Books you can’t live without: a top 100

There seems to be one of those “Blog Memes” going round both in Blogland and on Facebook, where one is presented with a list of 100 books, and one has to say how many of them one has read. I am not sure where the list comes from (although the earliest reference I could find to this list is here) or what the criteria are: looking through them, there are a great many books there I’d be quite happy to live without. Totting up a high score on here is hardly indicative of being well-read. But what the hell! – here goes

(I’ve marked in bold the ones I’ve read):

 1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Fine novel, I’m sure, but as I said in another post, I’m not really the greatest fan of Austen. I don’t dispute her stature – but I’ve never managed to enjoy her works. Says more about me than about Austen, I know.

2  The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

I did read the first part a long time ago, but found it a slog. I do not feel any attraction for the fantasy genre at all, I’m afraid.

3 Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

It goes off the rails a bit toward the end, I think, but for all that, it does hit upon a number of archetypes, and the childhood chapters are particularly good.

4 Harry Potter series –  JK Rowling

Very good children’s literature, I’m sure, but it’s not too high on my personal reading list.

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

One of those books everyone is supposed to have read – but I haven’t.

6 The Bible

What – all of it? I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and will get round to all of it some day, I’m sure.

7 Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

Magnificent novel.

=8 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell

Yes – full of remarkable images and ideas, if a bit short, perhaps, on characterisation.

=8 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

One of the old boy’s finest. See here, and here. 

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the d’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

I have very ambivalent feelings about Hardy the novelist, but yes, this is a fine novel, if not necessarily amongst my personal favourites.

13 Catch-22 Joseph Heller

Terrific stuff!

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare William Shakespeare

Yes – see here. (I have read the sonnets and poems, but don’t know them as well as I should.)

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

I’ve long thought of this as a minor masterpiece. It seems to me primarily to be about an adolescent, on the threshold of adulthood, who cannot come to terms with his grief for his dead brother. The reputation of this book has suffered badly, I think,because  it is often seen as a sort of handbook of teenage rebellion. I really don’t think it is.

19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

Magnificent novel.

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald

I read it as a teenager, and at the time, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I must tackle it again.

23 Bleak House Charles Dickens

One of my top three novels – along with Ulysses, and the next novel in the list, which is …

24 War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

See here.

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

I can’t say I feel too strongly about Waugh either way.

27 Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I re-read this last year, and found much that was jawdroppingly brilliant side by side with much that seemed to me crude. At its best, though, it is magnificent.

28 Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

Wonderful novel. And, if anything, John Ford’s film version is even finer.

29 Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Marvellous whimsy.

30 The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

As charming a children’s book as I can think of.

31 Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

How can one choose between Anna Karenina and Warren Peace?

32 David Copperfield Charles Dickens

No other novel I know is so crammed full with so many memorable characters. The early section, especially, is possibly the finest re-creation in fiction of a child’s mind.

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

I came to Britain aged 5, not knowing any English, and, by the time I knew enough English to be able to read books in the language, many of the children’s classics had passed me by. This is one of them.

34 Emma Jane Austen

Marvellous novel, to be sure, but once again, I must plead a blind spot when it comes to Austen.

35 Persuasion Jane Austen

The warmest of Austen’s works. To my surprise, I quite enjoyed this. But no – I don’t think I’ll ever make the grade as an Austenite.

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

I thought we have already had The Chronicles of Narnia! How strange!

37 The Kite Runner –  Khaled Hosseini

I know some fans of this book, but it has never really attracted me for some reason.

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières

Ditto

39 Memoirs of a Geisha  – Arthur Golden

And ditto again.

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

Unlike The WInd in the Willows, which seems to me charming, this has always struck me as being a bit twee, and I have never felt the urge to read it.

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

A simple idea, perfectly executed. I found it a very sad book the last time I read it.

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

No comment.

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez

I am not a fan of magic realism, I’m afraid. García Márquez if obviously a quality writer (I loved Chronicle of a Death Foretold) but I’m sorry to say that this one frankly bored me.

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

Marvellous Gothic thriller – one of the best.

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy

Yes, a fine novel, but for Hardy, I think I prefer The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Jude the Obscure. But then again, I’m not really a Hardy fan.

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies William Golding

I read this a long time ago, and the memory is vague. But I have read it – I know that!

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

This one’s high on my reading list, as I’ve been told it’s hilarious.

