#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!

#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

Quick Reviews: Greatest Hits


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

Published: 1873–1877

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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. 

Read: 2014

#15 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Published: 1952

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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. 

Read: 2014

#53 The Call of the Wild, Jack London

Published: 1903

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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. 

Read: 2014

#30 Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Published: 1961

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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.

“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.”

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! 

Read: 2015


#96 Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Published: 1782

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2014

#46 All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

Published: 1946

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.

Favorite Quotes:

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.

Read: 2015

Are They Six of the Greatest Books of All Time?


If you missed Quick Reviews: Part I, or Quick Reviews: Part II, you can find them here and here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

#78 The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann


So, this book. I kind of wish I didn’t have to talk about it (I spent long enough reading it). But I’ve sworn to give every book on The List its due, and it’s The Magic Mountain’s turn today.

Let’s start at the very beginning, Sound of Music-style. Hans Castorp (who always goes by his full name for some reason) is a perfectly healthy and “simple-minded” man who goes to visit his tubercular cousin, Joachim, at a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. He intends to stay for just three weeks but ends up with his own diagnosis: a “moist spot” on his lung. Three weeks at the sanatorium turn into seven years as Hans Castorp attempts to recover his health.

If you took out all the mundane details of Hans Castorp’s daily routine at the facility, the book would be half as long. We are repeatedly subjected to the specifics of Hans Castorp’s routine temperature readings, his many outdoor “rest cures,” his blanket-wrapping technique to keep warm during said rest cures, his seat assignment in the cafeteria, and his incurable boredom (…as if we didn’t know the feeling). In the second half, we read long, textbook-like passages on anatomy, as well as tedious debates on philosophy and politics.

Then there are the women. You’d think that Hans Castorp had never seen or spoken to a real, live, adult woman before, based on his behavior in The Magic Mountain. He decides upon arrival that he will remain heels-over-ass in love with Frau Chauchat for the rest of his stay, no matter what. “What” includes:

a) Frau Chauchat’s feelings on the matter,
b) Frau Chauchat’s marital status (currently attached), and
c) Frau Chauchat actually leaving the sanatorium.

Hans Castorp’s courtship strategy is perplexing at best. He looks at Frau Chauchat across the cafeteria a lot, and then looks away when she notices him. He finds excuses to pass by her in the hallway. He refuses to speak to her when they’re in the same room, citing “manners.” He begs to see her portrait, painted by Dr. Behrens, without her knowledge—and obsessively compliments the rendering of her skin.

And then, seven months after his initial ogle, he gets drunk at a Mardi Gras party and asks Frau Chauchat to borrow a pencil. Cue a long and deep conversation that ends with Frau Chauchat informing Hans Castorp of her imminent departure from the sanatorium.

That sounds about right.

Then there’s Hans Castorp’s entourage, including Ludovico Settembrini, an Italian “man of letters”; Leo Naphta, a Jew-turned-Jesuit; and—for a brief period—Hans Castorp’s own uncle, James Tienappel. After Joachim’s exodus, Mr. Tienappel pays a visit to Hans Castorp in a not-so-subtle endeavor to smuggle him back home. He is distracted in his efforts by one Frau Redisch’s captivating breasts.

I’m not kidding. Read for yourself:

Most assuredly, in matters of civilized behavior she could not have held a candle to Madame Tienappel down in the flatlands. But one Sunday evening in the salon after supper, the consul made a discovery, thanks to a black, very low-cut sequined gown: Frau Redisch had very feminine, soft, white, close-set breasts and a cleavage visible from a considerable distance. And this discovery had stirred the mature, refined man to the depths of his soul, thrilling him as if this were a totally new, unexpected, unheard-of phenomenon. He sought out and made Frau Redisch’s acquaintance, carried on a long conversation with her, first standing, then seated—and went to bed humming. The next day Frau Redisch was no longer wearing a black sequined gown, but a dress that covered almost all of her; the consul, however, knew what he knew and remained faithful to that first impression. He made a point of catching up with the lady on their walks, so that he could stroll beside her and chat with her, turning and bending toward her in a special, insistent, but charming way; he toasted his glass to her at dinner, and she responded with a smile, revealing several sparkling gold-capped teeth; and in a conversation with his nephew he declared her to be an absolutely “divine creature”—and at once began to hum again.

