. Great concepts. Cartoonish execution (especially in characterization). Eventually he became tediously unreadable, IMHO.

* * *

I agree about McMurtry and Lonesome Dove. It's not top 50, but it's definitely in the Doctorow / Delillo ballpark.

* * *

As far as genre's go, I'd like to see Bang the Drum Slowly stand in for the sports category. That one is top 50.

Robert Talbert said...

I'm a big C. S. Lewis fan and am gratified to see "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" on the list, even though I don't think it's Lewis' best work of fiction. IMHO that would be a tossup between "Till We Have Faces" and "The Great Divorce". Maybe it has something to do with the fact that "Wardrobe" is coming out this Christmas as a movie, produced by Disney, which has ties to Time-Warner.

And this quote from the review irked me:

Lewis was a Christian philosopher, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (and the six more Narnia novels that followed) can be read as Christian morality tales, but they're not just kid stuff: Lewis had a surprisingly sharp eye for the dark shades of the human soul, sin and anger and temptation...

Lewis was not a philosopher -- he was a philologist and an expert in the literature and language of the middle ages. He picked up Christian apologetics almost on the side; his day job was as a professor at Oxford and Cambridge.

And if the reviewer knew Christianity well enough, any truly Christian morality tale would have to include a treatment of original sin... so I wonder why s/he thinks of "Christian morality tales" as "kid stuff".

chuck b. said...

Jult52, I totally hear you about the Crossing. I really fell into that book tho', and relished the long middle.

In general too, I don't like quick reads...WIth McCarthy, I usually have to read the first 20-30 pages at least twice before I have any idea what's going on.

Undercover Christian said...

I don't think it's Lewis' best work of fiction. IMHO that would be a tossup between "Till We Have Faces" and "The Great Divorce".

Ditto "The Great Divorce." I haven't read "Till We Have Faces." I'll have to pick that up.

$CAV3NG3R said...

jult52 said:
'Things fall apart is an overrated "affirmative action" choice...'

I'm from the authors region of the world but I can't help but be bemused about the preoccupation your society has with "affirmative action". I've not read most of the books in that list but then I've been partial to non-fiction since my 3rd year of college and before then I read more of the so-called classics than contemporary stuff (apart from cutting my teeth on michael shepherd/harold robins/sidney sheldon/frederick forsythe in the last 2 years of elementary school). So I will not presume to understand how you approached 'things fall apart', as a recommendation from a 'militant' black american perhaps. Or maybe it's required reading in honour of M.L.K. Jr. I read the book first in 3rd grade and I've read a couple of times since then and the nuances unfolds in a way that requires an understanding of the region. Then again, I didn't particularly care for some of the so-called great american novels that I've tried to read partly because there's a disconnect, I suppose, with the region, and partly because I didn't care for the kind of narrative that starts out, "Call me Ishmael..." To each his own I guess (please don't skewer me for using 'his' I find it tedious to do the whole p.c. crap of typing his/her and until someone invents a genderless pronoun I'll continue to type as I deem fit).

Peter VE said...

I've read 26. Any list that includes both Hammet and Chandler is legitimate, although The Long Goodbye is better than The Big Sleep. Of course, they made their lives easier by starting when Time did, to omit the tedious arguments in favor of or against Ulysses. Personally, I'm in favor, but then again, I've read it, so I have to say it's great to justify time spent.


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