The twenty greatest English-language novels

A few of you wrote in and asked me to match this Guardian list of the top one hundred English-language novels of all time.  (It is notable how many second-rate English novels made that list, and how few second-rate American ones did…)  Well, one hundred is too many but here is twenty, in no particular order:

James Joyce, Ulysses

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Charles Dickens, Bleak House

Wuthering Heights

William Faulkner, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury

Huck Finn

Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, Mrs. Dalloway

Nabokov, Pale Fire

Henry James, The Golden Bowl

Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Sterne, Huxley, Lawrence, Beckett, and Wharton are all knocking on the door and probably would have rounded out a top twenty-five.  Scott and Trollope too, more Hardy.  I consider the omission of Austen to be my flaw, not hers, but I just don’t love them.

You’ll note I made no attempt to be “balanced.”  I gladly would have awarded all twenty spots to the same author, had such a choice been justified.  There is also no attempt at racial, ethnic, gender, or geographic balance, none whatsoever.  I simply picked what I think are the best books.

And if you think there are some obvious omissions, they probably are intentional.  There are plenty of fine books, but no I don’t put 1984 in the top twenty, and while America has many very good novels from the latter part of the twentieth century, only a few (V?)  would receive my serious consideration for a top thirty list or even top forty list.  Not many are better than Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or for that matter John Galsworthy.

Comments

No one taking the comment bait. Perhaps it should be recast as which books deserve to be raised in status. Faulkner and Joyce I find massively over-rated while Ellison's Invisible Man and Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby cannot be over praised.

Correction: The FIRST half of Huck Finn; the second half was much more like Tom Sawyer, a boys' adventure book. Please, stop with the incomprehensibly silly Joyce and Faulkner. Novels do need some clarity, rather than that weird, obtuse goofiness, which scholars seem to adore.. Leaving out the damn near perfectly written Gatsby is criminal. And a travelogue about the whaling industry in the 19th Century as No. 3? WTF???

Huck Finn had no author? :-)

Teach the controversy - Twain or Clemens

"Twain or Clemens" would be tickled pink that Tyler didn't think he needed to say who wrote Huck Finn.

Well since Alice in Wonderland is under "Charles Carroll" it is obvious that the author of Huck Finn should be Mark Twain.

You mean Lewis Carroll? Confused.

"Pale Fire" is really good.

So is "Lolita," but it is not politically correct to like it any more. (I do anyway.)

I was surprised to find how many of Tyler's choices I support.

Nabokov was a Modern English prose virtuoso, and Pale Fire was his richest, fullest vehicle for it.

Everyone keeps citing Middlemarch—guess I will check it out.

Middlemarch is only very good, not mindblowingly flawless like some of the other books Tyler listed. Within its genre, I would say that Middlemarch is substantially below Austen's best, but a cut above the Brontes. That said, you should read it.

Austen's works are beautifully polished, but very limited in scope. She lived in during the American and French revolutions, early industrialization, major advances in science and technology, and social upheaval (Mary Wollenstonecraft published 'The Rights of Women' when Austen was 17). And the impact of all of this on her novels is approximately...nil. She portrayed a dynamic age as static -- where one's fortune was a fixed characteristic like height or hair color. Middlemarch is far richer than anything Austen wrote. Here's A.S. Byatt (who arguably deserves her own place on the list) on Middlemarch:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/aug/04/fiction.asbyatt

Nabokov wrote "Lolita" in English? I always assumed it was written in Russian. I've never read it, but I've nearly lived it, lol.

I nominate Graham Greene, especially the Power and the Glory, as well as John Fowles, "The Magus", and Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The Magus was the first book that came to mind when I read this thread, though I hesitate to compile a top list. Different books appeal to different periods of my life.

To name one or three or 20 above all others is to suggest I haven't changed. And I certainly have.

In "Pale Fire" Nabokov invents my favorite collective nouns in: "... an anthology of poets and a brocken of their wives ...”

Pale Fire is a westerner by Clint Eastwood. We're talking books.

Middlemarch - George Eliot
Book of the New Sun - Gene Wolfe

Yes, Middlemarch is a great, a very great novel.
Lord of the Rings is just crap.

I'm in support of it on this list. LOTR is a sly piece of political fiction, written in a way that completely obscures the actual point it is making, to its credit for me.

