Kip at A Stitch in Haste links to Time Magazine’s Top 100 English Language Novels (since 1923). He’s mystified that Time omitted The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, both by Ayn Rand. I haven’t read either, so I can’t comment on their exclusion, but I did answer his discussion question asking what novels should be added to the list. Here’s my comment:
Eight. My strong preference for spy fiction set in WWII [I wrote “WWII spy fiction” but edited it for clarity because I’m that annoying] has an opportunity cost, as well. The books I’ve read:
The Catcher in the Rye – school, reread by choice
The Grapes of Wrath – school
The Great Gatsby – school, reread by choice
Lord of the Flies – school
On the Road – school
Portnoy’s Complaint – choice
Slaughterhouse-Five – choice, several times (as well as the movie)
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – choice
8 1/4 if I count The Sound and the Fury. The opening 75 pages of that make no sense. It’s amazing how effective punctuation and “he said” can be at aiding comprehension. But, if no one understands the book, it must be great. (Exhibit B: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.)
I’d add… The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (my favorite book), The Crimson Petal and the White, and Brave New World.
I know of at least one English major who can answer this, but I’m curious about everyone’s opinion on this list. What do you think? Personally, I think these lists are generally worthless, other than as a starting point for what everyone “should” read. As I mentioned in my comment to Kip’s entry, I’ve read the first 50 pages or so of The Sound and the Fury but haven’t finished it. Faulkner’s style turned me off immediately. I might finish it one day, but I feel no rush. The novel appearing on a Top 100 list doesn’t change that.
Or consider my Exhibit B, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. I anxiously read that because it received a lot of critical acclaim and the premise seemed interesting. When I read it, I wanted to throw the book so many times. I finished it but only because I didn’t not finish books at the time. That book probably forced me to abandon that irrational strategy.
Specifically, I hated the way Mr. Whitehead shifted his narration with no warning. I’d read along and suddenly find myself in the middle of a long, long passage that derailed the story’s flow. Even today, I can’t decide if his literary device was a sign of a writer not talented enough to explain his point clearly (not that I’d missed it with the story itself) or a writer too talented to think that he only needed simple sentences that moved the story along. It may have been hailed as …the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye…. by Walter Kirn, but within the first one hundred pages, I was thinking “Yeah, ok, I get it. We’re a racist society. So what?” I hated it.
As I wrote here, the message as the foundation doesn’t work in literature, whether it’s books, movies, or television. It’s fine to have a message. Some of the best literature will reveal a moral, but the message must evolve out of the story. Above all else, I want to be entertained. A book isn’t great just because it’s complicated and doesn’t make sense. If that’s the case, the writer most likely failed.
That doesn’t have much to do with anything, of course. I’m just rambling because I like books, but I don’t like bad books. And I loathe bad “good” books. So I’d shake up Time’s list. Rather than ramble on anymore, I’ll just ask the same question Kip asked. What novels would you include on the list? And if you want to include a count of the books from the Top 100 that you’ve read (with titles, even), post that, as well.