The 100 books you can’t live without: my choice

Recently, I commented on a rather absurd list that was doing the rounds, and which called itself “100 Books You Can’t Live Without”. Since the best way to respond to a list one doesn’t like is to make up one of one’s own, I thought it might be fun to have a go. 

All lists are a bit silly, and my list below is no exception. The problem with making up any list such as this is, of course, all those items one has to exclude. But for all that, the list below does provide, I think, an accurate reflection of my literary tastes and values. 

But first, one has to make a few rules. I decided to exclude reference books (dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and the like). And I decided to exclude art books: I have in my library a number of beautifully illustrated books on art and architecture, but since this list is intended to reflect my taste in literature rather than my taste in the visual arts, I have decided not to include them. 

And I decided to exclude also the “Collected Works” – although it seemed reasonable to make exceptions for collections of short stories, and of poems. One could easily find omnibus volumes packed full of the collected works of favourite authors, but selecting such volumes does not indicate which of those works are the most valuable to me. If I were to choose, say, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, then I’m putting The Two Gentlemen of Verona on much the same level as Twelfth Night in my preferences – and that’s just silly. 

Of course, one has to be careful not to pack the list with too many works by the same author: it would be all too easy, for instance, to include some twenty or so of Shakespeare’s works. But a list such as this should ideally give some indication of the range of one’s literary interests. 

And finally: I have only chosen books that I have read; or, in the case of collections of poems or of short stories, books that I have read at least in part. There are many books I haven’t yet read, but think I’d like as and when I come round to doing so: these books I have not included. 

For books in translation, I have indicated the translation I have read; or, in cases where I have read more than one translation, I have indicated my preferred version. 

Well, that’s enough of a preamble: let’s get started! 

Classical literature: 

  1. The Iliad by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
  2. The Odyssey by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
  3. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (Translated by Benjamin Jowett)
  4. The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Translated by Michael Ewans)
  5. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (Translated by Gregory McCart)
  6. The Bacchae by Euripdes (Translated by William Arrowsmith)
  7. The Aeneid by Virgil (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
  8. Sakuntala by Kalidasa (Translated by Barbara Stoller Muller)

I haven’t had a classical education, but one can’t take a serious interest in literature without at least some knowledge of the Classical world. The three great epics – The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid – are surely mandatory reading.

I have been particularly taken by Greek tragedies, and collecting (and reading) different translations of the Oresteia of Aeschylus has become something of a hobby. 

Alongside these tragic dramas, I had to pick the Peloponesian War of Thucydides, which is as great a tragic masterpiece as any written by the dramatists. And, from a very different classical culture, I have picked Sakuntala by Kalidasa, a play whose vision penetrates beyond the tragic world, and imagines – much as Shakespeare was to do in his late plays – a world in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end.

 (I have read three translations of this play – by Barbara Stoller Muller, by Michael Coulson, and by Chandra Rajan, and have picked the first of these as it comes in a splendid volume, supplemented with essays by Romila Thapar, discussing this play in its cultural context.)

Shakespeare and the Bible

 9. The Authorised Version of the Bible

10. Henry IV, 1 & 2 by William Shakespeare

11.Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

12. Othello by William Shakespeare

13. King Lear by William Shakespeare

14. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

15. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

16. Sonnets by William Shakespeare

No, I haven’t read all of the Bible. But I do intend to. And I have chosen the Authorised King James version. I am not too keen on using this version as a stick with which to beat the more modern translations, as many of these modern translations seem very fine to me. But for all that, it’s the King James version that lovers of literature tend most often to turn to. 

 As for Shakespeare, I had to limit myself to only a few.