I can almost understand the high brow approach that would classify the "Lord of the Rings" as not a real novel. However, calling it "crap" makes me question your judgement, more than I question its literary merit.

Tyler,

Pretty good list. If I made one there would be non-trivial overlap with yours. My biggest differences probably have to do with intra-author choices. To go for a big one, if you are going to pick Ulysses as #1, why not go all the way to Finnegan's Wake? There is also the matter that you cheat by naming more than one novel for some authors. If we were to get serious and tough why is not The Sound and Fury the big one for Faulkner. I mean, really. I could go on, but a pretty gutsy and mostly pretty respectable list.

Well each one of those Faulkner novels is one of his top 20, so it's not cheating. He just really likes Faulkner (and Woolf).

I realize that this comment was based on not having counted the books, which are indeed 20. I have no problem with Tyler picking more than one from any author. I retract the comment, aside from noting my views about certain books. It was inappropriate.

In my opinion many of the Guardian books do not even reach second rate. To Kill a Mockingbird is a pastiche of caricatures, it is not by coincidence that it is mostly read by 5th graders.

A Suitable Boy is a glaring omission, it should be in the top 10.

Yeay, a relative status post.

I look forward to "top-20 worst books in the English language".

Lord of the Rings!? Yes, I did enjoy them. (As a teenager, I was even obsessed enough to slog through the Silmarillion and read a couple Tolkien biographies.) But the so-so writing and really bad poetry and sections that could really have used a few more rounds of editing are hard to overlook. There really isn't much in the way of ideas to grapple with, either. You could call it ground-breaking for reviving the saga, but Beowulf itself is much better and if you insist on a modern revival, I think Tolkien's friend and contemporary Lewis did a better job with the Narnia stories.

"Greatest" criteria are of course not defined here. And Tyler's selection is esoteric and offers no clues.

LOTR surely comes in for social impact and mythopoetic scope, not prose or characters? (And Narnia? Are you serious? Lewis couldn't write a christian allegory without hammering the nails in, so to speak, but the real problem is the lack of internal life to his world. Only the 3rd book they never televise seems to show anything like a working culture or society.)

To be clear, I wouldn't put Narnia on a list of the 20 best English novels either; I would just put it ahead of LOTR. I'll happily grant Lewis's heavy-handedness, but those are deep and important ideas he is hammering on (although of course they are not originally his). I'll also happily grant that he doesn't really flesh out the culture and society of his world, but neither does Tolkien; for both of them those are just backdrop and a source of plot devices for their mythologies and adventure stories. I'm not sure with what "social impact" we should credit LOTR -- the gross receipts of the books and films? For me, prose and ideas are central elements of a novel. LOTR falls down on both of those and Narnia, well... Narnia handily clears the low bar that LOTR established for them.

Long time reader, first time commenting.

Personally, I would take the Silmarillion over The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien himself would certainly put Beowulf before his own works (I love Beowulf but prefer Tolkien), but can you really beg the question what "social impact" did The Lord of the Rings have? It defined modern fantasy as we know it! Its stunning how often you'll here fantasy authors cite Tolkien as their influence, its not like he was part of someone groundswell movement to bring High Fantasy back on the moment, Tolkien WAS the movement. He created hobbits, orcs, and High Elves (rather than Santas helpers) and he created an entire genre of fiction. His style isn't highly stylistic, but his prose is elegant and clear nonetheless, and I for one would take the writing in The Lord of the Rings over a lot of stuff. Additionally, the meaning and symbolism in the books are striking: I'm not sure there is a bolder ending to an epic than the Scouring of the Shire and the Grey Havens. Its a grand story about mankind coming into its own in the world, and yet it is intensely personal.

For what its worth, beyond The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien singlehandedly created appreciation for fantasy and established it as a literary form beyond "entertainment". We all praise Beowulf now, but before Tolkien it was regarded as a great adventure epic, and had a lot of academic attention for its sociological and historical significance, but wasn't regarded as literary masterpiece until Tolkien's lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Naturally, this doesn't impact The Lord of the Rings directly, but it was The Lord of the Rings that kind of proved the point: that fantasy can have meaning, and ought to be studied critically as any other form of literature.

