Wednesday, April 6, 2011

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

I have eulogized lists and the art of listmaking so many times that I know I risk repetition. However, I am just one of those people. I love lists. Others hate them, or more accurately, view them primarily with skepticism and suspicion. In the view of the nay-sayers lists are restrictive, exclusionary, essentialist and arbitrary. They are too often used, they will tell you, as a form of authority to mask blind consensus, received opinions or a flawed and incomplete checklist that obscures the dazzling variety and complexity of art.

But I have generally found lists, or at least the best of them, to be the opposite: testaments to variety, catalysts for further exploration, platforms for debate. When it comes to books, I have often relied on a host of lists from disparate sources to piques my interest, expose me to new authors and solidify my resolution to tackles long, difficult or lesser-known works. This is all the more true when the list is large.

So it isn't a surprise that I'm a big fan of the "1001 Before You Die" series by Quintessence Editions Ltd. which includes such problematic and yet, for me, irresistible titles as "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" (I'm at 943), "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die" and, subject of today's musings, "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die." The morbid imperative of the titles may be overwrought, the whole series might be compromised by installments for wines and gardens and the individual choices may be the subject for endless carping, but the idea, and the ambition that lies behind it, compels my applause.

The first 1001 Books list was published in 2006, but the earliest edition I encountered was the 2008 list. Though I didn't buy or even read the descriptive entries, I immediately incorporated it into my inevitable spreadsheet of novel recommendations. Much of my reading from the past 3 years has involved members of the list and, though it has served me well, I identifies a couple overarching problems with the list.

One was that the definition of 'book' was somewhat sketchy. The core of the list is clearly novels, but occasional non-fiction, short-stories and epic poems creeped in, with an inconsistency that bugged me. Ovid's Metamorphosis appears, but not Dante's Divine Comedy? That makes me wonder where is the line being drawn on epic poetry? And are Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter" or Swift's "A Modest Proposal" really books, short as they are?

My second problem was that the creators (a team of around 300 writers, critics and scholars) clearly focused on a list of great authors (particularly English-language ones) and then put every creditable work by those authors on the list, at the expense of lesser-known writers. The result is fairly unassailable, but too overburdened with the established Western giants and a little too safe and obvious for my taste.

When the 2010 edition came out I immediately noticed that my first complaint (about the definition of what qualifies as a 'book') still holds, but the changes in the line-up have utterly shattered my second qualm. Around 150 selections shifted. Almost all new additions are from writers previously absent from the list (including lots of unsung masterpieces), while most of the books shed from the line-up are 2nd and 3rd tier works by authors already well-represented. I couldn't approve more!

I also found it both exciting and gratifying that so many of the new additions are books that either 1) I've read recently, 2) I already planned to read in the near future after hearing about them through other sources or 3) my friends have already read or plan to read. This overlap might make it sound like the new additions are simply popular, recent or well-known works, but it strikes me that the opposite is often true. Thus reading over the list got me excited to discuss what I know about some of the new additions, which I plan to do in a casual and rather solipsistic manner (you have been warned). Later I'll go over what has been dropped from the list, especially the handful of casualties that leave me aghast.

By this point, if you haven't already, you'll probably want to look over the full list for yourself.

Selected Comments on the New Additions

Many of the new additions are a total mysteries to me, so I'm only going to mention the ones that I've at least heard of or have something to say about. I've ordered the list alphabetically by author's last name. I refer several times to my reading companero Josh Potter, whose book blog covers several of the titles. N.D., who knows who he is, also gets several shout outs. When I mention my book club, it actually just means Josh, my brother, my father and me.

Of Love and Shadows (Isabel Allende) - Hailing from Chile, Allende has achieved a huge level of international popularity and is one of the most recognized contemporary Central American authors. While I haven't read any of her works, my mother is a big fan and Josh a fierce dissenter. This works joins her The House of the Spirits on the list.

I'm Not Scared (Niccolo Ammaniti) - A short tense Italian thriller about a boy who finds another child in the hidden pit of an abandoned farmhouse, ejecting him from the innocence of his scorching rural summer. Coworkers introduced me to the movie adaptation, which is pretty decent. My friend N.D. enjoyed the book, rating it 3/5.

Bosnian Chronicle (Ivo Andric) - This work by Bosnian Nobel-prize winner Ivo Andric is his second to make the list. It joins his The Bridge on the Drina, a book I read last year which functions as a 400-year historical-fiction biography of the titular bridge. Sadly, it's troubled tale continued long after the novel with the 1992 Visegrad massacre.

Ashes and Diamonds (Jerzy Andrzejewski) - If the book is anywhere near as good as the Polish Film School classic by Andrzej Wajda, than the book must be fantastic. The story follows an attempted assassination of a rising communist officer by a member of the resistance on the eve of VE day, complicated by the moral and political crises of the anchorless protagonist.

The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (Anonymous) - A 10th century Japanese folktale that happens to be one of the earliest recorded sci-fi stories. I first came across this while playing the 2008 videogame Okami, which required me to buff up on Japanese mythology a bit. If you don't know, for instance, that the ancient Japanese thought the moon held a rabbit making rice cakes, elements of the game can be rather confusing.

Invisible (Paul Auster) - Something of a change of pace for Auster, this 2009 novel follows a group of intellectuals whose literary ambitions fall apart in 1960's New York. I'm a fan of Auster's previous novels The New York Trilogy (existential anti-detective stories) and In the Country of Last Things (dreamlike post apocalyptic sci-fi).

The Mandarins (Simone de Beauvoir) - Intellectuals struggle to determine their role in modern society in this works by influential French feminist de Beauvoir, best known for her treatise The Second Sex.

2666 and Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolano) - One of only a handful of authors to have two novels burst onto the list, Chilean author Bolano's has been hailed as a brilliant postmodern maximalist, though some of his works weren't translated into English until after his death in 2003. Josh and I plan to read Savage Detectives in the near future.

The Death of Virgil and The Guiltless (Hermann Broch) - Another author to break into the list with two titles, Broch is known as one of the lost modernist masters, an Australian writer with a reputation for erudition, profundity and difficulty. He came up in discussions between Josh and I about joint reads, but didn't make the cut. I hope to tackle The Death of Virgil or The Sleepwalkers in the mid-future.

