I’ve pointed you to many lists of great books – the Novel 100, the Modern Library 100, the Radcliffe 100, the Bloomsbury 100, and the TIME 100, all of which have become reading lists for me. I thought it would be fun to put together my own greatest books list. This is the Klaw 100.
My qualifications for assembling such a list are scant. I estimate that I’ve read somewhere between 400 and 500 novels in my life, but can’t say I’ve even reached 70 out of 100 on any of the greatest-books lists I cited above. I’ve never read War and Peace, Ulysses, or The Grapes of Wrath. I hated Moby Dick and A Farewell to Arms. I started The Ambassadors and sold it after fifty fruitless pages. I can’t say this is a greatest books list. It is, however, my greatest books list.
My criteria are wholly subjective. The primary criterion is how much I enjoyed the book, accounting for more than half of the “score” I might give each book if I was inclined to go to that degree. I also considered the book’s literary value, and its significance in the annals of literature, whether by its influence, critical reception, or the modern perspective on the book. There is nothing on here I don’t like.
There are only three items on this list that run beyond 1000 pages, one of which is a series, and another is two books that I combined into a single entry. The third is the longest single book I’ve ever read, although that was originally published as two volumes itself. By and large, the one hundred books listed here are highly readable, accessible even to the casual reader.
I did omit works of primarily popular fiction, even ones I enjoyed, so there is no Harry Potter and no Jasper Fforde. I slipped P.G. Wodehouse in there, since his works have influenced at least two generations of writers and performers, and there are four or five works on there that might straddle the line between popular fiction and literature. You’ll also notice the absence of some works of undeniable literary importance that I either haven’t read or just flat-out didn’t like. I make no apologies for these omissions.
The bottom line: My list, my call.
I’ll post a spreadsheet with the entire list after the last post in this series on Friday. For now, we start with the first twenty, #100-81.
100. A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov. Lermontov’s only novel – he was killed in a duel shortly afterwards – follows its antihero, Pechorin, on several pseudo-adventures in his quest to avoid boredom. One of the earliest nihilists in literature, Pechorin was a controversial character in his time, and his loose moral compass remains shocking.
99. Silas Marner, by George Eliot. Eliot, the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, wasn’t known for her brevity, but this work is both brief and beautiful. Marner is a religious dissident who is ostracized from his community and retreats into a hermit-like existence until a foundling appears at his door. He takes her in and raises her, rediscovering his own humanity in the bargain.
98. The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton. A suspense story with strong Catholic overtones, Thursday tells of a government agent’s attempt to infiltrate a ring of anarchists, only to find that no one is quite what he seems.
97. The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. A brilliant book with a bit of a twist at the end. Is it allegory? Magical realism? A comment on the human ability to cope with unspeakable tragedy? A testament of faith? All of the above?
96. A Room with a View, by E.M. Forster. The only Forster novel I’ve read and enjoyed, probably because it’s not such a complete downer as his other novels. It’s a straight romance, but also a commentary on the dated mores that still ruled the Edwardian era in England.
95. The Man in the High Castle, by Philip Dick. I’m no expert on science fiction; my knowledge of that genre is limited to Asimov, Dune, one or two books by Heinlein, and Philip Dick. I doubt anyone could top this work, however – an alternate history where the United States has lost World War II and been occupied by the victorious Axis powers. The novel’s structure is unusual, without a single, defining plot thread, but is worth the extra effort required to decipher it.
93. The Conformist, by Alberto Moravia. A dark psychological novel that’s not well known in the U.S., The Conformist tells the story of a man pushed along by forces beyond his control, all while struggling with his own lack of emotional responses to major events.
92. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. The debut novel by a Zimbabwean playwright, Nervous Conditions might be the best work ever written about the plight of women in even the “developed” parts of Africa, as they have to deal simultaneously with traditional and modern pressures in their lives.
91. The Reivers, by William Faulkner. Criminally overlooked today by most Faulkner readers, The Reivers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963 and is Faulkner’s most accessible and light-hearted work. It’s a comedy set, as always, in Yoknapatawpha County, focusing on three ne’er-do-wells who steal a car, consort with prostitutes, race a horse, and try to get ahead by any means.
90. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle. The grand-daddy of all mysteries, and the only full-length novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, Hound is as good a mystery as you’ll find, with Holmes at his brilliant and smarmy best.
88. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Too long by half, but it’s still the archetype of the ruined-woman genre that became a frequent theme in literature later in the 19th century.
87. Native Son, by Richard Wright. Perhaps the American equivalent to Germinal for its sheer anger and social commentary, Native Son is the story of a black man who is hemmed in by white society and whose culpability for his crimes may not entirely be his own.
86. The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers. In writing the first spy novel in 1903, Childers was also calling for Britain to ramp up her naval presence to prevent a potential invasion by Germany, which seems prescient given later events. Childers himself was executed during an Irish uprising in 1922, leaving Riddle as his only novel.
85. Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami. Full review. Not Murakami’s best, but still strong, with the same immersive, dream-like atmosphere as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s a story of a search for identity and meaning, told through two narratives headed for an inevitable intersection.
84. Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse. I’m not sure how to choose any single Wodehouse novel, or where to rank them on this list. I’ve read nearly all of the Jeeves novels and am hard-pressed to pick a favorite, so I’ve chosen this one, which also made the Bloomsbury 100. Describing the plot is pointless; the joy is in the telling.
83. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Not really my favorite Twain book – that would be The Prince and the Pauper, a late cut from this list – but Huckleberry Finn is one of the few legitimate contenders for the appellation of The Great American Novel, a comedy, a drama, and a stinging social commentary all rolled up into an adventure story to appeal to the kid in every reader.
82. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le CarrÃ©. A seminal spy novel, but also a character-driven drama, one in which loyalties are uncertain, and so are fates. Impossible to put down, and not laden with all kinds of technobabble to try to distract the reader from a thin or implausible plot.
81. Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. In praise of economic man. Crusoe finds himself stranded on a Caribbean island and must find a way to survive, never giving up and in fact finding God during his time in solitary. One caveat: Defoe wrote without chapter breaks, which makes finding stopping points a little tricky.