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!
- The Iliad by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
- The Odyssey by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
- The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (Translated by Benjamin Jowett)
- The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Translated by Michael Ewans)
- Oedipus the King by Sophocles (Translated by Gregory McCart)
- The Bacchae by Euripdes (Translated by William Arrowsmith)
- The Aeneid by Virgil (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
- 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)
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
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.
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)
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.
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.