I've studied literature, and one thing I find noteworthy is that it doesn't seem to be the critical favorites of the day OR the most popular books that stand the test of time. For my money, in fifty or a hundred years, Tolkien's shadow will only become bigger.

How many other authors invented a genre? Conan Doyle with detective fiction, certainly (though that's obviously spread across all of the Holmesian canon, not a single work).

Science fiction does not have a single creator (Wells and Verne wrote proto-sf, then the pulps, then Campbell and Gernsback codified the genre as editors rather than authors). I don't know enough about romance, but love stories seem to go back forever.

Horror and the Gothic to that night that Mary Shelley et al told scary stories to one another, I suppose - but even then, would we have the modern vampire from just The Vampyre without Stoker's Dracula? And it took a long time for horror to really get going as a successful literary genre; perhaps one of the few that really got their act together off the films?

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was published in 1841. Conan Doyle was born in 1859.

"“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was published in 1841. Conan Doyle was born in 1859."

It would probably be more correct to say that Edgar Allan Poe invented the modern detective story.

Beowulf in the original is as much a foreign language work as anything written in German. As such I don't think it can be included in a list like this.

A cogent and spirited rebuttal. This is an excellent answer to my critique. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

I don't think inventing a genre alone should get you on the list, my argument was in part that Tolkien not only invented the genre but also mastered it and demonstrated that genre's significance to literature. That said, I haven't read all the books on the list above, but I would absolutely put Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on the list. (To be frank, if it came down to it, I'd probably say Paradise Lost is best work in English ever, but I'm a little nutty.) I also really appreciate seeing Gulliver's Travels on the list, its a shame people think its a kids book.

Regarding Beowulf, I wholly agree that it should probably be disqualified, as none of us can read it in its original language. I did listen to an audiobook of someone reading the whole thing in the original language, and you get enough here or there to know where you are in the story, but that's only if you already know it. You can't actually follow the story, obviously.

David - thanks! I'm glad you appreciated the answer. I mostly wanted to right because I think that there's a strong preference for style over substance, and a tendency to equate style with writing skill; I think the Lord of the Rings is excellently written and highly substantive, even if it isn't the most stylistic.

I suspect you might not have dug in on LOTR since your teenage years then. LOTR is one of the most sly libertarian/anarchist political texts in literature, which is why I'm sure Tyler included it. While the character's don't have modern "depth" imagine the discussions of what to do about the ring (power) as Platonic dialogues with action, and you'll get a sense of my appreciation.

Would you care to elaborate more?

Regarding the depth of characters, I'll grant that the style isn't very psychological, but they are still very deep characters, just ones that are written about in an epic rather than a drama. You don't get smacked over the head with their inner workings but its all there, especially regarding Samwise, Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir. Consider the Iliad: an epic, and something where you could easily miss some of the depth of character, but Hector, Achilles, and Patroclus are all great, deep characters nonetheless.

I understand that they are setting about to destroy the ring of power, and how simply having it corrupts you, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that makes it libertarian. Tolkien doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Aragorn's kingship: yes, there are powers that its better to say no to, but ultimately the story is about man's place as rulers of Middle-earth (remember that the Elves leave and unlike the movies the Elves do NOT help beat Sauron directly), and ultimately the dominion over Middle-earth is manifest in Aragorn and his kingship. I would say the story is more about the ordering of power and rejection of evil than libertarian/anarchist politics. What politics there is is more a rejection of modernism (in the 20s, 30, 40s, 50s) - evil is often cast in industrial tones (Saruman especially and what he does to Isengard and Fangorn, and then later in the Scouring of the Shire) and even the great figures like Aragorn and Gandalf have a special praise for the Shire and its simple, unassuming way of life.

Beowulf isn't English. Despite the name Old English has as much comprehensibility to a fluent English speaker as Latin.

Cwom þa to flode felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap; hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan. Landweard onfand
eftsið eorla, swa he ær dyde;

vs

Haec ubi dicta, cavum conversa cuspide montem
impulit in latus: ac venti, velut agmine facto,
qua data porta, ruunt et terras turbine perflant.

The English-speaking peoples are not that great at novels.

Woah! Come on now.

Agree that this should be "Books that should be raised in status" as a better heading.

