100 Books! a.k.a. Challenge Completed! a.k.a. A Cautionary Tale

This is it, folks. The last chapter. Five and a half years, triple-digit classics, and—in self-congratulations—the pie party to end all pie parties.

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On my long and harrowing journey across the wilderness of my own bookshelf, I visited 30+ countries—some real, some imaginary. I met heroes, villains, God, and the devil. I went to war and fell in love and traveled through time and witnessed magic. I worried and grieved and LOLed and maybe, slightly, occasionally lost my mind.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to find it again.

I never doubted that I’d finish—mostly because I try not to make a habit of self-doubt. I’m still convinced that if I really wanted to, and worked really hard at it, I could be an Olympic triathlete, or a Mars-bound astronaut, or a turtle whisperer with my own TV show. And while that kind of certainty is probably diagnosable, it may also be the very reason I was able to finish The Challenge. Predicting how this story ended was—spoiler alert!—the easiest part.

The hardest part was, of course, everything else. The 100 Greatest Books of All Time don’t read themselves—and it was up to me, day after day, to sit down and turn pages. My best estimates suggest that I read 50,817 pages to close out The List, one determined word at a time. The shortest book on The List was 75 pages.

The longest was 4,217.

But it’s all over now, and I can devote my remaining lifespan to full-time snobbery. I can casually name-drop Proust, and sneer at the very idea of e-readers. I can even call myself a literary badass, if there is such a thing.

I won’t, obviously, do any of that. But I will take a moment out to shake my own hand, feather my own cap, and pat myself on the back for a mundane victory. What is life, after all, without a little revelry? Why even bother existing, without the slightest swagger?

I hope I never find out. But if I do, it will probably be in a book.

When I celebrate, I celebrate in lists. (Well, and pie.) Every milestone up until this point—50 books, 75 books, 80 books, 90 books—has been commemorated with at least one list, but usually several. And even though I don’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake, I do believe in the power of lists to spread peace, love, joy, and the satisfaction of a job well-organized.

So here we go, one last time: The List, in lists. 

Strategies for Every Readventurer

(Or, How I Read 100 Classics)


  1. Engage in wanton book polygamy. The idea of reading several books at once used to give me an insta-headache, but The Challenge changed all that. Anyone reading books so bloated they require two epilogues, or come with an author’s apology, is bound to burn out hard and fast. I’ve learned to love “revolving door reading,” and never looked back since.
  2. Play it by ear. Audiobooks are the easiest way to read loads and remain lazy. You don’t even need to change your existing routine, except to press a button once in a while. And to all those who insist that “audiobooking isn’t reading,” I’d like to say this: You do you. But audiobooks, in my mind, enhance the reading experience—and they’ve been one hell of a sidekick throughout The Challenge.
  3. Proceed not with caution, but with confidence. Even if a notoriously rabid, 800-page beast of a book with a barely pronounceable Russian name sounds mildly intimidating, ignore that initial instinct to dip a couple of dainty toes in the water. Cannonball into that book. Commit right up front. I read somewhere once that if you can dog-paddle your way through 25 pages of Ulysses per day, you’ll be done in a month. (Math agrees, and so do I.)
  4. Just keep reading, reading, reading. Can’t keep up with your own ambitions? There’s still hope. Success can be a sprint, but more often, it’s a marathon. Yours depends on turning just a few pages—five will do—every night before bed. I got through some of the most head-scratching, mind-boggling, brain-bruising novels this way: a little at a time.
  5. Use your resources. Don’t give up on that impossible read just because it’s impossible. Dial 911—a.k.a. SparkNotes, Cliff Notes, Shmoop, and the blogosphere—and ask for help. There’s always some brave hero(ine) out there waiting to save the day. Let them come to your rescue—then turn around and pay it forward.

Biggest Takeaways

(Among Countless Lessons Learned)


  1. Just because someone did it first does not mean they did it best. Often, it means just the opposite. So can we stop worshiping the ground trodden by Tolkien, and Lawrence, and Hemingway? Or at least acknowledge that their imagination far outstripped their implementation? No? OK. I tried.
  2. No book is made “classic” by accident, and we’re leaving a lot of our fellow humans out of the club. If the Literary Canon were a person, he’d be a straight, white, rich, able-bodied colonialist, probably with a beard and a monocle. He’d definitely be a he. And while his voice deserves to be heard, just like anyone else’s, the anyone elses have been patient enough. It’s the Canon’s turn to listen, and to make a little room.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Not even by its back cover. Plot summaries can be woefully misleading at the best of times, and tragically deterrent at the worst. There were moments during The Challenge that I fully anticipated an epic struggle with an epic hate-read (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange)—or prepared a place on my bookshelf for a brand new favorite (Wuthering HeightsTristram Shandy)—only to be taken by surprise. But you know what? There’s a reason they call it the thrill of discovery. And it’s probably the reason we should read outside our comfort zone.
  4. Don’t waste time reading books you hate. This might seem counterintuitive, since I spent five and a half years doing just that. But I couldn’t agree less with that snooty Atlantic writer who thinks there’s shame in DNF’ing. I admit that I’m unable to abandon books en route, but I consider this a weakness instead of an asset. Quitting books is a habit I’d give anything to cultivate—if only to continue reading like crazy while (hopefully) remaining sane.
  5. There’s only one thing that makes any book Great: You. You decide. Don’t listen to any publishers, reviewers, hipsters, or lists telling you there’s anything objective about Greatness. You may not know yourself what makes you connect with one book, and shudder at another. But the good news is that nobody can tell you you’re wrong.