The Way of All Flesh (Samuel Butler) - Too daring to publish in its day (1870's/1880's), Butler's coming-of-age story follows the repressed life of a third-generation clergyman and his struggles with parents, religion, society and women, under the watchful eye of the cynical humanist author. Not a personal favorite for me, but I appreciated Butler's guts, humor and sensitivity.

The Children's Book (A. S. Byatt) - The latest book from the author of the well-regarded Possession (on my reading list despite dropping off of this installment) follows several families whose lives loosely parallel several troubled children's writers.

War with the Newts (Karel Capek) - Considered to be the masterpiece of Czech sci-fi writer Capek, best-known for coining the word "Robot" in his play Rossum's Universal Robots (which is OK, but not great). On my long-term reading list.

The Lost Steps (Alejo Carpentier) - A composer abandons New York City for a vague quest into the Amazon. Carpentier is a brilliant Cuban magical-realist. This work joins his Kingdom of This World on the list, which I've read and enjoyed so much that I immediately vowed to read more by him one day.

Journey to the Alcarria and The Hive (Camilo Jose Cela) - Another author with two titles entering the list. Cela is a Spanish writer who writes ensemble cast realism. I put The Hive on my long-term reading list a few years back and I'm glad to have something confirm my interest.

Monkey: Journey to the West (Wu Cheng-en) - One of the cornerstones of Chinese mythology, my only encounters with this 16th century classic have been films that I was drawn to because of my interest in time-travel (A Chinese Odyssey Part 1 & 2) and obscure animation (Havoc in Heaven, Princess Iron Fan). The protagonist, Monkey, is one of the key progenitors of the prankster/jester archetype.

Falling Man (Don DeLillo) - Considered to be DeLillo's return to form after a decade long slump, Falling Man addresses the repercussions of 9/11 as it applies to a single survivor. I've read his magnificent White Noise and disappointing Body Artist (rightly dropped from the list since the last installment), and shortly plan to tackle Underworld, often designated as his masterpiece.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz) - One of the most lauded books of the last decade, I've been waiting for this book to start appearing on lists. It concerns a Dominican boy growing up in Jersey, is riddled with sci-fi references, and addressed Domincan history and stereotypes. I've got it on my mid-to-long term reading list.

Democracy and Play It As It Lays (Joan Didion) - Two of the best known titles by hard-hitting New-Journalist Didion. Play It As It Lays, a disenchanted look at failed Hollywood dreams told from the perspective of an actress recovering from a breakdown, is on my near-future reading list.

The Crime of Father Amaro (Jose Maria Eca de Queiros) - Portugal's top realist writer (a Flaubert contemporary). I've only come across his name in very old reviews and dedications by other authors, but I want to investigate him further some day.

Deep River and Silence (Shusaku Endo) - It is nice to see Endo, a Japanese Catholic whose works deal with difficult moral dilemmas throughout many different eras, score two books on the list. Silence is actually on my reading list for next month.

Thais (Anatole France) - A historical fictional account of a Christian in 4th century Egypt. Anatole France, a semi-forgotten Nobel-prize winner from the turn-of-the-century, also wrote the satire Penguin Island, which I read a couple of years ago. It never quite achieves brilliance outside the inspired premise: a half-blind monk baptizes the natives of a glacier where he ship-wrecks, accidentally endowing penguins with souls. Their civilization humorously parallels the history of France.

The Death of Artemio Cruz (Carlos Fuentes) - One of the best books I've read so far this year. A dying executive looks back with regret on his moral and political compromises during the turbulent changes in Mexican history. Josh read and admired Fuentes's longer, fantasy-tinged Terra Nostra.

No One Writes to the Colonel (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) - A short work by Latin America's best-known author, and a rare departure from his trademark magical realism. Josh and I read Marquez's Love In the Time of Cholera. My family and almost everyone I know has read One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of my favorites.

Ferdydurke (Witold Gombrowicz) - My bookclub read this in February, and while we all had reservations, it is certainly a unique work of Polish surrealism. It deals with dichotomies like youth vs. maturity, pride vs. humiliation, city vs. countryside in a frenetic, ambiguous, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

Dog Years (Gunter Grass) - Joins the other two parts of Grass's Danzig trilogy (The Tin Drum and Cat and Mouse) on the list. My brother and I are both big Tin Drum fans.

Martin Fierro (Jose Hernandez) - It's only fair that Argentina's most important epic poem join the other examples on the list. Though I've never read it (I'm worried about issues with translation), I keep coming across references to it in Borges, Pynchon, Bolano, Brazilian films, etc.

Closely Watched Trains (Bohumil Hrabal) - I've seen the Acadamy Award winning movie adaption. The book is a Czech dramedy in which a naive train station employee disastrously conflates his virginity and an act of wartime sabotage. Hrabal's Too Loud a Silence is on my mid-future reading list.

Three Trapped Tigers (Guillermo Cabrera Infante) - A modernist exploration of Havana's pre-Castro nightlife. On Josh's reading list.

The Successor (Ismail Kadare) A semi-stream-of-conscious investigation into the murder of an Albanian tyrant's right-hand man, Kadare continues to solidify his reputation as a major author with this book, his third to make the list. I want to try out Kadare's Broken April late this year.

A Thousand Cranes (Yasunari Kawabata) - Nobel prize winner Kawabata seems to be undergoing a bit of a revival, with four different sources that I follow all adding different works by the Japanese great within the past year. As an avid chess player and casual go fan, who enjoys observing the differences between the games, I read Kawabata's The Master of Go a couple of years ago. I plan to follow-up on it with his Snow Country in the vague future.

On the Edge of Reason and The Return of Philip Latinowicz (Miroslav Krleza) - Krleza is one of Croatia's great poet-novelist (not the only to be added to the list this installment). He is a proponent of the "novel of ideas," though he is considerably more concise than many of the better known examples. On the Edge of Reason, about a man plunged into social rejection, imprisonment, exile and degradation due to a single ill-advised comment about an influential man, has lingered in the middle-distance of my reading list, but I might move it up.

Barabbas (Par Lagerkvist) - Last year I read this short work by Swedish Nobel prize winner Lagerkvist, which tells the story of Jesus's crucifixion and the aftermath through the eyes of Barabbas, the criminal set free in Jesus's place. I found the book to be surprisingly more subtle, quiet and ambiguous than I was expecting and, though I didn't know quite what to make of it at first, it has grown on me ever since.