He knew what he knew, folks. He could not un-see those breasts.

Come to think of it, every time a woman is mentioned in The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann thoughtfully describes her breasts for us, good man that he is. He may be struggling with some extreme Freudian affliction, but how else could we differentiate the “flatlands” from the mountains? How else could we objectify women we’ll never see?

Minor characters are summed up in similarly offensive ways. There is a “hunchbacked Mexican” and a “dwarf,” as well as a “girl with the face of a tapir.” I consider this last one a step up, however, from the alternative: “girl with the breasts of a tapir.”

Hans Castorp may be our guide through the halls and chambers of the sanatorium, but he has little to offer as a protagonist. He’s more of a springboard for others to bounce ideas off of, with the sanatorium serving as the setting of his “education.” So what does he learn? Oh, a little of this and a little of that. The nature of time, the significance of spirituality, the meaning of life, the nuances of love, and the opposing ideologies of a world on its way to a Great War. That kind of stuff.

The Magic Mountain is a work of realism, but also deeply symbolic. In other words, it’s both dull and demanding—every reader’s birthday wish. There’s a small, morbid part of you that cannon-balls into the book thinking, “Ooh, a bunch of dramatically ill people gathered on a mountaintop, fascinating!” But that part of you will start to drown in disappointment right around the 100th time Hans Castorp takes his temperature and brags about its irregularity like the insufferable hypochondriac he is. He’s not even good at being chronically ill.

I was very excited about the prospect of coming full circle and wrapping this up Sound of Music-style—in the mountains—but Hans Castorp had to go and ruin even that. The final pages of The Magic Mountain find him on a battlefield in World War I. And he’s not even fighting for the winning team.

Classic Castorp.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

This is a tricky question when it comes to a book I didn’t personally enjoy. I can recognize some of its merits—but for me, this book is a loser on par with Hans Castorp himself.

Favorite Quotes:

There is one force, one principle that is the object of my highest affirmation, my highest and ultimate respect and love, and that force, that principle, is the mind.

I don’t wish to offend you, and I admit that you are caught up in an awful mess. But there was a story they used to tell at home about a girl whose punishment was that every time she opened her mouth, snakes and toads came out, snakes and toads with every word. The book didn’t say what she did about it, but I’ve always assumed she probably ended up keeping her mouth shut.

And out of this worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all round—will love someday rise up out of this, too?

Read: 2015

#12 Middlemarch, George Eliot


Middlemarch is a book about marriage.

But this is no story of marital kamikaze (à la Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary), nor is it the script for a “Love Conquers All” press conference penned by Romance’s PR team (à la The Time Traveler’s Wife, or anything by Nicholas Sparks).

Middlemarch is a realistic book about marriage—and it should be, as part of the “literary realism” movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The marriages of Middlemarch are turbulent, naïve, and ever-evolving. After all, none of us really know what we’re signing on for when we commit to a lifetime with another person, other than a lot of ups and downs, eternal toothpaste woes, and the occasional Christmas gift dud.

Lydgate lives outside his means to please Rosamond. Dorothea discovers that Casaubon’s intelligence is a double-edged sword. Fred makes mistakes and works to earn Mary’s respect instead of taking it for granted. It all feels familiar, yet—because it’s happening to other people—intriguing. Maybe it’s the gossip inside all of us that takes George Eliot’s bait.

Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Eliot’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Marriage is a funny thing, especially in literature. In the classics, of course, social mores often prohibit divorce. So you, as the reader, spend a lot of time hoping lackluster/inattentive/dumb/abusive spouses will conveniently die so that the hero/heroine ends up with the “right” partner. This is definitely the case in Middlemarch when it comes to Dorothea and Casaubon—Dorothea being a human utopia, and Casaubon being a fusty intellectual elitist. The shiniest moment amid Casaubon’s prevailing dullness was his love letter to Dorothea—a love letter to her mind instead of her beauty:

…Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds. But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated. It was, I confess, beyond my hope to meet with this rare combination of elements both solid and attractive, adapted to supply aid in graver labors and to cast a charm over vacant hours.