That's why I'm glad to see Lord of the Rings made it. Many on the Guardian's list are only there for the tortured prose and social virtue-signalling that wins Booker prizes, Tolkein has plenty of fails for style and character but, oh my god, the social impact and scope of mythic imagination.

So not a single one of the 20 best books of all time is written during the last 50 years?

Whenever we can objectively measure quality, new things trump old things by a huge, often ridiculous margin. Whenever we can't, the old stuff is somehow always best.

Sorry, but that's just pathetic nostalgia. You can do better, Tyler. Try again, please.

There may be some truth to that but I can also think of many reasons why you are wrong. More importantly you did not actually recommend any contemporary novels

The last 50 years have seen a collapse of economic returns to writing, social returns to writing, number of periodicals publishing serious fiction, money made by periodicals publishing serious fiction, cultural prominence of periodicals publishing serious fiction...

It's not a coincidence that the careers of nearly every great American writer peaked before the mass introduction of television.

Chacun a son gout, but it's inconceivable that a reputable list of the twenty best should not include Middlemarch.

No American noir? I read They shot horses, don't they? long ago and remember it. Perhaps I should read it again. Or more recent, James Ellroy.

The last 50 years have seen the rise of a sort of ironic satire which has occasionally been done very well. Some candidates are:

Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle
Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49
Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities
Douglas Adam's HItchhiker's' Guide to the Galaxy
Julian Barnes' The Porcupine
Don Delillo's White Noise

I'm not sure that any of these will be appreciated in 100 years, Bonfire of the Vanities has a decent chance.

Sorry David, Cat's Cradle is not from the last 50 years.

Touché. Correction: last 52 years.

Personally, I think Cat's Cradle is timeless, as is 1984. Both succinctly capture elements of human nature.

White Noise is incredible. I'm not sure how it will hold up a century from now, but there are few novels that are more word-for-word perfectly executed.

I actually didn't think it even held up that well in 2014. I can however see how it was groundbreaking at the time.

I enjoyed Bonfire (though I think Man in Full is his best), but I'm not sure it aged well even for today's young readers, much less those of a 100 years hence. Wolfe's books are too much of a time and place to be timeless classics I would think.

"No American noir?"

Noir tends to be interrelated with the movies. It a great artistic accomplishment, but the whole of noir -- the books and movies -- is a little better than the sum of the parts.

I went to the Arclight last week and saw John Huston's 1941 "The Maltese Falcon." The movie is even better than Hammett's 1930 novel, but perhaps that's because the movie so closely follows the book, which presumably had been influenced by advances in storytelling in the movies.

Indeed, noir is linked to movies. It's not high brow art but I honestly enjoy it.

"Indeed, noir is linked to movies. It’s not high brow art but I honestly enjoy it."

I think at the point you define noir as not high brow art, you've pretty much narrowed high brow art to a niche of pretentious and exclusive. Which, on second thought, is probably a tautology.

Why these, though? Vacuous status raising is boring. At least The Guardian will be justifying its choices.

Middlemarch would be in the top three (with Moby Dick and Ulysses). Tristan Shandy is another serious omission. "Second rate" books that I think merit consideration: Jaber Crow by Wendell Berry, Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell, True Grit by Charles Portis, The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Nothing about "Dunces" is second rate. It stands above any of the academically celebrated "ironic satires" mentioned above.

"Canonical writers changed the medium, the language they were working in. People who merely describe what is happening now don't last. " --AS Byatt.

Mmm, the mind of an academic. Novelty begets tenure, which is all that is important.

I agree about Huck Finn.

Tyler, how is it possible that George Eliot can't even find a mention in this post? Middlemarch is one of the top 20 novels of all time in any language. That book is a treasure.

Paradise Lost is a poem, but should count as a novel.

Will snyone defend Pilgrim's Progress or Robinson Caruso? Both make the top of Guardian list, but are unread by me.

Pilgirm's Progress is up there in terms of greatness. It certainly has influence--- as I recall, the second most common book in English for 100 years or so after the Bible, and lots of literary references. It has lots of ideas, good characters (see Macaulay on that), memorably images and scenes done in just a few sentences, clever wordplay. Is it a novel, though? Not really. It's a series of episodes. Perhaps Dickens is like that too.

I find 'Robinson Caruso' a truly felicitous, or at least intriguing, spell check mistake. Assuming, of course, that it was truly a spell check aria.

