Be warned: your favorite book may not appear here. One of my favorite books doesn’t appear here (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). It’s hilarious and I love it, but it’s not great literature. There’s a difference between my favorite and what I think is the best. Star Wars has long been my favorite film. Sunset Boulevard is the best.
That said, there are several books that I love (I’m going to mention Good Omens, His Dark Materials, The Hotel New Hampshire, The Stand, High Fidelity and The Straight Man) that just don’t measure up. I will read them again and again, but they won’t make the list. And the one book that everyone loves (To Kill a Mockingbird) just doesn’t measure up as literature. And there are no pre-20th century books. There are no short story collections, no non-fiction books, no works of philosophy. And there are no books originally written in a foreign language (that will be an upcoming list). There are no 21st century books (that will also be an upcoming list). What there are, are the 25 best English language novels of the 20th Century.
25 – Humboldt’s Gift (Saul Bellow) – Pulitzer Prize, last book he wrote before winning the Nobel Prize
“Humboldt wanted to drape the world in radiance, but he didn’t have enough material.” (p 107)
24 – Mother Night (Kurt Vonnegut)
” ‘All people are insane,’ he said. ‘They will do anything at any time and God help anybody who looks for reasons.’ ” (p 90-91)
23 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)
” ‘What’s wrong?’ I yelled. ‘We can’t stop here. This is bat country!” (p 18 )
22 – The World According to Garp (John Irving) – National Book Award
“In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” (last lines)
21 – Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – ML list #41
“The first rhythm that they became used to was the slow swing from dawn to quick dusk.” (p 58 )
20 – As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) – ML list #35
“My mother is a fish.” (p 84)
19 – Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) – ML list #18
18 – Native Son (Richard Wright) – ML list #20
“His eyes closed, slowly, and he was swallowed in darkness.” (p 251)
17 – The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) – ML list #10 / Pulitzer Prize
” ‘I’m just tryin’ to get along without shovin’ nobody around.’ ” (p 13)
16 – To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) – ML list #15
“Then indeed peace had come. Messages of peace breathed from sea to shore.” (p 142)
15 – The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) – ML list #64
“If you want to know the truth, I don’t know what I think about it. I’m sorry I told so many people about it. About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.” (last lines)
note: If I were to list the books that have had the greatest influence on my life, I would have to list, in order, The Diary of a Young Girl, Walden, Winesburg Ohio and then Catcher in the Rye. I read it when I was 16. It’s when everyone should read it.
14 – Winesburg, Ohio (Sherwood Anderson) – ML list #24
“He was one of those rare, little understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness.” (p 14)
13 – Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) – ML list #4
“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.” (last lines)
12 – The Ghost Writer (Philip Roth)
“As even the judge knew, literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family and friends.” (p 110)
11 – 1984 (George Orwell) – ML list #13
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (opening line)
10 – The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) – ML list #2
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (last line)
9 – Beloved (Toni Morrison) – Pulitzer Prize
” ‘It’s gonna hurt, now,’ said Amy. ‘Anything coming back to life hurts.’ ” (p 35)
8 – The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)
“Gibreel Farishta floating on his cloud formed the opinion that the moral fuzziness of the English was meteorologically induced. ‘When the day is not warmer than the night,’ he reasons, ‘when the light is not brighter than the dark, when the land is not drier than the sea, then clearly a people will lose the power to make distinctions, and commence to see everything – from political parties to sexual partners to religious beliefs – as much-the-same, nothing-to-choose, give-or-take. What folly! For truth is extreme, it is so and not thus, it is him and not her; a partisan matter, not a spectator sport. It is, in brief, heated. City,’ he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like thunder, ‘I am going to tropicalize you.’ ” (p 365)
7 – Absalom Absalom (William Faulkner)
” ‘Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the south?’
‘I dont hate it,’ Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; ‘I dont hate it,’ he said. I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” (last lines)
6 – Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) – ML list #7
” ‘I thought you didn’t believe in God.’
‘I don’t,’ she sobbed, bursting violently into tears. ‘But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.” (p 178)
note: Joseph Heller, late in life, was famously told by a student that he had never written anything since that was the equal of Catch-22. He replied “who has?” Given that the remaining five novels all were written before 1961, I’m inclined to agree with him.
5 – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (James Joyce) – ML list #3
“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.” (opening line)
4 – Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad) – ML list #67
“Perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible.” (p 149)
3 – Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
“With a gasp Frodo cast himself on the ground. Sam sat by him. To his surprise he felt tired but lighter, and his head seemed clear again. No more debates disturbed his mind. He knew all the arguments of despair and would not listen to them. His will was set, and only death would break it.” (p 919)
2 – Ulysses (James Joyce) – ML list #1
“and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” (last line)
1 – The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner) – ML list #6
“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.” (last line)
So, there it is, the Top 100 Novels. If you didn’t know what was coming at #1, you’ve never met me or seen my 31 copies of it (that’s not a typo).
There will be more film lists coming, as well as the aforementioned 21st Century novels, but I feel the need to add one final note about this list.
Three of the top five books (Portrait, Heart of Darkness, Sound and the Fury), I first read in high school. This rarely happens as they are all very difficult books not normally taught in high school. But I read them in AP English at Villa Park High School with Carol Mooney as my teacher. When I got to college I was the only one who had read any novels by Faulkner or Joyce. I already had a love for both of them and that made me the resident in-class scholar on both and I owe that debt of thanks to Carol.