But even this crosses a line we don’t see until we’re far beyond it. As it turns out, most happy marriages don’t involve the kind of teacher-pupil/boss-employee role playing Casaubon and Dorothea eagerly engage in. (Eagerly at first, that is.)

Middlemarch is also a book about religion, politics, education, gender, and the consequences of choice. It is broader than it is deep—a sweeping panorama of provincial life in 19th-century England—and it excels exactly as intended, in its quietly profound study of the mundane. In Middlemarch, a novel intent on depicting reality, the worst crime a person can commit is self-delusion. And while it may have its slow moments, Eliot’s masterpiece is remarkably interesting for all its preoccupation with the ordinary.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It was selected by C. S. Lewis and Julian Barnes as the greatest English novel of all time. None of this would stop me from hating it, but I didn’t hate it—not at all. As classics go, it’s easily among my Top 20.

Favorite Quotes:

“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.

Though he “did” his classics and mathematics, he was not pre-eminent in them. It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable.

She seated herself on a dark ottoman with the brown books behind her, looking in her plain dress of some thin woollen-white material, without a single ornament on her besides her wedding-ring, as if she were under a vow to be different from all other women.

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.

It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.

Read: 2013

#76 The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame


Let me start by saying that The Wind in the Willows is delightful. It is a romp in the purest, most innocent sense of the word—and better yet, it is a British romp, so you can safely imagine all the characters in tweed.

This collection of tales, chronicling the four-way friendship between a Rat, a Mole, a Toad, and a Badger, was penned during the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (the mid-19th century to the early 20th century). Up until the 1600s, specially designated children’s books did not even exist, because childhood was not considered a separate or significant period. Children were viewed as smaller, grubbier adults upon whom the Bible should be thrust at every opportunity in the name of education.

Once childhood was recognized as a distinctive period, and children as a group began to receive special treatment for the unique needs this interval represents, the body of children’s literature began to develop.

The Wind in the Willows as a written work (and, now, classic) evolved out of the bedtime stories Kenneth Grahame told his son, the oh-so-nobly-named Alistair. The early chapters establish and build upon the friendships between the featured foursome, while the later stories concentrate on the fumbles and foibles of Toad.

Toad is the star of the show. He represents the British upper class, using his unlimited wealth to chase his childish impulses, ever in denial of life’s consequences. He’s far and away the most interesting character, and arguably the most complex.

Things Toad Does:

  • Steals a car
  • Wrecks said car
  • Goes to jail (on a 20-year sentence, no less) for stealing and wrecking the aforementioned car
  • Disguises himself as a washerwoman to escape from jail
  • Forgets his wallet
  • Talks his way onto a train
  • Steals a horse
  • Attempts to sell said horse to a peddler
  • Steals a car again (the same one as before)
  • Wrecks said car (again)

Things Toad Is:

  • Wealthy
  • Manipulative
  • Boastful
  • Ostentatious
  • Stubborn
  • Manic
  • Outlandish
  • Immature
  • Snooty
  • Hilarious

At the end of the book, Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger have to seize Toad Hall back from the weasels and stoats who have taken over in Toad’s absence. Then they throw a party.

Like I said: a romp.

I’m finding unexpected similarities across the many English novels included on The List. Toad, Mole, Rat, and Badger remind me very much of the hobbits of Hobbiton. (They don’t volunteer for a mission to save Middle Earth, but if they did, they would be about as likely to succeed.) Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited shares personality traits with Toad, and England feels like the same drowsy, peaceful place in both The Wind in the Willows and Middlemarch. Also Jane Eyre. And Wuthering Heights. The English love their countryside—I can tell you that much.

It would be hard not to like the amusing, feel-good playground-for-the-brain that is The Wind in the Willows. In fact, don’t trust anyone who hates it. They probably grew up without love or TV.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

Hailing this collection of children’s bedtime stories as one of the greatest books of all time—better, apparently, than anything Victor Hugo ever wrote—seems like a stretch. Top 500, perhaps, but not top 100, if I’m going to be the judge.

