Monday, August 17, 2015

The 82 best books

Everyone keeps posting these "best books" lists and I feel--and have felt for some time--awfully left out, not having a list of my own. So here is a list, cobbled together hastily this morning, of the 82 Best Books I Have Read In The Last Couple of Years. The arbitrariness and incompleteness and utter uselessness of this list appeal to me greatly. The list has been sorted, mostly, into alphabetical order by author's first name, because that seems as good as anything else.

1. Aeschylus, The Oresteia (R. Lattimore, trans)
2. Albert Camus, The Plague
3. Albert Camus, The Stranger
4. Alfred Jarry, The Ubu Plays
5. American Colonial Prose, Mary Ann Radzinowicz (ed.)
6. Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
7. Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
8. Anton Chekhov, A Life In Letters
9. Anton Chekhov, The Seagull
10. Anton Chekhov, Tales of Chekhov, Volumes 1-13
11. Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters
12. Apuleius, The Golden Ass
13. Blaise Pascal, Pensées
14. Cesar Aira, Ghosts
15. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
16. Charles Portis, True Grit
17. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
18. D.H. Lawrence, Women In Love
19. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
20. Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
21. Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear it Away
22. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
23. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
24. Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
25. Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
26. Henri Troyat, Daily Life in Russia Under the Last Tsar
27. Henrik Pontoppidan, Lucky Per
28. Henry James, The Ambassadors
29. Herman Melville, Moby Dick
30. Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea
31. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
32. Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule
33. James Joyce, Dubliners
34. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
35. John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands
36. John Milton, Paradise Lost
37. John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
38. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice (abr.)
39. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
40. Jose Maria de Eca de Quieros, The Illustrious House of Ramires
41. Jose Saramago, Death With Interruptions
42. Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World
43. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
44. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
45. Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad
46. Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings
47. Marly Youmans, Thaliad
48. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
49. Michel Houellebecq, Atomised
50. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
51. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
52. Mikhail Bulgakov, White Guard
53. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
54. Nadine Gordimer, Get A Life
55. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What is to be Done?
56. Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
57. Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
58. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
59. Richard Rive (Ed.), Modern African Prose
60. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book
61. Robert Browning, The Shorter Poems
62. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
63. Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King
64. Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies
65. Samuel Beckett, Molloy
66. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable
67. St Augustine of Hippo, Confessions
68. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
69. Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories
70. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Richard Crawley trans.)
71. Virgil, The Aeneid (Fitzgerald, trans.)
72. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway
73. Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse
74. Vladimir Nabokov, Mary
75. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
76. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin
77. Vladimir Nabokov, The Defense
78. Voltaire, Candide
79. Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country
80. Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain
81. Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow
82. Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea

Exactly half of these books first appeared in English. One of the items on this list made it in by mistake, but it's a good book so I'm leaving it. I somehow managed not to include the Norton Anthology of English Poetry or the collection of Yeats or A Practical Course in Wooden Boat and Ship Building by Richard Van Gaasbeek. Nor have I included any Shakespeare.


  1. I wonder if I should make more lists. People love lists. I love lists; let's not pretend otherwise. On the other hand, I at times feel like the entire book blogging enterprise is little more than the creation of a list.

    I've read 48 of these. The best 48, I assume, except for those two Chekhov plays, which I really ought to read sometime.

    1. Lists cannot be resisted; they have higher-than-normal gravity. Einstein said so, I believe, on his Special Relativity And Recipies blog.

      Was the Van Gaasbeek one of the 48 you've read? "Faying" the knees is a simple operation, as shown in Figure 65. A small platform is placed on the carriage, and a batten is nailed on the knees in the same manner that is used in working ceiling and planking. To illustrate the work accomplished the carriage was reversed and the machine stopped. Sheer bloody poetry. Hell, that's better than any list. For the next several weeks, I'll do nothing on this blog but quote Richard Van Gaasbeek.

      Erm, I mean, yes, thanks for commenting! Have you not read all of Chekhov's major plays? That does surprise me.

    2. And well done, making a list from my list. That's the way to play the game.

    3. The book blogging enterprise in general needs more Van Gaasbeek and similar books, to the extent that there are any.

      I've only read "The Cherry Orchard" and that was 25 years ago. I've never even read "Uncle Vanya," despite seeing it several times. Some sort of error has occurred here.

  2. I am admit to being envious of your eclectic reading. I tend to be an intensive rather than extensive reader, which means I keep returning to certain books over and over again. Even then, my comprehension does not improve. That says volumes about my competencies as a reader. Still, I remain what I will call a vicarious reader: I learn a lot by reading about what others like you are reading. Thanks for sharing your list and your frequent commentaries. All the best to you from little old me on the Gulf coast.

    1. Tim, I am trying to do more re-reading as I get older. Every time I return to a book, I find it's not entirely the book I thought it was. I don't know what that says about me, but I suspect that I am not a great "first pass" reader. There are not many books that I know well, which is a pretty constant regret.

      Good luck with your doctors. Don't let them scare you. It isn't much, maybe, but I'll light a candle for you.

  3. Figuring that out in a single morning is a feat in itself. The unusual ones are where these lists get interesting. Mann, yes, Woolf, yes, Chekov, yes, but then -- The Fates Will Find Their Way? -- I don't know it -- so my ears prick up.