My Favoritest Classics of All Time

(In No Particular Order)


  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  2. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  7. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  8. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  9. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  10. Beloved, Toni Morrison

Works of Indisputable Genius

(Whether I Liked Them or Not)


  1. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  2. 1984, George Orwell
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  5. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  8. King Lear, William Shakespeare
  9. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

My Literary Grudges

(May Their Ink Fade Away and Their Pages Crumble to Dust)


  1. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (to be referred to hereafter as “The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named”)
  2. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  3. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  6. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  7. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  8. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  9. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  10. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Most Challenging of the Challenge

(Especially Difficult and/or Tedious Classics)


  1. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

We should probably stop here and camp out for a while. That’s how formidable Finnegans Wake turned out to be.

For the sake of time, though, we’ll move on. Just know that there’s a boundless, hopeless chasm between the Wake and the rest of this list.

  1. Finnegans Wake (it bears repeating)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  4. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  5. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  7. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
  8. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  9. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Buried Literary Treasures

(Books I May Never Have Read, and Loved, Without Taking on The Challenge)


  1. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  2. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  3. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  4. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  5. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

Frequently Asked Questions

(Or, More Accurately, Questions Literally No One Has Asked Me)


1. Will you read any more classics after this?

Of course. I’m even more excited to read the classics now that I know which authors to seek out (Baldwin, Morrison, Vonnegut)—and which ones to avoid like puddles on a subway platform (Updike, SteinbeckJoyce).

2. Will you continue blogging?

That’d be a heartfelt maybe. Someday I hope to get a pet and blog about it.

3. Was The Challenge worth the time and effort?

God, no.

4. Really? Not even for the bragging rights? 

I avoid discussing The Challenge as much as possible—mostly because reading The 100 Greatest Books of All Time makes me sound like an asshole. In the end, The Challenge has mostly served to fuel my reckless TBR on Goodreads (see #1) and my Christmas gift ideas for friends and family.

I mean, yeah, I read some incredible books (Lolita, Midnight’s Children, The Canterbury Tales). But whether or not those Kings Among Books outrivaled all the monsters (Tristram Shandy, Finnegans Wake, The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named) isn’t something I’m equipped to measure.

5. What is the greatest book of all time? 

That’s up to you to decide for yourself. The book that stood out to me the most among all the masterworks on The List—the book that, for me, transcended every other reading encounter I’ve ever had or expect to have—was Beloved.

6. So, what now? Book-wise?

I don’t know! And I’m trying to be OK with that.

And so, on my very last page, I wish you—forever and ever—happy reading. Consider yourself invited to my pie party, happening now at a bakery near you.


COME AT ME, PIE. IT’S EAT OR BE EATEN. I hope you’re up to the challenge.

#94 Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Today I’m sitting down with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s enduring drama Faust—not to be confused with Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Even though they’re about the same “person.” By which I mean “legendary figure who probably wasn’t a real person.” Though he might have been inspired by a real person, named—apparently—Georg or Johann Faust, possibly born in 1480, perhaps in Knittlingen.

You’re still with me, right? OK, moving on.

Faust was/is a popular figure in Europe, appearing variously in operas, symphonies, films, paintings, novels, poetry, puppet shows, and even psychotherapyGoethe’s treatment of the legend landed in 1808 in the form of a play/poem hybrid, equipped with new themes and greater moral complexity.

For the record, I’ve maintained a devout grudge against Faust ever since an overeager college TA made an overnight assignment of it, followed by merciless, relentless testing. I refused to read it then on principle, and I left it until the end of The Challenge as a form of protest.

(The lesson here is DO NOT PISS ME OFF, or you will find yourself the subject of obscure but vicious blog attacks. Let Faust serve as a warning, and this post serve as an effigy.)

In honor of my final review for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, I will be live-blogging my reactions to Faust as I read my way to its tragic conclusion. This means, on a slightly less appalling note, that you’ll be able to join me in real time (almost) as I close out The List with a bang and a flourish.

Shall we get started? Are you ready?

God knows I am.

Faust: Part One
A new translation by David Luke
Oxford World’s Classics

Hmm. Faust is one of the shortest works on The List, but it has the longest Introduction I’ve ever seen. I’d tell you how long it is, but my knowledge of Roman numerals doesn’t go up that high.

LOL. Oxford World’s Classics is convinced this Synopsis will be useful to me:

“4a 354-597 + 602-5 NIGHT (unfinished).” OH, RIGHT. GOT IT. THANKS.