54 Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

As with other novels by Austen, I admire it more than I like it.

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A pile of shite.

57 A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens

Fine for what it is, but I find it disappointing that a great novelist at the peak of his powers should take on a subject such as the French Revolution, and make no more of it than a historical romance.

58 Brave New World Aldous Huxley

As with Nineteen Eighty-Four, full of memorable ideas and images. I prefer Huxley’s earlier novels though – the brilliant comedy of Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point.

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

Written from the point of view of a boy suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, this is cleverly done, but, perhaps, too much has been made of what is in essence a rather slight work.

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I loved that first half, but the second half seemed no more than a list of sexual encounters, and very quickly outstayed its welcome.

61 Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck

A classroom favourite, as it is a pretty good novella that is easy to read and easy to understand.

62 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

A masterpiece.

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

From what I know of this, I’d have to be paid a lot of money to read it.

65 Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas

This is about as good as the art of storytelling gets. ( The Three Musketeers is just as good, by the way!)

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy

Probably my favourite Hardy novel.

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie

The Western literati’s idea of the archetypal Indian novel – even though the writer has lived in the West for virtually his entire life; writes exclusively in a Western language; does not, by his own admission, know any Indian language well enough to read it, or to write in it; and whose principal literary influences are the Western writers Gabriel García Márquez and Gunter Grass. This is representative of Indian literature in the same way that chicken tikka masala is representative of Indian cuisine. None of this necessarily makes this a bad novel, as such, but I personally found it meretricious.

70 Moby Dick Herman Melville

Huge work, full of flaws, but the marvel is that it was written at all. Magnificent.

71 Oliver Twist Charles Dickens

Early Dickens – full of colour and vitality. Readers looking for depth, or depictions of the characters’ inner lives, may be disappointed, but the novel does convey a powerful sense of menace. And there is no other novel, surely, that contains so many iconic scenes and images.

72 Dracula Bram Stoker

A great favourite of mine – ideal bedtime reading for the dark winter nights. The opening section compising Jonathan Harker’s diary is genuinely frightening.

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

No, thank you.

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses James Joyce

Was ever a novel of such stature such great fun? Ranks with War and Peace and Bleak House as my personal favourite.

76 The Bell Jar -Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal Emile Zola

I have loved just about everything I have read by Zola. I probably don’t rate this one quite as highly as, say, L’Assommoir or Nana, but it’s a superb novel all the same.

79 Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

Wonderful, sparkling work. Becky Sharp is among fiction’s great characters, and more than makes up for the dullness of Amelia Sedley and of Dobbin.

80 Possession – AS Byatt

Once again, I know admirers of this novel, but I don’t get the impression that this will be my kind of thing.

81 A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens

One of the great modern myths. No matter how frequently it is parodied, or derided for alleged sentimentality, it never fails to delight and to move.

82 Cloud Atlas David Mitchell

OK, I suppose. (Oh – the enthusiasm!)

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

The film bored me to tears, but it’s obviously unfair to judge a book from the film adaptation.

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

This one rather unfairly overshadows Flaubert’s other work, but is a great masterpiece all the same.

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Oh yes, please! What would I read at bedtime if I didn’t have the Sherlock Holmes stories?

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

A very short novel, but it packs a huge punch. I went through a bit of a Conrad phase about a couple of years ago: this one is among his very best.

92 The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole

I was a bit disappointed with this. The characters could have come out of Viz – which is fine, but it doesn’t really allow much scope for development.

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas

Splendid stuff. I could read the adventures of d’Artagnan & co all day.

98 Hamlet William Shakespeare

We have already had the Complete Works of Shakespeare! Who compiled this list?

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory –  Roald Dahl

I read this when our children were growing up, and it’s easy to see its appeal.

100 Les Misérables –  Victor Hugo

Another book I must get around to some day.

So how many is that, then? I make if 53. But what a strange list, to be sure! Well – if you don’t like a list, there’s only one thing to do about it: make up your own! I’ll try to compile my own list of “100 books I can’t do without” by this weekend – and I’d encourage others out in Blogland to do the same. Watch this space, as they say!

Advertisements

36 responses to this post.