A bit of poetry

 17.The New Penguin Book of English Verse (edited by Paul Keegan)

18.The Prelude by William Wordsworth

19.Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by Tom Beck)

20.Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins

21.Poems by Rabindranath Tagore

22.Poems by W. B. Yeats

23.Poems by T. S. Eliot

I’d probably nominate Wordsworth and Yeats as my two favourite poets in the English language (Shakespeare excepted, as ever!)  But perhaps the most indispensable volume of English poetry is a good anthology. I grew up with the New Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Helen Gardner, but the anthology selected above by Paul Keegan is bigger, and more comprehensive.

 The only poetry I have chosen in translation (apart from the classical works mentioned earlier) is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a work of Mozartian wit and elegance, and which, also like Mozart’s music, is sad even when it seems happy and playful.

(And before anyone mentions it – yes, I know, I do need to read more American poetry.)

A few plays

 24.Volpone by Ben Jonson

25.The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

26.Brand by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

27.Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

28.Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

29.The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

30.Little Eyolf by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

31.The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

32.Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Michael Frayn)

33.The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Michael Frayn)

34.Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw

35.Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

36.Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht (Translated by Eric Bentley)

37.The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

I do love reading plays, and, as can be seen from the list above, am a particular fan of Ibsen’s. But quite apart from the doom and gloom – I love comic drama, and wouldn’t think of leaving out such comic plays as The Critic, The Importance of Being Earnest, and something by Shaw, who, for all his fads and for all his highly dubious politics, couldn’t write a dull line even if he wanted to.

 Short Story Collections 

 38.Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Ronald Wilks)

39.Ghost Stories by M. R. James

40.The Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle

41.“Red Cavalry” Stories by Isaac Babel (Translated by David McDuff)

42.Short Stories by Flannery O’Connor

43.Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (Translated by Andrew Hurley)

44.The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (edited by Michael Cox & R. A. Gilbert)

 I love ghost stories. Ideal reading for the dark, winter nights, especially with the icy wind howling outside, and the bedside lamp throwing weird shadows around the room.

 And, of course, the volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, which is a permanent fixture on my bedside table.

 Novels from Britain and Ireland 

 45.  Roxana by Daniel Defoe

46.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

47.  Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

48.  Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

49.  Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

50.  Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

51.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

52.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

53.  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

54.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens

55.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

56.  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

57.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

58.  Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

59.  Dracula by Bram Stoker

60.  Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

61.  Ulysses by James Joyce

62.  The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

63.  Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

64.  Royal Flash by George Macdonald Fraser

I have excluded Austen because I do not feel myself to be quite on her wavelength; and I have included five titles by Dickens because he is one of those writers to whom I find myself feeling very close. 

I’d have liked to have included more by Defoe, as I think he is seriously underrated as a novelist. Many, I imagine, are put off by the sheer length of Richardson’s magnificent Clarissa, but the neglect of James Hogg’s demonic Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is more difficult to understand.

 There is quite a bit here that qualifies for the label “light literature” – from the childhood favourite Treasure Island (has there even been an adventure story better written than this?) to the splendid Gothic excesses of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sadly, I have had to limit Wodehouse to one, so I chose what I think is one of the best. I also had to limit George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series to just one title, and I picked Royal Flash, his re-working of The Prisoner of Zenda, which, if anything, improves on its model.

 And I couldn’t resist including W. Somerset Maugham’s delightful Cakes and Ale, which manages to be warm and cynical at the same time.

A Few American Novels 

 65.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

66.Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

67.The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

68.The Ambassadors by Henry James

69.The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

70.Light in August by William Faulkner

71.Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner

72.Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

73.The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

74.The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

75.Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 Given my love of ghost stories, I had to include The Turn of the Screw, which is possibly the finest of the lot; and, also, a more substantial Henry James novel.

Generally, I find myself attracted by Southern authors. I have already picked the weirdly compelling short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and I had to pick Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. Faulkner, especially, is a great favourite of mine, although I appreciate he won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

 Some Spanish and German Novels 

 76.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Translated by Tobias Smollett)

77.Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós (Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullón)

78.The Trial by Franz Kafka (Translated by Willa & Edwin Muir)

79.The Castle by Franz Kafka (Translated by Willa & Edwin Muir)

80.Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann (Translated by John E. Woods)

 In recent years, there have appeared two highly acclaimed modern translations of Don Quixote – one by John Rutherford, and the other by Edith Grossman. The next time I read Don Quixote, I will try out one of these. But for now, my favourite translation is that by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, and whose Humphrey Clinker very nearly made this list. His translation has about it a vigour and an energy that I have not found in any other.

