BY MARTIN KICH
The editors of and contributors to the books section of the Independent, one of the United Kingdom’s largest newspapers, have published a list of “43 Books to Read before You Die” in honor of World Book Day, which in case you missed it was yesterday.
The list includes the following titles, with annotations explaining why they were selected. But it makes no pretense of being anything but an arbitrary collection of personal favorites for which some sort of persuasive case might be made. The books are neither ranked nor categorized. That lack of formality is precisely what makes the list fascinating—but also what compels me to categorize the books so that I can comment on and complain about what has been included and excluded.
Pre-20th Century British and American Novels:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
All of the authors are British and except for Austen, from the second half of the 19th century. I feel compelled to ask why Dickens has been excluded and Hardy, Thackeray, and Wilde have been included. And why have no European works—not even works by Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, never mind Balzac or Zola, been included. I would also make the case for Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick being included. Although I read widely beyond the Western Canon, the canonical works should not be completely ignored simply because they are canonical.
20th-Century British and American Novels:
Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Women in Love by DH Lawrence
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Again, the list is as notable for who has been excluded as for who has been included. There is nothing by James Joyce or William Faulkner—never mind Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, or Thomas Pynchon, or even John Updike (the Rabbit tetralogy), Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song), or something by Joyce Carol Oates.
I am surprised that two novels by Hemingway have been included. Although he has had tremendous influence on several subsequent generations of writers, I think that his novels have been devalued somewhat—and that if two were included, A Farewell to Arms would be most people’s choice over For Whom the Bell Tolls. (I have always thought that To Have and Have Not is one of the worst novels ever written by a major novelist. But I have also thought that the later, almost universally dismissed novel, Across the River and into the Trees, actually offers a very revealing portrait of what happens to a Hemingway anti-hero when he ages and begins to decline physically. It is not a pleasant portrait, but it seems to me to be very starkly revealing.)
Coupland (whom I believe is the only Canadian who has been included—to the exclusion of works by Atwood and Ondaatje), Keillor, Selby, and Stockett are extremely dubious choices. (And I include Selby even though I have not just read all of his published work but even devoted parts of two chapters of my doctoral dissertation to Last Exit to Brooklyn.) The novels by Kerouac, Lee, and Wharton would not be on my list. How can the Wharton novel be included while none of Henry James’s novels are included? My list would include at least several more British titles, including several from the post-World War II period.
Novels from outside the U.K. and the U.S.:
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
How can there be nothing by a European beyond the de Benrieres novel (and perhaps the Nabakov novel in the previous list)? What about Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and Gunter Grass? And what about Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes? And why is The Bad Girl the choice out of Mario Vargas Lhosa’s considerable body of work? I would omit Gilbran and add several African and South Asian novels, as well as a Chinese novel or two, and perhaps another Japanese novel.
Novels in the Popular Genres:
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Stand by Stephen King
As those of you who have followed the book lists that I have posted to the blog will know, I can name any number of other novels in the popular genres that I would include before these two novels—if such a relatively short list had room for such titles.
Titles That I Have Never Heard Of:
All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen
The Beach by Alex Garland
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Naïve. Super by Erland Loe
Bobby Brewster by HE Todd
If I don’t feel that I could include a personal favorite such as Selby, I don’t see why anyone else should be allowed such self-indulgence.
Children and Young-Adult Titles:
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien
I could not justify including titles in this last category. I know that many readers claim that books that they read as children and adolescents have shaped them in profound ways and that they have periodically re-read those books with fresh appreciation throughout their lives. But I am not one of those readers.
What we might each do is write a list a works that we believe that everyone would benefit from reading—while being sure to exclude those works that we feel that we ourselves should read but never actually can bear reading. Then we might make a second list of those books that are not on the first list but that we are very glad that we read—and better yet, that we have actually re-read. I will work on that sort of list.
The list in the Independent, which includes annotations explaining each of their choices, is available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-40-best-books-to-read-before-you-die-a6909206.html?utm