The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) - Lahiri follow-up to her equally successful Pulitzer-prize winning debut, Interpreter of Maladies, has me somewhat intrigued, but skeptical. The movie adaptation was engulfed by rave reviews, but I found it to be somewhat by-the-numbers, and haven't yet been inspired to pick up the novel.

The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin) - My dad and I were recently discussing LeGuin, a feminist sci-fi mainstay, and we have rather differing opinions (he's a big fan; I've been unimpressed so far). She is probably best known for The Left Hand of Darkness, which I found dated and overrated, so I'm glad that this work was the one chosen for the list. The Dispossessed follows a moon visitor representing a Buddhist-esque philosophy who visits his original planet, a clear stand-in for Cold War era Earth. Prepare to be beaten over the head with political metaphors and 1970's New Agey philosophy.

A Hero of Our Times (Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov) - After Pushkin, Lermontov is acknowledged as Russia's greatest Romantic writer (not a movement I sympathize with). Better known for poetry, this is his only major prose work. I've not heard positive personal testimony myself, but it is probably an unavoidable classic at some point. Josh plans to read it eventually, and I may just await his review.

The War of the End of the World and The Time of the Hero (Mario Vargas Llosa) - The latter is a prismatic-perspective take on Peruvian military school. Josh and I read his excellent The Feast of the Goat (already present on the list) around the time of his Nobel prize announcement last year.

The Call of the Wild (Jack London) - An important young-reader novel told from the POV of a canine who ends up pulling dogsleds in Alaska and goes through many adventures before responding to the call of the wild and joining a pack of wolves. I was sad to see this added to the list at the expense of London's lesser-known The Iron Heel, the first dystopic novel, which I still intend to read one day.

Midaq Alley and Miramar (Naguib Mahfouz) - Two internationally admired works by Egypt's premier 20th century writer. I recently saw the surprisingly good Mexican adaptation of Midaq Alley and Josh and I, mere weeks ago, decided to put Miramar on our monthly book club list.

Man's Fate (Andre Malraux) - Malraux's masterpiece is a French Existentialist take on the 1927 Shanghai Massacre. I've been told it's essential reading by several Francophile sources, but I'm not sure when I'll get around to it.

Joseph and His Brothers (Thomas Mann) - Mann is the only big-name author on the list who not only didn't lose any titles, but had one added. Mann experts and German literary critics are virtually unanimous in hailing Joseph and His Brother's as Mann's highest achievement, but few in the English-speaking world seem to read it (at 1500 pages, who can blame them?). I've enjoyed The Magic Mountain and A Death in Venice by the titanic author, and will one day read Buddenbrooks with my brother.

All Souls and Your Face Tomorrow (Javier Marias) - A visiting Spaniard professor wryly observes the stagnation and ineffectuality of Oxford intellectuals in Marias's debut novel, All Souls. I had previously planned to read his sophomore effort, A Heart So White (now dropped from the list), but I might change to one of these. Marias is considered one of the great bards of memory, a structural model and literary theme that interests me quite a bit.

All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) - All the Pretty Horses (read back in high school) was one of my least favorite novels. Blood Meridian (read post-college) is, despite its relentless disturbing imagery chronicling amoral bounty-hunters in mid-19th century Mexico , a favorite. I find it hard to explain the discrepancy. I also thumbs-up The Road, his sparse, bleak post-apocalyptic tale.

Day of the Dolphin (Robert Merle) - I was surprised to find that this was a book (and apparently a good one), as I'm only familiar with the underrated movie, a charmingly ridiculous thriller about a terrorist plot to used trained dolphins for evil. Originally French and titled "A Sentient Animal." I'm curious.

The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima) - A novella about a young man's burgeoning love life. I'm significantly less interested in this than Mishima's Sea of Fertility cycle, already present on the list. I plan to read the first novel, Spring Snow, sometime this year. Mishima is most notorious for staging an ultranationalist pro-emperor military coup in Japan and, when it failed, committing seppuku.

The Lives of Girls and Women and The Beggar Maid (Alice Munro) - Absolutely everyone seems to love Canadian short-story writer Munro, especially other writers, and I think the only reason for her previous absence was that no one is quite sure rather her works count as novels. I plan to start with Lives of Girls and Women, a coming-of-age story with feminist undertones.

The Shipyard (Juan Carlos Onetti) - A luminary from Uruguay, I knew nothing about this book until Josh read it and reviewed it on his website. He recommends it and, besides, its short, so I'll have to give it a shot soon.

Snow (Orhan Pamuk) - An exiled poet returns to Turkey after 12 years absence to investigate a series of suicides in a small border town. Josh and I read Pamuk's My Name Is Red just a few months back, which he was quite taken with, but which left me frequently annoyed and unimpressed. In retrospect, perhaps I should have read Snow, which also comes recommended by N.D. Maybe I still will, eventually.

The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa) - This was already in my queue within the next 10 books I planned to read, having been recommended as the favorite book of friend R.C. A non-linear, poetic diary of an acerbic bookkeeper, I'm extremely excited about this acclaimed Portuguese experimental novel.

Heartbreak Tango and Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel Puig) - I know little about this Argentinean writer, but years ago I was impressed by the movie adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman, a surprisingly touching homoerotic prison thriller. I've forgotten enough of it that I'd gladly give it a read.

Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin) - I should get to this within a few months. Pushkin, Russia's best-known and most-beloved poet, wrote this "novel in verse" culminating in a duel gone wrong and I figured it would be a perfect introduction for me to his work.

Against the Day (Thomas Pynchon) - I've been told, by those who can find any words to describe it at all, that Against the Day is basically an elaborate, large-cast, epic-scope historical metafiction revenge drama sprawling 1000+ pages. Two Pynchon novels were dropped from the list: Vineland and Mason & Dixon (which I might read anyway). I'm a veteran of Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. This month, my bookclub is tackling V.

Home (Marilynne Robinson) - A sequel, of sorts, to Robinson's Pulitzer-winning Gilead, I actually came really close to buying this while in Iowa last week (the book is set in Iowa, so I figured it would be fitting) mostly on the strength of her novel Housekeeping, whose ineffable atmosphere and gorgeous images of water and light still haunt me.

Baltasar and Blimunda (Jose Saramago) - Joins The History of the Siege of Lisbon and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, also by Saramago, on the list. Before he died last year he was widely regarded as not just the best living Portugese novelist, but one of the best in the world. I read Blindness about a year ago and liked it well enough, but in retrospect I wish I had ignored the hype (driven by the movie adaptation) and gone with one of Saramago earlier works like this one, a love story set against the Inquisition and the construction of a famous convent. Josh plans to read Blindness in the very near future.