    I thought of making a list a little while ago, after I'd read Ashbery's Rimbaud translation, purely so that I could put that book on it.

    1. This is exactly why I post the "books read" lists on my blog! Cut, paste, and sort in Excel. Easy-peasy.

      I was given an ARC of the Pittard book and I liked it enough that I emailed the author.

  4. Lists? Monkey see. Monkey do. Well, see my blog for example. Comments invited.

    1. Having seen the post on your blog, I think this is the point where I realise that I don't read many historical novels.

    2. Neither do I. 3 or 4 a year, and most of those are on the screwy side. The three Sjón novels in English are strictly speaking historical novels. One of the good historical novels I read in recent years was The Astrologer by Scott. G. F. Bailey.

    3. I confess that I'm not really a fan of historical novels. I read Walter Scott's The Astrologer, which to my surprise turned out to be a historical novel (and a lot of fun). But otherwise, I find myself pretty much actively shunning them. Oh, wait: The Scarlet Letter is a historical novel, and I just read that.

      I also confess that my next big writing project is a historical novel, set in 1914, in Manhattan and Antarctica. Is my "Chekhov" thing a historical novel? I have no idea. I guess I don't know the boundaries of the genre, if there are any. Was Hadji Murad a historical novel?

    4. I would say Hadji Murad is not. It is set during Tolstoy's adult life, in a setting he knew from experience. If I write a novel about the Korean War, it is a historical novel; if a veteran of the war writes it, it ain't.

    5. Different people define "historical novels" in different ways. My preference is for books with real people as characters in settings at least two generations (50+ years) prior to the writing by an author who did not live at the time of the book's setting. Yes, it is entirely arbitrary, but perhaps a more important consideration is also this: the book has significant literary merit irrespective of the "historical novel" label. In most cases, those are the criteria for my list:

      D. G. Myers had something worthwhile to say about the topic:

    6. Oh, that's right: Tolstoy would've been one of the young Russian officers stationed there in Chechnya.

    7. The problem with "real people" is that readers argue about how real those people are. Witness the ongoing fight about how "true to life" (whatever that could possibly mean) Mantel's Cromwell character is. My novel has a character named Tycho Brahe, and a bunch of other characters named after actual Danish royalty, but they are all fictional creations within the narrative, even Brahe.

      Possibly my prejudice against historical fiction is a judgement against too many fans of the genre who mistakenly believe that by reading historical fiction, they are in fact reading history and learning something. I, Claudius is a good novel, but it's not so good as history. I am reminded of Alan Rickman's character in "Dogma," and his complaint about how anyone who watches a Biblical epic thinks of himself as a theologian. The joke there is that "Dogma" is an entertaining film, but it's lousy with the theology and the Catholic dogma presented in it is comic and wholly made up. I suddenly like the movie more than I did two minutes ago.

    8. Yes, Scott, you make some good points, especially regarding readers who think they are reading "real" history. However, I think most readers understand the term "historical novels" to mean that the history is the context for the novel (fiction); in fact, that conflation becomes the fascination for readers. Yes, I know Cromwell via Mantel is a distortion, but I understand that "reality" when I pick up the novel. And then there is this: "historical novels" sometimes leads readers to investigate the history. But they discover something if they pay attention: different historians and biographers present the same history in different ways. So where is the truth? Where is the reality? Where does fact end and fiction begin? Those questions percolate throughout "historical novels," and only unsophisticated readers fails to understand that percolation. But now I am babbling. (Tomorrow and other issues are too much on my mind. My blog today explains that preoccupation.) I hope there is some sense in all of that somewhere.

    9. All good points, Tim. Maybe I have encountered too many "unsophisticated readers," though I've also seen a lot of angry "historical" claims about the Mantel book in particular, the combatants being people who might not otherwise be considered unsophisticated readers. Their claim seems to be that Mantel is making a political/religious argument in her novel, and they seem to mistakenly believe that Mantel is somehow being deceptive in making that argument, or lacks the right to make such an argument in a work of fiction. Excuse that miniature rant. Mostly I don't read much in the way of historical fiction because I don't read a lot of contemporary novels of any genre. Most contemporary novels aren't very good, and most historical novels are contemporary, so most historical novels aren't very good. There's a syllogism for you, free of charge. You can replace "historical" with any other descriptor you like and the syllogism still holds.

  5. I've been disconnected for a few days and missed the whole McCrum list thing, but I'm relishing all the other lists - such as this one - that it's inspired.

    1. I saw Obooki's. Who else has written one?

  6. I'm working on a list of the best books in my "to be read" stack! Stay tuned!

  7. lytton strachey for the best prose in the whole world; about the only writer i can reread with enjoyment.

    1. Strachey is fun, but he's no Ruskin. I just read Ruskin's essays on clouds from Modern Painters, and it's better than almost everything. I keep re-reading his description of Turner's "Babylon"

      ...a driven line of level spray, winnowed into threads by the wind, and flung before the following vapor like those swift shafts of arrowy water which a great cataract shoots into the air beside it, trying to find the earth.

  8. Interesting to see which of mine you picked--although I'm glad to be there with any book, given the company...

    1. All three of your books that I've read have been terrific, but Thaliad changed the way I read, and pushed me to go back to poetry in a more serious way, so "best" in the sense of "best for me as a reader." This is a very selfish list.