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Friday, August 28, 2009

The great project of the human narrative

Recently my friend Aeyn posted a top 100 of the best novels. The list was supposedly compiled by the BBC (thought subsequent information indicates that this may in fact be an erroneous attribution!), and my friend Aeyn went through the list to indicate which books he had read.

I was a bit jealous of how many novels he could check off.

So, in order to bolster my fiction reading repertoire and expand my horizon of understanding for the human condition, I have a bit of a project for the Theos Project.

I am compiling a novel top 100 list. I will then (attempt to) read one novel each month until I have worked through all 100. Each time I finish a novel, I will post a review of my thoughts and responses, from which we can discuss the issues and questions raised by our reading of the novel.

Yes, that's right, our reading of the novel.

My plan is to post a month or two in advance which novel I am reading and when I expect it to be finished. This way, you my dear friends, can choose to read along if a particular novel strikes your fancy. In this way, we can explore together all of the subtle, sublime, and sensual nuances of human life.

But first things first--we must have a list!

I have a draft of 100 top titles that I have drawn from various, reliable sources....actually, I went a bit over 100, so there is some editing left to do.....but that's where you come in, because together we will finalize this list.

Your mission is simple:
(1) Add titles of novels to the list that you believe should be a part of this top 100 list.
and just as (or more) importantly
(2) Suggest which novels are overrated, or which should be cut from the list.

My primary two criteria for this list are (1) well-written, beautiful literature and (2) stories and insights that are compelling, insightful, and fertile for thoughtful exploration.

Other points of interest for me are: diversity is important, so authors who are non-white and non-male catch my eye; I'm a bit of a sucker for the classics; and I have included a bit more science fiction than most novel lists.

Putting together a top 100 list is a tall task, so I eagerly await to your feedback. Which novels on this list are good picks? Which are bad picks? Which novels should be on this list?

Here is the list, as an HTML page:

Here is the list as a downloadable .pdf:


Anonymous said...

I don't know what I would suggest you drop, but I certainly don't think you could read a hundred novels without reading Flatland. Sounds like a good use of time to me, though. Best of luck.

Darin Fawley (we met at Mad Anthony's; you introduced yourself because I was reading Gadamer)

amy said...

Glad to see Stranger in a Strange Land there. Brilliant. Jane Eyre too. My two favorite novels.

I submit for your consideration

Animal Farm by George Orwell
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (or something else by him)
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harrient Beecher Stowe
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Stranger by Albert Camus

and if you're going to read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, you might as well read Through the Looking Glass too.

I don't know how important all these novels are in the grand scheme of human existence, but they've all had a big impact on my thinking. Take 'em or leave 'em.

Darin, Flatland. Good call.

Kellsotr said...

The novel that has moved my soul more than any other I have read in probably the last five years was Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. It is beyond powerful, besides being a gripping human story it really gives a good history of the country of Afghanistan and the US's contribution to the rise of the Taliban.

Kellsotr said...

You have several books on the list twice, which may help with your number editing. These are the ones I saw: Housekeeping, The Grapes of Wrath, The Plague, and The Sound and the Fury.

john doyle said...

Looks like a fine list. Others to consider (20th century Anglophone only), though it's hard to know which ones in order to make room:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
I, Claudius by Robert Graves
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
The Magus by John Fowles
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

aeyn said...

i'm game, down, and whatever other lingo/phrase fits here to express commitment and support of proposed endeavor! woohoo!

and i'll look over this list tonight and get back to ya.


Mark said...