Speaking of translations, John E. Woods’ recent translations of Mann have been revelatory. I had previously considered Mann humourless and overly Teutonic, but now he emerges in a completely different light. I have been told that the German prose of Joseph and his Brothers is extraordinary; not knowing German, I cannot comment on how well or otherwise Woods has captured the quality of that prose, but his rendition is extraordinary in its own right. Time after time, I found myself re-reading passages for the sheer delight of experiencing once again the quality of the writing. The novel itself – or, rather, this tetralogy of novels – is a re-telling of the Biblical myths of Jacob and of Joseph, and is a vast meditation on the nature of mythology, man’s aspirations towards the divine, and the emergence of what we recognise as human values. It is among the most magnificent works of fiction I have encountered.

 Kafka’s two novels are, once again, automatic choices. And that leaves Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós, which possibly ranks with James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as European literature’s best-kept secret.

Russian Novels

 81.Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Translated by Robert Maguire)

82.War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Rosemary Edmonds)

83.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude)

84.The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Lynn Solotaroff)

85.Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Vera Traill)

86.Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Paul Foote)

87.The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Translated by David McDuff)

88.Petersburg by Andrei Bely (Translated by Robert Maguire and John Malmstead)

89.The Master and Margarita by Mihail Bulgakov (Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conor)

90.Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Translated by Robert Chandler)

91.Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Translated by Manya Harai and Max Hayward)

 And I couldn’t even find space for Turgenev!

 The tremendous flowering of the Russian novel wasn’t, I think, restricted merely to the 19th century, as, I think, the above list amply demonstrates.

 

 

 

 

French novels 

 92.Candide by Voltaire (Translated by John Butt)

93.The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (Translated by Lord Sudley)

94.Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by Alan Russell)

95.Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by Robert Baldick, revised by Geoffrey Wall)

96.Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer)

97.L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (Translated by Leonard Tancock)

98.In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, revised by Terence Kilmartin and by D. J. Enright)

Proust’s cycle of novels is normally ranked with Joyce’s Ulysses as the greatest of the last century – although, personally, I do think Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers belongs to this company. Having only read through Proust once, I can’t say I’ve done much more than to dip my toes into it, but what little I got out of it left no doubt of the work’s stature. It is something I need to soak myself in once again, and get to know better.

A couple of Indian novels to finish with 

 99. Mr Sampath, the Printer of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

100. Pather Panchali by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji 

 Ideally, I would like Pather Panchali in Bengali, although there does exist a very fine translation (if you can find it!) by T. W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji.. Unaccountably, this translation stops at the point where Satyajit Ray’s famous film stops – i.e. it omits the final fifty or so pages. We desperately need a new translation of this masterpiece – or, at least, a translation of the final chapters to complete the earlier effort. (The sequel to Pather Panchali, the almost equally masterful Aparajito, is available in an excellent translation by Gopa Majumdar.)

 Narayan is still, for my money, the best Indian writer of English. Somehow, he makes novel-writing seem so very easy. And, no matter how serious the themes he deals with, he is never less than elegant and charming. Out of the many novels of his I could have chosen, I have gone for Mr Sampath, the Printer of Malgudi, one of the best.

 By my reckoning, I make it:

 –         6 collections of poetry

–         2 long poems

–         7 collections of short stories

–         1 history

–         3 epics from the classical world

–         24 plays (one of them in two parts)

–         1 collection of scriptures

–         56 novels

The count is a bit misleading, since a single page of poetry can require as much reading as a full-length novel.