Favorite Quotes:

“Well, never mind what done it,” said the Mole, forgetting his grammar in his pain. “It hurts just the same, whatever done it.”

The Mole was a good listener, and Toad, with no one to check his statements or to criticize in an unfriendly spirit, rather let himself go. Indeed, much that he related belonged more properly to the category of what-might-have-happened-had-I-only-thought-of-it-in-time-instead-of-ten-minutes-afterwards.

It was, to be sure, but a small thing that I asked—merely leave to blossom and expand for yet one more evening, to let myself go and hear the tumultuous applause that always seems to me—somehow—to bring out my best qualities.

For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.

Read: 2013

#41 The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien


So there’s this hobbit. You may have heard of him. He is unwisely chosen to venture beyond the gates of hell to destroy a powerful ring on which the fate of Middle Earth depends—a quest that should ABSOLUTELY kill him but doesn’t. He’s joined by a few burdensome fools (to remind us these are unlikely heroes, like most British protagonists) and a few legendary warriors (to lend a little credibility to the expedition, or something).

Oh, and there’s a wizard. But don’t get excited; he does precisely nothing.

There are some pretty blatant problems within this widely praised and beloved narrative. And because it’s more fun to mock than to revere, I’m going to skip gleefully past its merits and picnic among its many flaws.

Problem #1: Length

Really, Tolkien? Three towering volumes to finish one story? Take a cue from Strunk & White and edit.

I take issue with the length particularly because I sense a deliberate effort to drag out the story at timesbut that’s another problem. (It’s Problem #4, actually.)

For now I’ll just say that I could easily overlook his page count if Tolkien simply treated The Lord of the Rings as a series instead of a single novel. But as it stands, if we consider the actual plot/substance of this monstrous tale, the length is totally unnecessaryas well as a major contributor to Problem #2.

Problem #2: Pacing

Halfway through Fellowship, I checked the handy little map of Middle Earth to see how far our dear hobbits had come, as they finally—FINALLY—reached Rivendell. As it turns out, Rivendell is exactly one inch away from the Shire.

Imagine my despair. Imagine me weeping into my tea and cursing the name of Baggins. Imagine me slowly, inevitably succumbing to madness like Gollum singing the praises of His Precious.

Problem #3: Narrative Priority

Tolkien spends much, much, MUCH longer describing meals than battle scenes.

See for yourself if you don’t believe me.

Also, was LOTR intended as a musical? Because Tolkien breaks into song every five minutes. I’m surprised Disney didn’t take over the film script and turn Frodo into a lovable hunchback Hunchbaggins.

Problem #4: Long-Winded Style

The only thing more tedious than the hobbits’ journey across Middle Earth is Tolkien’s manner of describing it. Consider this excerpt:

And then they talked for many times half an hour.

Seriously, Tolkien? WTF is this? A lesson in superfluity? Just say they talked for several hours, or for a long time. Or, better yet, let us assume they had important things to discuss, since they’re trying to save the world, or something. (I can’t quite be sure because you haven’t gotten around to telling us yet.)

Problem #5: Female Disappearing Act

Where are all the women??? All of the major LOTR characters are men. Most of the minor characters are men. And since there are no plot-contrived circumstances that eliminate women from the story (à la Lord of the Flies), we can only infer that Tolkien forgot about them. He just didn’t think women had anything to contribute to his thousand-page tale, I guess. Of the small handful of females to be found in Middle Earth, all are completely useless.

Here is a comprehensive list of Tolkien’s female characters:

  • Arwen: Elf. Does nothing, ever.
  • Galadriel: Elf. Wise, beautiful, creepy. Has a swan boat and lots of male friends.
  • Eowyn: Human. Falls in love at first sight with Aragorn, then does nothing, ever, except become a punch line.
  • Shelob: Enormous arachnid-like creature with hundreds of eyes. Does not even manage to kill Frodo and Sam—two small, starving hobbits with zero fighting skills.
  • Rosie Cotton: Hobbit. Marries Sam, because [???].

