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 2019: Lists of Note

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year that was. The series kicked off with a collection of the Best* posts, followed by a series of lists that double as recommendations from this past year.

Six favorite novels I read this year:

Seven favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

Books I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2020:

  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
  • The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño
  • A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab
  • Sugar Street, Naguib Mahfouz

TV shows I loved watching this year

  • Elementary
  • Watchmen
  • Killing Eve (season 1)
  • The Good Place

Movies that were totally worth the price of admission:

  • Knives Out

Video games I enjoyed getting lost in:

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

While I mostly listen to singles, these albums dominated my listening:

  • “Chime,” Dessa (2018)
  • “Old Time Reverie,” Mipso (2015)
  • “Dark Holler Pop,” Mipso (2013)
  • “Me Oh My,” The Honeycutters (2015)
  • “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World,” Johnny Clegg and Savuka (1989)

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Pamuk, ranked (update)

My ranking of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, now updated to include The Red Haired Woman, and with links to discussions of individual books.

  1. My Name is Red
  2. Snow
  3. The Black Book
  4. Museum of Innocence
  5. A Strangeness in My Mind
  6. The Red Haired Woman
  7. Silent House
  8. The New Life
  9. The White Castle

There is a tier after the first three, and another after the next three. Tell me why I am wrong.

Previously: Orwell, Hemingway.

Tracking what I read

Just a short thought on how I record what I read, recent changes to that system, and some potential avenues.

I made a point of recording everything I read before graduate school, but as my reading fell off a cliff, I fell out of that habit. When I returned to reading beyond my immediate academic needs, which, not coincidentally, was the same semester I took my comprehensive exams in 2013, I resumed the habit of recording what I read, starting a google doc with a simple list: date, author, title. Recently, I wanted to start digging a little bit more, and have started recording some additional data that correspond with some goals I have related to my reading. The list now includes the same information as before, but also a list of the original languages of the books and a tally of female authors, awards the books won, and, broadly speaking, the genre. Based on this information, I started compiling a spreadsheet that charts my reading by month and (annually) in certain specific categories.

I am now wondering, though, whether tallying my reading by the book is granular enough. I tend to read a lot of really long books, none longer than War and Peace, which I worked through last year, which necessarily cuts into the total number of books I read in a year. As a result, I am toying with the idea of also recording the number of pages in the books completed in a month in order to get a better picture of how much I am reading in a given month. There are of course problems with this, not least of which the logical extreme would be to demand a way to record every word read, which is an absurdist impossibility. I do want a way to give credit for reading longer books, particularly now that I am both aching and mentally bracing to reading Infinite Jest. So, I am curious: has anyone tried charting books this way?

Related to all of this is how I keep tabs of the academic books I read. My relationship to academic work is a topic for another post that I am delaying because my magic eight ball keeps responding with “try again later,” but, in general, falls into two categories: “this is relevant to my work” and “this looks interesting.” I take copious notes (on the same system I developed for myself when I was taking my comprehensive exams), but now with an eye towards things like teaching and potential research projects. Inspired by other folks online, one of the things I would like to do is to become more organized about how I approach academic reading and also to branch out in terms of whose work I read, prioritizing younger and more diverse voices. The other reason I want to start recording this information is to become more aware of exactly how much academic reading I do. The answer is usually a lot, but I also know that it has tailed off this semester since I have been preoccupied with applications, editing my dissertation, and teaching. Most of those things are behind me now and there is no time like the present to get more organized.