Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The 100 Best Books?

This morning I ran across a Newsweek list of the supposed 100 best books ever, which they obtained in 2009 by crunching the numbers from several Top Ten lists. 

Don't get me wrong, some of the books placed here do belong.  But others emphatically do not, or probably on any reasonable Top-1000 list.  And all kinds of books which are not merely good, but great, world-changing even, have been left out. 

One of the biggest problems with this list is its over-abundance of second-rate American novels.  (Mind you, I didn't say third rate!)   While American myself, I have a hard time believing any American piece of literature yet produced belongs above any of Charles Dicken's five or ten best novels, for instance, let alone the best of Shakespeare or Tolstoy.  Yet not one single Dickens appears on the list at all.

Here's the list.  It'll be easier to explain which books do NOT belong on it (at least, among those I have read!), than remember which do.  But I'll attempt both.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy1
1984 by George Orwell2
Ulysses by James Joyce3
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov4
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner5
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison6
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf7
The Iliad by Homer 8
The Odyssey by Homer8
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen9
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift 12
Middlemarch by George Eliot 13
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe14
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger15
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell16
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez17
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald18
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller19
Beloved by Toni Morrison20
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck21
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie22
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley23
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf24
Native Son by Richard Wright25
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville26
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin27
The Histories by Herodotus28
On the Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau29
Capital: A Critique of Political Ecomony, Vol. 1: The Process of Production of Capital by Karl Marx30
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli31
The Confessions by Augustine32
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes33
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides34
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien35
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne36
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis37
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster38
On the Road by Jack Kerouac39
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee40
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) by Zondervan41
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess42
Light in August by William Faulkner43
The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois44
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys45
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert46
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy48
Hamlet by William Shakespeare49
King Lear by William Shakespeare50
Othello by William Shakespeare51
The Sonnets by William Shakespeare52
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman53
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain54
Kim by Rudyard Kipling55
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley56
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison57
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey58
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway59
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr60
Animal Farm by George Orwell61
Lord of the Flies by William Golding62
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote63
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing64
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust65
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler66
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner67
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway68
I, Claudius by Robert Graves69
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers70
Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence71
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren72
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin73
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White74
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad75
Night by Elie Wiesel76
Rabbit, Run by John Updike77
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton78
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth79
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser80
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West81
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller82
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett83
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman84
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman84
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman84
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman84
Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather85
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud86
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams87
Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung by Mao Tse-Tung88
The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James89
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh90
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson91
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes92
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad93
Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves94
The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith95
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame96
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X97
Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey98
The Color Purple by Alice Walker99
The Second World War {complete} by Winston S. Churchill

What needs to go:  All the Hemingway and Phillip Pullman books.  They're mildly entertaining and moderately interesting, and Pullman evokes thoughts of some kind or other, but he's ignorant of history as a clam is of geothermals.  Chairman Mao -- good heavens, how did that savage get in there?  Some of his poems are original enough, but let's just set a rule that literature from people who don't mind killing tens of millions of their countrymen is defective in some way.  The same with Karl Marx: he's OK as a writer, but a mere educated cultist as a thinker.  The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe?  We can find something better from Lewis than that.  I haven't read Galbraith or that Freud, but I'm skeptical.  1984 is important, but not that important -- down to 70 or so.  Get rid of Lolita, because pedophilia isn't something to teach kids, sorry.  100 Years of Solitude is over-rated. Rousseau (probably), The Prince (maybe), Leviathan, Charlottes' Web (what's that book doing in that sentence?)  Also Silent Spring (probably), Slaughterhouse 5 (definitely), Invisible Man, Gone With the Wind, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Great Gatsby (not that great -- a weak copy-cat pseudo-Victorian novel of manners) and probably Virginia Wolf.  This is supposed to be a book of great literature, not a record of how American high school teachers abuse their lit students.  "Goodbye to All That!" (94)  And Keynes, too, since he was wrong -- substitute Adam Smith. 

And sorry, Bears of Very Little Brain have a hard time making the top-100 list -- though I'll keep Pooh in mind. 

What can stay: War and Peace, Iliad, Odyssey, Pride and Prejudice, Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Gulliver, Brave New World (lower), Democracy in America, Origin of Species, Herodotus, Confessions, Night, Varieties of Religious Experience, Lord Jim (maybe), Heart of Darkness, Wind in the Willows (maybe), Huck Finn, Malcolm X.  (See!  I'm not that prejudiced against American writers!) 