Here are some of the more curious excerpts from page “lxii’s” Chronology:

  • 1548-85 Various reports of Faust’s legendary exploits. (This is cruelly vague, no?)
  • 1666 First attested Faust puppet-play (in Lüneburg). (And you thought I was kidding about the puppets.)
  • 1772 Execution (14 January) of Susanna Brandt for the murder of her illegitimate child. (I would love to know how this is relevant. I hope this comes up again.)

OK, srsly? I’ve already flipped past a Preface, an Introduction, a Synopsis, and a Chronology, and I have yet to reach Page One? Shouldn’t this Bibliography come at the end? Don’t tell me what else to read before I’ve read the thing I’m reading.

Here we are. Page One. Except the play still hasn’t started yet. Faust: Part One opens with a “Dedication” evoking the ghosts of Goethe’s past, before moving in to a “Prelude on the Stage.” The stage directions indicate that the Prelude will involve, ominously, a Director, a Poet, and a Clown.

The Director, Poet, and Clown argue about creativity vs. entertainment, and commercial success vs. artistic legacy. The Clown is the most reasonable of the three. He proposes an ambitious compromise:

So do what’s needed, be a model poet!
Let Fancy’s choirs all sing, and interweave
Reason, sense, feeling, passion—but, by your leave,
Let a good vein of folly still run through it!

Now there’s a “Prologue in Heaven”—my God, will this book NEVER start?—in which God and the devil (Mephistopheles, or Mephisto) make a wager: Mephisto will try to corrupt Faust in a bid for his eternal soul, and God will… watch from the sidelines, silent and skeptical. The prize? Bragging rights, from the looks of things.

Poor Faust.

Finally, we’ve reached “The First Part of the Tragedy.” Faust is in his study, complaining about the walls “cramping his soul,” and the worms “gnawing his books,” and the “ancestral junk” […] “all stuffed and cluttered anyhow.” His solution to what is obviously clinical depression: Attempting to forge a psychic connection with the spirit of Nature. Because NORMAL.

Faust’s assistant, Wagner, interrupts him, assuming he was acting out a Greek tragedy. “Nope,” Faust says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’m living out a German tragedy. God, you’re useless.”

Faust and Wagner venture into the countryside, where the locals are celebrating the springtime sunshine with singing, dancing, drinking, and misogyny:

Trumpets, sing out and
Sound our advances,
Stir us to action,
To joy and destruction!
This is the life for us,
This is the strife for us!
Castles or girls, we’ll
Breach their defences!

Sounds like a pickup line attempt from the utterly unfuckable.

Faust and Wagner return to town. Faust notices a black poodle, possibly the least sinister of all dog breeds, and loudly accuses it of being “magic.” From what I can tell, all it’s doing is chasing its own tail:

He’s getting closer; round and round he goes
In a narrowing spiral; no, there’s no mistake!

Wagner’s like, Dude, “He’s just a foolish poodle-beast,” which also seems like strong language for a dog doing literally nothing remarkable.

Oh. I was wrong about the poodle. It is, in fact, remarkable, insofar as it is actually the devil in poodle form. Faust returns to his study with the poodle, fearing it is some sort of “hobgoblin” or “hippopotamus” (?), until it transforms into Mephistopheles dressed as a student.

After a lot of back-and-forth, Faust agrees to sign a pact with the devil (in, naturally, his own blood): In return for Mephistopheles answering his every whim, Faust will surrender his immortal soul—but only if, at any stage of life, he is so overcome with pleasure that he “lies down in sloth and base inaction.” (Evidently, Faustian philosophy dictates that liveliness is next to Godliness, and idleness a deadly sin.)

That settled, our duo flies to a tavern in Leipzig using the devil’s airplane cloak, and then to a “witch’s kitchen,” where they argue with each other and some monkeys. (The monkeys are the witch’s servants, and even Mephisto thinks this is weird.)

Faust drinks a potion, brewed over “laborious years” by the witch, to restore his youth. 

Later, in the street, Faust passes by a lovely, virtuous, decent, saucy, red-lipped, bright-cheeked, modest, charming, and graceful young woman (or so we’re told) named Margareta. They have the following SAVAGE exchange:

My sweet young lady, if I may
I will escort you on your way.

I’m not a lady and I’m not sweet,
I can get home on my own two feet.

Naturally, Faust interprets her cold shoulder as an invitation to try harder.

Faust pursues Margareta via Mephisto, who pursues Margareta via sparkly things. I’m beginning to think the representation of women in Faust will be regressive by modern standards, and typical by 19th-century standards.

The “sparkly things” strategy works, because FEMALE. Mephisto invites himself to the home of Margareta’s neighbor, Martha, bringing Faust along with him. Faust and Margareta flirt. If her references to all the dead members of her family are any indication, Margareta is not very good at it.

Faust and Margareta declare their love—though Faust is having a little trouble distinguishing mind and penis. The devil knows the deal, however, and mocks Faust’s “emotional turmoil.” The couple consummates their mutual devotion off-stage.