The writer who appears most often on this list is Shakespeare, with 7 titles, followed by Ibsen, Tolstoy and Dickens with 5 each. But it’s hardly a reasonable measure, as virtually the entire works of a poet can usually be contained in a single volume.

I am aware of all the omissions on here, but while there are many more books I’d love to include, I really can’t think of any from those listed that I’d be happy to take out. So, for what it’s worth, this is my list. And I’d encourage anyone else out in Blogland to create their own list, and put up a link here.

Thank you very much for indulging me – it’s been great fun.

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22 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on November 27, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    Wot no Hamlet? Its almost as if you are trying to be controversial…
    Interesting that you didn’t include one of Hardy’s, and I’m surprised that Oscar Wilde made it in.
    As for Mann – I only managed to finish ‘The Magic Mountain’ because I was laid up in bed convalescing, and because as well as being increasingly sinister, it also had a lot of humour. I’m glad I didn’t attempt an earlier translation.

    Reply

    • Well, as I said, I had to limit the Shakespeare titles: otherwise, it would have been too easy to saturate this list with Shakespeare. But no – I wouldn’t take out any of the Shakespeare titles in this list to make room for “Hamlet”, wonderful though it is.

      I am not really a great fan of Wilde, but I did want to put in a nfew works that made me laugh, and “The Importance of Being Earnest” certainly does that.

      I’m very much in two minds about Hardy. “Jude the Obscure” is my favourite of his works, but once again, I was limited only to a hundred. There were many other novels I could have included if the list were to be longer.

      I am sorry to leave out “The Magic Mountain”, or, indeed, “Buddenbrooks”. There are a great many significant omissions, but I’m happy with evertything that *is* in there.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on November 28, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    Oh, your own list gives much more to think about and has inspired myself and husband to make our personal lists which is going to lead to much argument I feel sure. I cannot read Hardy or Faulkner with pleasure but this is no criticism of these writers’ worth.
    It may be hard to justify including humor but I could never leave out Elizabeth von Arnim’s “The Caravaners” which is laugh out loud funny beyond belief.

    Reply

    • I hadn’t known about “The Caravaners”. I just looked it up, andit does sound like reat fun. I am up tomy eyes in Dostoyevsky for the next few weeks (our teenage daughter & I are reading it at the same time, so we could discuss the book), but after that, I think I’d be in need of a good laugh, and this seems worth a try. Thanks for the recommendation.

      And yes, it’s great fun trying to figure out a list of one’s personal Top 100. I think my next list will be one of “100 Great Books that Every Civilised Person Should Have Read … But I Haven’t”. When I choose from my own reading, I quickly realise how limited my reading has been. But when you consider all the books I should have read, but haven’t, there are no limits at all! Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, The Tale of Genji, the Mahabharata, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Icelandic sagas, Montaigne’s essays, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams … you name it, I haven’t read it! You could think of 100 titles in no time at all! 🙂

      Reply

  3. What a brilliant blog post, Himadri! Loved it, and all the graphics are great.

    The classocal text I’d include would be Ovid’s Metamorphosis, I think, as it’s the key to understanding so many references in Shakespeare and other writers, plus various works of Renaissance art.
    And when it comes to ghost stories ( I see full collected works aren’t allowed, or rather you’ve chosen to put them outside the remit), I’d definitely have ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’. Novels would have to include quite a lot of Gothic (I see you have ‘Dracula’–an excellent choice that, of course, I fully endorse), but I’d also want some Mervyn Peake.

    Reply

    • Hello Sue, Thaks for that. I do allow myself collections of poems & of short stories, and the ghost stories of MR James are certainly in there, as is the Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories. And yes, I agree – Ovid’s “Metamorphosis” would have been an excellent choice. There are a great many very significant omissions here, I’m afraid. When it comes to books, 100 is a surprisingly small number.