And for those of you inclined to argue that “women didn’t fight in medieval wars!” I’d like to remind you that this isn’t history. This is fantasy. Tolkien could write his fictional wars however the Middle Hell he wanted to. He could have had flying raccoons attacking hipster vampires while a pale, blond pirate/elf twirled arrow batons like a giddy cheerleader.

But, instead, a man lauded for his imagination left out half a world’s population.

Problem #6: Too Much Happening Beyond the Text

Speaking of imagination, Tolkien creates this richly detailed storyscape—languages and all—but can’t seem to communicate everything he wants to say about it even within this long, long book. And because editing appears to be beneath him, he insists on including irrelevant, superfluous information just because he thought of it.

The average reader does not want to refer to a map every other paragraph, or keep charts of the eleventy-seven names bestowed on every individual character. And appendices? Plural?

Fuck you, Tolkien.

Problem #7: Immature Worldview

LOTR is downright childish in its lack of nuance. Evil characters are supremely, definitively evil, and good characters are inherently, eternally good. No one is remotely realistic; they are either idealized or caricaturized. Some have mythical character backgrounds, yes, but so few have any depth.

Worse writers than Tolkien have tackled the grey areas of human nature, and juggled the weight of individuality, much more compellingly.

In sum—dare I say it?—I preferred the movies. Better yet are the memes. Oh, man, the freaking memes. They never get old.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Bitter diatribes aside, this book remains quite a feat. I mean, it must have taken Tolkien hours to come up with all of Aragorn’s nicknames.

Now that all is said and done, then, my answer to this question will have to be a reluctant ewrij’aYoE;cjxjik?e038rrrrr. (That’s “Ugh, fine” in Elvish.) (Also Welsh.)

Favorite Quotes:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.

“As for me,” said Boromir, “my way home lies onward and not back.”

Beyond the shadows we may meet again!

Forth rode the king, fear behind him, fate before him.

Read: 2013

#22 Beloved, Toni Morrison

Please avert your eyes if you are unable to stomach a bit of gushing. I LOVED this book. I LOVED it in ALL CAPS, and bold, and italics. My jaw dropped so far, you could have fit the whole paperback inside like a sideways VCR.

The premise of this book is fascinating, and gut-wrenching, and TRUE. (I won’t spoil it here, but Amazon spoils it plenty if you’re into that sort of thing.) I broke one of the Ten Commandments shamelessly coveting Morrison’s genius from page one onward. And when I finished Beloved, jaw on the carpet, I finally felt for the FIRST time that this whole 100 Greatest Books Challenge business just might be worth it. For the first time, The Challenge went from “a self-imposed, often excruciating, long-term homework assignment” to “the reason I discovered a literary treasure I might not otherwise have taken off my shelf.”

And now I’m inviting you in on the action.

At various times, reading Beloved, I felt:

  • Chills
  • Short of breath
  • If I were a smoker, I would need a cigarette.
  • If I were a mother, I would wrap my children in sleeping bag cocoons and never let them out of my sight.
  • Ashamed of my homeland
  • Pessimistic, and then optimistic, about the human race
  • (Upon reading Wikipedia) Seriously, Oprah starred in the film?
  • (Still on Wikipedia) I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Morrison’s real name is Chloe Ardelia Wofford.
  • (Back to the book) Where are my smelling salts? Oh, right, I don’t have any, because this isn’t the 1850s and I’m not Tom Brady.
  • I MUST meet Toni Morrison someday. And when I do, I will gawk like an idiot and form NO coherent sentences.

Wait, what are you still doing here? Why aren’t you out buying Beloved? Do it now! Feel all the feelings. Prepare the edge of your chair in advance.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Two words: Pulitzer. Nobel.

Favorite Quotes:

She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it. “Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…”

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.

And if she thought anything, it was No. No. Nonono. Simple. She just flew. Collected every bit of life she had made, all the parts of her that were precious and fine and beautiful, and carried, pushed, dragged them through the veil, out, away, over there where no one could hurt them. Over there. Outside this place, where they would be safe.

There are too many things to feel about this woman. His head hurts. Suddenly he remembers Sixo trying to describe what he felt about the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

Read: 2012