None but the Brave (Arthur Schnitzler) - On my brother's advice I read Schnitzler's Dream Story (loose source of Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut), which weaves a wonderfully unsettling blend of eroticism and conspiracy. Schnitzler is an Austrian known for his plays and short fiction.

The Street of Crocodiles (Bruno Schulz) - This ecstatic work of Polish surrealism about a young boy and his adventures in his father's textile shop and streets and alleys of the surrounding town, is a personal favorite. Schulz is being widely rediscovered by many readers (both N.D. and K.P. read him independently of me), and I hope he is eventually universally acknowledged as an enduring master.

To Each His Own (Leonardo Sciascia) - A brief, punchy Italian murder mystery about the mafia and the tenacity of corruption, I've had this on my reading list for a long while, and should probably move it up.

God's Bit of Wood (Ousmane Sembene) - A novel about a railroad strike in Africa told from the point of view of the navies and implicitly a critique of colonialism. Josh read this and seems generally favorable. I've watched a few of Sembene's films, icons of Senegalese and African cinema in general, and I should probably check this out.

The Magician of Lublin and The Manor (Isaac Bashevis Singer) - Singer is a Jewish-American Nobel prize winner who writes in Yiddish and is known equally for his short stories and long family novels. I'll probably read The Family Moskat one day, but I don't have much enthusiasm after viewing, a few years back, a rare but underwhelming movie adaptation of The Magician of Lublin.

The Man Who Love Children (Christina Stead) - I've heard this 1940 dysfunctional family epic described as a cult classic and the best 20th century Australian novel ever written. I'm excited to see it make the list as I already own a copy and planned to get to it within a few months.

As a Man Grows Older (Italo Svevo) - Joins Svevo's Zeno's Consciousness on the list, an Italian modernist staple and a novel both Josh and I plan to read.

Some Prefer Nettles (Junichiro Tanizaki) - I read Tanizaki's Naomi, a sort of Japanese Lolita where the girl represents the seduction of the West in a rapidly sinking ship of Japanese traditions, for a Japanese history class in college. Since then I've planned to read more. This one uses a crumbling marriage as a staging point for contrasting old world vs. western influenced values.

Kristin Lavransdatter (Sigrid Undset) - I came across this 1168-page 1920's Norwegian novel about a woman in medieval Norway twice within two months on separate and unrelated visits to Salt Lake City. I first saw it sitting in a shop (not a bookstore; there were no other books) and asked the manager about it, who said she kept copies for sale because it was her favorite book. I saw another copy on a ski trip at the house of a friend's aunt, who told me it was her late mother's favorite book. It won a Nobel Prize, too. Seems daunting though, especially with so many better-known epics I still need to partake of.

Z (Vassilis Vassilikos) - A French-language political thriller about the assassination of a Greek anti-nuclear advocate by right-wing agents with government connections. I'm a huge fan of the famous film adaptation by Costra-Gavras, required viewing by every film lover.

The Birds (Tarjei Vesaas) - I'm pleased to find Vesaas made the list, possibly Norway's greatest modernist, though barely known here. On N.D.'s recommendation I read The Ice Palace last month and the title chapter is the best chapter I've read this year. It sent chills down my spine and ensnared me in the otherworldly atmosphere. The Birds, about a mentally disabled man who looks with fear and skepticism upon his older sister's romantic involvement with a transient lumberjack, will likely be a must-read for me.

Michael Kohlhaas (Heinrich von Kleist) - This 1811 German novella about injustice, revenge and reprisal is part of Kleist's collection The Marquise of O and Other Stories, which I already planned to read sometime this year. Kleist came to my attention through Eric Rohmer's witty film adaptation, Harold Bloom's Western Canon, and E. L. Doctorow's references to the story in his novels Ragtime and The March.

Insatiability (Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz) - This year I am making an effort to read more obscure and out-of-print works, of which this is the one I am most excited about, perhaps because copies are so elusive. A work of forgotten Polish modernism, I've come across no fewer than 4 references to it so far this year: 1) culture-consuming polymath maverick Piero Scaruffi listed it amongst the greatest novels of all time, 2) the frequently informative blog Writers No One Reads featured the author, 3) N.D. read and reviewed a collection of Witkiewicz's plays and now 4) it pops up on this list! I'm hoping to get a copy through ILL. [2014 edit - After managing to track down the book, I ended up hating it! Oh, well.]

Dream of the Red Chamber (Cao Xueqin) - Another one of the four pillars of Chinese Classical novels (all four were added to the list), It is hard to get excited about this endless 18th century family chronicle due to its inordinate length and the consequent ubiquity of abridgement in translations, but one day I'd like to give it a shot.

Chess Story (Stefan Zweig) - A rapid-fire study of chess, localized genius and obsession. This was a pick just last month for my book club and we all found it an engrossing read, easy to whip through in one day. Joins Zweig's Amok on the list, of which I've seen an odd early film adaptation by Fassbinder.

Cut from the List

Again, I'm not including every name, just the authors I have some experience with or which I'm aware are considered major canonical writers. And remember, most of these authors still have their core works remaining on the list, so resist the temptation to fly into a rage if your personal favorites had a few titles trimmed.

Authors with 6 works cut: Charles Dickens (4 still remain)

Authors with 5 works cut: J. G. Ballard, Samuel Beckett (deservingly, in my opinion), J. M. Coetzee (I'm a big Coetzee fan, but 10 works on the original list did seem awfully high), Ian McEwan, Philip Roth (overkill! only two are left!), Virginia Woolf (overkill)

Authors with 4 works cut: John Banville (fortunately they kept The Sea, which I really liked), Saul Bellow, Don DeLillo (but one added), Thomas Hardy, Salman Rushdie (probably overkill)

Authors with 3 works cut: Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster (although a new one was added), Iain Banks (quite happy to see The Player of Games chucked from the ranks), Thomas Bernhard, Elizabeth Bowen, William Faulkner (leaving only 1 work!) , Graham Greene, D. H. Lawrence (good riddance), Wyndham Lewis (doubtlessly his fascist sympathies play some part), Joyce Carol Oates, Iain Sinclair (gone from the list), Edith Wharton