  1. I think it may be time to dust off my top 50 novels list…

    Reply

  2. What a great list, H… 99 FABULOUS books. There are quite a few in there that I still need to get to. 🙂

    Reply

  3. […] Great Books Over at the Argumentative Ol’ Git’s hangout, there was a recent article about the 100 books you couldn’t live without. […]

    Reply

  4. Posted by John Henrick on November 24, 2010 at 11:04 am

    There are lists at http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/greatbks.html to please readers of diverse tastes, but this particular list is definitely deficient. Where is Henry James? And where is Faulkner, unless #98 was intended to be The Hamlet and was “corrected” by some ignorant proof reader who missed the redundant connection with #14?

    Personally, I’ve always considered the only great thing about #22, The Great Gatsby, to be the design by Francis Cugat for the DJ of the first edition, as seen at http://online.wsj.com/media/RareGatsby_DV_20090618162826.jpg.

    Fitzgerald ultimately (and wisely) rejected an earlier title: Trimalchio in West Egg, although the DJ for that might well have been superior as well.

    Finally, to list Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding [#68] instead of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding was an egregious blunder, IMHO.

    Reply

    • I think most lists such as this are pretty poor, and this one is poorer than most. But at least it gets us talking. If we try to identify major omissions, there’s no end to it. Indeed, there’s no start to it either – for where does one start? The only thing to do, of course, is to compile one’s own list. As I said, mine will be appearing here this weekend.

      As for intended titles, I think “Trimalchio on West Egg” would have been an admirable title. I am sorry also that Faulkner rejected the magnificent title “If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem” in favour of the more prosaic “The Wild Palms”. But my greatest regret is that TS Eliot decided to go with “The Waste Land” rather than with his splendid working title, “He Do the Police in Different Voices”, which was taken from Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend”.

      Reply

    • By the way, John, that first link you posted is terrific! It’s more than anough to keep a literary list-lover occupied for hours on end!

      Reply

  5. Posted by John Henrick on November 24, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    No doubt Ezra Pound had much to do with that, along with much other malicious mischief.

    Whatever the title might have been, Wendy Cope deserves a standing ovation (again IMOH) for her clever summarization, to wit:

    Waste Land Limericks

    I.
    In April one seldom feels cheerful;
    Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
    Clairvoyants distress me,
    Commuters depress me–
    Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

    II.
    She sat on a mighty fine chair,
    Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
    She asks many questions,
    I make few suggestions–
    Bad as Albert and Lil–what a pair!

    III.
    The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
    Tiresias fancies a peep–
    A typist is laid,
    A record is played–
    Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

    IV.
    A Phoenician called Phlebas forgot
    About birds and his business–the lot.
    Which is no surprise,
    Since he met his demise
    And was left in the ocean to rot.

    V.
    No water. Dry rocks and dry throats.
    Then thunder, a shower of quotes!
    From The Sanskrit to Dante.
    Da. Damyata. Shantih.
    I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.

    Reply

    • That’s brilliant! Thanks for posting that!

      I’m sure you know the limerick version of Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode:

      In childhood ’tis easy to feel
      Th’eternal suffusing the real,
      But as the beholder
      Gets steadily older,
      It doesn’t seem such a big deal.

      And there’s the limerick version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

      When Ireland was bloody and leaderless,
      The tedious, garrulous Dedalus,
      Having failed both as priest
      And as Glorious Beast
      Sailed away to write books that were readerless.

      Reply

  6. Himadri, only you could describe “A Christmas Carol” as a *modern* anything! 😉

    Reply

  7. Posted by Erika W. on November 24, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Interesting that you came to children’s books in English rather late as the same happened with me. I then read some of the “greats” with my own children and they did not appeal to me–A.A. Milne and Carroll in particular. This list contains some real light weights doesn’t it? As Jane Austen is not a favorite of mine either I enjoyed “Murder at Mansfield Park” which is clever and amusing.

    Reply

    • Hello Erika, and welcome to the blog. I feel much the same way as you do about various children’s classics I sampled for the first time when reading to my children. I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by AA Milne, by Beatrix Potter, and also the Narnia Chronicles: I’d guess one had to encounter them first as children. However, as a child, I did read the Alice novels of Lewis Carroll, and the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island”, “Kidnapped”), and these I loved. It’s difficult looking back on childhood favourites and figuring out whether we love them because they genuinely are good books, or whether we love them for reasons of nostalgia. As for Austen, I have no doubt she is a major novelist, but I do find her novels hard to enjoy. I’ll keep a look-out for “Murder at Mansfield Park”.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  8. Posted by alan on November 24, 2010 at 11:14 pm

    Interesting that we get ‘Shadow of the Wind’ but no ‘Don Quixote’.
    As for your question “How can one choose between Anna Karenina and Warren Peace?”, I’ve never met Warren so can’t help you there.
    Off topic, I think you might be saddened by this :- http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11823418

    Reply

    • Ah yes, the passing of Ms Pitt is a sad occasion indeed. But I gather she had been unwell for some time now. This weekend, I must watch “The Vampire Lovers” in honour of her memory.