In a stunning plot twist never seen before in the history of storytelling, it turns out to be Faust’s penis, and his penis alone, that fell for Margareta. (Did I say “fell for?” *Insert crude joke here.*)

Faust abandons Margareta, now pregnant, to her fate.

Oy. Faust just can’t leave well enough alone. He shows up sometime later, with renewed sexpectations, outside Margareta’s door.

…Except she’s not called Margareta anymore, because this book is the most blatant exercise of the Madonna/whore trope I’ve ever encountered. She literally has a new name now that she’s succumbed to sin: Gretchen.

Anyway, Gretchen’s brother, Valentine, happens to be waiting there, with hopes of punishing whoever sexed his once-pure sis. Mephisto, who accompanied Faust to Gretchen’s door, begins to mock her in song, accompanied by a zither. Valentine steps out of the shadows and challenges the devilish duo, then falls to their swords in eight quick lines.

I might feel sorry for him if he hadn’t used his dying breath to slutshame his own sister:

There’ll come a time, and this I know,
All decent folk will abhor you so,
You slut! that like a plague-infected
Corpse you’ll be shunned, you’ll be rejected,
They’ll look at you and your heart will quail,
Their eyes will all tell the same tale!

Nighty night, bro.

Faust and Mephisto take a break from ruining Gretchen’s life to attend a satanic orgy known as Walpurgis Night. Midway through an erotic dance with an accommodating young witch, Faust sees a red mouse jump out of her mouth. He shares this anecdote with Mephisto, who says—I shit you not—”At least it wasn’t a grey one!”

Except, you know, his version rhymes.

Faust suddenly has a vision of Gretchen in chains and realizes she’s been imprisoned. Mephisto’s like, “Yeah, so?” and I have to say I agree.

Uh oh. Faust is pist—even more so than usual. So far, in Part One, Faust has called Mephisto a “misborn monster,” a “disgusting pimp,” the “spawn of fire and shit,” a “sophist and a liar,” a “snake,” a “sprite,” the “son of chaos,” a “student-tramp” (when he was disguised as a student), and a “hybrid half-brood of hell” (when he was disguised as a poodle). Also “Dr. Rectitude,” though it’s not clear how this is an insult. Now he’s calling him a “vile treacherous demon,” a “repulsive monster,” a “reptile,” and a “reprobate” for what he did to Gretchen.

I think we call this a crisis of conscience. Funny how those always come too late.

In the final scene of Part One, Faust attempts a jailbreak, with help from Mephisto. It does not go well. Gretchen has yielded to madness following the deaths of her mother, brother, and newborn child. She thinks all of these casualties are her fault, even though they’re all Faust’s fault. Confused and guilt-stricken, Gretchen refuses to leave, and Faust has the nerve to groan, “You are killing me.”

As dawn breaks, Mephisto gives her up for lost, but a voice from above claims her redemption. Faust is spirited away by the devil as Gretchen calls his name.

Whew. I need a break from the melodrama before I come back for Part Two.

At this point, by the way, I’m more or less rooting for Faust’s comeuppance. And while it may seem harsh to wish eternal damnation upon someone, a) this is fiction, and b) he’s the one who befriended Satan.

Faust: Part Two is like Part One‘s awkward step-sibling, so we’re just going to shake hands quickly and then go our separate ways. Loosely tied to the first, more famous half of Faust, Part Two is a continuation of Faust’s antics—aided and abetted by the devil—in pursuit of knowledge, power, and pleasure.

Faust and Mephistopheles are in an imperial palace. Mephisto is disguised as a court jester. In response to a local financial crisis, Mephisto suggests that the Emperor should mine “the gold in the earth, coined and uncoined,” and also maybe just print a bunch of paper money.

The Emperor announces a carnival to celebrate Ash Wednesday. Faust and Mephisto attend, along with dozens of allegorical figures drawn from Greek mythology.

The Emperor asks Faust to conjure Helen and Paris of Troy, which turns out to be tricky even with the devil’s assistance. Nevertheless, they manage it, and Faust has the terribly original impulse of falling in love with Helen of Troy.

Faust and Mephisto return to Faust’s study, where his old assistant, Wagner, has been working on a pet project. The “pet” is, in this case, a human. (Wagner has been growing a human-in-a-bottle referred to as “The Homunculus.”)

The Homunculus invites Faust and Mephisto to Classical Walpurgis Night, which is just like Walpurgis Night—that is, a satanic orgy—except with even sluttier witches. *HIGH FIVE*

At Classical Walpurgis Night, Faust seeks Helen of Troy, the devil seeks naughty sexcapades, and The Homunculus seeks the means to Become a Real Boy.

Suddenly we’re in Sparta, and Mephisto is dressed as an old hag named Phorcyas. Mephisto, as Phorcyas, tells Helen she is in danger—and Faust is her only hope for protection.