Authors with 2 works cut: Peter Ackroyd, Jane Austin, Donald Barthelme, Charlotte Bronte, William Burroughs (deservingly), Angela Carter, Joseph Conrad, E. L. Doctorow, Maria Edgeworth (good riddance), Brett Easton Ellis, John Fowles, Henry Green, Dashiell Hammett, Nathaniel Hawthorne (I'm not a fan), Henry James, B. S. Johnson, Milan Kundera, Hanif Kureishi, Doris Lessing, Jack London (one added), Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Iris Murdoch, Edna O'Brien, George Orwell, Thomas Pynchon (one added), W. G. Sebald (a shame, I suspect), Will Self (gone from the list), Muriel Spark, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Trevor, Anthony Trollope, Ivan Turgenev, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (both were minor works), Sarah Waters (gone from the list), H. G. Wells, Rebecca West

Authors with 1 work cut: Kingsley Amis, Pat Barker, John Barth, Heinrich Boll, Jorge Luis Borges, Bertolt Brecht (his only entry, but it's his plays that make him great anyway), Anne Bronte, Fanny Burney, A. S. Byatt (but one added also), Italo Calvino, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler, Michael Cunningham, Daniel Defoe, John Dos Passos, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Dumas, George Eliot, Jeffry Eugenides, J. G. Farrell, Henry Fielding, Gustave Flaubert, E. M. Forster, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, William Golding, H. Rider Haggard, Patrick Hamilton (his only entry; I have mixed feelings), Peter Handke, Ernest Hemingway (they could have cut more), Hermann Hesse, Alan Hollinghurst (one added), Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Kazuo Ishiguro, Elmore Leonard, Mario Vargas Llosa (but two added), Malcolm Lowry, Javier Marias (but two added), William Somerset Maugham, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Nancy Mitford, Flann O'Brien, Flannery O'Connor, Chuck Palahniuk (gone from the list), Georges Perec, Edgar Allen Poe, Jean Rhys, Jose Saramago (one added), Sir Walter Scott, Zadie Smith, Tobias Smollett, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, Neal Stephenson (they picked the wrong title anyway), Jonathan Swift, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Jim Thompson, James Thurber, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Alice Walker, Jeanette Winterson, John Wyndham

Specific books I'm most sorry or surprised to see go

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood) - Should have been kept. This genre-hybrid works on many levels and has left a more lasting impression on me than even Atwood's superb The Handmaid's Tale, which remains on the list.

The Drowned World (J. G. Ballard) - An early flooded-world SF classic. Though arguably a minor novel with a muddled second act, I liked this more his controversy-stirring Crash, which remains on the list.

The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow) - My favorite Bellow book, often considered his greatest, and a nationally acknowledge classic. Yet they kept Bellow's thoroughly mediocre Humboldt's Gift...

Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan) - Mostly I'm just surprised to see it go. Turgid and preachy, it is undeniably influential and sometimes appreciably weird.

Wise Children (Angela Carter) - This was coming up on my reading list in just a few months! I'm still going to read it, anyhow.

Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad) - Nothing by Conrad that I've yet read is expendable. He's one of my favorite authors.
House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski) - Such a difficult call. The books is fatally flawed by its terrible framing story, but the core of the novel is a note-perfect send-up of film academia and one of the most effectively terrifying horror stories I've ever read. The experimental typography alone will ensure this work's place in history, and I hope it re-enter the list on some future date.

A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) - The initial list really overdid it on the Dicken's love (10 titles), but I think this one is a surefire keeper. I suspect most literary critics and book lovers are on my side.

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) - The biggest shock on the whole list, in my opinion. Almost every literary friend, critic and writer I've talked to would place this in the top 10 or 20 ever. I can't help thinking a mistake was made, as even Notes from the Underground made the list, a far less sophisticated and powerful novella by Dostoevsky. This is Dostoevsky's magnum opus.

Daniel Deronda (George Eliot) - I've only heard good things about this and several authorities, such as The Observer, consider this Eliot's best work.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) - Someone on the selection committee must have an ax to grind with Faulkner. This is a certified American classic and deservingly so.

The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene) - I approve of The Third Man getting chopped, but I recently read this and found it very compelling. Josh was notably lukewarm, but I actually think I might prefer this over The Power and the Glory (which I read, admittedly, about a decade ago).

She (H. Rider Haggard) - One of the first and best adventure stories and one of the all-time best selling works of fiction. I'm a fan, though I admit it isn't terribly politically correct or psychologically nuanced.

Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammett) - Happens to be a personal favorite; a genre-defining mystery triple-feature set in a gangland rife with witty quips and bursts of signature violence. Better than The Maltese Falcon which remains (rightly) on the list.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) - I wasn't as wowed at Time Magazine or the others who hailed this as a millennial masterpiece, but I still thought it was rather good (just unoriginal for any experienced SF reader). I plan to read more Ishiguro in short order.

Billy Budd, Foretopman (Herman Melville) - Sad to see it go (despite it not being novel-length anyway) as I adore the film and intended to read it soon.

American Pastoral (Philip Roth) - I can't see how this could have been cut after making so many lists of the greatest contemporary American novels. Besides, it's just plain brilliant. Better than Portnoy's Complaint which stayed on the list.

Between Two Acts (Virginia Woolf) - I haven't read it yet, but it's a major work by Woolf and I'm surprised to see it go.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thoughts on Infinite Jest

My eyes are red and burny-feeling. My significant other has asked me to come to bed thrice. But I'm still so caught up in Infinite Jest that I have to write a review/debriefing/rant/diary-entry... like now.

Around noon yesterday I knew I was going to finish Infinite Jest before I next slept. At 2am I did finish it. It's 6am now, as I finally stop rereading passages, mentally cross-checking details and scouring the internet to compare thoughts and theories.

Also around noon yesterday, about 150 pages out from the end of the novel, I begin to guess, as any reader who is honest with themselves would have to guess, that David Foster Wallace was going to mug me: to punch me in the face and take something valuable out of me while I was still stunned. As the ending approached I realized there was less and less room for resolving things I so desperately wanted resolved and turning the last page I was filled with frustration, anger and a sense of betrayal that forced me into contemplating the novel, its plot, its implications and it's almost evil subtle genius that lurks beneath the occasionally obnoxiously overt genius of the prose and structural intricacy. This reaction is apparently quite common; I've been reading accounts online of readers who chucked the book across rooms, tore it apart, burned it, broke down in tears, sent Wallace hate mail, etc.