      As for the list of books above, it’s an absurd list for all sorts of reasons. Once we start pointing out its various absurdities, we’ll soon find there’s no end to them. But the point of such lists really should be, I think, to encourage us to discuss our own literary tastes and values.

      Reply

  9. A few comments:

    5 To Kill a Mockingbird – One of those books everyone is supposed to have read – but I haven’t.
    Until recently, I was in the same boat. READ IT. It is marvelous!

    People tend to ignore the elements of traditional satire in 1984, some of which came through better in the film. The appendix on Newspeak is a classic, imitated, I believe, by Margaret Atwood in her fantastic Handmaiden’s Tale

    Catcher in the Rye: Never could grasp why it has such notoriety and appeal.

    Great Gatsby: an absolute gem of a novel. F.Scott was so inconsistent, but he’s right-on here. I understood that when I read it again a few years ago, after many, many years.

    Brave New World … I happen to think it’s his best. Free of his mystical maundering. Maybe not so acerbic as the two you mention, but so funny and prophetic. We live in this world, not 1984.

    I found your comments on Rushdie’s novel very interesting. I enjoyed it years ago, but didn’t see why it was distinctive in any way.

    Confederacy of Dunces – I too cannot understand the praise for this book. A one-joke ramble that goes on too long.

    Heart of Darkness – very powerful. Most likely you aware that most interpretations of it here are psychoanalytical, etc. etc. Nobody seems to take it as a realistic and horrific portrayal of colonialism and racism.

    Reply

    • To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly on by “To Be Read” list, and The Great Gatsby on the “To Be Re-read” list. I agree with your comments on Heart of Darkness: whatever metaphorical interpretation is possible, if a novel works on its own, literal terms, then it should be on that literal level that it should first be considered. And in the case of Heart of Darkness, the nature of colonialism is so obviously a major theme, thatit’s hard to see how the novel can be considered at all if that is ignored, or underplayed.

      As for Salman Rushdie, I’m afraid I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about modern Indian writing in English. Imagine a publisher commissioining an anthology of Japanese literature, say, and commissioning as editors two people neither of whom knows Japanese. Absurd, isn’t it? And yet, the Vintage Book of Indian Writing is edited by Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West, neither of whom knows any Indian language. (And this lack of expertise didn’t prevent Rushdie claiming in the introduction that writing in Indian languages wasn’t very good: certainly, they didn’t bother picking any for their anthology.) Or imagine it being widely accepted that French literature, say, began with Michel Houellebecq. Absurd? Yes, certainly, but, to this day, editions of Midnight’s Children carries a quote from the New York Times reviewer to the effect that, at long last, Indian literature has found a voice. Or imagine a literary prize set up for, say, Spanish literature, that does not even consider books written in Spanish. What is absurd in the context of Spanish literature is perfectly OK for Indian literature, it seems. It isn’t that writing in Indian languages has been examined, and found wanting: it hasn’t been examined at all. I have seen entire features in respectable papers and journals about the so-called “renaissance” in Indian literature, where the existence of writing in Indinan languages is not even acknowledged. And I think the message given out is perfectly clear: “You can’t expect us to take you seriously if you insist in writing in those funny little languages of yours.” The long-term effect of this can only be that aspiring writers in India will tend to write in the only language that offers an opportunity to access an international market: the future of literatures in Indian languages seem very bleak indeed. And to what extent the considerable literatures that have already been produced in Indian languages will be read and remembered – who knows!

      Reply

  10. Posted by John Henrick on November 27, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    There us an old saying that when a cat gives birth to a litter of kittens in an oven, they are not to be regarded as de facto muffins. And if that oven happens to be a tandoor, they aren’t thereby a batch of samosa, either.!

    Various famous British authors, including William Makepeace Thackery, Rudyard Kipling, and George Orwell were born in India, but nobody would put them into such a tome as The Vintage Book of Indian Writing. [Well,Kipling beng an exception, perhaps.]

