The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time

The Observer has brought out a list of the 100 Greatest Novels of all time. Oh, how the Brits love their lists: the queue in written form.

“The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.”
–Walter Bagehot

The Observer has brought out a list of the 100 Greatest Novels of all time. Oh, how the Brits love their lists: the queue in written form.

Canadians, too, love lists and literary awards. They stage literary awards every week, like school plays. It’s what people who don’t care for hockey do for fun here. They also fret recreationally about their place in world literature, at least on the CBC, which was rocked by the discovery that _not a single Canadian_ made the Observer list. (“But they did say that Robertson Davies was almost included…”) Michael Enright–a wonderful interviewer–devoted an hour-long panel discussion to the book that topped the charts, _Don Quijote_.

   “But would you say it’s the _best_ novel of all time?” he asked a guest anxiously. Since she has just finished a newly-published translation, naturally she said yes.

The CBC, still tugging the forelock to the British Lit’ry establishment, apparently didn’t notice that the list was chronological. Even the Observer at its most Nick Hornbyish doesn’t presume to rank a hundred books by quality.

I’m dorky enough to count the number of books on the list that I’d read. 49 out a hundred. This is because it’s exactly the kind of list that English departments in Britain and Ireland taught as the canon in the last twenty years, topped up by the middlebrow Picador paperbacks we stack on our bedside tables when we escape with our BAs. The kind of books that the kind of people who read and write for the Observer would like to have read, and occasionally may actually have ploughed through. It doesn’t claim to be much more, and there’s no harm in that.

I wouldn’t stick to novels if I edited a list like this. I’m not a genre racist; I’d throw architecture in there, and memoir, and essays, and travel writing, and ecology and what have you. I’d use Christopher Alexander’s criterion for artistic beauty: does it make you feel more alive? It would be idiosyncratic and joyously unscientific. I’d proclaim solemn Dervala Awards, and vain idiots like me would vy for them.

My own novel-reading has fallen off a lot in the last two years. I used to be a publisher’s dream, regularly harvesting armfuls of paperbacks from the “What’s New” tables inside the bookshop doors. (Hardbacks always strike me as being for people who like the _idea_ of reading.) I was almost entirely driven by cover design, an underrated art form. These days I’m too skint for new books, and I rely on borrowed or second-hand–which I still pick up by the armful, though I feel guilty about the poor unpaid authors. I’ve been trying new things this past while–travelling, digging wells–and I prepare the only way I know how, gobbling books whole. Novels now seem to me as frivolous a past-time as they did to Mr. Casubon in _Middlemarch_, though I lack his discipline in resisting the odd fictional treat. But I mostly stick to what time has edited. Life is too short to waste on the v. hot, darling.

3 thoughts on “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time”

  1. You’ve got me beat. I’ve only read about 30 of them. I wonder how different the American canon is/was. (I was an EngLit major in the early 80s.) I see a few I’ve always meant to read, and maybe I will. But I hardly ever read novels anymore. I think Buddenbrooks was the last. These days, I seem to mostly read biographies, memoirs, and psychology. However, I do like memoirs that read like fiction, like Running with Scissors.

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  2. Doesn’t your media do lists of ‘the best…’, ‘the top twenty….’, the most ridiculous lists 2003’….? No? Well it does get on my nerves Over Here in the (dis-)UK. The media does endless lists which leave everyone going ‘What!!!??? They left David Bowie out of the top…’ or ‘Harry Potter only came THIRD?!’

    God is it tedious. And a sort of crime though I’m not sure what sort. Would need to consult a list to be sure….

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  3. Not a bad list, actually. Definitely a bit British-centric, but I suppose that’s only natural. I’ve finished 26 or 28 of them (can’t quite remember if I’ve read those particular books by Raymond Chandler and Graham Greene).

    What, no “War and Peace”?

    I’d include Borges, too. Should we exclude him just because he was very succinct and never wrote anything more than five pages or so?

    Somehow, it was oddly gratifying to me that there were so many books on that list that I started and really didn’t like at all. Tastes will differ.

    Also, a good number of books seem to be on that list because they were innovative- like 300 years ago. I liked “Robinson Crusoe” but was it great? Only like the Wright Bros. first airplane was great.

    Here’s my list of favorites:
    War and Peace Leo Tolstoy
    A Personal Anthology Jorge Luis Borges
    Crash JG Ballard
    A Soldier of the Great War Mark Helprin
    Waiting for the Barbarians JM Coetzee
    All the Pretty Horses Cormac McCarthy
    V Thomas Pynchon
    Oscar and Lucinda Peter Carey
    Inferno Dante
    Love in the Time of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    All the King’s Men Robert Penn Warren
    The waste land TS Eliot
    Moby Dick Herman Melville
    The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoyevsky

    Not a list of the “great” books, just what I’ve really grooved on. If you held a gun to my head and told me to shorten it, I’d probably drop the Helprin and the McCarthy.

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