Even more common was the response I next indulged in: frantically rereading sections of the books and putting together the tantalizing hints, many of which are buried in footnotes, dream sequences, offhand dialog and seemingly irrelevant minor character subplots. I won't actually be spoiling anything by saying that I found the shocking (and daringly brilliant!) final episode of the plot hidden in a single sentence on page 17, because it is impossible to really understand it on the original pass. The first chapter is chronologically the last (don't worry, Wallace reworks the cliche quite well) and despite answering a few questions (with a little imagination) even it doesn't offer the type of satisfaction most readers would like. Much of the literature online complains that even piecing together all the known clues (many so subtly interwoven that I did not catch them) doesn't seem to give a complete picture, and of course they're right, and of course that partly the point. I'm reminded of Pale Fire, Icehedge, The Fifth Head of Cerebus and Gravity's Rainbow; novels that double as puzzle-boxes or enigmatic mind-games.

As everyone who tries eventually admits, the novel has too many characters and subplots to summarize coherently, but the main events focus on two people and their respective environments. The first is Hal Incandenza a tennis and prescriptive grammar prodigy at a prestigious tennis academy whose intellect far outpaces his emotional and spiritual ability to deal with his academic and athletic stresses, not mention his family, including a Machiavellian mother of downright creepy maternal flawlessness and a good-hearted brother with severe deformities. The second is Don Gately, a former house burglar and drug addict who works at a nearby half-way house and attends AA and NA meetings despite fears that he believes neither in himself, any "higher power" or the trite cliches of 12 step programs. The books also follows a radical Quebec separatist movement with a strategically complicated doomsday-ish scheme and the germophobic crooner-turned-president of a futuristic America obsessed by entertainment, advertisement and material consumption. There are so many other characters and relationships that this already-too-busy chart only laughably skims the surface.

Key to tying everything together is Hal's dead father, nicknamed Himself, a controversial semi-failed avant-garde filmmaker who killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave. Himself's (incomplete?) final project, which even the star has never seen, is titled Infinite Jest and is supposedly so entertaining it lethally consumes the life of any who watch it. It becomes pretty clear that Wallace's novel has something of a similar goal and that Himself is in many ways a Wallace surrogate, right down to the misunderstood works of self-indulgence and the eventual suicide. One of my favorite footnotes is a 8 page career summary of the works of Hal's father, which demonstrates a degree of cinematic knowledge on Wallace's part the dazzles me, and I am extremely hard to dazzle on that particular subject. Did I mention the footnotes? There are almost 400 and they span some 90 pages, with content ranging from the irrelevant and pedantic to the informative and revealing. Some of the most important events in the novel are stuck in "footnotes" that take an hour to read.

The title, Infinite Jest, is a reference to Hamlet and works on a lot of levels. Not only is Hamlet an interesting parallel to many elements of the story, but recognizing the scene it is borrowed from is an important clue in solving the largest plot gap. It is also a jab at the novels 1079 page length. Like much of Wallace's humor, it is almost too sophisticated of a jest to get a laugh even if it is slyly funny. Another good example is the future's NATO-esque successor the Organization of North American Nations. Wallace is passionate about abbreviations (there are several thousand in the novel) and so the entertainment/free-choice/individuality obsessed settings being referred to exclusively as O.N.A.N. is the type of the joke that will either lead to head-shaking amusement or head-scratching confusion. Wallace is also not above more obvious pratfalls and situation comedy when he feels the inclination, demonstrating the type of anything-goes eclecticism that writers wear as a badge of post-modernity these days. But he's at his best when he lets his humor take a backseat to an underlying need, almost a desperation, for civilization's lost sincerity, a sincerity even Wallace finds uncomfortable bringing out in the open without protective defense systems of irony, intellectualization and disillusionment.

The most disappointing thing for me, however, is that Wallace's prose never really won me over. His vocabulary is impressive; there is a blog online called "Words I Learned From Reading David Foster Wallace" and a page-by-page, line-by-line, often word-by-word annotation the likes of which only Joyce, Pynchon and Gaddis usually inspire. Yet its sometimes obnoxiously and improbably impressive. At the same time he also moves in and out of the linguistic style and range of various characters comfortably using slang, accents, malapropisms and conversational English in a shifting display that is admittedly masterful, but too showy and chaotic for my taste. There are times I wanted to slap Wallace: to make him stop saying stelliform instead of star-shaped, or having characters say "fantods," or showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of recreational drugs, or repeating the same minor character observations or harping on abuse and addiction interminably, or reveling in the immaturity and ignorance of some of his cast.

The always witty David Eggers writes a wonderful introduction that captures the mixture of excitement and skepticism that runs through any potential readers mind. He compares the book to Shoah and Vollmann's 3,300 page treatise on violence, which, knowing Eggers, might be ironic facetiousness or might not. But he does address one of the central issues that always comes up in discussing Infinite Jest: rather it is worthwhile to read something so long. I think the answer will vary for various readers. Eggers claims there is not any extraneous fat in the novel. This is, of course, a lie. There are whole chapters that I would have cut, long passages that drag, subplots that add little and don't fit terribly well. And yet one can tell that Wallace's first draft was 1700 pages long and that he had to cut many more things he wanted to say and show. Even at its worst, the books is still entertaining and interesting and for each of his dips there are at least two counterbalancing moments that soar and sweep by. At its best, it is full of insight, imagination and verbal dexterity.

As a whole I found it significantly more relevant and compelling than, say, Ulysses (which shares the Hamlet fixation), but I could easily assemble a set of 8 shorter novels totaling less than Infinite Jest's word count that give a much higher per-page-payoff. And yet, despite that project unarguably being a better sustained return on your investment of time than spending a month (pretty much bare minimum) in Infinite Jest, it wouldn't achieve the same sensation. Infinite Jest builds up an indescribably sensation of not just scope and scale, but of accumulated detail and hard-earned realism and the multi-variable complexity and richness of real life. It's something I've only felt a few times: Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. I am exhausted with Infinite Jest, rather glad to be done with it, still fairly frustrated with his kertwang of an ending, and yet I find, defying even my own expectations, that I consider it fully worthwhile to read.