    That said, I see nothing wrong in including Vikram Seth in such an anthology, although he writes masterfully in English. His first [1986] novel, The Golden Gate, written entirely in Onegin stanzas, is a brilliant tour de force. Recently, it was adapted as an opera in two acts with music by Conrad Cummings and received a staged workshop production in the Rose Studio at Lincoln Center in January 2010.

    Reply

    • Oh I agree … there is absolutely nothing wrong in including Seth – or any other writer either Indian, or of Indian origin – into an anthology. Far from it. My gripe (and I do realise I go on about this a bit!) is not the inclusion of Anglophone writers, but the exclusion of all others. This exclusion is not merely from anthologies, but from any serious literary consideration.

      Reply

  11. Are there any who write in Indian languages that are available in translation that you might suggest?

    Reply

    • I think th ebest introduction to Indian literature is this anthology edited by Amit Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri himself writes novels in English, and doesn’t exclude Anglophone writers from his selection, but he focuses on writers in various Indian langagues, and, as well as providing examples of their work (sometimes translated into English by himelf), provides a fascinating series of introductory essays.

      Rabindranath Tagore was a towering figure, but he was primarily a poet, and I don’t think any of the translations I have seen do justice to his work. However, I can strongly recommend the novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito. Chaudhuri includes in his anthology lengthty excerpts from Pather Panchali, translated by himself,and he refers to these two novels as “modernist masterpieces”. (Satyajit Ray’s films comprising the “Apu Trilogy” are based on these two novels.) It’s probably worth sampling it first in Chudhuri’s anthology, and see what you make of it.

      Beyond that, it’s worth while browsing through the websites of Penguin India, the Indian branch of Harper Collins, and of the Oxford University Press. A great many bookswritten in Indian languages do get translated into English for domestic consumption: this is because it is more economically viable translating these books into one language (English) that can be distributed throughout India, rather than commission separate translations into Punjabi, Bengali, Telegu, Tamil, Hiindi, Kannada, etc. But I’d make the Chaudhuri anthology my first stopping point.

      Reply

  12. Posted by Caro on November 29, 2010 at 9:54 am

    I seem to have read 53 of these too, Himadri! Though not perhaps quite the same 53, me preferring more modern books to you perhaps. And I am uncertain about some of these books. I thought I had read War and Peace, but recall Evie saying I wouldn’t have forgotten if I had, so now presume I haven’t. And I’m not sure about Lord of the Rings, either. I haven’t read A Town like Alice, but quite a number of other Nevil Shutes.

    Of those listed, my favourite (not counting those loved as a child – the Anne of Green Gable books especially) is probably Catch-22. And Wind in the Willows, Vanity Fair, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birdsong, The Kite Runner, Bleak House, The Remains of the Day, Emma, and Possession. I haven’t read Great Expectations for a very long time, but think of it as much-liked. Haven’t read Cloud Atlas but did like Black Swan Green a lot.

    I don’t understand the doubling up either, but I suppose they were picking Hamlet as the essential Shakespeare if you were just to pick one. But why the Narnia ones twice?

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • When I was a teenager, I remember reading quite a few Nevil Shute novels as well. I am not entirely sure why. I remember the novels as entertaining, and very proficiently written: I particularly liked Pied Piper, I remember. But, like yourself, I did not read A Town Like Alice, although I did enjoy the film with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch.

      Nevil Shute stands – much as W. Somerset Maugham did – as, I think, among the best of what is known as “middlebrow”: or, as Maugham himself put it, at the head of the second division. They wrote well, and they wrote intelligently, and, if they never came close to reaching the heights of a Tolstoy or a Joyce, a James or a Wharton, well, they never aimed so high in the first place. The head of the second division is a fine place to occupy; but I can’t help feeling that in the lower reaches of the second division, or, indeed, in divisions even lower, there is far too much trash that nowadays insists with increasing shrillness on being taken seriously; or on whose behalf it is claimed that the mere fact of its popularity renders as snobbery any dismissive criticism.

      This particular list is absurd for a variety of reasons. I think it highly unlikely that the reader who enjoys, say, Ulysses or Anna Karenina can equally enjoy various other titles in there: and the converse, I think, holds as well. But I don’t share the disdain for lists that I find quite widespread: if lists – even lists such as this can get us talking about and examining our own literary values, then that is surely a good thing!