I'm turned off by the heavy handed racism in Crusoe.

Well it was a story centered around a white man shipwrecked while on a black slavery expedition.

am I too late? I agree Cormac Macarthy worth considering here. And what about Evelyn Waugh? And Graham Greene?

I don't think it's necessarily wrong that there are few modern entries, it's quite possible that modern creatives will write say TV (breakin bad) rather than yet another attempt at the great American novel. Art Forms don't always regenerate.

tom

I consider the omission of Austen to be my flaw, not hers...

Couple that with the selection of the miserabilist Hardy, and I'm tempted to suggest therapy.

I've never been able to decide if "Ulysses" or "Slaughterhouse-Five" is the worst "serious" novel I've ever read.

Try Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the most accomplished soporific utopian romance ever perpetrated.

If nothing else Slaughterhouse is at least considerably shorter (50k vs 265k words).

I'd include at least one Naipaul (A House for Mr Biswas or Bend in the River) in the top 100 if not top 20. Maybe a Wodehouse as well.

BY the way, Naipaul hates a lot of these authors picked by Guardian. He regards Bleak House as one of the worst novels ever written

Bleak House is the only Dickens novel I've tried more than once and never been able to get gripped by.

Silas Marner, maybe also Mill on the Floss.

There are 19 novels on this list, Tolkien only published one novel, The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings is a "prose romance." Someone who leaves Austen off is likely to leave Richardson (her - and my - favorite novelist) off as well, not to mention Johnson and Hawthorne and Thackeray (I am not saying this is the connection, but all five wrote novels about people who often stop in the middle of the action to say long Christian prayers, albeit usually off-scene). Wodehouse and Jack London and Cather, all three writers of Mozart-level quality YA novels, are surprisingly absent. That said, great list, as far as I can tell (having read about half of the 20).

Multiples from the same author but no Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

70 comments, and this is the only one that even glancingly mentions that more than a third of all the twenty greatest English-language novels come from precisely two authors?

I had the same thought. Surely one of those Faulkners could be squeezed out to make room for Portrait of the Artist.

Also the idea that V is better than Gravity's Rainbow or Lot 49 seems hard to swallow. V was clearly a tune up for GR. And if you don't like the whole sprawling mess style, Lot 49 is a perfectly executed and slimmed down version of the same thing.

Huckleberry Finn has to be the most controversial choice. I mean, it can't even be taught in schools anymore and we can't even.

About the Guardian list, they left out 4 novel writers in English that won the Literature Nobel. I hope it's because the novels are boring, not political correctness.

Working through Ford's Parade's End at the moment, but increasingly it seems The Good Soldier may be a more worthwhile read from what I'm hearing.

That was a hell of a 7-year run for Faulkner.

Yes, and Tyler has them in the right order too. Everyone falls all over Sound & Fury because it's so uniquely "Faulkner" but A Light in August is his best work.

Faulkner would also show up on a list of top 20 English short stories (Barn Burning, the Bear). He might be the only author who would make both lists; I guess the Joyce contingent might disagree.

And "A Rose for Emily" might be the most anthologized short story ever, at least intro lit anthologies.

Yeah, I only count nineteen, too, but I take Tyler at his word for including "an intentional omission" (NO idea what the title is, though).

Bonfire of the Vanities? (mad laughter echoes through the house)

Surely Jonathan Franzen's Freedom should be on the list if you are willing to consider contemporary American novels!

Franzen's a hack

Prof. Cowen, how about some discussion of what it means for a novel to be great?
Can a comic novel be great? (Huckleberry Finn has comic parts, but is not a comic novel). How about entertaining and edifying science fiction? We should not identify great with good,I think, or with edifying or entertaining or even with rereadable.

I appreciate the statement on balance - but no concession that the books you may have picked were subject to in-group bias?

And/or all the books you have picked to read in your life are subject to in-group bias? So you have a biased pool to choose from?

Next up, my list of the top twenty novels I have never read...

There's probably more than one list of top twenty novels of which the author never actually read some of the entries.

And Moby Dick is probably the most typical one that was never read. (I could never honestly put a book on any best list that I can't actually enjoy reading.)

In that they're all written in English? That's part of the very premise.