Some quotes from various sources which I liked:

Because, yeah, this is the great nightmare when you're doing something long and hard, is you're terrified that it will be perceived as gratuitously hard and difficult, that this is some, you know, avant-garde for its own sake sort of exercise. And having done some of that stuff, I think, earlier in my career, I was really scared about it: That the trick of this -- (you know, I've got this whole rant about I think a lot of avant-garde fiction and serious literary fiction that bitches and moans about, you know, readers defection and, you know, and blaming it all on T.V., is to a certain extent bullshit) -- [is] that I think a lot of the avant-garde has forgotten that part of its job is to seduce the reader into being willing to do the hard work. And so doing something like this, there were a lot of fears and one of them was "Oh no, this doesn't make any sense." Another was, "Oh no, this is going to come off as gratuitously long or gratuitously hard." And I don't know, it makes me happy you said that because, yeah, I worked harder on this than anything I've ever done in my life and there's nothing in there by accident and there have already been some readers and reviewers that see it as kind of a mess, and as kind of random, and I just have to sort of shrug my shoulders.

--David Foster Wallace

There is an ending as far as I'm concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an "end" can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book's failed for you.

-- DFW

I wanted to do something sad. I'd done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I'd never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it's like to live in America around the millennium.

-- DFW

That's one of the things, structurally, that's going on. It's actually structured like something called a Sierpinski Gasket, which is a very primitive kind of pyramidical fractal...

-- DFW

This creative tension between professions of sincerity and the performance of irony is a big part of what makes Infinite Jest Infinite Jest. And look, plot-wise the book is a failure. The non-conclusiveness of it, the deliberate withholding of essential plot information, is too much of a reader-hostile kick in the nuts to justify whatever formalistic/thematic/ideological points Wallace wanted to make by it. But, it’s a failure on the magnitude of the endless whale anatomy lessons in Moby Dick, which is to say the kind of failure that marks the work of an original mind dedicated to the pursuit of its ideas in full, at whatever cost. It’s a failure that I love and hate at the same time.

--Infinite Detox

It’s the ultimate literary cock-tease. And ultimately, to this reader at least, it comes across as just one more gag in a long list of cute post-modern jokes stretching all the way back to Finnegans Wake.

--Infinite Detox

Rarely does one read such audaciously inventive prose. The author assembles his initially jarring style from the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary language - high-tech jargon, underclass street argot, bureaucratese, the arcana of drugs and sports, the psychobabble of 12-step recovery. However improbable this patchwork, it all coheres into something unmistakably, brilliantly new.

Despite the long sentences, the long paragraphs, the long soliloquies, the long asides - despite the fearless use of the likes of "erumpent" and "treillage" and "apotropaic" - Wallace lets loose with a triumphant, high-energy linguistic rush worthy of a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo. Wallace is not merely showing off. Nor is he squandering words, using two or three where a well-chosen one would do. He is fighting, fiercely and usually successfully, to capture the ineffable with the only weapon at our disposal, language.


But my enjoyment of the book is not outpacing my growing frustration with it. I ignore most of the footnotes. If you want to know why I ignore most of the footnotes, check out footnote 216. Yeah, fuck you too, David.

--A Supposedly Fun Blog

AAAAAARRRRRGGGHHHH. I was expecting that. But not that.

-- A Supposedly Fun Blog

In short, big, sprawling books are dead. But somebody forgot to tell David Foster Wallace. The poor schmuck! While everyone else was downscaling, he was working on Infinite Jest.

--The New Canon

Yet David Foster Wallace's marathon send-up of humanism at the end of its tether is worth the effort. There is generous intelligence and authentic passion on every page, even the overwritten ones in which the author seems to have had a fit of graphomania. Wallace is definitely out to show his stuff, a virtuoso display of styles and themes reminiscent of William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. Like those writers, Wallace can play it high or low, a sort of Beavis-and-Egghead approach that should spell cult following at the nation's brainier colleges.

--Time Magazine

The book's arrogant conceit is to suggest that it itself (like the movie mentioned above) is infinitely entertaining--a work absorbing its reader so fully as to force repeated and uninterrupted readings until death. And it's remarkably close to true; I started rereading Jest immediately after finishing it.


Friday, January 14, 2011

100 Novels, Round 2

Well, it took me awhile but I'm back with another set of 100 novels that I've read since my last post. Round 2 took me significantly longer than Round 1, and I'm tempted to claim it has something to do with the major life changes I've had in the meantime (more on that in a second), but that excuse doesn't hold much water. Looking over what I've read in 2010, I definitely tackled a lot thicker novels on average than in 2009 so I'm just going to blame the increased page count for my tardiness.

Other than reading compulsively, I've done a few other activities worth mentioning. In September I got married, quit my job and moved to Wyoming. I spent the latter parts of 2010 road tripping around the North Central states playing disc golf while the sun shone and reading classic literature in cheap hotel rooms after nightfall. This is a lifestyle I highly recommend. Sadly, anyone who knows what winters are like in Wyoming knows that this couldn't last all too many months; I'm now huddled indoors with my fireplace, cat and book firmly in place. I'm indulging rather contentedly in my joblessness, but my plan is to eventually try and put together a book of my own. Wish me luck on that!

Anyway, I really enjoyed the chance to read so many fantastic novels and I tried to expand my horizons by trying new, occasionally lesser-known, authors while also continuing to explore English and International classics. I've been appreciating the recommendations, discussions, arguments and encouragements of my family and friends, especially my literary compatriot Josh. His reincarnated book blog is a much more active location for reviews than The BookWalrus manages nowadays and houses our first go at a collaborative top 50 put together by Josh, my brother and I.

I tend to be much more generous in my evaluations of books than Josh, but alas, there were five books this year that I would give my emphatic thumbs down to: Don Quixote, Castle Rackrent, The Rainbow, The Sun Also Rises and The Witches of Eastwick. I had my share of indifferent reactions as well, but I tend to find something to enjoy in almost any book and even the aforementioned have their moments. You'll see my rating alongside the list of books at the end of this post. I'm using the same rating system from Round 1, but borrowing Josh's idea to mark the rotten apples.

Now for the statistical breakdown. I wouldn't be who I am if I didn't love statistical breakdowns:

UK: 31
USA: 29
France: 11
Ireland, Russia: 4
Germany: 3
Austria, Italy, South Africa: 2
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Colombia, Cuba, Czech Republic, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Turkey: 1

This was the first time I've read books from Austria, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Cuba, Netherlands, Peru, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. As usual, every non-English book I read is in translation (about 35).