Now we’re back in medieval Germany, where Faust and Helen fall in love. They go on to have a son who leaves them so delighted they name him Euphorion.

Euphorion almost immediately jumps to his death from a high cliff. It’s sad, kind of. In any case, the chorus does some of their best lamenting here:

Born to high ancestral calling
Blessed with gifts, with noble name,
Soon, alas, self-lost, and falling
In the bloom of youth and fame!
Wide the world to your discerning,
To your heart the heart’s depths known,
Women’s love your love returning,
And a music all your own.

Helen, heartbroken, vanishes. In a series of ambitious stage directions, Faust rides a cloud up a mountain and then devotes 28 lines of poetry to it. (No, not the mountain—the cloud.) On the mountaintop, Faust decides his next project will be to reclaim the land from the sea.

Faust and Mephisto embark on this project, but only after helping the Emperor (remember him?) win a war. The project ends up being successful, except for this stubborn old couple who won’t budge from their little cottage. Faust tells the devil to please take care of it, thinking for some reason that the devil is a gentleman.

Mephisto kills the old couple (obvi). Faust is enraged (stupidly). For once, though, he seems to accept some blame for something that was totally his fault. This is what we call progress, folks.

The devil orders a gang of monkeys to dig Faust’s grave. Faust, recently blinded by a visiting spirit, hears the sound of the shovels and assumes they are his workmen, building his kingdom. He imagines the fruits of his their labor, and anticipates lingering one day in a moment overcome with pleasure.

“Poor fool!” Mephisto cries, thinking he has won Faust’s soul—and his wager with God. Faust, sure enough, drops down dead. But because Faust only referred to a future state of bliss, God lets him in to Heaven on a technicality. 

This noble spirit saved alive
Has foiled the Devil’s will!
He who strives on and lives to strive
Can earn redemption still.

I guess it wasn’t a tragedy after all. So much the better.

Here it comes! The end! The end of Faust, and The List, and The 100 Greatest Books Challenge!

DONE. 100 books down, and 0 to go. And it only took half a decade.

Look out for my final blog post on Friday, in which I emerge victorious from a battle of my own making. This is one wager I always knew I’d win, but it still feels pretty damn good.

And, as far as I can tell, my soul is still intact! I’m going to do my best to keep it that way in the great hereafter.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

Hard to say without reading the original, but Luke’s translation was plenty Great.

Favorite Quotes: 

May the devil take me, I would say,
If I weren’t the Devil myself, by God.

One soon grows tired of forests and of fields;
I never envied any bird its wings.
But the pursuit of intellectual things
From book to book, from page to page—what joy that yields!

A generous gift richly repays the giver.

For by love alone
Heaven is won.

Read: 2017

All the Best Excerpts from The 100 Greatest Books of All Time


The end is nigh, my friends. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge is drawing to a close. But you know I’d never abandon you without saying good-bye—not even if we were out clubbing and Hugh Jackman was like, “Hey, girl…” Not even if I had a plane to catch on my way to my own elopement. Not even if the Apocalypse came, and I had the only fallout shelter.

Because, well, you know. I’m not a monster.

I’ll save my final send-off for another post, if only to keep a loose lid on word count. But in the meantime, here are all the best excerpts from The 100 Greatest Books of All Time. Every one of these quotes has stuck with me for one reason or another, for better or for worse. They are among the finest literary encounters I’ve ever made. And if I could fall in love with a word or a sentence, these would be my soul mates.

Let me introduce you:

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

-Homer, The Iliad

“Do you know—I hardly remembered you?”
“Hardly remembered me?”
“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

-Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

-James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

-Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

With thee it was not as with many that will and would and wait and never do.

-James Joyce, Ulysses

“I’m afraid.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Major Major counseled him kindly. “We’re all afraid.”
“I’m not ashamed,” Yossarian said. “I’m just afraid.”

-Joseph Heller, Catch-22

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.

-Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Who then may trust the dice, at Fortune’s throw?

-Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.

-Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

I saw within Its depth how It conceives
all things in a single volume bound by Love
of which the universe is the scattered leaves.

-Dante Alighieri, The Paradiso

And they beat. The women for having known them and no more, no more; the children for having been them but never again. They killed a boss so often and so completely they had to bring him back to life to pulp him one more time. Tasting hot mealcake among pine trees, they beat it away. Singing love songs to Mr. Death, they smashed his head. More than the rest, they killed the flirt whom folks called Life for leading them on.

-Toni Morrison, Beloved

I waited not for light but for that doom which we call female victory which is: endure and then endure, without rhyme or reason or hope of reward—and then endure.

-William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell.

-Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me.

-Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else for us to learn, except possibly algebra.

-Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.

-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

And, finally,

Indulge your imagination in every possible flight.

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Happy quoting. And happy reading!

The Top 10 Highlights of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge


Assuming the #1 highlight of The Challenge will be finishing, topped off with my celebratory pie party, I give you the other 9 in all their glory:

#10. Finishing Tristram Shandy. No, Clarissa. No, Proust. There were many challenges within The Challenge, but some were more challenging than others.