      I look forward to reading your lst, by the way! (And if that isn’t a broad hint, I don’t know what is…)

      Cheers, Himadri

      Reply

  4. Not a bad list at all, H. I would add a few, but not remove too many.

    Reply

  5. I’m working on it! (My list, I mean.)

    Reply

  6. Posted by Caro on December 1, 2010 at 4:15 am

    I did a list for the bigreaders board of 65 favourites, but like Eric’s they would contain too much fluff for me to dare to put it here. (Or rather I shouldn’t dare to put it here – but may well.) It will have changed a little since then – some lovely books read since then.

    And it would depend whether I am writing about the books I have specially enjoyed or the ones I feel a reader would be somewhat limited by if they had not read them. (Unsure if that sentence makes sense to others.) Limited in the sense that many in the English reading world will have read these and you will left behind, as I do often.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Caro, Eric- there’s nothing wrong with fluff, as long as it’s good fluff! 🙂

      And even if it isn’t good fluff, there’s no reason for anyone to apologise for their tastes. After all, not only am I not embarrassed by my love of old Hammer horror films – I postively celebrate it!

      Reply

  7. Ah… Hammer films. Fond memories. 🙂

    Reply

  8. Hi there—I’ve made a start on my list, over on my blog. I’ve gone about it in rather a different way!

    Reply

  9. impressive list you have here. i’ve only read sixteen – and mostly from the Russian category – of the hundred you’ve enumerated here. it could have been more if you’ve included some turgenev. 🙂

    Reply

    • Hello Karlo, and thank you for that. This list wasn’t, of course, intended to be a list of “required reading” or anything like that – it was mainly just a bit of fun. And of course, there are far too many books I wouldn’t want to be without that I couldn’t fit into this particular list. But I suppose this does give a fair indication of my tsates and literary values.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  10. […] Since the best way to respond argumentativeoldgit.wordpress.com […]

    Reply

  11. Excellent list and display of range.

    Reply

  12. Posted by Charles Michener on August 23, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    Your inclusion of Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” is astute – it’s by far this peculiar Anglo-American writer’s most personal book, the one with the biggest emotional pull. Though for sheer perfection in the hard-boiled genre, I’d have to pick his earlier “Farewell, My Lovely.” By the way, for people new to Chandler, his Philip Marlowe series comprises the best fiction ever written about Los Angeles. No one captures the seductive corruption of the place better. And bravo for citing Mann’s “Joseph and his Brothers,” so beautifully rescued in the recent Woods translation. Woods also restores the humor – the uncanny lightness with which Mann treats the most serious of matters – in his translations of “Buddenbrooks,” “The Magic Mountain” and “Dr. Faustus.” My one regret is the list’s omission of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time,” which for an American reader remains the most elegant – and funniest – depiction of the English class system braving the onslaughts of the 20th century. And I’d certainly throw in David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” – a tour de force of literary and historical pastiche that never settles for pastiche.

    Reply

    • Hello Charles, sorry for the late reply – I’d been on holiday.

      The Long Goodbye isn’t the most characteristic of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and many appear to dislike it for that very reason. but it’s his most personal, as you say, and it has a lingering sense of melancholy abut it. To choose the perfect “Chandleresque Chandler novel”, as it were. Farewell My Lovely is unbeatable!

      I was very much taken with John Woods’ translation of Joseph and his Brothers (see here) and can’t understand why it isn’t better known. I haven’t, I’m afraid, read any Anthony Powell.

      Lists such as this are great fun to compile!

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  13. Posted by Stephen on October 9, 2015 at 9:43 pm

    Great blog post. Thank you. No Tolkien? (no I’m not a spotty 20 yr old) 🙂

    Reply

    • I’m afraid the fantasy genre has always passed me by. Science fiction to0 … I know these are hugelypopular genres (our daughter is a a great fan of both), but, for some reason i cannot explain, whenever we move too close to fantasy, a sort of curtain seems to descend, and my mind starts to wander. My loss, Iknow…

      Reply

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