      Reply

  13. Posted by John Henrick on November 29, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Himadri, concerning #40 Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne, you wrote:

    “Unlike The WInd in the Willows, which seems to me charming, this has always struck me as being a bit twee, and I have never felt the urge to read it.”

    There were four Winnie-related volumes by Milne, and Dorothy Parker was wittily dismissive of the second one:

    On 10/20/1928 Dorothy Parker, under her pen name, Constant Reader, reviewed A. A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner in The New Yorker, with predictable, now-famous, results: “. . . And it is that word ‘hummy,’ my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”

    At least, she actually made the effort to read the book!

    The House at Pooh Corner is a great favorite of mine, as is #92 The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, which was originally written in French [Le Petit Prince] and has been translated into more than 190 languages. It has sold more than 80 million copies, making it the best selling French-language book and one of the best selling books ever.

    I’m just sayin’ …

    Finally, let the record show that to Caro’s question, “But why the Narnia ones twice?”, I must ask, “Why the Narnia ones even once?”

    Reply

    • Finally, let the record show that to Caro’s question, “But why the Narnia ones twice?”, I must ask, “Why the Narnia ones even once?”

      I’m so glad you found this blog, John! I’ve been missing your comments!

      I remember as our children were growing up, I thought it was the perfect excuse to catch up on the various children’s books on which I had missed out. I did read a few chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before giving it up as a bad job. But there are so many people – people whose literary tastes I respect – who have so fond an attachment to it, that it’s one of those cases where I am content merely to say “It’s not my kind of thing”. When it comes to Winnie the Pooh, I find myself entirely on Dorothy Parker’s side. But once again, the weight of opinion of the aficionados is not easily dismissed.

      Incidentally, A A Milne was the subject of considerable ribbing in The Mating Season by P G Wodehouse. Wodehouse, as is well-known, found himself in France during the Nazi invasion, and made a number of very ill-advised radio broadcasts. These broadcasts were not political in nature, but the circumstances in which they were made could not have been more political, and after the war, Wodehouse faced great opprobium. Although the likes of Orwell defended him, describing the broadcasts as naive at worst, there were others – notably Milne – who were vociferous in their denunciation. Wodehouse (whom I would personally absolve from the taint of Fascism, if only because he created Roderick Spode, the funniest satire of a Fascist in all literature) responded in his next Jeeves & Wooster novel by making the drippy Madeleine Bassett an admirer of Milne’s.

      My own favourite childhood book – and this one actually was read in childhood – remains Treasure Island. There is no more fearful sound than the tap of teh stick of Blind Pew; there is no more terrifying moment than that when Jim is in the rigging, desperately trying to load his pistol against the swaying of the ship, as Israel Hands, knife in mouth, climbs up after him with muderous intent. And there is no greater villain than Long John Silver. Yes, it is true that towards the end, Silver protects Jim: this is partly because he knows that he needs to keep Jim alive should the other pirates turn upon him, and he is forced to seek help from Jim’s friends; but it is also because Silver rather likes Jim. Of course, if he had to kill Jim he wouldn’t hesitate; but, on the whole, he’d rather not have to kill Jim. Even a ruthless psychopath can have feelings!

      I merely have to open my book at any page at random, and I can relive again those many childhood hours I spent absorbed in this wonderful tale that has given us all the myths of seafaring that I can think of, except that of the White Whale.

      Reply

  14. Posted by Caro on November 30, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    Hello Himadri and others,

    I don’t know that I would put Nevil Shute at the top of the second division. I think he writes well and entertainingly, but not with great depth. (Though perhaps as I haven’t read A Town Like Alice and some of his other more serious books that maybe isn’t a fair comment. Pastoral was one of my favourite teenage books for its romance and suggestion of sex, which hadn’t been in any of the little romances I’d read till then. But it wasn’t more than a light novel. I read the Pied Piper when we last travelled to England, a excellent choice for travelling. I was specially taken that he wrote this in 1943.) If you put him at the top of the second division then where do you place all those excellent modern writers, like John Irving and Robertson Davies and William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy and the books like Bel Canto by Ann Patchett that I have just read which was superb? It may perhaps go into the first division, and maybe those other writers do, but I suppose I reserve this for ‘classic’ writers. As if everything brilliant has already been written and nothing can ever match it again – which I don’t believe. Though you might, Himadri.

