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Fun with Lists: My Top Ten Works of Fiction

February 9, 2007

It’s a list, it’s a meme — it’s hard, but it’s worth it.

For additional difficulty, I forced myself to put them in order. Sacrilege, I know — but it’s all a matter of degree, and it’s good to force yourself into some tough decisions every once in a while.

  1. Ulysses, James Joyce
  2. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  3. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. The Plague, Albert Camus
  7. Howard’s End, E.M. Forster
  8. A Portrait of the Artist As Young Man, James Joyce
  9. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  10. Herzog, Saul Bellow

Followed with a brief commentary:

Ulysses. I will insist to the end that there is no book as good as Ulysses. The fact that I fully understand less than half of it only contributes to this fact: it stands ever before me, full of life, joy, laughter, sadness, and two or three moments of tears-on-the-page connectedness.

Middlemarch. Can a novel have a perfect moral compass? I think Middlemarch does. This novel has a decidedly visceral effect on me: over 800 pages the story flows steadily and with a soft momentum — I never want to be glancing ahead or referring back, for what I’m reading at the moment couldn’t be any better. And when the narrative voice breaks in, as it always does at just the right moment… whew.

To the Lighthouse. The “Time Passes” section alone would probably make it onto this list as a work of fiction. Virginia Woolf’s prose is the best prose. The whole strains towards unity, and the passage in which Mr. Ramsay ponders over how to “get to Q” blows the top of my head. The only reason Mrs. Dalloway isn’t on the list is that I’ve only read it once, and never feel like I’m ready to try again.

Lolita. I simply adore Nabokov’s rascally prose, and the sparks that fly as passages and events come together as I read. The longer the sentence, the better. Humbert is one of literature’s great characters.

The Great Gatsby. I haven’t returned to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in several years, but between the ages of 17 and 21 I must have read it six or seven times. Other works have since surpassed it in my estimation, but I still consider it a truly perfect novel, and I wouldn’t be the reader I am today if I hadn’t embraced it so thoroughly in high-school.

The Plague. Camus is one of my personal idols, and his philosophy fully inhabits this novel. There are no heroes, only good men fighting for life in the face of death.

Howard’s End. Forster has a talent for short, incisive chapters that begin and conclude with perfect paragraphs. His restrained, refined style is sensational. Howard’s End also contains one of my favorite passages ever.

A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. Yes, that’s two Joyce on one list. I worship at the shrine. Silence, cunning, and exile — Joyce certainly did well following his own guidelines. The novel is full of brilliant scenes and passages — “peppered with epiphanies.”

The Scarlet Letter. Another novel with a perfect moral compass. America is a Puritan nation, a spiritual, legalistic, and psychological nation — and The Scarlet Letter encompasses all of these things. Plus, it’s structure is unparalleled.

Herzog. Bellow’s erudition and spirit reached it’s high point in this novel. Poor Moses Herzog — all he wants is meaning!

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