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.