#9. Working with Punchnel’s to publish a series of classic reviews adapted from this blog—not to mention my first-ever byline, 10 Reasons You Should Be Reading the Classics. (Yes, I cringe whenever I see this article and would rewrite every word if I could.) (Not to sound ungrateful, or anything.) (At least all the cringing means my writing has improved?) (Hopefully?)

#8. Learning to embrace book polygamy. Pre-Challenge, I was unable to avoid reading books simultaneously, but loudly and openly begrudged it. Now it’s unusual for me to read fewer than four books at once. I’ll probably scale back a little now that I’m reading mostly for “fun,” but I doubt I could ever be faithful to just one book again. It’s a two-book minimum for me from here on out, and my bookshelf doesn’t have any choice but to forgive.

#7. The many milestones along the way that served as motivation boosters: 50 books, 75 books, 80 books, and, especially, 90 books. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them beckoning me forward and cheering me on, except simmer in a stew of self-pity and resentment.

#6. Finally having my say, after years of silent frustration, on sexism in classic literature. Calling bullshit on this bullshit was more than satisfying. Just a few months later, I recorded a mini-podcast with SpareMin on bookish sexism and bookish feminism, because I hadn’t quite wrapped up my assault on the patriarchy.

Needless to say, I still have plenty of ammo left.

#5. Connecting with my fellow book bloggers, and trading views on everything from literary villains to logolepsy. Keep it up, blogosphere! I’m rooting for you.

#4. 2014. In 2014, I read Anna Karenina, Invisible Man, The Call of the WildDangerous Liaisons, and One Hundred Years of Solitudeall of which ranked immediately among my most favoritest classics. Every time I came across a Lawrence, or a Faulkner, or a Steinbeck on The List, I just had to remind myself that a Tolstoy, or a London, or a Márquez waited right around the corner. Discovering authors like these served as compensation for the suffering I endured at the low points of The Challenge.


#3. Finding excuses to support indie bookstores like The Strand, McNally Jackson, Astoria Bookshop, Indy Reads, Trident Booksellers & CafeSherman’s, and Le port de tête. Bookstores are, by now, more of an addiction than a hobby. But I have no regrets.

#2. Starting the Quick Reviews series in an attempt to spread myself a little thicker. This may have literally saved my life, assuming a blog can kill you. (At one point, I was convinced it could, and very well might.)

#1. See above. 

The Challenge has had its ups and downs, most of which I’ve documented painstakingly over four years of blogging. YOU’RE WELCOME, INTERNET. And while I wouldn’t wish my bookshelf on anyone, we’ve been through so much together that friendship and affection were inevitable.

Just don’t tell it I said so.

#7 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy - War and Peace - first edition, 1869.jpg

If we were looking to crown One Classic to Rule Them All—the ultimate, quintessential, indisputable classic that comes to mind whenever we hear the word—War and Peace (1865–1867) would be a reasonable candidate. Classics don’t come much bigger, broader, bolder, or better than Tolstoy’s masterpiece of realism. It tops British readers’ literary wish lists and spawns relentless adaptations. It’s about literally everything. And it’s hailed, time and time again, as one of the Greatest Books of All Time.

Which is exactly why I’m here.

Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace

is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.

But the latter comes, in many ways, closest to reality. Tolstoy wrote his 600 characters against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. And, according to Shmoop,

Tolstoy’s research didn’t just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended.

War and Peace, then, was Tolstoy’s attempt to rewrite history—and, hopefully, correct it. In his mind, history was a product of diverse forces across time and place, from the greatest general and the most decisive battle to the smallest, most “insignificant” contextual detail. People don’t make history; history makes history. What came before determines what comes after.

But Tolstoy’s version of the Napoleonic era is more than a little subjective, with more than a few fictional events and characters. The main cast is made up of:

  • Pierre Bezukhov, a socially inept party-boy-turned-heir-turned-Freemason-turned-politician-turned-prisoner who acts as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself
  • Natasha Rostov, an “enchanting” teenager-turned-fiancée-turned-adulteress-turned-wife-and-mother whose selfish streak shifts into a self-effacing one
  • Andrei Bolkonsky, an intellectually-minded soldier and father who almost marries Natasha despite being twice her age
  • Nikolai Rostov, brother to Natasha, soldier for Russia, and gambling disaster with a scalding temper
  • Marya Bolkonsky, Andrei’s sister, and frequent bully victim of her father and her circumstances
  • Hélène Kuragin, Pierre’s beautiful wife, who may or may not be an idiot but is definitely unfaithful

With an omniscient third-person narrator at the wheel, perspective turns on a dime. And while Tolstoy can be seen and felt in the philosophy of War and Peace, he is startlingly neutral in his character depictions. These are people who aren’t always likable, who make mistakes both large and small, and who often act without explanation. It’s disorienting, in my experience. But it’s equally intriguing, on a good day.