    As regards children’s books, I think many of those books of childhood need to be read and re-read in childhood; they don’t have the same power coming to them as adults. I read The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton recently which is the most praised and loved of her books, I think, but I didn’t even finish it. Bored me silly. And yet I enjoyed Blyton fine as a child. Not my favourite author as her characters didn’t mature and romance and marry and have careers, which is what I liked, but I read her happily enough.

    I would suspect that Wind in the Willows stands up whenever it is read, but Winnie the Pooh may need childhood memories for it to retain its appeal. I like it but that is partly because of memories of reading it and laughing with my kids. My favourite as a child, the Anne books, some of which I probably read a thousand times in parts, do not stand up all that well now. Sometimes when I read one I am surprised at the humour and fun and interest; others that I read just make my teeth grind with their dated attitudes and repetitive themes. (These tend to be the short stories, which I rarely like as a genre.)

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • I don’t know that I would put Nevil Shute at the top of the second division. I think he writes well and entertainingly, but not with great depth.

      Writing “well and entertainingly, but not with much depth” seems about as good a definition of the top of the second division as I can imagine!

      I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek when speaking about divisions. Literature is not, of course, a competitive sport. But if it were, Faulkner would be in the first division, without doubt. The other authors you mention I can’t answer for – except for McCarthy, two of whose novels I have read. And he is certainly no Faulkner. (I know John would go considerably further than that.)

      I certainly don’t think that everything worth writing has already been written. That would be silly. But I do think that there is much around that is often rated very highly, but which, when I get round to reading them, strike me as, at best, mediocre. Since my reading time is limited, I have to be selective; and I have generally found it good policy to wait till all the bandwagons have passed by, and then examine what still remains. It works for me, at least!

      I agree Enid Blyton is completely unreadable in one’s adult years. I’m bad for being nostalgic, but even I couldn’t summon up sufficient levels of nostalgia to revisit Ms Blyton’s works. However, English is not a language I knew till I was nearly six, and the very sight of the Latin script used, at that age, to frighten me. Reading Ms Blyton’s books gave me the confidence to read in that language. And for this relief, much thanks.

      There are certain children’s works that can, I’m sure, be enjoyed for their intrinsic quality rather than merely for nostalgia. The problem is that nostalgia is so irrational a feeling, that it’s difficult to determine with any precision what part it plays in our enjoyment. Perhaps it doesn’t matter! What does it matter what part is played by nostalgia in my enjoyment of Treasure Island, or of your enjoyment of Anne of Green Gables, as long as we can continue to enjoy them?

      Reply

  15. Posted by John Henrick on December 3, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Himadri, you wrote:

    “The other authors you mention I can’t answer for – except for McCarthy, two of whose novels I have read. And he is certainly no Faulkner. (I know John would go considerably further than that.)”

    Well, Ohrah Winfrey has boosted books by both, and I won’t comment on that except to say that her interview with McCarthy as heard and reviewed at http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xb74sg_cormac-mccarthy-bombs-on-ythe-oprah_creation was decidedly dishwater dull.

    Enough with the alliteration! Oprah was impressed by McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize, but let it be noted that Faulkner received two of them, one in 1955 and the other [posthumously] in 1963, but only after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949, receiving it belatedly in 1950.

    Some say that McCarthy is an eventual shoo-in for a Nobel himself, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that. Admittedly, he received a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for his 1992 novel, All the Pretty Horses.

    Long before that, he received a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1966 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1988. His 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

    McCarthy noted to Oprah that he prefers “simple declarative sentences” and that he uses capital letters, periods, an occasional comma, a colon for setting off a list, but “never a semicolon.” He does not use quotation marks for dialogue and believes there is no reason to “blot the page up with weird little marks.”

    Perhaps I’m being a bit too peckish, but still …

    In 1963, he aquired a used Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter for $50 from a pawn shop in Knoxville, Tennessee, and used it until 2009. He estimated that he has written around five million words on the machine, maintenance consisting of “blowing out the dust with a service station hose”.

    Which brings to mind what Truman Capote famously said regarding Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose writing style, particularly the claim that “the first thought is the best thought”:

    “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    Reply

  16. “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”

    Good one, Truman!!