What needs to be added:

The Bible first, of course: placing it 41, after To Kill a Mockingbird, a touching novel by a precocious            young woman, looks like a calculated insult.
Analects of Confucius.
Dao De Jing
Tang poems. (Mao over that?  Are you crazy?)
Journey to the West.
Bhagavad Gita.
Bacchae (Euripides)
Medea (Euripides)
The Frogs
Prometheus Bound
The Campaigns of Alexander (Arrian)
City of God
Poetic Edda
Dream of the Rood
Brothers Karamazov (someone thought Catch-22 more deserving than this?)
First Circle (Solzhenitsyn). 
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Gulag Archipelago
Resurrection.  (Tolstoy)
Great Expectations (Dickens)
Tale of Two Cities
Christmas Carol
Nickolas Nicklesby
Wealth of Nations
Reflections on the Revolution in France
Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
The Everlasting Man
Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)
Surprised by Joy
Till We Have Faces
The Last Battle
From Pagan to Christian (Lin Yutang)
Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China
The Kite Runner
For the Glory of God (Stark)
Lost in the Cosmos (Percy)
Les Miserables (if there's room)
Peace Child (Richardson)
Life of Johnson
Harry Potter? 


sparrish said...

David, the Bible is already on the list: number 41.

David B Marshall said...

OK. Well, I'll put it at the top, then. War and Peace is great, but even Tolstoy recognized he had a long way to go to catch up to the Sermon on the Mount. He cut out the miracles in his NT, like Jefferson, but that only demonstrates the partiality of his own experience.

sparrish said...

I have no argument at all with that.

B. Prokop said...

Any list of the Top 100 Books that does not include T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets is not worthy of the name. Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy ought to at least be considered, along with the libretto to Wagner's Ring Operas. I don't think I saw Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur anywhere on that list, but again, it simply must be on there. I would keep C.S. Lewis, but replace his Narnia books with his Deep Heaven Trilogy. And speaking of fantasy/science fiction, Walter M. Miller's A Canticle For Liebowitz is surely destined to grow and grow in recognition as the years pass. Put him on the list!

David B Marshall said...

I like A Canticle For Liebowitz, and That Hideous Strength, but couldn't see them that high -- Peralandra is on my list, you'll notice. I suppose I could substitute the trilogy for the one. Have only read individual poems or an essay or two from Eliot, and have never heard of Vikram Seth. Thanks for the suggestions.

B. Prokop said...

Vikram Seth is an Indian writer who writes in English. His doorstop of a novel, A Suitable Boy, manages to span the gamut of post-independence India in a single volume. The plot revolves around a family's resolve to find "a suitable boy" for their eligible daughter to marry. In the process, we are treated to an amazing panoramic tour of quite literally every aspect of Indian society - its history, its hopes and aspirations, its contradictions and shortcomings, the uneasy coexistence of Hindu and Muslim, tradition and modernity, family and nation. I've never read a book quite like it. Yes, it is Indian to its core, but it somehow manages to attain to universality in its outlook.

At 1474 pages, it might seem a bit daunting. But let me assure you, when I finished it, I (literally) cried because it wasn't longer. I didn't want it to end.

the mediocrecommission said...

Geez David. This list is like asking which is your favourite child. Why 3 books by Solzhenitsyn? Ivan Denisovich was the best of them all. And where was William Golding? I think any Evangelical in a building program (Mark Driscoll, Gospel For Asia) should have to read "The Spire". And any established church should have to read "The Lord of the Flies". And yes, keep "The Lion..." by Lewis. And if there is any truth about the nature of being a man, it is in Hemmingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis M...". Bam!!!

BillT said...

"Also Silent Spring (probably)" Only "probably" for a piece of fiction masquerading as scientific fact. A book that set the "environmental" movement on it's present course of power over truth.

David B Marshall said...

MC: Your second full sentence answers the challenge in the third. I found First Circle far and away Solzhenitsyn's best. Lord of the Flies would be a worthy alternative, perhaps. Haven't read that Hemmingway, though I have given him several other chances, thanks also for the suggestion.

David B Marshall said...

Bill: I shall keep this spring silent by not allowing Rachel Carton to disturb its peace.