War and Peace is best known, of course, for its size. The edition I read was 1,215 pages. If we could make one collective request of Tolstoy, we’d probably ask him to get to the point a little bit quicker—and he probably could. In what outrageous literary universe does an author need a two-part epilogue? One is usually bad enough. Two is perverse and sadistic, if you’re a) me, and b) 99 books in to The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Excess and all, War and Peace is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time. But if I’m being totally honest (and what else is this blog for), I preferred Anna Karenina. I preferred many books on The List, actually, to the illustrious War and Peace. I would go so far as to say I’m a little disappointed by it. If War and Peace is a panorama, then I prefer a close-up. If it’s a boundless, restless ocean, then I prefer a bath tub. And if Tolstoy asks me ever again to sit back, relax, and admire the glaze on the world’s tastiest doughnut, I’ll tell him No: I’d rather sink my teeth in.

Because that’s where things start to get really good.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

War and Peace is Great with a capital G, but I didn’t Love it with a capital L.

Favorite Quotes:

War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people.

In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.

I’ve noticed that being an interesting person is very convenient (I’m an interesting person now); people invite me and tell me about myself.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Read: 2017

#1 Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes


Here it is, y’all. Numero uno. The alleged Greatest Book of All Time (at least, as of five years ago). Let’s get this party started (!) …so we can wrap things up and go home.


Here are Don Quixote’s vital stats, lest we lose ourselves in a Land Without Context:

  • The book’s full title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
  • The author’s full name is Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. (He added “Saavedra” himself as an adult.)
  • Don Quixote was published in two volumes appearing in 1605 and 1615.
  • Set in Spain around the same time, the book is narrated by Cervantes himself, mostly in the third person.

In a move that, today, we’d deem “totally meta,” Cervantes built his work around a nobleman driven mad by the chivalric romance novels of the era—who promptly embarks on his own chivalric adventure. In the first volume, Don Quixote dons a suit of armor and sets out on a quest for adventure with his “faithful squire,” Sancho Panza, and his aging “steed,” Rocinante.

In spite of his knightly ideals, Don Quixote does more harm than good: He abandons the weak and poor he swore to protect, liberates a dangerous galley slave, and dedicates his “heroic” deeds to an unwitting peasant woman he imagines to be a princess. Don Quixote himself is often injured and humiliated—and the positive outcomes of his actions are, more often than not, accidental.

The second volume is more of the same, but this time his exploits are engineered by a Duke and Duchess for their own entertainment. He is led to believe, for example, that his lady love, Dulcinea, has been transformed by an evil enchantment into an ugly farmhand. The Duke and Duchess convince Sancho Panza that, in order to lift the enchantment, he must give himself 3,300 lashes—on his bare ass. When he resists, Don Quixote threatens to give him twice as many.

Don Quixote’s friends scheme throughout the novel to bring him back home, for his own sake and that of his victims, with occasional success. The end of the novel sees Don Quixote “vanquished” by the faux “Knight of the White Moon” and forced into retirement. He dies of a fever shortly thereafter, cursing the chivalric principles to which he devoted the final years of his life. 

From what we have since gathered, Cervantes followed the age-old wisdom “write what you know.” What he knew, as it happened, was:

  • service in the Spanish army,
  • capture by Algerian pirates,
  • enslavement by the Moors,
  • a resulting mistrust of foreigners, and
  • an era of Spanish dominance and defeat.

Many of the tales found within Don Quixote are anchored in both Cervantes’ personal experiences and the nation’s collective history, from battles at sea to the exile of the Moors. Naturally, he couldn’t resist including some of his own reflections on the cultural shifts of the 16th and 17th centuries, which saw Spain’s rise as an imperial power as well as the destruction of its “invincible” Armada. Cervantes was critical (obviously) of the continued popularity of chivalric values, of the Catholic church, and of the rigid class structure of contemporary Spain. Don Quixote was, seemingly, an attempt to bridge the gaps between old and new, especially when it came to morality.

Interpretations of the text have shifted over the years: Read as a comic novel at first publication, it was later viewed as a work of social commentary and then as a tragedy. It is, possibly, all of these things, or something else entirely, to Cervantes and to the 21st-century reader. What’s safe to say is that, like the other Great Books of the post-Renaissance period, it helped to lay the foundations of the modern novel.

And, for all its protagonist’s blunders, it didn’t do Spanish language or culture any damage, either.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I always have an appetite for well-crafted parody, and nearly every bite of Don Quixote is delicious.

Favorite Quotes:

For her sake I left my father’s house, and for her sake I put on these clothes, in order to follow her wherever she might go, as the arrow follows its mark or the sailor his star.

Oh, how we mortals wait and hope in vain!
At first how sweet the promise, then bitterly
it vanishes in shadow, smoke, and dream.

“Eat, Sancho my friend,” said Don Quixote, “sustain life, which matters to you more than to me, and let me die at the hands of my thoughts and by means of my misfortunes. I, Sancho, was born to live by dying, and you to die by eating.”