    I happen to like some of McCarthy’s stuff a lot, and I don’t understand the endless discussion about his ideas on punctuation. He wouldn’t be the first artist to be wacko on this or that point. My familiarity with Faulkner is minimal, so I won’t compare, and I don’t see him as a Great Writer, whatever that is, but at his best, he’s really good.

    Didn’t read No Country for Old Men, but the film struck me as somewhat hackneyed. The psychopath is for us what the Devil was for an earlier generation. The source of unexplained Evil, not to mention a provider of endless plot lines. The role of the philosophical sheriff seemed utterly pointless to me. Still, the Cohens know how to do Violent… Wonder how the book differs…

    Reply

    • I’ve only read two novels by Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses and The Road. The former was a coming-of-age story, and on the whole, I found it … well, rather unremarkable, I’m afraid! There’s nothing to object to, but nothing to get too excited about either: young chap grows up, is introduced to love & sex (with a beautiful young woman, naturally), learns that the world can be a cruel and nasty place, and … er … that’s more or less it, as far as I could see. Given the book’s reputation, I found myself thinking I must have missed something.

      The Road addresses the question of whether our civilised and humane values are thing swe have cultivated, or whether they are an integral part of us from birth. It presents a bleak, post-apocalyptic world, and, I must admit, the depiction of the emptiness and bleakness I did find very effective. But it is essentially a declamatory rather than an exploratory novel: it proclaims that despite everything, kindness, mercy, compassion – all those things that we like to think of as human – will, indeed, survive. As a diehard romantic myself, I do want to believe this, but I didn’t really find anything that leads to such a conclusion: this conclusion, in short, is merely proclaimed, rather than arrived at through any sort of reasoning or dalectic.

      I suppose, given my nature, I prefer baroque extravagance to plain minimalism. This naturally inclines me towards Faulkner, who, I do accept, can often be wildly over the top. But at his best, there is about his writing a sense of – for want of a better expression – a sense of majesty . I don’t know that there’s much point in trying to rank authors in order of merit – literature is not a competitive sportm after all – but certainly in my own personal pantheon, I’d rank Faulkner as my favourite 20th century novelist. I probably need to read more of Cormac McCarthy, though.

      Reply

  17. The power of The Road is in the restrained and minimal way it presents ultimate horror. Also, I thought he did a good job pulling a ‘happy ending’ out of it without being absurd. Basically, as you say, a statement of his values and beliefs, but because it was done so artfully, a very powerful book, I though.

    Pretty Horses, yes, I agree, except that I think he is exceptionally fine at conveying the terror and excitement of violence. Maybe that’s not much of a recommendation, but it’s something. Sometimes, as in Blood Meridian, he takes it over the top. Maybe you’d like that one – baroque would not be a bad descriptor, or operatic.

    People crave statements of old fashioned, macho values these days, and he gives that, but he’s more than that. Maybe not as great as people say, but a serious writer.

    Reply

  18. P.S. I DEFINITELY need to read more Faulkner. All I’ve read (loved it) is Sanctuary!

    Reply

  19. I’ll never understand why Tolkien is put in so many “Top… whatever” lists. His style is really boring. If one really likes Tolkien, one should read Beowulf in its original Old English form.

    Reply

    • Beowulf in Old English is possibly beyond me, although, like many others, I did enjoy Seamus Heaney’s modern English version.

      I have never enjoyed the fantasy genre, and that in itself disqualifies me from talking about Tolkien. But when I did try, many years ago, to read this, I too found the prose style turgid. But I’d better not say any more, as I’ll only get into trouble with my daughter… 🙂

      Reply

      • You know, Tolkien actually taught a course on Beowulf (as he was a specialist in Old English literature); his partial translation and commentaries were published by his son, Christopher. I’ve read it and I can say it is helpful. I wish I had this when I was studying Beowulf 15 years ago! :)) I guess he was a better scholar than a writer (in my eyes, at least).

  20. Posted by Jason wilsob on June 20, 2016 at 9:07 pm

    Great to see some bleak house love ! Les Mis is worth your time ; the Norman Denny penguin version is beautifully evocative and poetic . Tolkien is ok by me as is narnia though I think Lewis wrote more interesting stuff. I have always preferred Hardy as a poet rather than a novelist . Dumas I need to tackle more of as I have only read Monte Cristo. Sherlock Holmes …..obviously . I tried Brave New workd as a teen and found it hard going though I read and loved After Many a Summer recently . Got a soft spot for Zafon, though more maybe for Angels Gane

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: