The Greatest Novels of All Time

Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Dracula1st.jpeg

This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line.  The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful.  Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims.  The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic.  Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day.  Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come.  Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?

It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time?  There’re only a finite number of great books one can read in their lifetime and there are inherent limitations in language and culture.  For every classic unearthed and devoured there are dozens of masterpieces I will never even know existed.  Obviously, this would become a list not necessarily of the greatest novels of all time, but of my favorite novels up to this point in my life

In compiling a list I realized my own personal limitations.  I’ve never read James Joyce or Hemingway or Tolstoy.  I only know of Charles Dickens from the endless parade of film adaptations of his great works.  The list would also be heavily biased as for the past three years the events of my life have been indexed in relation to what Graham Greene novel I am reading at the time.  As I write this, I’m lost in his Ministry of Fear.  I’m a willing resident of “Greeneland” and I hope to never leave.  Greene clearly separated his novels into two groups: entertainments and serious literature.  Surely I could find a place on my list for the best of both worlds.  A Gun for Sale is the best genre thriller I’ve ever read, and his The Power and the Glory is pure literary genius.

Could I also find a place on my list for a sentimental favorite?  The children’s book The Prince of Whales is the first book I remember reading on my own and falling totally in love with.  The story of a young humpback whale named Toby coming to terms with his dangerous dreams and his destiny unlocked my imagination in ways no other book has since. 

Then there are books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Other than the Bible, this is the most widely read book in the United States, and it’s a helluva lot better written and more morally relevant.

Of course we must also consider those books where the author has turned the weaving of words into an art form.  It’s not just the story being told, but how it’s being told.  Sure, Toni Morrison may have won the Pulitzer and Oprah’s heart with Beloved, but it’s with Jazz where she turned words into music.  In this work, Style looked over at Substance and started feeling that deep down spooky kind of love.  The beautiful bastard child they begot taunts and haunts me to this day.  And yes, snobbish literary circles may forever debate the merits of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, but I agree with his wife when she remarked there was just something so special about the Light in August.  In this classic canon about the American South, Faulkner took feelings and moments often rendered indescribable beyond words in their raw power and dripped them in over 500 pages of sweet poetic molasses.  With Light in August, Faulkner performed nothing short of a miracle; he gave words to the unspeakable.

Now, the List:

10.  The Prince of Whales, R. L. Fisher (1986)

9.  An Accidental Man, Iris Murdoch (1971)

8.  In the Hand of Dante, Nick Tosches (2002)

7.  A Gun for Sale, Graham Greene (1936)

6.  To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

5.  Jazz, Toni Morrison (1992)

4.  Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky (2004-French edition, 2006-English Translation)

3.  Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)

2.  The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (1940)

1.  Light in August, William Faulkner (1932)

_____________________________________________________________________ 

*What novels would make YOUR list?  Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comment field.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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12 comments on “The Greatest Novels of All Time

  1. Horse Apples says:

    What’s a novel ?

  2. Pere says:

    “I’ve never read James Joyce or Hemingway or Tolstoy.”

    That’s easily remedied!

    Recommended reading from an English professor:

    Joyce: “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and “Dubliners”.

    Hemingway: “The Sun Also Rises” and any of his short fiction.

    Tolstoy: “The Cossacks” and “Resurrection”. Of course, “War and Peace” is a great read when you have a lot of time.

  3. george65 says:

    As a writer, you really have to get Joyce, Dickens and Hemingway on your list. That’s a mighty large gap in literature.

    Joyce’s short story collection “Dubliners” is the best place to start for him. The collection is brilliant.

    Hemingway’s collections of short stories are excellent as well, but I’d start with “A Farewell to Arms” or “The Sun Also Rises.”

    Dickens is simply magical. Don’t read it for plot — just read and get caught up in the characters. The best place to start is “Oliver Twist,” but “David Copperfield” is hard to beat.

    Have you read Jane Austen? John Steinbeck? Dostoevsky?

    You need to branch out, my brother.

    George, thanks for the suggestions (they seem to match those in the comment above yours). Yes, I’ve glanced at Austen (not my cup of tea). I vaguely recall reading Steinbeck in highschool and not being struck by anything, but then again I wasn’t struck by much back then so I’m sure he would be worth a second glance. Dostoevsky I know of from some “references” in other films and books but have never read him. –DHS

  4. george65 says:

    I’d also recommend:

    – Stephen Crane, “Red Badge of Courage”
    – Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but “Gatsby” is the way to go
    – The short stories of Raymond Carver
    – The short stories of Damon Runyon
    – “Sons and Lovers” by D.H. Lawerence
    – “Moby Dick” by Melville
    – Anything by Kurt Vonnegut

    And try Steinbeck again — he’s very good.

    Keep reading!

    George, thanks again for more great suggestions! Vonnegut I already know and love. It was sad to see him go earlier in the year. He will be greatly missed. –DHS

  5. Ed in Austin, TX says:

    I just finished “The Power and the Glory” and it is much better than I had remembered. Loved it. You’re 8,9, and 10 I haven’t read, so maybe I’ll check them out.

    I agree you must read Dickens. Joyce, I read in school and loved but I liked other writers I read at the same time better. Try Thomas Hardy’s “The Mayor of Castorbridge”. If you do try Joyce, I strongly recommend a patient, quiet moment where you can curl up with a bunch of the “Dubliners” stories. Blah, blah, blah . . . anyway, those good books that I recently re-read!

    “Grapes of Wrath”
    “David Copperfield”
    “Great Expectations”
    “The Power and the Glory”
    “A Confederacy of Dunces”
    “Henderson the Rain King”
    “All Quiet on the Western Front”

    If you like Carver, try reading Alice Munro’s “Walker Brothers Cowboy”. They’re not the same and I think Carver is better but I mention her because they’re the two (somewhat) contemporary short story authors that bowled me over a time or two.

    Ed, someone presented me with a copy of “Dubliners” for Christmas. I look forward to reading it soon. Thanks for the further suggestions (I have read “All Quiet on the Western Front”). –DHS

  6. hammed says:

    The novels that would make my list (so far):

    -Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Doyotevsky)
    -East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
    -The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
    -To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
    -Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
    -Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton)
    -Noli Me Tangere (Jose Rizal)

  7. A NOTE TO READERS:

    I can now say I have read James Joyce (Dubliners), and Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises).

    Thanks to those who suggested these great titles.

    I have also tackled Henry James with The Turn of the Screw.

    I still haven’t attempted Dickens or Tolstoy.

    As for my favorite writer, Graham Greene, his Brighton Rock might very well make the list now over sentimental favorite, A Gun for Sale.

    -DHS

  8. lethebashar says:

    My most relished novels are:

    The Obscene Bird of Night (Jose Donoso)

    Lost Illusions (Balzac)

    The Story of the Stone (Cao Xuequin)

    The Man without Qualities (Musil)

    Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu)

  9. Luke says:

    In my list would consist of:

    – Runner- Carl Deuker
    – East of Eden- John Stienbeck
    – To Kill a Mockingbird- Harper Lee
    – I am the Cheese- Robert Cormier
    – Anna Karenina- Leo Tolstoy
    – War and Peace- Leo Tolstoy
    – Oliver Twist- Charles Dickens
    – The Pearl- John Stienbeck
    – The Odysseus- Homer
    – The Good German- Joseph Kanon

  10. Robert says:

    My Favs:
    Treasure Island by Rober Louis Stevenson
    The Writings of Edgar Allen Poe
    A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
    The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein
    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
    Leaves of Grass by Whalt Whitman
    Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
    Of Mice and Men by John Steinback
    Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
    I love the Transcendentalists.
    Also everyone should read Republic by Plato because as Emerson points out it encompasses every book ever written.

  11. Sarah Crossland says:

    Light in August is powerful, but I think The Sound and the Fury brings us to an entirely new level. not in order, and in *recent* history:

    Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
    Waterland (Graham Swift)
    The Sound and the Fury (Faulkner)
    Lolita (Nabokov)
    The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)
    Cat’s Cradle (Vonnegut)
    Housekeeping (Marilynne Robinson)
    The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides)
    Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)
    100 Years of Solitude (GGM)

    Liable to be different to-morrow, and today I’m feeling ageist.

  12. Ric Curtis says:

    I have read so many great novels over the years, it would be almost impossible to construct a meaningful list. Among the best:

    David Copperfield (Dickens)
    Oliver Twist (Dickens)
    Barnaby Rudge (Dickens)
    Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
    Of Human Bondage (Maugham)
    The Way of All Flesh (Butler)
    To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
    An American Tragedy (Dreiser)
    The Jungle (Sinclair)
    All the King’s Men (Warren)
    The Trial (Kafka)
    The Hobbit & Lord of the Rings (Tolkien)
    Frankenstein (Shelley)
    Dracula (Stoker)

    However, all too often, people tend to just dismiss great novels of more recent vintage, although there are several I consider among the greatest:

    The Source (Michener)
    Centennial (Michener)
    The Alienist (Carr)
    The Godfather (Puzo)
    The Da Vinci Code (Brown)
    The Name of the Rose (Uno)

    Ric, great list, and you are wise to point out how difficult (and perhaps impractical) it is to try creating such a list…though I can’t abide with the inclusion of The Da Vinci Code and The Alienist. The first was a fun and interesting book for sure but hardly more than a “beach read” and the latter I couldn’t even finish. Thanks for stopping by and sharing the otherwise fine recommendations. –DHS

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