This post might get me into trouble. :)

Novels I would cull from the list:

A Passage to India
A Room With a View - ("Howard's End" is his best)
Fahrenheit 451
Hyperion - ("Dune" is the best space opera)
The Time Machine - (marginal)
The Rainbow - (not on par with "Sons and Lovers")
Women In Love - (see above)
Gone With The Wind - (writing just okay)
Finnegans Wake
Pale Fire - (overrated)
Franny and Zooey
Song Of Solomon - ("Beloved" is better)
A Prayer For Owen Meaney - (overrated)
The Demolished Man - (writing isn't on par with rest)
Pigs In Heaven - (marginal)
Tobacco Road - (overrated)
Zuleika Dobson - (marginal)
The Chaim Potok novels - (not worthy of top 100)

Novels I would add:

The History of Tom Jones - Henry Fielding
Beauty And Sadness and/or Thousand Cranes by Y.Kawabata
Disgrace - Coetzee
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
Farewell To Arms or For Whom The Bell Tolls - Hemingway
The Old Man And The Sea - Hemingway
Beloved - Morrison
The Tree Of Man - Patrick White
Madame Bovary - Flaubert
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Sacred Hunger - Barry Unsworth
The Famished Road - Ben Okri
Suttree & Blood Meridian - Cormac Mccarthy
Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye - Chandler
The Erasers - Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Idiot - Dostoyevski
Dracula - Bram Stoker
The Name Of The Rose - Umberto Eco
The Last Temptation Of Christ - Nikos Kazantzakis
Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel G Marquez
Great Expectations - Dickens
Watership Down - Adams
Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift

Novels I would add from Amy's list:


Novels I would add from Doyle's list:

The Great Gatsby
Under The Volcano
A Clockwork Orange
Lord Jim
Blood Meridian

aeyn said...


I have read 34 of the novels on the list. I would happily reread about 1/2 of them again. And then I will gladly embrace this project with you to read the others as well.

Some thoughts on the list itself.
1. You have 4 books in there twice (in the pdf):
The Grapes of Wrath
The Plague
The Sound and the Fury

2. If you were to make ANY changes (add/drop titles), I would suggest the following:
Cut Nabokov's Pale Fire, and replace it with his The Defense.
Cut A Room with a View and Fahrenheit 451.
Add The Little Prince by de Saint-Exupery, if you haven't read it. Add Where the Wild Things Are by Sendak. Add Disgrace by Coetzee. AND, I would say, most enthusiastically and strongly, add Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (one of the great authors of the 20th Century... in my humble opinion).

Keep us informed as to when you will start, and with which novel to begin. I am looking forward to it.

All my love.

Jonathan Erdman said...

The Great Gatsby....hhmmm...I had that on the list then cut it after a little research. It was on this list of the top 10 most overrated novels. (Have a look at the list....any other overrated novels on there that you agree are overrated? Anyone have a problem with some of these being considered overrated?)


Jonathan Erdman said...

So far I am excited and thankful for all of this great feedback. Thanks to all those who have commented thus far......I am currently sorting through all of this info, which is proving to be quite the task!

Every suggestion will go into consideration.

john doyle said...

No more than one title per author? Can you decide partway into the book that you don't feel like finishing it? E.g., Ulysses tops many lists but I just can't get through it. Gatsby -- at least it's short (assigned for my daughter's English class next year).

Jonathan Erdman said...

An author can have multiple titles. I decided to cut back on some multiple authors.

I think I'm cutting Finnegan's Wake, for example. Ulysses will suffice! I think I can get through it. I've read some of it.

I don't know if I will be able to quit on any books, because my plan is to let people know, a book or two in advance, which books are going to be discussed and when (approximately) to expect that we will discuss them.

John, do you think Ulysses should be cut?

Anyone think Ulysses should be cut???

Jonathan Erdman said...

And how about Animal Farm by Orwell.

It was originally on the list, but then I cut it. I kept 1984.

I suppose Animal Farm would provide some very interesting discussion points, so I'm open to putting it back in.

Also, I am adding Les Mis. It got cut by accident. I think it might be one of the early novels that we discuss.

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think I will add Infinite Jest, of the postmodern novel generation. David Foster Wallace seems like he has an interesting take on the irony of the pomo generation and mindset.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Kite Runner sounds intriguing.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks for the cut suggestions!

Those are very helpful. One of the main criteria is really really really really good writing, so your thoughts on the literary substance of the novels is very helpful indeed. For example, I may cut Gone with The Wind and just stick with watching the film!