Not that they're in English, that they are all white authors and overwhelmingly male. Book publishing and book reviews have long skewed overwhelmingly white/male - do the books TC chooses to read mimic that or overcome it?

But mainly, there's a bias to favor and relate to your 'group' (and those that look like you) more than others - I wonder if TC believes he has conquered this bias and it played no role in the books he chooses to read as well.

I'll never understand well-read people's obsession with Dickens. Absolutely terrible.

Why he's terrible is a perfect parable for this blog, messed up incentives.

Bar The Tale of Two Cities, you're dead right.

"I’ll never understand well-read people’s obsession with Dickens. Absolutely terrible."

I disagree, I think that both "A Christmas Carol" and "Oliver Twist" are good novels. I specifically find it hard to agree with the description of "A Christmas Carol" as terrible when it's one of the most commonly told stories in Western history and it's pretty broadly entertaining to all ages.

Regardless of your opinion about the quality of A Christmas Carol, it's far too short to be considered a novel.

I have the same problem as one of the other commenters -- I keep coming up with 19 books when I try to count the titles!

Ulysses I have tried a couple of times but never made it to the end. The greatest book that the fewest have completed.

No Bellow, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Roth, Jack London, Heller, Huxley, Vonnegut.

I like Le Carre, Kesey, Nevil Shute, Farrell.

To each their own

I would call those 13 great novels and one great work of genre fiction. Lord of the Rings is just not in the same intellectual ball park as the others.

We could go around in circles till we all drop dead arguing over what's "greatest."

No love for Maugham here? I'd place Razor's Edge and Human Bondage up for consideration.

I think there's a lot by the "moderns" that I prefer. These 3 are worth anyone's time,and are unforgettable:

The Inheritors, Golding

Catch-22, Heller.

Lolita, Nabokov

I loved The Inheritors and Lolita, couldn't get through Catch-22.

It's funny how preferences can be so particular.

2 out of 3's not bad! But I read Catch 22 twice, also Lolita. Don't do that often , but each deserved it (for me). Only read The Inheritors a couple of years ago, so not time yet for reread. And that one lives in me already.

The Great Gatsby should be here.

At least nothing of Hemingway's made it onto this list . . .

Gormenghast

LOL. That novel was really something. Not something I'd read twice though.

Rather egregious omission of "The Art of the Deal" by Donald Trump

A large number of the descriptions in the Guardian's "The 100 best novels written in English" list note a novel's long-term impact with phrases like

"never been out of print"

"influenced generations of writers"

"continues to cast a long shadow over American literature"

"one of the most influential and best loved"

"remains as relevant today as it was in the late 19th century"

etc.

The Guardian has found many creative and ingenious ways to repeat itself. That's why I've selected The Guardian's list of "100 Best Novels in English" as the first entry in my soon to be immortal "Top 100 Best Lists of The Top 100 Best Novels in English."

Stay tuned for more selections in what will no doubt be a fascinating enumeration...

is this list Tyler's version of the western canon for novels?
And what about a list of 20 greatest poems?

Someone asked about the criteria to decide greatness.. simple: it is what people of taste like Tyler, Helen Vandler and Harold Bloom say are great They should know. They read a lot and only when you read a lot you can discern greatness in books.

It seems a little odd that someone signing on as "freethinker" would so readily defer to the opinions of others, but hey ...

The top 20 English language books are the twenty volumes that make up the Aubrey-Maturin saga by Patrick O'Brian. Master and Commander is the first, and Blue at the Mizzen is the last. But if you don't care for Jane Austen, you might not like them.

If you are trolling that's pretty funny. If not then you have my sympathies.

I hate Wuthering Heights so much I told my kids I would buy them the Cliffs Notes and excuse them from reading it when it was assigned in school. I don't get any of the motivations of any of the people. They seem so fake to me.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS, one of the nastiest, grimmest novels ever written, does not really seem like suitable reading for children in the first place.

Here is a quick excerpt from Ulysses: Is this really readable, enjoyable to read? I gave up on it ...................
"Morose delectation Aquinas tunbelly calls this, FRATE PORCOSPINO.
Unfallen Adam rode and not rutted. Call away let him: THY QUARRONS DAINTY
IS. Language no whit worse than his. Monkwords, marybeads jabber on
their girdles: roguewords, tough nuggets patter in their pockets.

