21 October 2009

Rise’s Classic Reading Before He’s Dead List

Over at Brilliant Babes (And Dudes) Who Read Selectively, one of my online book groups, the skewering of flawed 100 best books lists is ongoing. It started with the much maligned listing of the Penguin Classics' compilation of 100 greatest books.

Another list, from the publisher Vintage, was published. Vintage asked several reading groups in the UK to name 15 “Modern Classics” – 15 of its books that will still be read in 100 years time. The full list of Vintage is here, with a link to the longlist of 100 classic reads. Most recently, the lit weblog The Millions came up with the twenty best fictional works of the current millennium to date.

Such lists are useful and informative. They give us an idea of what respected people (academics, writers, critics) deem to be books of great substance and literary import. They validate us when books we have read are reflected in them. Somehow, the x days that I expended in wrestling with Book A was worth it since this list said that Book A is a classic among classics. At the same time, lists can be controversial, not only by what were included but what were left out. There can never be a politically correct and balanced list, I think. There are too many contending schools of literature, schools of thought, and literary theories: feminism, structuralism, naturalism, magic realism, surrealism, 19th century literature, postwar literature, contemporary literature, Western literature, American literature, Russian literature.

Some lists have at least the semblance of a balance, but still we find something was overlooked: why of all her books was this book of Author B listed, surely her more challenging and innovative second book should have been the one listed, it even won the prestigious Prize C. If we keep on scrutinizing lists, we can certainly find something to needle at. How much more would we scoff at 1,001 books to read before the oxygen that pumped the living breath expired out of the palpitating heart. Yet surely 1,001 books would achieve the comprehensiveness that the 100 will certainly lack. I commend anyone who can successfully slog through the thousand books and one book, giving themselves an enviable arsenal of ideas and in the process maybe cheating death. For surely one who constantly reads (usually in the confines of home) is not prone to accidents on the road. The "before you die" is such a justified and justifiable phrase. Avid readers who can rise up to the 1,001 challenge will have a peaceful trip to Rivers Styx and Lethe.

Reasons to love and hate such lists are bountiful. I wouldn’t enumerate them here. For me though, the basic operating picture of a serious reader is freedom to choose what one wants to read. This freedom is curtailed if there are individuals or entities who want to shove you a list and tell you that this is it. You can’t die peacefully if you haven’t read the all of it. It's it or never. Suit yourself: it's it or you die without it.

As a “corrective” or one must say, a considered reaction, my online group decided to come up with an exercise for its members. To come up with our own personal reading lists of 100 classics. There will be no constraints as to the definition of “classic”. It will loosely refer to great books one has read (a favorites list) combined with books one wants to read (wish list), plus books that one feels should be on the list (for whatever reason).

The lists we came up with so far are very telling. They are all personal. And I think they all boil down to taste, preferences, and cultural/economic/educational/etc. factors and circumstances. There is no reason to think that, in the field of art and literature, genetics and biological determinism play a role in the drafting of such lists. Or do they? Listing is a pretty much straightforward exercise, subjective, very arbitrary, and by no means final.

I'm certain my reading will still evolve. There is no predefined direction (genre, author, geography) that my open mind will not yet absorb. But for now, these listed books are what my instinct tells me are worthwhile reads.

Making book lists is forward-looking, too. I’m interested to know what I will think of my own list three, five, ten years from now (by which time I’m sure to have dimmed my near-perfect vision by going down through the list).

So how did I make my list? To make a list, I consulted other lists. I filtered down books that I feel I must read. Just because. There is a mixture of certainty, gut feel, and uncertainty in this exercise. What are my criteria for selecting? Like other members in my group, I have certain favorite authors and favorite books which I feel must instantly populate my 100. I consulted the publicity pages of publishers that put out quality literary books in their shelves. Penguin, Vintage, NYRB Classics, and New Directions are the usual suspects. Indie presses like the latter two are known for their fantastic inventories of world lit authors. To fill the list, I researched on an author's works and raffled off the titles (nah). I trimmed down my personal wish list, my books-to-buy-now-or-in-the-immediate-future list, my save-for-later lists. I tried to imagine which are the books that I myself will be reading freely, gleefully, and unimpeded. Books that I will not hesitate to buy. I also consulted literary web blogs devoted to world lit and books in translation. Certainly, there are still books that will make us question our faith in what we have previously read? That will shake our reading foundations and bury under rubble the books that we thought are unassailable in our list. It's a gladiatorial battle among books. An endless tournament of books in which the classics in their firmament will always be on the edge of being unseated by an upstart enfant terrible.

For as long as books are being written, published, and read, there would be a trickle of classics. And there will be pitting of books against books, authors against authors. And there will be ranking and listing. Speculative, nonsensical, prophetic, quixotic, hedonic. The best one can do is to look at the title of the book and approximate one's past/present/future relationship with it. To look at a title of the book and relate it to the whole. For one is given a limit as to the quantity (100 books) and one is limited as to the quality (acknowledged classic or classic-to-be).

And so, here’s my list before the appointed hour, 100-ish, from which I’ve read only quite a very few. Most are already in my shelf (pretty convenient for me to select them), and about half of these books I have yet to hunt down, in BookMooch, in Amazon, in some innocent used book store. Half were read or owned, the majority known only by reputation. Some are already canonized, some were published very recently, and some are not even translated into English yet! I first came up with 200-odd titles before narrowing it down to around 150, and then down to 125, and then there's this list. Enjoy.