Jonathan Erdman said...


Beloved is in.

For sure.

And I'm really looking forward to reading it.

amy said...


Watership Down! Yes! Good call!


Excellent. Stunning. Tamie should read it too; she'd love it.

Kellsotr said...

I am so glad you added A Thousand Splendid Suns I think it is just as good as Kite Runner and opens up the discussion for the treatment of women in Muslim society. I have never been able to get through Ulysses either and I do not think I am going to attempt again, but more power to you if you can get through the whole thing. I am excited about this venture, I am on board as much as my busy schedule allows!

Mark said...

You're welcome, Jonathan.

That is an interesting "overrated" list, although the inclusion of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, THE GREAT GATSBY, and ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, and even Jane Austen's EMMA make me wonder how well read he/she is and whether the article is not just a reaction the popularity of these novels rather than the novels themselves. LOTR has some structural problems (the anti climactic liberation of the Shire, for instance), but its scope and even the mythic tone of writing that Tolkien sustains throughout make it an amazing achievement. GATSBY is a simple book on the surface, an easy read if you will. But its simplicity is deceptive. Everything seems transparent enough, even obvious. But fitzgerald's novel is so tightly written it reminds me of a haiku or a short poem written by master: literally all of the fictional elements. I won't even discuss Marquez's novel on this list, utterly ridiculous. As for Austen's novel, I've never read or heard any one ranking it as a masterpiece, but surely it is not badly written. On the other hand, I tried reading Ayn Rand's ATLAS, but it's not really a novel more like fictionalized nonfiction (and I'm not a big fan of essays or self help).

But I digress (at length)… :-)

As for ULYSSES, it is well worth the read I promise you. There's a stretch about two-thirds of the way in (I think it is called The Wandering Rocks) that's difficult and confusing (but no more difficult than the first half of THE SOUND AND THE FURY), and if you just plow through it, the narrative comes back into focus and finishes beautifully.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Mark and Aeyn,

I made some room to add1 Disgrace by Coetzee--looks like a really good read.....this list is tightened up to 100, but tough decisions have to be made....still working.....thanks for all the input, it's great. The list will look fantastic when it is completed.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I made room for Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I'm excited to read it.

Thanks for the suggestion.

aeyn said...


I think you'll find it great. It is in my top 20 pieces of fiction of all time.

Looking forward to this!


Kellsotr said...

Is the list finished? When do we start?

Bev said...

Hey, Jon. Amy suggested I get with the program and comment on this posting, so here I am. It's interesting to read the list and also to read people's suggestions for adding/deleting. I want to read Things They Carried, Brothers Karamazov, Sophie's Choice. Speaking of Styron, we should definitely add Darkness Visible. I agree with most of the items on the list, and I think a few are overrated, such as (IMHO): Room with a View, Passage to India, Frankenstein, Howards End, Sun Also Rises, (going out on a limb here, I know). But we have to make room for Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea; Steinbeck's The Pearl, Winter of Our Discontent, and Cannery Row; Lewis's God in the Dock, Perelandra, letters to Malcolm; Tolkein's Lord of Rings; definitely Les Mis, The Gift of Asher Lev and the Promise (who dares to take Potok off the list?), Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and Dostoevsky's Idiot, Elie Wiesel's Dawn and others, Uris's Exodus, Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (original translation), My all-time favorites on the list are Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, all of Potok, all of Steinbeck, much of Hemingway. Hey, what about Annie Dillard?

Looking forward to reading your reviews, Jon!

Anonymous said...

Oops, I got carried away and forgot to limit myself to fiction in a couple of my suggestions. Oh well, sneak them in anyway!

Jonathan Erdman said...


That's great feedback.

As for cuts.....Room with a View, Passage to India, and Howards End are off. I think Frankenstein and Sun Also Rises will persevere and make the final list.

Good suggestions to add....back to the list for more revisions!

Jonathan Erdman said...


I hope to have a final list to post sometime next week. I am starting to think about which novels to start with....I'd like to give notice for the next two or three that are upcoming.