Saturday, March 10, 2018

NOVA this week - The Greatest Novels

Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).

I’m usually all about reading here, but if you’d like to SEE what The 100 Greatest Novels look like – here ya go.

All six rows in the left column plus the top row in the second column. Alphabetical by author from Douglas Adams – Richard Wright. If you bother to count, there are 117 because six of the novels came in more than one volume (Les Mis 2 vol., The Chronicles of Narnia 7 vol., Remembrance of Things Past 3 vol., Dance to the Music of Time 4 vol., The Hobbit + LOTR 4 vol., and War and Peace 3 vol.)

Here is a different visualization. These are not necessarily the versions I own, but rather, covers I like. In the order I read them from The Great GatsbyThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

This blog was originally about my Quest to read the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. It has since morphed into something more, which will allow me to continue blogging once the quest is complete, but…

As I near completion of the original quest, I am contemplating the meaning of “Greatest Novels of All Time”.

It’s a misnomer – there is no indisputable list of “Greatest Novels”. There cannot be as there is no official keeper of literature in the world, no person or organization with claim to final authority.

Truthfully my quest then, is to read 100 Novels that are widely, but not universally, believed to be some of the greatest.

I have to admit, I’m a little frustrated by the imprecision of that. The pragmatic within wants an unbiased test that results in “GREAT” officially stamped on dustjacket, but the poet says, it’s art – you can’t – you can’t objectively measure the quality of art.

I’m tempted to declare the poet the winner and close the debate, but there remains that part of me that wants the official seal of greatness on the dustjacket.

There is something pretty close – the test of time. It is not a criterion but rather evidence of greatness. If a novel passes the test of time, if 100 years later people are still reading it, discussing it, adapting it to stage and film, if it appears on some list of 100 Greatest – that’s about as close as it’s going to get to the official seal.

Are there contemporary authors whose works are great? Undoubtedly, but they don’t get that “official seal” until they pass the test of time. I read Stephen King recently for the first time and loved it. I’ll go out on a limb and say I think he’ll still be read 100 years from now. Not much of a gamble that, but if so – then it’s official (almost).

Author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit: An American Legend; Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) wrote an opinion piece for the NY Times in 2001: Waiting for the Next Secretariat, in which she wrote, 
True greatness is extremely rare…

I think that’s very important. If we dole out the greatness label too liberally…if too many novels are great – then none are. Greatness by definition MUST be rare.

The Greatest Novels? Everyone is entitled to an opinion, no one has the final say, time will tell.

Mind blowing eh?

And I’m not even close to done. Changing subjects – slightly

I’ve read these 100 novels (actually 97 as of today). I loved some, liked a lot, disliked a few, and a couple – nearly hated em.

How can that be? They have all stood the test of time; they are all widely considered great, and yet I didn’t like some? I mean Ulysses – really? I must be a simpleton.

That can’t be right, so I will now search for a more flattering explanation.

The simplest is this: What I like is not necessarily synonymous with what is great.

***mic drop***

You can quit reading now. The rest is just expounding on that thought.

What qualities of a novel will cause me to love/like it?

It must be a compelling story, competently told.

Does that remind anyone of this scene from Dead Poet’s Society? For the record – I love this movie, but I do not concede to Mr. Keating’s romantic assertion that the pages of the imaginary text are excrement, let me posit that there is some merit to the two axis graph. I think poetry, or any art form, can be subjected to scholarly criticism. An evaluation of “how artfully the objective was rendered” and “how important is that objective” might be good measures for poetry, but I think less so for prose fiction. For one thing, I don’t think the axis are of equal importance. Secondly, and since this is about my perceptions of a novel, I will change the axis slightly to suit my own purpose.
-- Axis A: Compelling / Good Story (more important than Axis B)
-- Axis B: Competent / Prose aptitude (not to be discounted entirely)

Compelling – having a powerful or irresistible effect. For fiction then, in my opinion, the powerful effect is making me think and/or feel; the writing should be thought provoking and/or emotion evoking. The more profound my thoughts or the more powerful my emotions – the more compelling the novel.

Competently written – obviously, this would be a lengthy discussion and one I am not particularly well qualified to expound. Suffice it to say, the stylistic aptitude of the writer certainly has an effect on the appeal of their work, just less so in my opinion, than their craft as a story teller.

Obviously, the ideal is to have a compelling story that is competently written, but my point is, they are not of equal importance. STORY is the thing.

I am certain to like a good story, expertly told (high compelling, high competent). I may still like a good story that is told with adequate skill (high compelling, medium competent). I will probably not like a good story, that is poorly written (high compelling, low competent), but I will certainly dislike a story told with perfect prose that is not at all interesting (low compelling, high competent), like an elegant narrative describing the life cycle experiences of a kitchen sink.

I’m going to circle back to “Greatest Novels” briefly. Just my opinion, but I think those novels that have passed the test of timelessness, have done so because they are compelling (at least to a large segment of readers) and competently written.

Great Novels – open for debate; difficult to define, easier to recognize by their timelessness.
Wanderer’s Favorites – Compelling and competent: novels that inspired thought and/or emotion, also easy to recognize by 4 to 5 stars.

Sorry, you could have skipped everything and just read the summary.


  1. There's also the issue that your life experience, mood, and interest in the telling of a potentially compelling argument might vary, depending on if you read the book for the firdst time in 2010, or say, 2020. Foor example, Wuthering Heights was one of my first classics. It's pretty acclaimed -- but I hated it. I have a weird feeling if I read it again, I might like it. (Possibly not.) So the reader's ability to immerse him or herself in the story, and grasp and appreciate its point -- varies. Possibly many of the books people call "great" really are great in some perspectives, and many books no one reads are great, yet no one has read them.

    You should list your 100 great novels when you finish. I think everyone has a list personal to them which varies with experience in life as well as literature. That's why the personal canon makes sense -- it exposes us to the great within us.

    1. Yep to all that.

      When I'm finished with these 100, I will have some version of my personal TOP something (I'm fussy about words you remember, and I can't bring myself to call it a personal canon), but something along those lines.

      Thanks for the feedback...I was particularly hoping you would comment.

  2. Love the visuals! I am working on the Modern Library's 100 best of the 20ths century which has a lot of overlap with your list. But I don't have every book. A part of me wishes I did...

    Yeah, Ulysses was tough. But I have since gone on to read Pynchon and David Foster Wallace and currently I am reading Gunther Grass and I think there is something in reading these "difficult" books...I think they have definitely made me a better, more rounded reader.

    King will likely continue to be read 100 years from now. I suggest you read IT next since you liked The Stand. There is a certain aspect of Americana that King captures in some of his books that I have read which elevates them over say Dean Koontz IMO.

    1. Hi Ruthiella. I definitely agree that there is value in the difficult reads. I don't think I can say I regret reading anything I've finished.


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