1. Inter Ice Age 4 – Abé Kobo
2. How German Is It – Walter Abish
3. Poems of Akhmatova – Anna Akhmatova
4. Rashōmon and Other Stories – Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
5. The Divine Comedy – Dante Alighieri
6. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
7. Emma – Jane Austen
8. Persuasion – Jane Austen
9. Gathering Evidence – Thomas Bernhard
10. Old Masters – Thomas Bernhard
11. 2666 – Roberto Bolaño
12. The Savage Detectives – Roberto Bolaño
13. Labyrinths – Jorge Luis Borges
14. The Plague – Albert Camus
15. Crowds and Power – Elias Canetti
16. Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey
17. The Stories of Raymond Carver
18. Poems of Paul Celan
19. Red Earth and Pouring Rain – Vikram Chandra
20. The Three Sisters – Anton Chekhov
21. Peasants and Other Stories– Anton Chekhov
22. The Master of Petersburg – J. M. Coetzee
23. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
24. Hopscotch – Julio Cortázar
25. No Longer Human – Dazai Osamu
26. The Brothers Karamazov– Fyodor Dostoevsky
27. Demons – Fyodor Dostoevsky
28. The Maias – Eça de Queirós
29. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
30. The Waiting Years – Enchi Fumiko
31. The Siege of Krishnapur – J. G. Farrell
32. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
33. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
34. A Boy’s Will and North of Boston: Poems by Robert Frost
35. The Autumn of the Patriarch – Gabriel García Márquez
36. Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
37. Loving – Henry Green
38. Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton
39. Hunger – Knut Hamsun
40. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
41. Les Misérables – Victor Hugo
42. Black Rain – Ibuse Masuji
43. The Unconsoled – Kazuo Ishiguro
44. The Ambassadors – Henry James
45. The American – Henry James
46. The Woman Who Had Two Navels – Nick Joaquín
47. The Unfortunates – B. S. Johnson
48. Ulysses – James Joyce
49. The Castle – Franz Kafka
50. The Old Capital – Kawabata Yasunari
51. Memed, My Hawk – Yashar Kemal
52. On the Road – Jack Kerouac
53. Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Lo Kuan-Chung
54. A Perfect Vacuum – Stanisław Lem
55. A Sand County Almanac – Aldo Leopold
56. Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry
57. The Executioner’s Song – Norman Mailer
58. Doctor Faustus – Thomas Mann
59. Joseph and His Brothers – Thomas Mann
60. The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
61. Your Face Tomorrow – Javier Marías
62. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
63. A Treatise on Poetry – Czesław Milosz
64. Senselessness – Horacio Castellanos Moya
65. The Discovery of Heaven – Harry Mulisch
66. 1Q84 – Murakami Haruki
67. Sixty-Nine – Murakami Ryū
68. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
69. Metamorphoses - Ovid
70. Life: A User’s Manual – Georges Perec
71. The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa
72. The Republic – Plato
73. Morte D’Urban – J. F. Powers
74. In Search of Lost Time – Marcel Proust
75. Exercises in Style – Raymond Queneau
76. Tigers are Better-Looking – Jean Rhys
77. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke
78. Grande Sertão: Veredas – João Guimarães Rosa
79. Call It Sleep – Henry Roth
80. The Radetzky March – Joseph Roth
81. Sabbath’s Theater – Philip Roth
82. Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo
83. Cain – José Saramago
84. The Stone Raft – José Saramago
85. The Emigrants – W. G. Sebald
86. Antony and Cleopatra – William Shakespeare
87. I Am a Cat – Natsume Sōseki
88. The Charterhouse of Parma – Stendhal
89. The Red and the Black – Stendhal
90. Zeno’s Conscience – Italo Svevo
91. View with a Grain of Sand – Wisława Szymborska
92. The Makioka Sisters – Tanizaki Jun’ichirō
93. A Woman of Means – Peter Taylor
94. Walden – Henry D. Thoreau
95. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
96. The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
97. Virgin Soil – Ivan Turgenev
98. The Complete Henry Bech – John Updike
99. Selected Poems – César Vallejo
100. Bartleby & Co. – Enrique Vila-Matas
101. The Aeneid – Virgil
102. Jakob von Gunten – Robert Walser
103. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
104. The Story of the Stone – Cao Xueqin
105. The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig


  1. Hello, Rise! Your list is very timely since I'm planning to stay away from contemporary novels next year. I actually started late this year, I think, since I'm reading Collins's The Woman in White and planning to read Cold Comfort Farm, Pride and Prejudice, and Armadale next.

    I wish you luck in looking for the rest of the titles in your list. I think most of them aren't readily available in our local bookstores.

    Also, if you want me to get you any thing from this list, just tell me. My company has partnered with a courier so we get substantial discounts on their service.

  2. Good luck on your 2010 classic books expedition, Peter. There’s a lot of great book choices awaiting you. Hope you find some to interest you in the above list. I wonder what reading theme I would adopt for myself next year …

    Thanks for the offer of helping me get some goods! Some are indeed hard to find. I’ll have to prioritize which books I’m really itching to read. Will pm you when I'm seized by a compulsion to get a title. As it is, I’m overburdened (permanently) with a tall stack of unread ones.

  3. Rise, did you ever end up reviewing either of those Henry James titles? Just read The Ambassadors myself and loved it. Also, would you please consider adding a search toolbar to your blog? It would save me the "effort" of Googling!!!

  4. No reviews for them, Richard. I read The Ambassadors (The American: not yet) during the pre-blog days. Probably when I was half the age I am now!

    On search toolbar, you should be seeing one on the uppermost left side of the page. I hope it is showing on your platform.

    1. Aw, too bad about the lack of reviews. Also, sorry I missed that search toolbar with my old man eyes. Hopefully I'll remain embarrassed enough never to forget where it is in the future!

    2. Haha. Even I sometimes forget the search bar is there. Perhaps something about the color combination makes it inconspicuous.