Read: 2014

My Wish List for Future Classics (and All Other Books)


98 books and nearly 400 blog posts later, I think it’s safe to say I’ve cultivated some measure of expertise when it comes to the classics. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge has, at least, given me that.

There are, of course, many ways to define the classics. Karen of BookerTalk put together a great post on this topic, detailing Italian author Italio Calvino’s 14-point interpretation in “Why Read the Classics.” His points range from the indisputably relevant to the bewilderingly ambiguous. Here’s a random sample:

  • The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.
  • A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
  • The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.
  • A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.

(Yeah, I don’t know about that last one either.)

But my Challenge has less to do with “classic” status than its even-more-subjective cousin, Greatness. Most of us would agree that The List is full of classics. But I’m certain we’ll disagree on which ones are Great.

Long ago, I identified my own criteria for what qualifies a book for Greatness: Originality + Masterful Craftsmanship = Great, in my less-than-humble opinion. I like this definition because it’s broad yet demanding, and because it gives me license to denounce Lawrence, Hemingway, and Updike as a bunch of sorry hacks.

I also like it because it’s open, at all times, to new members. But as long as I’m throwing open my doors to the latest, Greatest books, I’d like to make a few special requests.

This is my Wish List for Future Classics (and, of course, books in general):

1. More diversity.

Like, a lot more. Almost 90% of the books I read for The Challenge are classifiable as American or Western European, leaving more than three-quarters of the world dramatically underrepresented. I can recall only a few non-white protagonists, and even less who would identify as disabled or LGBTQ. And while many classic defenders invoke “era” to cover all manner of sins, this problem persists today.

Fortunately, the call for diversity is growing so loud that publishers can no longer ignore it. Unfortunately, their response has been slow.

2. Less misogyny.

Along those same lines, we need better—more complicated, more realistic, more equal—representation of women. This applies to both authors and characters. Only 14 female authors made it onto The List, and none of them broke the Top 10. (George Eliot is the first to appear with Middlemarch at #12, and she had to publish under a man’s name to be taken seriously.) Only two of the Top 10 protagonists are women, and they are both adulteresses who eventually kill themselves.

…Which brings me to my next point: Can we cool it with the Madonna/whore complex? Classic literature is full of exactly two women: the angelic flower petal/Disney princess, and the morally degenerate hag/hellion. I’m looking at you, Isabel Archer. And Laura Fairlie. And Becky Sharp. And the Marquise de Merteuil.

Oh, and speaking of whores, could we engage a little less often in the casual solicitation of prostitutes? I’m so over fictional brothels, and the human colostomy bags who frequent them.

Once we manage to write and publish and respect female authors/characters on par with their male counterparts, I’m convinced I’ll stop coming across so many literary passages like this one:

When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast. (Gargantua & Pantagruel)

And this one:

“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”

And this one:

When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.

He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.” (U.S.A.)

It will be a great day for literature, and for my mental health.

3. Less bigotry, in general. 

Yep, I’m on a roll here. I promise I’ll quit whining when the classics quit offending. Just keep in mind that that may NEVER HAPPEN, because the classics are putrid, decaying outhouses infested with bigotry and other bullshit.

I’m excluding, of course, the classics that actively, deliberately deconstruct prejudice in its many forms—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Native Son, and Faulkner’s novels, to name a few. I’m taking aim, rather, at the many perpetrators of nonchalant intolerance: Robinson Crusoe, Gone With the Wind, U.S.A., and everything Hemingway are all guilty of thoughtless, mindless attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and/or people of African or Asian descent. Stereotyping is rampant up and down The List. Rarely is discrimination called into question.

I’m not saying all of these novels should be stripped of their “classic” status. I’m not saying we should stop reading them, or discussing them, or learning from them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of progressive genius who can fix the world one book at a time, or that my opinion on this subject is even especially valid. I agree with Book Riot’s Amanda Nelson that

we wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

I’m just saying that on my Wish List for future classics, up-and-coming authors would be a little more thoughtful about race, and religion, and sexuality—and a little less inclined toward the careless dehumanization of marginalized people.

4. Improved readability.

If the classics really want to step up their game—and be read, occasionally, outside of class—this may be their best and only strategy. We all want to engage with Great minds and big ideas, but not when they leave us unconscious with boredom. I’d love to see classic authors tidy up their plots a little (yes, you, Thomas Mann), and give their dialogue a fresh coat of paint (please, Dreiser? Please?). And if they can make their point in 300 pages, it’d be polite of them not to use 800. Or 1500.

In other words, it’d be great if—someday—The Challenge were less of a challenge.

This is all my long-winded way of saying not all classics are necessarily Great books, and that Greatness itself is a matter of opinion. I am under no obligation to enjoy every classic, and enjoyment is (for me) separate from Greatness.

But if I had my way, or the canon gave me a vote, I’d tell the classics that they still have work to do. I’d tell them that, as is, they’re not enough—that they could do more to illuminate the limitless facets of the human experience, in all its breadth and detail. Because that, I think, is the role of a classic.

Or, at least, I wish it were.