My list of top novels, January 2014

Perhaps the first thing that becomes clear when compiling a lists longer than ten is how quickly the numbers begin to add up. When one sees a list of, say, one hundred books, there may be an impulse to compile a similar list based on one’s own taste–say, removing the four Jane Austen and seven or eight Dickens novels, plus all the books as of yet unread, rearranging and filling in the gaps with great books of one’s own choice. But what is the purpose of this list? Is it a compilation of books everyone should read (even if one has not yet read them oneself)? If so, then the Austens and the Dickenses are grudgingly returned to the list, but docked a score or more slots because one is petty. Or is the list merely a compilation of one’s favorite books, in which case one gleefully removes Austen and Dickens once more…only to realize that when it comes to standalone books one cannot compile a list of one hundred without reaching a point where one has somewhat ambivalent feelings about the books in question and cannot add them to the list with a clear conscience and thus begins to regret the cavalier attitude with which one thrashed “Literary Classics.”

Or, perhaps the solution is to compile a list that falls short of the vaunted one hundred, at least for the time being.

So my list of top novels is not a list of one hundred, or even a list of fifty. Instead it is just going to be a list of my top novels. No book that is part of a larger series is included because I consider them to be telling a fundamentally different type of story from a standalone novel, though I will consider books that are part of a franchise but not really part of a series. With a few exceptions, I read or re-read each of these book since graduating from college, so the list is relatively contemporary to my current point in life. The list right now has thirty titles, including both novels and novellas (I have no length minimum), and I will update it as I read more books that I would like to add, perhaps every five or ten titles added.

Excluded are any books that I don’t have a clear recollection of or have not read and the primary basis upon which these books are judged is how much I liked the book. Wrapped up in that judgement are the topic and message of the book, the storytelling, and how evocative the writing is. For instance, the last book I excised from this list was Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a book in which I didn’t like the narrator, even though I sympathized with him, and through which I was profoundly disturbed by the message about the type of people who are drawn to pursuing a life in academia. I understand where the message was coming from and understand that there is a degree of truth to it, but I also found much of the humor tainted as a result. Intellectually, I appreciated the book and there were passages that were legitimately funny, but I also felt a deeper dislike of the story and decided that the best thing I could do at this juncture was to leave it off the list entirely.

Without further ado, here is the list. The parenthetical number is where I had the book ranked as of January 1, 2014; summary blurbs will follow in a short series of posts.

30. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (28)
29. The City and the Mountains, Jose M. Eca de Queiroz (-)
28. The Stranger, Albert Camus (-)
27. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (24)
26. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (25)
25. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (-)
24. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (26)
23. Burmese Days, George Orwell (23)
22. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett (22)
21. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (19)
20. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (20)
19. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (17)
18. Creation, Gore Vidal (18)
17. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (-)
16. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell (16)
15. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (15)
14. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (14)
13. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (13)
12. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (6)
11. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (12)
10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (11)
9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (10)
8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (9)
7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (8)
6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (7)
5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (5)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (3)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (4)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (2)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1)

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