The decades I read the most from were the 1940's and the 2000's (at 10 each). The 1950's dominated Round 1 with 14 books. This round I read at least one book from every decade from 1800 to 2000. I don't actually consciously ensure an even distribution of publication dates and I suspect next year the average release date will be more contemporary. I do think I've gained a better appreciation for books from various time periods, but I still don't know enough yet to draw any conclusions about what eras fostered my favorite works.

I've seen 26 movie adaptations of these novels, oddly the exact same number as the last round. If you know how obsessed I am with film you can probably guess that I'm not exactly a purist as far as "the book is always better" goes. It is certainly usually the case, but not always. This round includes 3 books that I think worked better as films, even if only slightly (Hangover Square, The Shining and The Vanishing) and one play (Suddenly, Last Summer). Last year I cited Frankenstein and The Third Man and I would now add Sons and Lovers, which, after seeing the movie, made me better realize what the novel was trying to say. Most of these films manage to excel visually as well as maintaining or reworking the original. I can also highly recommend the film versions of Orlando and The Tin Drum.

I applied the same rule as last year that I would limit myself to 2 books per author, but I'm introducing an exception: trilogies. This will probably come up more often in the future, but the only example in Round 2 is Beckett's rather disappointing trilogy of existential novels. I definitely prefer his plays.

Some special distinctions within this batch:
Overall favorite: The Corrections.
New favorite authors: Fyodor Dostoevsky, Philip Roth, Leo Tolstoy, Jonathan Franzen, W. G Sebald, David Mitchell and Malcolm Lowry.
Best genre books: Cloud Atlas (Science-Fiction) and The Hound of the Baskervilles(Mystery).
Best prose: Austerlitz.
Best story: Midnight's Children.
Best premise: The City and the City – A murder mystery spanning two cities with their own unique cultures but sharing the same geographic location. The law requires that everyone simply not acknowledge in any way the "other" opposite city. I could almost as easily call this one of the worst premises.
Most difficult: Ulysses.
Longest: Les Miserables
Funniest: A High Wind in Jamaica, Tristram Shandy and A Confederacy of Dunces.
Most depressing: Revolutionary Road and Germinal.
Most energetic: Ragtime and Journey to the End of the Night.
Happiest: Orlando and Loving.
Angriest: Native Son and Woodcutters.
Anger Inducing: Disgrace (but I loved it!).
Most disturbing: Blood Meridian and House of Leaves.
Most Ambiguous: The Magic Mountain, Barabbas and Molloy.
Best title: “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” – An anomalous 1820's anti-predestination-themed gothic horror meta-novel.

** Excellent
* Very Good
[ ] Fair to Good
^ Bad

The List:

1615: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (Spain) ^
1678: The Princess of Cleves by Madame de La Lafayette (France) *
1719: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (UK)
1767: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (UK) **
1800: Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (Ireland) ^
1813: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin (UK) *
1824: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (UK) *
1830: The Red and the Black by Marie-Henri Stendhal (France)
1833: Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac (France)
1847: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (UK) *
1847: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (UK) *
1848: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (UK)
1851: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (UK) *
1859: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (UK) *
1861: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (UK)
1861: Silas Marner by George Eliot (UK) *
1862: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (France) **
1869: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russia) **
1872: Middlemarch by George Eliot (UK) **
1877: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Russia) **
1880: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Russia) **
1881: Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (UK) **
1884: The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (UK)
1885: Germinal by Emile Zola (France) **
1900: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (UK) **
1900: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (USA) *
1902: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (UK) **
1902: The Immoralist by Andre Gide (France) **
1910: Howards End by E.M. Forster (UK) **
1911: Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm (UK) *
1913: Petersburg by Andrei Bely (Russia) *
1914: Dubliners by James Joyce (Ireland) *
1915: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence (UK) ^
1918: My Antonia by Willa Cather (USA) *
1919: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (USA)
1920: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (USA) **
1922: Ulysses by James Joyce (Ireland)
1923: The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek (Czech)
1924: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Germany) **
1926: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (USA) ^
1926: Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler (Austria) *
1928: Orlando by Virgina Woolf (UK) **
1929: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (UK) **
1932: Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine (France) *
1934: A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (UK)
1937: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (USA) *
1940: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (USA) **
1940: Native Son by Richard Wright (USA) **
1941: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton (UK)
1943: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (France) *
1945: The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric (Bosnia-Herzegovina) *
1945: Loving by Henry Green (UK) *
1945: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (UK) **
1947: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (Canada) **
1948: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)
1949: The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier (Cuba) **
1950: Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist (Sweden) *
1951: Molloy by Samuel Beckett (France)
1951: Mallone Dies by Samuel Beckett (France)
1953: Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin (USA) *
1953: The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett (France)
1953: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (USA) **
1953: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (USA) *
1954: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (UK)
1959: The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass (Germany) **
1960: Rabbit, Run by John Updike (USA) **
1961: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (USA)
1961: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (USA) **
1966: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (USA) *
1967: The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (Ireland) **
1970: Deliverance by James Dickey (USA) *
1975: Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (USA) **
1975: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (Italy) **
1977: The Shining by Stephen King (USA)
1978: Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre (USA)
1980: A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr (UK)
1980: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (Italy) **
1980: Housekeeping by Marlynne Robinson (USA) **
1980: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (USA) **
1981: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (UK) **
1984: The Vanishing by Tim Krabbe (Netherlands) *
1984: The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike (USA) ^
1985: Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (Austria) *
1985: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia) *
1985: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (USA) **
1995: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami (Japan) *
1995: Blindness by Jose Saramago (Portugal) *
1997: American Pastoral by Philip Roth (USA) **
1998: My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
1999: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (South Africa) **
2000: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (USA) **
2000: The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) **
2000: The Human Stain by Philip Roth (USA) **
2001: The Body Artist by Don DeLillo (USA)
2001: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (USA) **
2001: Atonement by Ian McEwan (UK) **
2001: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald (Germany) **
2004: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (UK) **
2005: The March by E.L. Doctorow (USA) **
2009: The City and the City by China Mieville (UK) *

And as before, I also made time for a few plays, although much less than last year. Drama is a secondary priority for me, but I consider it important.

1667: Andromaque by Jean Racine (France) *
1957: The Balcony by Jean Genet (France) *
1958: Suddenly, Last Summer by Tennessee Williams (USA) **
1961: The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt (Switzerland) *
1970: The Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo (Italy) *
1973: Equus by Peter Shaffer (UK) **