With just 11 books to go, I am closing in on the home stretch of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. For better or for worse, that home stretch is War and Peace, to be followed by Faust at the finish line.
And yet a number of unwritten reviews of those classics I have read stare up at me with wide, somber eyes from their cold and lonely Google spreadsheet, as if I am neglecting them on purpose.
And OK, they might be right. But today, finally, is their day. Today, all eyes are on them. Today, they receive their standing ovation.
Today, by the power vested in me as a casual lit blogger, I crown them kings among books.
I’ve always found it much more difficult to review books I loved than books I hated—at least, in a way that satisfies my #1 customer (me). Most of the time, I prefer snark to sentiment, and comedy to sincerity. And when I love any book, but especially when I love a classic, there’s never much room for a) teasing, or b) original insight. Straight-up rave reviews of the classics aren’t exactly hard to come by, and most of them indulge in wanton levels of snootery.
So, of course, the reviews left in my lineup are largely books I adored. And I’m struggling to find something to say about them other than “I’M SO IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK THAT I WOULD GLADLY BEAR ITS CHILDREN. AND I DON’T EVEN WANT HUMAN CHILDREN”—basically, the book review equivalent of
That Couple Those Couples on Facebook. (You know the ones I mean. #Barfing.)
Here’s what I’ve settled for: a Greatest Hits edition of my Quick Reviews series, in which I list all the most subjective reasons I can think of for Why You Should Read Them All. You already know the basics of my reaction to each (i.e., I was so engrossed in it that I stopped breathing from pages 7 to 443; it more than deserves its ranking on The List, by which I mean it should definitely be moved up above anything Hemingway or Lawrence ever wrote; I would eat my own hand if the author asked me to, and both if they asked politely), so this post is about urging you to read them, too. No matter how huge or how cluttered your TBR already is.
Consider this your formal invitation to read some of my own personal favorites among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time. (And if you RSVP “Maybe,” I swear to God I will FEED YOUR FACE TO A PAPER SHREDDER.)
#9 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Why You Should Read It:
- This book offers not one but two protagonists, with largely separate story lines, to broaden the scope of this Russian masterpiece.
- The eponymous Anna’s love life is filled with the kind of drama that only a drama queen can summon. And she is that, if nothing else. Not only is she married, with a kid, but her lover Vronsky is already courting her relative (and friend) Kitty Shcherbatsky when things start heating up.
- Levin, our second protagonist, wins Kitty’s heart even after an initial rejection and proposes to her in a word game reminiscent of Hangman. But the story doesn’t end with their marriage; instead, we get to see the nuances of post-nuptial love.
- Not only that, but Tolstoy based much of the Levin-Kitty narrative on his own romance with Sophia Andreevna, whom he married in 1862.
- It is, in the words of Dostoevsky, a “flawless work of art.”
- The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation manages to tame this wild beast of a novel into a supremely readable text.
In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid and, above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in a church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and form whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.
I think… if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.
The terrible thing is that it’s impossible to tear the past out by the roots.
I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be.
#15 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Why You Should Read It:
- Invisible Man is the first-person narrative of an unnamed African American, spanning his youth as a model student in the South to his work for a political organization known as the “Brotherhood” in Harlem, New York.
- There’s a famous battle royal scene in which the narrator is stripped, blindfolded, and forced to fight for a college scholarship in a boxing ring.
- By the end of the book, the narrator is living underground on electricity he stole from “the Monopolated Light and Power Company.” Just for good measure, he burns 1,369 light bulbs 24/7 while listening to Louis Armstrong on a radio-phonograph.
- Invisible Man was meant to give a voice to the invisible (that is, the socially invisible or oppressed), and that voice is a song. Inspired by the imagery in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Ellison infused the liberal, improvisational features of jazz music into his writing—to great effect.
Like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism.
But that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang.
I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones.
For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words.
My world has become one of infinite possibilities.
I’m invisible, not blind.
