Wednesday, April 6, 2011

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Introduction
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.

6 comments:

JDP said...

Man, great analysis. I can tell you messed around with this list for quite some time. I'm tempted to go out and buy a copy of the actual volume, but some of the reviews I've read have indicated that the descriptions of the books are fairly lackluster. It might be more important simply to have the list itself rather than the supporting material, though.

Much like you, I am inclined to list making in general, although 1001 ranks are a lot to populate and I worry that too many selections become unwieldy, especially when there are many inclusions from the same author (like four books from Dickens, for example). Lists like this and Bloom's "The Western Canon" are almost too big to get your head around an evaluate. It just makes your blog entry all the more impressive!

I'm astounded at the number of newer additions to the list that we ourselves have recently read, recently decided to read in the future, or recently discussed/acquired/investigated. This excites me greatly because I feel like -- somehow -- we're critically engaged with these canon revision efforts; it's like we're hanging with these guys pound-for-pound as they try to get outside the standard strictures (and, in some cases, I think we've got them beat). Maybe we should quit our day jobs and go try to find gainful employment in literary criticism (or something).

Related to specific books you mentioned / other books I've recently been thinking about:

I am thrilled that Savage Detectives, Three Trapped Tigers, The Lost Steps, The Shipyard, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and many other Latin American books made the list. The first three books in particular are all on my list of upcoming reads (at various points in the next three months) and now I'm doubly excited to get into them. On the subject of Latin American authors, however, piling on more Allende while leaving Cortázar completely unacknowledged is utterly ridiculous. At any rate, my recent payoff-to-investment ratio for Latin American literature has been incredibly high. Between the more mainstream "boom" authors and the lesser-known (and more recent) experimental types, I think the well of Spanish language literary talent might be bottomless.

Also pleased to see offerings from Endo, Sembene, and Zweig on the list (although I think they are all lesser works). I read both The Sea and Poison and God's Bits of Wood in college and found them particularly instructive. I like the editorial board's obvious efforts to move the list into other countries and literary traditions.

Ferdydurke is going to become, I think, increasingly more prevalent, so it's cool that we (sort of) got in on the ground floor with that one. My review of Ferdydurke is the most frequented post on my blog (which makes me nervous because that was certainly not my best review).

I think I'd still defend My Name is Red over Snow. I've heard from many people (some of them Turkish!) that Snow is laborious, dense, and hopelessly repetitive. I know your impressions of the former book were generally unfavorable, but I still think you might have been letting your appraisals of other, similar books creep into your evaluation. Who knows. Maybe I'll flip completely after I've read The Name of the Rose.

I think I agree with / am familiar with all the books you listed that were tragically cut from the proceedings. I cannot believe that they dropped Brothers K, American Pastoral, and Lord Jim in particular. Also, I'm about halfway through The Blind Assassin and it's currently trending toward a low-lying "canonical" rating in my book. I'll be interested to see how it finishes out.

I should forward along to you my list of upcoming reads and maybe we can coordinate a bit more than we have been. For instance, I'm interested in moving Svevo, Infante, and Carpentier up my queue based on your post.

Walrus said...

I think there is a tradeoff between a list small enough to reasonably tackle everything (but necessarily restricted) and one so big that it is really pretty all-inclusive, but overwhelmingly daunting. I tend to prefer the latter these days.

The number of titles/authors that we pre-empted was really the prime reason why I put together this post. My reaction was the same as yours, and it made me want to share the feeling :)

I think Cortazar will one day show up on the list, though I was also surprised to see him not yet appear. The only lists I have that he appears on so far are Bloom's Western Canon and China Meilville's best sci-fi for sociology scholars.

My problems with My Name Is Red have less to do with comparisons to other works than the complaints I cited on your blog. I suspect I'd like Snow more (though I don't actually regret reading MNIR and I don't fault your selection), but you make it sound like I should just wash my hands of Pamuk at this point.

I seem to recall the second half of Blind Assassin being just as strong, so I think a minimum Very Good is probably in the bag. Shame that it was cut from the list.

Send me your upcoming queue whenever you feel like it and we can coordinate. I'm interested in adding Infante to my list after reading up on it (who recommended it to you?). I've got my copy of Svevo on my physical queue shelf at home. I'm not yet ready for a Carpentier round 2 yet, but I look forward to the discussion. I hope to start V in a couple of days.

Walrus said...

One item that I forgot to mention is that the 2010 changes set me back about 13 titles. Still, I think the list moved in the right direction.

I got online and ordered 7 new books after reading the updates and looking into some of the titles. That alone is a good sign in my mind :)

Walrus said...

Responses from N.D.,

-I'm Not Scared was a rec of the book store on my street, which the clerk only knew from an actual trip to italy. I'd never have expected to see it here, but I'm pleased to know it's being read.
-for a moment I was shocked to think that Zulawski's Possession was an adaptation, then realized that it actually is not, but may still investigate Byatt.
-Karel Capek!
-I also really must read Play It As It Lays soon
-Hmm, I wonder how I'll react to All the Pretty Horses now. I haven't gotten around to it yet probably because it sounds pretty conventional compared to usual McCarthy
-Snow is strange. I like much of it a great deal, but a bunch of it annoys me a lot, and how much I can recommend it sort of comes down to how I feel Pamuk relates to his narrator on any given day (it changes). He's clearly a proxy for Pamuk, but also seems pretty loaded-down with self-loathing. He makes terrible decisions and worse, doesn't really seem to acknowledge them as such, and it's hard to see what Pamuk intends sometimes.
-Ooooh V is fantastic, and Against the Day is also so so good. Those two might be my two favorites of the Pynchon catalogue, though I plan to re-read Gravity's Rainbow with annotations sometime, as well, which may bump that back up.
-Schulz!
-Tarjei Vesaas! I somehow missed that you'd read the Ice Palace, but I'm really glad to hear that you liked it. Those descriptions are otherworldly. And the very cinematic intercutting of non-narrative bits.
-Only one faulkner left! And it's not Sound and the Fury! What?!
-Also sad to see The Blind Assassin go. I oscillate between that and Oryx and Crake being my very favorite from her.
-I think I felt better about liking House of Leaves after I decided Johnny Truant's framing story was supposed to be horribly overwritten.

jlv said...

Terrific overview, Brian, that lets me get a handle on something otherwise near unmanageable. I esp enjoyed the additions and deletions. Putting on major foreign works adds a lot more validity to the list. like you and Josh, some of the deletions are pretty hard to take like lord jim, brothers k, sound and fury and tale of 2 cities (?). for nostalgic reasons "she" is a loss also. house of leaves was an enjoyable book and the formatting very provocative, but i'm not sure it belongs with the classics.

all opinion, of course, but lots of fun. i love lists too!

Patrick said...

There are so many books in the world!

I'm very happy to see some internationalization. That makes the list much more meaningful.

I agree with dad's comments on the cuts strongly. The Brothers Karamazov!?!? The book was awesome!

Also, I didn't realize that the English name of Schnitzler's Leutnant Gustl was incomprehensibly altered to None but the Brave. That was one of the last books I bought in Germany. It's sitting on my shelf.