Friday, March 06, 2009

Greatest novel ever

Yesterday I told my class in the Twentienth-Century American Novel what I firmly believe: Lolita is the greatest novel written in English of all time. The Modern Library’s board of experts ranked it fourth. The Radcliffe Publishing Course, in its “rival list,” placed Nabokov’s novel eleventh. As a preliminary to defending my nomination of Lolita, which I will offer in my closing lecture on the novel and post here on Monday, here is a list of the greatest English-language novels published since the era of Dickens and Eliot. I have included only fifty titles. One hundred were too much work for one day. Only restriction: one book per author. No double-dipping.

(  1) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
(  2) Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
(  3) Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
(  4) James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
(  5) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
(  6) Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
(  7) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997)
(  8) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
(  9) E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)
(10) George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
(11) Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941)
(12) Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)
(13) Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier (1915)
(14) Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust (1934)
(15) Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895)
(16) William Faulkner, Light in August (1932)
(17) Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
(18) Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
(19) J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973)
(20) Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
(21) C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (1950–56)
(22) Esther Forbes, A Mirror for Witches (1928)
(23) Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)
(24) Elizabeth Taylor, The Soul of Kindness (1964)
(25) Barbara Pym, Less Than Angels (1957)
(26) Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (1939)
(27) Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
(28) Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926)
(29) Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (1948)
(30) Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004)
(31) Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution (1954)
(32) Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
(33) Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947)
(34) D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920)
(35) David Garnett, Lady into Fox (1922)
(36) Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
(37) Robert Graves, I, Claudius (1934)
(38) J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
(39) Iris Murdoch, The Flight from the Enchanter (1956)
(40) L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda (1944–47)
(41) Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
(42) Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
(43) Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prarie (1935)
(44) Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)
(45) Richard Wright, Native Son (1940)
(46) Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (1919)
(47) Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946)
(48) J. F. Powers, Morte D’Urban (1962)
(49) Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940)
(50) Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

These are my favorites—the best-written, the most provoking and memorable, the titles I am likeliest to reread when stuck between books.


R. T. Davis said...

Thank you for sharing the list, and I look forward to seeing the second half. There is always something intensely personal and compelling about lists like yours. You have included a few titles with which I am not familiar that I will have to include on my wish-list for future reading. By the way, I am not too impressed by The Modern Library, the Radcliffe, and other similar lists because of the taint of their pretense of democratic committee decisions. I prefer the unabashed personal declarations of an individual's list. Well, you are likely to provoke some interesting reactions to some of your choices. Perhaps you will share those reactions.

tickletext said...

Until now it had somehow escaped my notice that the Modern Library Reader's List top ten includes four by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard. Unfortunate to say the least.

D. G. Myers said...

[T]he Modern Library Reader's List top ten includes four by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard.

Don’t you suspect that the readers’ poll was bombarded by Randniks and Hubbardheads?—just as last summer’s online polls showed Ron Paul lapping the Republican field for the presidential nomination.

D. G. Myers said...

They were probably even the same voters in both polls.

R. T. Davis said...

The Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard titles appeared on the reader's poll list (a curious assortment), which should not be confused with the committee's list (also a curious assortment in some ways).

D. G. Myers said...

[A]lso a curious assortment in some ways. . . .

Yes, it was more politically correct. And it included Sophie’s Choice, that “big, flapping turkey of a novel,” as Martin Amis aptly described it. The board of experts included Styron, by the way.

Have a good weekend, everybody!

HalsMyPal said...

lol. Your right about the Randniks and Hubberheads.
Although most Paulites hate L. Ron Hubbard, but they do love their Ayn.
I am surprised by no Steinbeck but i guess Grapes or Eden could be somewhere in 50-100

Pat Burns said...

Do you have a list of top Texas novels? 50 might be a big much but I would love to hear 5 or 10. Thanks for sharing.

Novalis said...

I enjoy this list as I have your others--I had just read The Country of the Pointed Firs recently and agree it is very charming, if not canonical (whatever that means).

I am baffled less by Lolita than by Narnia over The Lord of the Rings.

tickletext said...

Don’t you suspect that the readers’ poll was bombarded by Randniks and Hubbardheads?

Undoubtedly so. I wonder if J.F. Powers fanatics or Henry Jamesiacs or Stanley Elkinites have ever bombarded a poll?

R. T. said...

Here is are several belated comments on your novels list:
(1) With time on my hands for more than six weeks this summer, since I am not teaching until the second half of the semester, I have decided that it is now a great opportunity to read novels on your list that I had either previously missed or ought to reread because too much time has passed since my earlier encounters. So, I'm off to the used bookstores to seek out titles not on my shelves.
(2) Why, except for reasons of convenience, have you limited your list to novels since 1850 (and since the era of Dickens and Eliot)? What other criteria helped to determine your choices? Do you contemplate backfilling the list by offering up a list from DeFoe through Dickens and Eliot?
(3) With that having been said, and with the allusive play on words intended, may I take a moment to "toast" you: The mentoring and sharing spirit in your blog entries is much appreciated and enjoyed. Keep up the good fight.

R. T. said...

Postscript: Please ignore the typographical errors in the previous post. Write the errors up to my bad keyboarding skills and my haste to get everything together for my next final exam session this morning.

R. T. said...

Here is a belated question about your list: Why have you included several "children's books"? I raise no objection. I simply wonder.

Anonymous said...

Yea, Lolita is the best book ever written. I'm still
not sure if the subject matter effected my opinion?
It was so easy to read. I think that says something
for it being "the. best book ever"?