Passing now.

A side eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit? I
am not. Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun's flaming
sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands. She trudges, schlepps,
trains, drags, trascines her load. A tide westering, moondrawn, in her
wake. Tides, myriadislanded, within her, blood not mine, OINOPA PONTON,
a winedark sea. Behold the handmaid of the moon. In sleep the wet sign
calls her hour, bids her rise. Bridebed, childbed, bed of death,
ghostcandled. OMNIS CARO AD TE VENIET. He comes, pale vampire, through
storm his eyes, his bat sails bloodying the sea, mouth to her mouth's
kiss"

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!! --but what's the context?

Should Ulysses be considered English language?

Only now do I begin to wonder: did James Joyce EVER read his own Ulysses? Finnegans Wake?

I read many of Thomas Hardy's novels and I would say "Jude the Obscure" was the worst one. The Father Time kid was ridiculous for a writer who strived for realism. As an interesting side note, the response to "Jude" was so vicious Hardy stopped writing novels. I would pick Charlotte Bronte over her sister Emily any day. "Bleak House" is a great choice especially as a vivisection of Victorian society and the BBC mini-series is excellent although I preferred "Great Expectations".

I am almost 70 and have reread a lot of novels to see how my perspective has changed over the years. The first time I read Lolita was around 1963 when I was looking for erotica and was left puzzled; when I read it again in 1970, I thought that it was very funny, sardonic, Twainesque; I reread it last year and now think that it is extremely tragic, an uncanny descent into the deluded mind of a monster. Maybe a great novel has many facets that can speak to the reader at different stages of his life while a not-so-great novel is flat and allows only one way to view it. Examples that have done well on rereading over my life include Huck Finn, The Red Badge of Courage, and Moby Dick. Failures on rereading were Grapes of Wrath and everything Dickens.
Read them a second and a third time; it is interesting.

If there are four Faulkner novels (which is deserved), then there should be five Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl). If there is only one, it should be The Ambassadors. Re the comment on comic novels - I think As I Lay Dying is a comic novel. Faulkner's other great novels - the Snopes trilogy - are also comic. Nostromo is Conrad's best, but Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent are also great. Huck Finn suffers because of implausible insertion of Tom Sawyer. Picaresque novels are difficult to conclude.

Agreed! Henry James is too brilliant and prolific to only have one novel included.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

On not liking Tolkien: http://ayjay.tumblr.com/post/13589267620/modernist-ambiguity-or-realist-emotional

TC is skewing things by limiting it to the English lanuage. Otherwise,
Salman Rushdie would, by all accounts deserve a place on the list.

This is either the funniest comment on this post, or just similar to the anti-Joyce comments.

I would certainly include Catch-22, perhaps as high as number one. For more contemporary works, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay comes to mind. For a comic entry, perhaps Good Omens or Hitchhiker's Guide. For younger readers, The Phantom Tollbooth (does that count as a novel?).

Very few of Tyler's choices would make it onto my list; perhaps only Alice in Wonderland.
What is the Straussian interpretation of Tyler's list?

I think the only way Phantom Tollbooth doesn't count as a novel is if you simply exclude children's literature from the get-go. It has plot, a story arc, characters, character development, ideas, prose style, and any other elements of the novel I can think of. I suppose you could count against it that it is essentially a series of vignettes, but so is Don Quixote, and that is generally considered the ur-novel. That said, although I dearly love it, I wouldn't put on the top 20 list of best English novels. Definitely on my list of desert island novels to bring if shipwrecked with my kid, though...

All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren.

Ulysses is very overrated. Unreadable in parts. Here is a typical fragment:
"Thou lost one. All songs on that theme. Yet more Bloom stretched his
string. Cruel it seems. Let people get fond of each other: lure them on.
Then tear asunder. Death. Explos. Knock on the head. Outtohelloutofthat.
Human life. Dignam. Ugh, that rat's tail wriggling! Five bob I gave.
CORPUS PARADISUM. Corncrake croaker: belly like a poisoned pup. Gone.
They sing. Forgotten. I too; And one day she with. Leave her: get tired.
Suffer then. Snivel. Big spanishy eyes goggling at nothing. Her
wavyavyeavyheavyeavyevyevyhair un comb:'d. "

Well, I like that passage, but I admit it's sort of like enjoying a cryptogram.

