40. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure I buy into Vanity Fair‘s oft-quoted review (“The only convincing love story of our century”), but as a study of obsession, arrested development, and rationalization, it’s powerful and cheerfully unapologetic.
39. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. One of the strangest books on this list, as it starts out as a story of drunken revelry at an English prep school and ends up as a story of a romance torn asunder by theological disagreements (also explored in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair). Think of it as a fictional memoir that intertwines nostalgia for a bygone era of English culture with a re-examination of the narrator’s spiritual emptiness.
38. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Major Major, Nately’s whore, Milo’s cotton schemes … and the flying missions that never end in a serious war with some very un-serious behavior. A sharp satire full of madcap laughs.
37. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. The first novel in the Western canon, and the first comic novel, Don Quixote is actually two novels now published as one; Cervantes wrote a sequel in response to the flood of knockoffs and unauthorized sequels that followed the enormous success of the first volume of his work. If you’ve read it, check out Julian Branston’s The Eternal Quest, a funny homage that includes Cervantes and an unnamed “errant knight” as major characters.
36. My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Never mentioned in discussions of the Great American Novel, but isn’t a tale about immigrant families working to create better lives for themselves and their children an integral part of the American story?
35. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. The consummate Gothic romance, with a little magical realism (although it was written a century before the term existed) and a couple of absurd coincidences, still captivates readers and, of course, gave us Thursday Next and The Eyre Affair.
34. The Trial, by Franz Kafka. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
33. The Charterhouse of Parma, by Stendhal. Sort of a French picaresque novel, but with a heavy dose of the realism that characterizes most great French 19th-century literature. The protagonist, Fabrizio del Dongo, is a slightly dim young nobleman who sets off on a Quixotic quest to fight with Napoleon’s army (even though Fabrizio is Italian) and become a hero.
32. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Full review. The history of Afghanistan, told as the tragic story of two childhood friends separated not by war, but by a child’s severe error of judgment. Whether he finds redemption as an adult is left to the reader, but unlike, say, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Hosseini’s work at least opens the door.
31. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. The toughest read on the list, because Faulkner – never an easy read – wrote the first fourth of the book from the perspective of the severely developmentally disabled Benji, who senses all time as now and drifts in his rambling narrative from the past to the present without warning. The four parts describe the decline of a Southern family – and of an entire stratum of Southern society – from four different perspectives. And by the way, the book’s title comes from Macbeth: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.”
30. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Full review. A bit rich for such a recent book? I won’t deny it, but despite being set in contemporary America, Empire Falls harkens back to the storytelling of American literature from the first half of the last century, following a cast of ne’er-do-wells around a failing Maine mill town as they wait for something good to happen.
29. A Dance to the Music of Time (series), by Anthony Powell. Full review. Powell’s twelve-part sequence follows Nick Jenkins as he moves from boarding school to college to the army to the publishing world, with him serving as our wry tour guide through the follies and life events of a wide-ranging cast of characters.
27. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. A great romance and a commentary on first impressions and, of course, how our pride can get in the way. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and the unctuous William Collins rank among Austen’s best comic creations.
26. Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara. Full review. A Fitzgerald-esque novel about one man’s self-destruction through alcohol as he rebels against the confines of the small town where he and his status-conscious wife live.
25. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is better known for his science fiction – the dystopian masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 just missed the cut for this list – but this old-fashioned gothic horror story uses fear to drive the narrative forward as a sinister circus comes to a small Southern town and two kids find that their curiosity may do more than kill a cat.
24. Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene. Although it doesn’t have the gravitas of Greene’s serious novels (like The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair), Our Man in Havana is the most serious of his “entertainments” that I’ve read. It’s a rich satire about a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited as a British spy and fulfills his duties by sending in blueprints of vacuums and passing them off as new Cuban weapons systems.
23. The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens. Full review. Dickens’ first novel and perhaps the first true best-seller in English literature, Pickwick is a classic picaresque novel that showcases the sense of humor Dickens apparently lost somewhere on the way to two of the banes of my high school years, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities.
22. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. Full review. Another Pulitzer Prize winner, two years after The Magnificent Ambersons won, Age combines a love triangle, biting but hilarious commentary, and the stifling social norms of the Gilded Age for one of the greatest American novels ever written.
21. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Anne Elliott was persuaded by her father and Lady Russell to decline an “unfavorable” match with a poor sailor when she was nineteen. Now twenty-seven and apparently headed for spinsterhood, she learns that her suitor has returned to England a wealthy captain. Austen’s last novel is the tightest and brings the most tension without skimping on the wit provided by, among others, Anne’s complete fathead of a father.