#53 The Call of the Wild, Jack London
Why You Should Read It:
- The Call of the Wild may be narrated by a dog and ring in at just under 120 pages, but this is as far as you can get from the sort of schmaltzy, juvenile, cloying book you might buy in a zoo gift shop for your grandmother. This is a sharp and graphic narrative of a sled dog, and the humans who use and abuse him.
- It’s also a novel of survival, and the kind of teeth-gritting (and teeth-baring) determination it takes to endure.
- London proves there’s no need for fancy prose, complicated plot lines, or tender sentiment to pen a beautiful novel.
- The book’s Yukon setting was chosen by London based on his own experiences in the region during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, where, he says, “I found myself.”
- E. L. Doctorow called the book “fervently American.” And even if I’m not sure what that means, he’s maybe probably somewhat totally right.
For two days and nights he neither ate nor drank, and during those two days and nights of torment, he accumulated a fund of wrath that boded ill for whoever first fell foul of him.
So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never went down.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.
And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolf-like, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.
#30 Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Why You Should Read It:
- Like all the best war novels, Catch-22 doesn’t glorify war. It calls out its absurdities. The book is Heller’s seeming attempt to deconstruct the senseless and arbitrary nature of war, and patriotism, and death itself.
- The book is both hilarious and not at all funny, and apparently intended as such.
- While it pissed off the Americans who viewed World War II as heroic and righteous, it also anticipated the disillusionment many of those same Americans felt during and after the Vietnam War.
- Yossarian is an utterly identifiable narrator—baffled by bureaucracy, something of an outsider, and terrified to die.
- The New York Herald Tribune described it as “a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them.
“What would they do to me,” he asked in confidential tones, “if I refused to fly them?”
“We’d probably shoot you,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.
“We?” Yossarian cried in surprise. “What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?”
“If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted.
History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.
“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.”
More than anything else, he was embarrassed. He felt awkward because she was going to murder him.
The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been!
#96 Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Why You Should Read It:
- It’s all about sex, and love, and revenge.
- The narrative is entirely constructed out of the letters written between the major cast members of this decadent drama.
- It is thought to be either a robust indictment of France’s extravagant Ancien Régime or an enthusiastic salute to libertinism. In either case, it’s a huge success.
- The story’s villains, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, receive their comeuppance in the form of a fatal sword wound and disfiguring smallpox, respectively.
- It spawned two incredible feats of film-making: the Academy-Award-winning 1988 adaptation starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and 1999’s showy teen melodrama Cruel Intentions starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon.
Don’t you remember that love, like medicine, is only the art of encouraging nature?
Love, hatred, you have only to choose; they all sleep under the same roof.
#46 All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
Why You Should Read It:
- The New York Times called All the King’s Men “the definitive book about American politics.”
- Set in the South in the 1930s, the novel follows the rise and rise (and rise) of Willie Stark—a charismatic lawyer-turned-governor who bears a suspicious resemblance to Huey Long—through the eyes of his “sort of secretary” Jack Burden.
- Jack is an exceptional narrator, and an endearing one in spite of his flaws. A self-described “student of history,” he tells his own life story alongside that of Willie Stark, and it’s arguably much more interesting.
- All the King’s Men confronts some Big Issues face to face without batting an eye: How politics are a kind of black hole that sucks in anyone who ventures too near. How the truth has a way of making itself heard. How you always pay the price for your mistakes in the end—and, often, the mistakes of others. How each of us constructs an image of the world inside our heads, and are devastated when that image goes up in flames.
- Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and a 1949 movie adaptation of the novel won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
I ought to have guessed that a person like her—a person who you could tell had a deep inner certitude of self which comes from being all of one piece, of not being shreds and patches and old cogwheels held together with pieces of rusty barbed wire and spit and bits of string, like most of us—I ought to have guessed that that kind of a person would not be surprised into answering a question she didn’t want to answer.
I began to take a distaste to the friends Lois had. There was nothing particularly wrong with them. They were just the ordinary garden variety of human garbage.
I thought how all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood. Maybe that is the only way you can tell that a certain piece of knowledge is worth anything: it has cost some blood.
The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.
Are They Six of the Greatest Books of All Time?
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If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.