It seems like a pretty well-recognized fact that novels peaked from around 1840 to around 1940. Anyone have guesses as to why that might be? Maybe: the explosion of the mass market (sort of like the internet today) + classical rhetorical traditions still existed (people went to church, lawyers spoke fancy, etc.) + a copy of the Kings James Bible and Shakespeare in every house + less of a "two cultures" problem (smart science-ey people still read non-sci fi) + oppressed gay aesthetes had nothing better to do than read + what else?

A good question that I have a thought of lot without coming to any sound conclusion. Good points made in your comment. And maybe it's just the nature of the arts. You can make a good argument that classical music peaked in the 18th century. There is a diminishing return to any activity. I guess at a point, the masters have taken the art as far as it can go, which leaves their contemporaries to recreate or deconstruct their works. Kind of depressing.

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

It seems like novels peaked between 1840 and 1940 -- why? Maybe: growth in the mass market + strong existing rhetorical/oracular traditions + upper classes way more into high culture + smart science-ey people still read non-sci fi + lonely teenage girls and gay male aesthetes with nothing better to do pre-sexual revolution + it was just a really exciting time to live (industrialization, revolution, etc.) + the novel wasn't yet burdened by its own past + little or no competition from movies and pop music + what else?

Sorry, accidentally re-posted this.

I'd add Middlemarch or Mill on the Floss (IMHO, the latter). Henry James is such a prolific, great author, I'd include a second novel (perhaps The Wings of the Dove). No short story writers. Perhaps Alice Munro should be included for Moons of Jupiter. Austin belongs on the list (Emma). I thing a Naipaul or Coetzee novel could be listed. LOTR is a fun summer read, but is not top 100.

Strongly agree with earlier comments that this a fine list and hard to find fault with. Do happen to agree Middlemarch belongs in there, probably in place of Shaw's Golden Bowl. Not sure how idiosyncratic this is given a personal infatuation with Australian novels, but if doing it from scratch, would probably have included The Fortunes of RIchard Mahoney by Henry Richardson, Voss by Patrick White and The Man Who Love Children by Christina Stead, but I'll only be so bold as to say Fortunes of Richard Mahoney belongs there in place of Waves. I wonder if this greatest list is also Cowen's favorites list? Anyone with a personal favorites list that doesn't include at least one or two indie authors is not reading enough indies. Mine would include Arauco by John Caviglia (about war between the Conquistadors and the Mapuche about the time of the founding of Santiago) and Bryn Hammond's Amgalant trilogy, a brilliant interpretation of the Secret History of the Mongols. Publishers are leaving money on the table, I tell you.

Why no "Tom Jones"? Robert Smith Surtees was better than Dickens. Where is William Trevor? The omission of Calder Willingham Jr., especially "Eternal Fire", is strange. In fact, American Southern Gothic is the only native genre of any merit, and includes Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, and even Harry Crews but not Cormac McCarthy.

Four novels for Faulkner and three for Virginia Woolf seems a bit excessive.

Somerset Maugham--The Moon and Six Pence and The Razor's Edge would et my vote.

I don't really believe in such a thing as the top 20 English-language novels, so I won't say that Tyler's list is wrong except in principle. There are some novels, though, that I think deserve consideration. I agree strongly with J. Ott's initial comment regarding Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. James Joyce, in my opinion, is the greatest English prose writer of all time, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man deserves to be included, as others have mentioned. On the American side, beside the two I've mentioned, no novels have seeped into the American consciousness as deeply as Huck Finn and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. One might also throw in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Finally, for a novel of the last 50 years, I am extremely partial to Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. Granted, it's a historical novel, but the writing is so lovely and the characters so compelling that the necessary correspondence to actual people shouldn't be a reason to disqualify it.

Middlemarch is the greatest English-language realist novel. How you could leave it off this list is beyond me.

No Camus or Kafka? What kind of list is this?

It's the kind of list that includes only novels that were written originally in English.

No Stevenson's treasure island? For shame, sir, for shame.

Amen! to that, amen.

I feel Flannery o'Connor should be raised in status.

I feel that the novel should be lowered in status.

Neuromancer by William Gibson published 1984. Visionary. Changed science fiction.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

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