A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)

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)